Monday, 20 June 2016

Review of Auberge de l'Ill, Illhaeusern - A Three-Star Legend

This was a very difficult review to write, and I had to have a good hard think about whether I should indeed write it.  You see, I was meant to have lunch here, at the beautiful Auberge de l' Ill, with winemaker Etienne Hugel and his wife Kaoru on the 16th of April.  Etienne left us the week before, and at the entrance to the Protestant Church of Ste Marguerite in Riquewihr, I saw a monumental wreath in the signature "Maggi yellow" of Famille Hugel, from the Haeberlin-Baumann family, the founders and custodians since 1878 of the Auberge de l'Ill and its predecessor the Arbre Vert.

The Auberge de l'Ill is one of the true temples to French regional gastronomy, and the list of names who have toiled behind its kitchen doors is exemplary.  From the family itself, the great Paul Haeberlin who first brought the three stars to Illhaeusern and his son Marc (the current chef-patron who has kept the three stars in his own right for almost two decades), Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Hubert Keller, Michel Roth MOF, Christophe Muller MOF (currently the executive chef at Paul Bocuse), Olivier Nasti MOF and closer to home, Armin Leitgeb who used to run the kitchen at Les Amis...

This was, as you can imagine, a very strange lunch for me.  When I walked in, various members of the family came to greet me, to share in our sympathy and exchange little stories about our departed friend.  Marc came out of the kitchen, expressing regret that he couldn't say his farewells in person as he was flying home from Japan that day.  But how do you muster a smile, how do you enjoy something as base as food, when you have lost a friend?  Where there should have been laughter (and there typically was a lot of it when Etienne was around), the silence and solitude was deafening.  

To make things worse, the weather, drizzly and bitterly cold at a uniform eight degrees, was also doing its best to keep me down.  But as a lover of all things Alsatian (except the weather at certain times of the year), the Auberge was one of my "bucket list" restaurants, and I wasn't going to let precipitation and emotion keep me down.  I had to push on.  


On weekends, Marc proposes a Menu Tradition that showcases the classics of his family, all intimately bound up and informed by the terroir of Alsace.  And great value it is too, at only 129 euros all-inclusive.  In this menu, you get to taste all the great dishes that brought fame to the Haeberlins, except for the notorious truffe sous la cendre, a whole truffle bound with forcemeat and puff pastry which, at 158 euros, costs more than the entire Menu Tradition.

Around me, a diverse crowd gathers, some of lesser wealth but dressed up as best they can (like me), others with stunning clothes and even more stunning women and drinking the stunning-est vintages, at prices which would stun my bank manager if I was wealthy enough to merit one.  I hear a lot of French, almost as much German, and note that less than half the guests opt for the Menu Tradition.

My friend Kenneth Tiong visited the Auberge de l'Ill over Christmas, and you can find his account here.

First Entreé: Terrine de Foie Gras, Port Jelly
Wine Pairing: 2007 Famille Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive

The terrine, two very generous scoops of it, is portioned at table from a rather oriental-looking pot set in a dish of ice, and served simply with some a wobbly jelly made from port wine and veal stock.  I LOVE it, I enjoy the taste of the liver, its cure, the fact that unlike 99.9% of modern foie gras preparations, it is not (a) seared, and (b) served with some super sweet, acidic, fruity, sticky accompaniment which is supposed to cut the richness of the liver.  The Haeberlins rejoice in this natural decadence, and invite the possibility of increasing your pleasure with a glass of good wine (which would obviously be massacred by your over-reduced, over-sweetened compote of whatever).  I cannot go past a glass of the great 2007 Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, and raise my glass to Etienne.  A classic alliance on paper, and even more delightful on the palate.  Superb.

Second Entrée: Le Saumon Soufflé "Auberge de l'Ill"
Wine Pairing: 1998 Preiss-Henny Riesling Cuvée Marcel Preiss

Another killer dish.  This dish was originally a genuine plat du terroir.  The salmon, which used to come from the free-flowing Ill but now hails from Scotland, is juicy and tender, topped with a cloud of egg whites, pike and nutmeg, and the sauce is of course made with the local Riesling, whose acidity and elegance pairs beautifully with the salmon.  The tomato concasse and puff pastry, largely superfluous elements, are the only hints that this dish hails from a different era.

With this dish, an aged Riesling calls out to be ordered, and the by-the-glass section offers a 1998 Riesling Cuvée Marcel Preiss by Preiss-Henny, a marque belonging to the Maison Leon Beyer and which cannot be found in Singapore.  Half the appeal of any material object lies in its inaccessbility, which makes the Preiss-Henny very tempting!  And thankfully it matches the dish perfectly, its body, dryness and mineral depth providing a gorgeous canvas for the subtlety of the fish.  Exceptional, and what a joy to find a beautifully mature, 18 year old Riesling offered by the glass!

