Hansala, the tame stork, circles above the garden of the Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern, his brilliant red legs extended like a plane’s undercarriage, then floats effortlessly down to his favourite spot in the restaurant garden. Madame Marie will soon be out on the lawn to greet him with her basket of stale kougelhopf at the ready.
The stork’s daily visitation from his stick-nest perch on top of the church is just one of the things about the august establishment beside the River Ill that never changes. Another seemingly immutable element is the restaurant’s three-star status, a distinction it shares with 27 others in France. What sets the Auberge apart, however, is its stellar staying power: in February 2017 the Haeberlin family, who have owned and run the place since 1882, accomplished half a century of unbroken three-stardom in the Michelin firmament. The only other restaurant to achieve such a feat of longevity was [the late] Paul Bocuse’s. [This year Bocuse and the Auberge de l’Ill were joined by Troisgros, originally in Roanne and now in dramatic new premises just outside the town.]
Change, when it does come to the Auberge, comes gently. “Transformer sans révolutionner”, is how Danielle Baumann-Haeberlin, sister of Chef Marc Haeberlin, sums up the family’s approach. I visited just after their 50 years of 3-stardom had been confirmed to check out the most recent transformation – sans revolution, naturally – the result of a five week-long makeover. The Auberge’s many faithful followers had been tracking progress on Facebook, where regularly posted videos showed floors ripped up, ceilings torn down, walls stripped bare and the famous Murano glass curtain painstakingly dismantled and stored.
The restaurant reopened on March 9th 2017, right on schedule. Danielle, by her own admission somewhat dazed by the whole adventure, admitted it had been heart-in-mouth stuff. Would the garden ever recover from the procession of muddy boots and cement-filled wheelbarrows? How would Hansala feel about the invasion of his space by a huge crane, needed to hoist in a trampoline-sized hanging light? Could the 30-strong workforce of local artisans possibly pull it together and finish on time?
You don’t get three-star billing for 50 years on the trot without wonderful food and superlative service – it’s what makes the place, in Michelin-speak, worth a special journey. But the Auberge has never been exclusively about these two. The picture is completed by its gorgeous location, the garden – set with tables in summer – planted with Japanese maples, neatly trimmed box, rose bushes and tumbling geraniums, and the lawn which sweeps down to the river fringed by weeping willows – all of which Danielle’s late uncle, Jean-Pierre Haeberlin, captured with rare skill in the watercolours that illustrate the menus.
The garden and the river have always been central to the restaurant’s charm; with the new décor, by designer Patrick Jouin, it’s almost as if these two have crept quietly up across the lawn, through the ceiling-to-floor windows and into the dining room. The rippling, stainless steel ceiling light that came in with the crane is positioned so that shafts of light reflected by the Murano glass curtain seem to cascade down from it like rays of sunshine from behind a cloud.
The sinuous tracery in the deep blue carpet throughout all three dining rooms evokes the garden’s watery backdrop. Gaily coloured bee-eaters and kingfishers of the kind that haunt the river banks perch on a screen of burnished copper shafts, interspersed with appliquéd silk butterflies. The final, all-Alsatian touch is a magnificent marquetry wall, worthy of the famous master Spindler, which depicts the reedy wetlands of the Rhine plain.
The chef darted in and out as I chatted with Danielle, sharing his sister’s evident delight at the newly clad dining room and supplying updates on the menu. This, true to family form, has evolved but gently. There would, by common consent, be a riot if old favourites like his father Paul’s signature saumon soufflé or frog’s leg mousseline were ever to disappear. But these faithful friends cohabit with newer, Japanese-infused dishes (the chef travels regularly to his three restaurants in Japan), such as the Illhauesern-meets-Tokyo duo of fresh and smoked eel with snails floating on a light wasabi sauce, a maki of quail with foie gras, or a lacquered red bento box of fruit sorbets.
Across the garden is the restaurant’s faux-rustic, five-star Hotel des Berges, designed to resemble the typical wooden tobacco-drying barns that are a feature of these low-lying villages. Recently they added a superb spa, fitted out with a small temple upstairs where celebrations or anniversaries, sacred or profane, can be celebrated. Dedicated Airstreamers can live out their camping fantasies in the sumptuously refitted aluminium trailer parked in the garden. And further back still there’s a huge potager, which as of this year supplies the restaurant with organic fruit, vegetables and salads.
The Auberge, for all its discreet renewals and renovations, remains firmly rooted in its little corner of Alsace beside the river Ill. In a world where everything seems in constant flux, and the things you hold most dear have a disconcerting way of shifting their ground, this is a priceless quality. Hansala the stork is not alone in understanding the value of transformation without revolution.
[A version of this article appeared first in FT Weekend in April 2017.]
Dinner at L’Auberge de l’Ill with overnight and breakfast in l’Hôtel des Berges costs from €674 for 2 people.
Full disclosure: I was a lunch guest at L’Auberge de l’Ill on the occasion of their 50 years at the top. For an earlier review of the joys of lunch at the Auberge, see here.