There are many good spots to eat out in Alsace – a quick look at my Where to Eat in Alsace page will reassure you on that front. The trouble is, I tend to get in a rut and stick with what’s tried and tested. But then I get wind of some place that’s new (to me), usually via a winegrower – generally a reliable source of eating out – and I get this irresistible urge to go off-piste.
A name that cropped up recently was Au Bon Coin in Wintzenheim, near Colmar. It was sold as a place that does proper Alsatian food, with an extraordinary wine list. I’m a sucker for real, simple, cuisine alsacienne (I’ve written two books on the subject for goodness sake). At the very mention of onion tart, coq au Riesling, a richly garnished choucroute garnie or kugelhopf glacé I go weak at the knees; a good wine list is the icing on the gateau. When I heard Au Bon Coin had been awarded a gong for its wine list by the Revue de Vins de France, an honour that earned them a glowing review in the local paper, that clinched it. I’d been looking for somewhere to take a group of young women visiting from London for a vineyard tour. A booking was made for Saturday lunch.
We settled down, menus came and the fabled wine list was produced. There are several fixed-price menus, ranging from 14.50 euros up to around the 45-euro mark. One of the menus had tarte à l’oignon to start (hooray!), which sold it for me; another opened with that great classic, bouchée à la reine (translated in Googlespeak as Queen’s Pie). For mains there were various meats in creamy sauces or choucroute garnie.
The wine list is indeed a treasure chest – 550 references, according to the RVF award – with all the best names in Alsace from Albert Mann to Trimbach, Domaine Weinbach, Barmés-Buecher and loads more. We toyed first with the idea of a Pinot Gris to take us through the meal but given that both chicken and choucroute had Riesling in the sauce, we thought that might work better. Au Bon Coin has two pages of this great white grape alone, so no shortage of choice. I considered a Domaine Weinbach, but we’d come straight from a tasting there and we needed something my friends hadn’t tried. Something from Albert Mann, or Barmés-Buecher? I love both these Wettolsheim stars but know their wines well and wanted something different. I had a brief flirt with a Hugel Riesling – always a safe pair of hands – or even something from Becker (but we were headed there in the afternoon for a tasting…).
My eye lit upon a Grand Cru Rosacker Riesling from Mader in Hunawihr. (Rosacker, you may remember, is the vineyard where Trimbach’s legendary Clos Ste Hune grows, though the Grand Cru name is nowhere visible on the label, the reputation of the famous Clos preceding – and far outgunning – any mere GC mention). I’m embarrassed that I now can’t remember the vintage (it was either 2002 or 2001) though I do remember it was old, and that I’d recalled Rosacker is famous for needing lots of time and TLC. Worth a punt, I thought – and fun to try something new.
The bottle was brought, along with an elaborate decanter which had a pointy bottom, rather like an amphora. I remember wondering how the sommelier was going to put it down on the table. All became clear when, after pouring the contents of the bottle into the decanter, he lowered it’s pointy bottom into the other half of the contraption, a sort of glass bowl holding ice cubes.
The wine was strikingly yellow, more like an orange wine than any Riesling I’ve ever seen (maybe that’s what it was?). Who would taste? I had the mother and father of a cold so passed this task to my neighbour. She took a sniff. “Smells a bit like a swimming pool”, she announced. “In a good way?” we all chorused doubtfully. Answer came there none. Oh dear. Alarm bells were now ringing furiously. I can’t honestly say how the wine was, as I couldn’t taste a thing (and was anyway the designated driver), but the rest drank it dutifully. [I know, I know, I should have sent it back but my only defences are a) I couldn’t judge it fairly, having no sense of taste at all, b) both the sommelier and the girls seemed OK with it and c), I thought vaguely that maybe that’s how Mader’s wines always taste (madérisé?)].