Main Course: Ris de Veau with Chestnut Crust, White Asparagus, Fresh Morels and Sauce au Vin Jaune

You know one of the most damnable things about the Alsatians?  They feed you, nay they stuff you right up to the gills, and then bring out the main course.  And they insist on you washing it down with bottles and bottles of wine.  This natural generosity is not diluted even at three-star level, so thankfully (or regrettably) this dish is completely and utterly irresistible.  White asparagus has been amazing this year, as are the fresh morels; one of my big regrets walking around the markets was that I didn't have a kitchen in which I could experiment on such lovely ingredients.  Thankfully then, that I have a chef of the calibre of Marc Haeberlin to cook for me today: the ris de veau (veal thymus gland) is meaty without being rank, and the lightly frothed vin jaune sauce, a classic with morels, ties everything together with a drizzle of a reduced veal jus.  Somehow, I know not how, I manage to finish this dish, down to mopping up the lovely sauce with a piece of crusty bread.  Brilliant, and a beautiful representation of early spring bounty.  

Cheese: La Chariot de Fromages

My waiter tells me that the Haeberlins get their cheese from Cyril and Christelle Lorho, master affineurs of Strasbourg.  I don't recall the cheeses making much of an impression, and I suspect strongly that this was solely due to the fact that I was as stuffed as a foie gras duck.  Which is a shame, because Lorho is not one of the usual names you come across at this level, whether in Alsace or elsewhere (Antony, Quesnot, Olivier, etc.).  I would have greatly appreciated the opportunity to assess these cheeses on their merits.


Dessert: La Pêche Haeberlin

The Menu Tradition gives you a choice of two desserts, none of which are the famous Pêche Haeberlin, the peach dessert which Paul Haeberlin created in 1965.  When I ask to substitute the Pêche Haeberlin in my menu, the manager smiles brightly "No problem at all".  A peach (Alsace is renowned for the quality of its stonefruit) is poached in vanilla syrup, before being coated in a champagne sabayon (Cremant d'Alsace apparently works just as well, but we are dining in a three-star restaurant) and served with a housemade pistachio ice-cream and a cloud of chantilly cream.  It is delightfully light, not too sweet and the flavours of the ingredients just shine through.  I love it; at its most fundamental, this is comfort food: think poached fruit, custard and ice-cream, elevated and refined to three-star level.

Pralines to Finish

A nice touch of a selection of chocolates, to go with your coffee and tea.   Now I have had some quite decent coffee in the provinces this trip but sadly this is not one of them.  In fact, it tastes pretty awful and reminds me of the French coffee of yesteryear; to make matters worse, it's not included in the Menu Tradition and cost me around 7 euros if memory serves. 


Sommelier Hervé Fleuriel in action
Kenneth was not very impressed with his meal here.  I thoroughly disagree.  The Menu Tradition, while not featuring Marc's latest creations and innovations, has survived for this long because people continue to demand it.  And they continue to demand it for a simple reason: the dishes are bloody delicious.  I was certainly impressed enough, and I will come back and try Marc's own creations on my next visit.

Service is warm and friendly.  There was one young chap on the floor who was a bit cold and tentative, but the other staff members conveyed a lovely warmth and sincerity.  I need to give a special nod to sommelier Hervé Fleuriel, who was playing the role of senior statesman on the floor that service, and genuinely impressed me with his knowledge and manner.  Indeed, there is a real family hospitality here that is very uncommon in restaurants of this level.  Marc's sister Danielle Baumann meets and greets at the entrance, and also lends her presence on the floor to ensure guests are enjoying their experience.  Marc's daughter Isabelle was at reception and Danielle's daughter Salomé was also working on the floor on the day I was there.  With members of the Haeberlin-Baumann clan involved in every facet of the operation, this is a genuine family operation, which is no longer true (if it ever was) at Paul Bocuse and Maison Troisgros.

The wine list, of course, is a serenade to Alsace and its mind-bogglingly complicated patchwork of vineyards.  Serge Dubs, the nominal head sommelier who has spent 44 years (that's right, 44 years) at the Auberge de l'Ill, is a legend in Alsace and was named the World's Best Sommelier in 1989.  Pricing is fair for a three-star restaurant, and wine service is excellent.  I would love to come back with a bigger group and enjoy a few rarer bottles from the Alsatian selection.

If you have a interest and love for the cuisine and products of Alsace, you can do no better than a meal at the Auberge de l'Ill.  This is, by tradition and sheer outstanding quality, the undisputed grande table of the region.  That said, if you are looking for crazy and cutting -edge flavour combinations, you will leave very disappointed.  But if you are looking for a delicious meal featuring some of the region's best ingredients, served in a beautiful environment and with some of the warmest and sincerest service you will experience, you will be satisfied, perhaps even ecstatic.  Just remember to skip the coffee.

Score: 18.5 / 20
Chef-Patron: Marc Haeberlin

How many Michelin stars I think it will get: ***
How many Michelin stars I think it should get: ***

Address: 2 rue de Collonges au Mont d' Or
68970 Illhaeusern

Tel: +33 3 89 71 89 00


  1. We'll be there for lunch Sept 28th! Can't have been an easy one to write, but is a great read, totally whetted my appetite. Will share with the IWFS members going on the trip.

    1. Cheers Brian. Not sure where you guys will be staying, but you should know that there is a bus service (ligne 106) from the Gare de Colmar to Illhaeusern, which gets you to the Auberge just in time for lunch! It takes a while (around 50 minutes) as it goes through many of the main villages on the wine route, but it's rather scenic and a heck of a lot cheaper than a taxi.

      And please also consider the wisdom of not driving to lunch ;) The wine list is a treasure and deserves the utmost attention and affection from a pack of thirsty IWFS members.