Monday, 18 January 2016

Review of *** Auberge de l'Ill, Illhaeusern, Alsace - The Black Diamond in a Time Capsule

A post by guest writer Kenneth Tiong.

Classic old-school cuisine was what I wanted to experience on a recent Christmas trip to Alsace and the Black Forest, and for that, I went to the Auberge de l'Ill, the second-longest holder of three Michelin stars anywhere in the world (since 1967, losing out to the venerable Paul Bocuse by a mere year).   

In the bleak of winter, the Auberge sits on the banks of the River Ill
The Auberge de l'Ill is located on the banks of the River Ill in Illhauesern, 20 minutes away from Colmar, and the only three-star Michelin restaurant remaining in the Alsace region after the recent-ish demotions of Buerehiesel (2011) and L'Arnsbourg (2015, after chef Jean-Georges Klein left for the sumptuous Villa René Lalique).  Today, Marc Haeberlin, third generation of the Haeberlin family, is in charge of the kitchen, after his father Paul passed away in 2008.

Confession time: I came to the Auberge for one reason.  They have a signature dish, the truffe sous la cendre, literally "a truffle under ashes", which captivated my imagination. A whole black truffle (melanosporum, of course, none of that summer rubbish) is wrapped in a paste of minced pork, pigeon and foie gras, wrapped again in a baseball of puff pastry, and then baked. There are only a few restaurants that do whole truffle dishes.  L'Ambroisie in Paris occasionally does a black truffle tart, the Feuilleté de truffe fraîche, bel humeur), and it is an occasional and special order at Daniel in New York.  Kawamura in Tokyo does a white truffle croquette and pie if you order ahead. But at those other restaurants, their fame rested on other dishes. The truffe sous la cendre was, and is, the "black diamond" of this culinary peak, the Auberge's signature of signatures since 1968. 

As this was my first visit, I went fully classic, selecting a range of dishes all marked on the menu (sorry, the carte) as classics of the Haeberlin family.  Here was a rare chance to experience fine-dining as it existed in France in the 1970s.  

First Entrée: Le Saumon Soufflé "L'Auberge de l'Ill"


A paradoxically light dish with a soufflé cloud encasing a rectangle of salmon.  With it, a frothed Riesling sauce which complemented the soufflé beautifully.  The highlight of the meal.  With this, I had a glass of 2011 Paul Blanck Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru.  Pleasant, but Alsace watchers know 2011 as being a "restaurant vintage" for Riesling so it wasn't exactly an eye-opener.

Second Entrée: Terrine of Goose Foie Gras, Riesling Jelly


A goose foie gras terrine, relatively rare given the modern propensity for duck foie (more assertive flavour, and also more common and therefore cheaper), served with a nice slice of toasted brioche and a bit of Riesling jelly.  A good foie terrine but unremarkable. 

Main Course: Truffe Sous La Cendre


The centrepiece, la truffe sous la cendre, was an epic baseball of heaviness. Pork, pigeon, foie, encased a whole black truffle, cooked in a doughy-flaky puff pastry. The truffle had a hard-jellied texture, it was a pleasure to chew and ruminate upon thoughts of French decadence. There was a sweetness to the truffle, and a savory black truffle sauce. While the dish was visually impressive and certainly satisfying, it was not as great as it could have been. The puff pastry was doughy - it felt undercooked to me. The meat filling insulating the truffle was nothing more special than minced meat (which it was...)

Dessert: Pêche Haeberlin


I finished off with the signature peach Haeberlin, another 40+ year veteran of the Auberge's menu. The peach had been poached in a syrup of sugar and Tahitian vanilla, coated with a champagne sabayon made with whipped cream and served with pistachio ice cream and scatterings of ground pistachio.  While it was fairly pleasant, poached-peach wise, it lacked a bit of the wow factor you get from modern desserts.  I would say in fact, that the desserts I had in New York earlier on in my trip - at Momofuku Ko, Contra, Semilla, Birch in Providence, were more to my taste than here, being more floral and refreshing.  I think what spoiled the illusion of transcendence most, was the fact that the white chocolate nameplate for the Auberge de L'Ill was actually sticky, and stuck to my back teeth. With an uncomfortable feeling of having a white chocolate nameplate stuck to my back molars, I was transported to memories of mass-produced ice cream sundaes with whipped cream. And the association stuck.

Conclusion

I must admit I wasn't too impressed by what ended up on the plate.  I didn't fully connect with this meal (too heavy and sledgehammer-simple for my tastes), but to be fair, it is unrepresentative of Marc Haeberlin's cooking, which is more Asian- and Japanese-influenced these days. 

The final damage, inclusive of all the trimmings you would expect at a three-star table, tallied up to 280 euros. This is on the high-side for the Auberge - the classic tasting menu of Paul Haeberlin goes for about 120 euros, and the modern menu of Marc Haeberlin for 170 euros.  My whole black truffle, an a la carte only order, was a big contributor to that damage, making up 160 of the 280 euros.

Is the Auberge worth the trip?   Yes, if you're looking for a history lesson. There are only a few time-machines to 3-star cuisine from earlier ages left in France (Bocuse, this one) so treat it as such. The view of the river Ill is spectacular, and in warmer times a post-prandial coffee on the terrace is a treat (in the winter, it is a bit too cold).

But if you're looking for a great 3* meal, I think a more reliable deal would be to cross the German border to the Black Forest and sample the cuisine at either the Bareiss or Schwarzwaldstube.  From my recent experiences, the fine-dining across the German border is much more spectacular than what you can try at the Auberge.  - Kenneth Tiong

L'AUBERGE DE L' ILL
2 Rue de Collonges
68970 Illhausern
Tel: +33 03 89 718 900
www.auberge-de-l-ill.com
Reservations recommended

A Word on the Author from Julian: Kenneth is a friend whom I met through this blog.  He writes on his own blog, Kenneth Tiong Eats, which, despite being based on the deficient Wordpress platform, is a wonderfully useful resource for gourmet travellers.  While I am a self-confessed food nerd, Kenneth is also a restaurant nerd, i.e. a starf-cker, and attempts, often successfully, to observe and track the global trends in gastronomy.  I have also heard rumours that he is a jury member for a certain restaurant rating system which ranks the finest eating establishments in the Orient, but have not been able to confirm this as he is a rather quiet, mysterious young man.

Despite the fact that they are by far my least read posts, I have always enjoyed writing about my overseas experiences because I believe they offer the reader, and me, a different perspective on how things are done and in many cases, how things should be done.  With two very young kids, however, my wings have basically been clipped.  Kenneth has two valuable commodities denied to me in my current state of existence: the flexibility to travel, and money.  He has very kindly agreed to contribute some guest posts from his journeys to add / reinstate a string to my bow, so I hope you enjoy his writing and welcome him on board.

As usual, any comments / feedback would be welcomed at julianswriting@gmail.com.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this write up very much - detailed and honest. Also, I've always looked forward to reading your reviews of restaurants outside Singapore.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Elle,

    Thanks very much for your kind words, from both me and Kenneth :)

    ReplyDelete