Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Glutton's Adventure in Alsace (Part 1) - A Short List of Good Casual Restaurants

I just returned from a few days back in Alsace, that beautiful strip of France which lies between the Vosges and the Rhine.  Alsace is one of France's truly unique gastronomic destinations, producing wonderfully aromatic white wines of various styles (sparkling, dry, off-dry, sweet...) and a culinary heritage that combines Rhenish tradition with the gourmandise of the French.

In a region like this, one drinks fantastically well and eats just as splendidly, although there are (as anywhere) ordinary restaurants out to fleece the unsuspecting tourist, and which do a mighty fine line in thawing out ready-made frozen meals for your satisfaction.  To help the first-time visitor navigate the traps, here is a small selection of casual eateries which impressed me on my recent trip, and which won't break the bank.

1.  Aux Trois Poissons
15 quai de la Poissonerie, Colmar
Tel: +33 3 89 41 25 21

Traditional Fish Soup, Aux Trois Poissons
I first visited Aux Trois Poissons back in 2011 with my wife and Mizz Lizz in tow.  I remember a cheery, well-lit, noisy and rustic dining room filled with happy customers.  The wine list, even with my knowledge of Alsace wine being very much in its infancy back then, struck me as a rare thing of beauty.  In the background, an old maître d'hôtel skillfully zipped off the fillets from a Dover sole à la meunière, before presenting them with a classic side of glazed vegetables.  The food, from owner and maître cuisinier de France Gilles Seiler, was excellent.   

I know it had been six years, but in a region where time often seems to stand still, I was struck by the differences as I walked in.  The dining room seemed rather more modern and less "open plan", the wine list was a shadow of its former self and the guests didn't seem to be having as much fun.  Thankfully, the food was still wonderful, and very decent value for the quality, and I enjoyed a great dinner that set me back less than 50 euros for three very generous courses of seafood.  The pictured fish soup was delicious, served with its traditional accompaniments of croutons, rouille and grated gruyère cheese, packed full of very clean seafood flavour.  A mushroom risotto with seared scallops and seaweed froth was an umami bomb, while the plump, whole scallops (none of that cutting-across-the-cross-section bullshit here, friends) were some of the best I have had, period.  

I did a little googling when I got back to my hotel room later that evening, and learned that the restaurant, which is housed in a heritage-listed 16th century building, was gutted by a fire in late 2012 (thankfully no one was apparently hurt or killed in the blaze) and reopened only in late 2013.  Seiler and his wife Myriam are still running the show, and while I regret the loss of that wine list, I am glad to report that Aux Trois Poissons remains a superb casual restaurant.  In Alsace, one gets easily intimidated by the sheer amount of pork, foie gras and fermented cabbage offered up by the locals.  A meal of good fresh fish works wonders to break up the monotony, and Trois Poissons still fulfils this brief admirably.  Score: 14.5/20

2.  Chez Hansi
23 rue des Marchands, Colmar
Tel: +33 3 89 41 37 84

Fish Choucroute at Chez Hansi
I honestly don't know what to make of Chez Hansi.  I like the food, which comes in massive portions and is quite tasty, even if it doesn't showcase the same quality produce or technical mastery as Aux Trois Poissons.  Its wine list, however, is frankly disgraceful for a restaurant plonked in the capital of Alsatian wine country, and I'm still in two minds about the totally clichéd decor and the homely server ladies dressed in traditional peasant costume.

The Executioner and I visited on a weeknight, when it was near-f-cking zero outside.  We rocked up without a reservation, and I asked the serveuse if she had a table for two.  She said she only had one table left, and it was right next to the entrance.  You know, so that each and every single time someone came in or out, a chilly AF draft would waft in and freeze my bollocks off.  I looked around the restaurant and saw a few mighty warm and comfy tables out the back, but I was frickin' starving so I put this down to casual racism / anti-tourist sentiment and said OK.

So there we were, nibbling on our complimentary bretzels, when a family came in with a toddler wrapped in one of those adorable puffy winter jackets.  When daddy asked for a table, the peasant woman curtly said in French "no, no table, sorry" and turned on her heel and back to her tables.  The warm and comfy tables out the back were still there and unoccupied.  I was stunned, and as a father, I felt so sorry for the poor child who had to go back hungry into the bitter cold.  I tell you now, I was that close to grabbing the waitress and asking her "WHAT IS YOUR F--CKING PROBLEM??!!"  But of course Pater taught me that it wasn't the done thing to manhandle women, so I kept my hands to myself and continued sipping my hot onion soup.  This pantomime played itself out at least four more times that evening, and I just watched with increasing amusement.  A warming, hearty meal, bucketloads of cultural kitsch and free entertainment: what's not to like?  Score: 12/20

3.  Au Soleil
20 rue Saint Gertrude, Wettolsheim
Tel: +33 3 89 80 62 66

Black Forest en verrine, Au Soleil
I like the petite Alsatian village of Wettolsheim a lot, and it is home to my friends at two of Alsace's best wineries, Albert Mann and Barmès-Buecher.  But outside of wine, even its most partisan inhabitants would struggle to argue the merits of its attractions to the visitor.  In short, it is a place where real people live, in a quiet, tranquil suburb-y kind of way, and it has not sold out to the tourist dollar in the same way as have better-known villages such as Riquewihr.