The onion tart brought tears to my eyes – and not in a good way. I thought wistfully of the creamy, sweetly onion-y one Madame Faller once made for me, for a recipe for my book A Taste of Alsace (it’s below…I had to make one when I got home to restore my faith in myself and in tarte à l’oignon).
The restaurant’s was a thin, dry, dark brown wedge cut from a tarte and it curled slightly at the edges, as if sneering at us. It may have been Friday’s tart – it was definitely warmed over. And the choucroute? You have to admit that choucroute is never going to win any beauty contests; all you can hope is that its kind and generous character will make up for its looks. This one was an unappetising grey, the sausage an alarming shade of fluorescent pink and the pig’s knuckle large and cloaked in a thick mantle of cellulite-dimpled skin (there may even have been hairs, but I hesitated to look too closely). The Queen’s Pie, on the other hand, went down rather well (phew), the chicken/veal in creamy wine sauce were good enough and the choccy mousse did quite a bit to raise flagging spirits.
I was mortified. I had the chance to show these fun, adventurous, wine-loving lawyers some good food and glorious wine from Alsace and I blew it. Instead they’d be returning to London with memories of curling tarte a l’oignon and greying choucroute. At least I could comfort myself with the thought that our vinous visits to Les 2 Lunes, Domaine Weinbach and Becker showed them the true quality and variety of Alsace wines and saved [that part of] the day.
Next time I have the (bad) idea of branching out from my beloved Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim, or d’Brendelstub in Riquewihr, or l’Auberge du Froehn across the road from Martine Becker in Zellenberg [all on Where to Eat in Alsace], please, please don’t let me do it unless you can come up with a really convincing, tried and true alternative. You can eat famously well in Alsace, from grand to simple. The simple stuff, above all, is wonderfully comforting and – when well done – sooooo delicious. Here’s Madame Faller’s tarte à l’oignon recipe to prove it. (And don’t try and get clever, like me, with a wine you don’t know: choose a treasure like a Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Colette, named after the late Madame Faller.
TARTE A L’OIGNON, COLETTE FALLER
A freshly baked tarte à l’oignon is a wondrous thing. Lots of restaurants in Alsace (who shall be nameless) bake and then reheat them. Big mistake. A twice-baked onion tart will never regain its first flush of creamy, oniony wonderfulness. Much better to roll out the pastry, make the filling and keep the two in the fridge till needed, then unite and bake them. You need an oven with good bottom heat, otherwise the pastry won’t be cooked through properly – and I refuse to bake anything blind (also gas ovens are hopeless, sorry). Serve with a green salad dressed with an assertive, mustardy vinaigrette (1 tbsp mustard, salt and pepper, 50ml cider or wine vinegar, 150ml sunflower oil, a pinch of sugar, vigorously shaken – not stirred).
Makes a tart serving 4
250g shortcrust pastry
a little butter for greasing a 26-cm quiche tin
25g butter + 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
600g onions, peeled, halved and finely sliced
salt, pepper, nutmeg, 1 tablespoon flour
200ml crème fraiche
optional: 100g bacon bits, lightly fried till golden
- Roll out the pastry and arrange it in a buttered 26cm quiche tin. Poke some holes in the bottom with a fork to stop it ballooning up during cooking and place in the fridge till ready to bake.
- Heat the butter and oil in a large frying or sauté pan and add the onions. Season with salt, pepper and a scraping of nutmeg. Cover the pan and let the onions sweat gently down till sweetly golden and tender, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t stick and/or burn on the bottom (about 25 minutes). Sprinkle on the flour and cook for a few minutes more, stirring. Set them aside to cool.
- Mix together the crème fraiche, milk and a little more salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the cooled onions. Refrigerate if not baking immediately.
- Heat the oven to 200C.
- Pour the mixture into the pastry case and scatter the pre-fried bacon bits on top (if used). It will be very full – this is as it should be, onion tarts need to be Rubens, not Modigliani.
- Place it carefully in the oven – as close to the bottom as possible to get good heat to the pastry – and bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown, fragrant and a little puffy.