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2 Rue de Collonges au Mont d'Or
68970 Illhaeusern, France
Tel. +33 3 89 71 89 00
BY IAN D'AGATA | JANUARY 11, 2019
Goose foie gras terrine (La terrine de foie gras d’oie)
Like a fresh tart of scampi and watermelon (Comme une tartine rafraîchissante à la langoustine et à la pasthèque)
The salmon soufflé, a specialty of l’Auberge de l’Ill (Le saumon soufflé “Auberge de l’Ill”)
A frog leg mousse by Paul Haeberlin (La mousseline de grenouilles “Paul Haeberlin”)
A thick slice of zucchini, glazed eel and herbs (La tranche épaisse de courgette, anguille laquée et aromates)
Red fruit soufflé (Le soufflé aux fruits rouges)
|2013 Domaine Dussourt Sylvaner Réserve Prestige Blienschwiller||89|
|1971 Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer Séléction de Grains Nobles||98|
|2011 Herri Mina Irouleguy Blanc||92|
|2011 Domaine Pfister Riesling Grand Cru Engelberg||93|
|2008 Domaine Gresser Riesling Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes Kastelberg||89|
I’m quite sure that Jean-Pierre and Paul Haeberlin are proud of what the Haeberlin generation currently running their famous restaurant has achieved over the years. Marc Haeberlin, in the kitchen, and Danielle Baumann-Haeberlin, at reception, continue to create dining memories for all those who spend time here. Over the years, famous names of the restaurant world have unfortunately come and gone (sticking just to France, Archstrate and Alain Chapel are examples that come to mind) but l’Auberge de l’Ill stays the course, continuing to deliver rock-solid, down-to-earth, impeccably cooked fare night after night. (For a longer description of this fine restaurant, please see my Vinous Table of December 2016.)
Goose foie gras terrine
Many years ago, at a French consulate dinner abroad, my gracious host (a real wine and food lover, as any self-respecting Frenchman ought to always be) told me that l’Auberge de l’Ill is the sort of place people come to and often don’t even bother opening the menu, because they know exactly what they’re going to have even before they step inside. I admit to being one of the culprits. To my taste, the greatest dishes at the Auberge are its culinary milestones: the salmon soufflé, the truffle cooked under the ashes and the frog leg mousse are must-haves, so much so that I always end up ordering them every time I visit the restaurant. Each time, I really have to force myself to try something new, and this is exactly what I attempted to do on my most recent dinner at l’Auberge de l’Ill. But it wasn’t easy, and in fact, I failed miserably. Although I made a valiant attempt, and tried the new (for me) eel creation, as well as the scampi and watermelon, I still ended up ordering the delicious and very light salmon soufflé as well as the mousseline, two historic Auberge de l’Ill dishes that I simply cannot get enough of. In fact, the thickly sliced zucchini, glazed eel and herb is excellent, though you have to like the typically oily texture of the eel, a very flavorful fish that is an acquired taste for most people. By contrast, the scampi and watermelon dish is a curious concoction and one I found not to be hugely successful: fresh and vibrant for sure, it’s a combination that might seem like a good idea in the hot summertime, but ultimately, I don’t find that watermelon and scampi pair all that well. Let’s just say they weren’t exactly making love on my plate on this occasion.
Like a fresh tart of scampi and watermelon
That minor disappointment quickly whisked aside, the Auberge’s regulars quickly came to my palate’s rescue. The famous salmon soufflé, at once luscious and light, is not a true soufflé; rather, it consists of a salmon filet smothered in fluffy egg whites flavored with nutmeg and pike and a Riesling and cream sauce that to define as “delicious” is actually unfair, because words cannot do justice to its goodness. When it came to my dessert, there were no concerns of “soufflé-ness” or not: my red fruit soufflé was just that, a heavenly mound of 100% soufflé prepared and cooked the way it is meant to be. I could easily have had another portion (or four). Clearly, Marc Haeberlin knows a thing or two about folding stiffly beaten egg whites into a purée and then baking them. Judging by the rendition of this dessert, I’d say he’s pretty well a star at it. But then again, you can say that about nearly anything he cooks.
The salmon soufflé, a specialty of l’Auberge de l’Ill
Did I mention that when I come to l’Auberge de l’Ill, I usually end up ordering the same dishes? Well, believe it or not, the same thing often happens with the wines. The fact is that it’s hard to start off any dinner with a fresher, crisper easygoing white than Alsatian Sylvaner, a wine that offers outstanding value and is usually the product of very old vines. In this respect, the 2013 Domaine Dussourt Sylvaner Réserve Prestige Blienschwiller is a lovely wine, although this particular bottle seemed a little tired. Similarly, it’s just as hard to finish off a meal with anything remotely at the level of the 1971 Léon Beyer Gewurztraminer Séléction de Grains Nobles, which is quite simply a work of art. Here, too, I felt that other bottles of the same wine I had tried recently were drinking better than they did on this night, but it might have been just a case of palate fatigue, given the very long day of four estate visits, relatively long travels, intense note-writing and close to 100 wines tasted. So I’m probably splitting hairs with my scores. However, even recognizing that fatigue might have been setting in, there was nothing wrong with the delicious 2011 Herri Mina Irouleguy Blanc, a flavorful white from the French Pays Basque that tasted luscious yet precise, lifted by the acidity of the Petit Manseng that nicely framed the roundness and body provided by the Gros Manseng. And while the 2011 Domaine Pfister Riesling Grand Cru Engelberg turned out to be a jaw-dropping marvel, the 2008 Domaine Gresser Riesling Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes Kastelberg, though certainly quite fine, seemed a little flat and not quite as fresh as the evening and the food might have warranted. Pfister’s Engelberg showed much better on this night than when I tasted it last year at a dinner in Rome with friends (an unfortunately well-traveled bottle I had bought in Alsace), or even when I first tasted it at the winery with Mélanie Pfister herself, and so I fear I may have originally underestimated it.
Red fruit soufflé
My only caveat with l’Auberge de l’Ill is that such a temple of Alsatian gastronomy could have a few more Alsace wines from different producers on its outstanding wine list. There are some older vintages, which is great, although of course more would always be welcome. Clearly, I am aware and appreciate the high costs of storing bottles long-term in restaurants, but still I think l’Auberge de l’Ill might consider adding a few additional names and wines without too much trouble. On the other hand, a huge note of merit is the outstanding selection of VTs and SGNs, an Alsace specialty; many such wines rank among the world’s greatest.
In the ultimate analysis, my most recent dinner at l’Auberge de l’Ill was yet another lesson in classic French cuisine and a sure-fire demonstration of what true restaurant professionalism can deliver. And I would add that starting lunch or dinner off on the Auberge’s riverside patio, with the Ill River slowly ebbing and flowing at your feet and neatly framed by a beautiful Alsatian scene of weeping willows that would have made Corot proud, places you in one of the world’s prettiest dining settings. In fact, so pretty and relaxing that returning to that veritably enchanted world for dessert, coffee and eau-de-vie is always a very good idea. I can’t wait to do as much very soon, perhaps with another bottle of Mélanie Pfister’s confusingly good 2011 Engelberg. For study purposes, of course.
A common Alsace sight, nesting storks on the rooftop next to the restaurant