But you would be missing out if you did not visit Mann and Barmès, and after a wonderfully entertaining tasting, you might find yourself at a loose end for lunch.  Sure, you could grab a taxi back into Colmar, but you would be better served walking up the hill to Au Soleil, a warm family restaurant which serves a very local crowd.  At every mealtime, the surprisingly large dining room is filled with vineyard workers, winemakers and retirees, and you will hear as much dialogue in the Alsatian dialect as you would in French.  

I opted for the three-course, 11,50 euro (yes you heard that right) "Menu du Jour", which got me a country terrine with salad,  a red wine and beef stew with the local egg noodles, and floating islands in a custard sauce (which they ran out of so I ended up with what looked like a tinned fruit salad, although it actually tasted quite good!).  The Executioner went a la carte, and ended up with some delightful foie gras and a seafood matelote, a traditional stew of river fish in a cream and white wine sauce.  A fun moment, when it came to dessert, the owner brought a blackboard over to our table.  I asked him in my rudimentary French what he would recommend.  He pretended to look at the board and worked his way down the list.  " Forêt-noire, excellente!  Errr...tarte citron, excelllente!  Torche aux marrons, excellente!" And so it went until he had rattled off all six of the desserts with an identical verdict for each.  He then looked at me in mock confusion.  "Errr...toute excellent!"  We shared a good laugh and the Executioner opted for the forêt-noire en verrine, the traditional dessert named after the nearby Black Forest, which was jacked with kirsch and absolutely delicious.

A lot of tourists bitch about having to eat with other tourists.  At Au Soleil, there is no risk of that happening.  OK, so the staff don't really speak English, and if you don't have any French you may struggle a little, but that's the price of straying off the beaten path, non?  But the food here is of genuine quality, prepared and served with lots of love and care.  I adore it.  Score: 14/20

4.  Am Lindeplatzel
71 rue Principale, Mittelbergheim
Tel: +33 3 88 08 10 69

Escargots with Local Mushrooms and Roasted Almonds, Am Lindeplatzel
After a very nice morning tasting with Antoine Kreydenweiss and Meardey Tek at the excellent Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss in Andlau, Meardey drove me and the Executioner over to the neighbouring village of Mittelbergheim for lunch.  Am Lindeplatzel, housed in a traditional Alsatian building, opens out onto a little square and the main road through the village, creating a bit of an amphitheatre effect, with the restaurant as the Royal Box.  Meardey grabbed a few bottles of Kreydenweiss grand cru wine from her boot and led us in, bringing back some fond memories of Singapore BYO culture.

The Lindeplatzel is a very comfortable restaurant, and its food is rather refined but still excellent value.  The Executioner was on a bit of an oyster roll (I suspect hanging all those poor folks must put a downer on one's sex drive) and ordered a dozen of the critters, which were admittedly very good.  As it was his first visit to Alsace, he opted for the menu du terroir: escargots from the grapevines, a backeoffe of fish, and crème brûlée, which he said was all smashing.  I had a very good main of magret de canard (the breast of foie gras ducks), served with a seasonal fruit chutney.  Meardey was missing the Far East (she worked in Singapore for a bit) so went for the tuna tartare with Asian spices.  From this, you will get the idea that the kitchen is well-versed in regional cooking as well as the French classics, and also ventures into less familiar flavours with aplomb.  Incidentally, the Kreydenweiss wines were superb, and I was pleasantly surprised with the depth and complexity of the "basic" Kritt range.  Their grands crus, however, wines of intense concentration and energy, really need a few years to settle down and reveal their virtues.

The restaurant has a beautiful terrace which overlooks fields and scrubland, and I was mighty tempted to have a coffee outside except that it was cold enough outside to freeze a polar bear.  The food was very good and the service staff were polished and professional.  Score: 15/20


To all my readers contemplating a visit to Alsace, bonne degustation and bon appetit, and I hope these suggestions help to guide your adventures in my favourite part of the world.  To those who aren't, can I please ask you to consider?  Alsace rewards any inquisitive lover of food and wine, the winemakers and producers are incredibly welcoming and generous with their time, and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful.  It is, truly, God's country on Earth, an it patiently awaits your discovery.

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