A reason as good as any for a recent trip to France was to visit the famous Auberge De l’ill restaurant in Illhaeusern, Alsace.
The restaurant, which was called L’Arbre Vert, has been on the site since 1878. The building, along with the nearby bridge was bombed and consequently destroyed in World War II. Brothers Paul and Jean-Pierre Haeberlin rebuilt on the site and renamed the restaurant Auberge D’Ill, after the nearby river.
Paul, the first male head chef since 1878, attained the first Michelin star in 1954, the second in 1962 and the third in 1967 which has been maintained since. Paul passed away in May 2008 with his son Marc already in charge of the kitchen as head chef.
The restaurants’ setting is about as good as it gets, picturesque French village, willow trees hanging over a narrow fast flowing river with manicured grounds. The dining areas are well presented and refreshingly not clean cut modern minimalism; maybe this is the work of Jean-Pierre who is a decorative artist by training.
It was a Saturday lunch and the 3 sections of the dining area were all full with diners, in what I would call formal wear. Our group by far the most underdressed, which was embarrassing considering all of my companions were French, of which two local to Alsace.
The staff were a highlight, professional, always attentive however relaxed. One thing I like about France is that restaurant table service is a profession and therefore a role waitors take pride in. And on request the waitors were happy to give us a tour of the kitchen post service. You also get the feel this is still very much a family business, during our visit Jean-Pierre roamed the dining area geeting and chatting with guests (and posing for a photo with a pretty stoked Australian).
For the most part the food at Auberge D’Ill is not modern haute cusine or more fashionably molecular gastronomy. It’s traditional; I’ve read that some dishes on the menu have hardly changed in 30 years. Although with no English menus most of the dishes had to be translated to me by my French companions.
The first appetiser was a piece each of eel, cheese stick and a sort of buttery puff pastry. This was quickly followed by the second appetiser which was a delicate piece of mackerel on a herb jelly and some crème fraiche.
This dish gave me more of a clue on what three Michelin star dining was like. Not only is it executing each part of the dish well, it’s incorporating a greater number of flavoures and ingredients to a dish to give the dish more complexity while also maintaining harmony between the flavours.
As soon as I say that the next dish (1st entrée) bins my above theory. La terrine de foie gras d’oie (foie gras terrine with port jelly). But hey, if there is one food you can have by itself (or with one other ingredient) it’s foie gras. Auberge D’Ill are so keen on their foie gras terrine you can purchase take away portions. It was wonderful foie gras with a noticeably high percentage of liver in the terrine.
The foie gras was followed by le filet de bar cuit a la vapeur sur un risotto aux supions oeufs de poissons volants parfumes au wasabi (sea bass steamed in a risotto of baby squid and cuttlefish eggs perfumed with wasabi flying fish roe and Hawaiian volcanic sea salt). In my opinion this dish was cooking of the highest order. Every ingredient was perfect and nothing was out of place.
After a stroll outside, to view the river and garden, and to try and walk off previous courses in the aim of freeing some space in the upper stomach, the main had arrived. la noix de ris de veau en viennoise doree, aux asperges et morilles fraiches (Calf sweetbreads gilded in viennoise with fresh aparagus and morels). Sweatbreads or ‘ris’ is the thyroid or throat gland usually from a lamb or calf, however beef and pork are also used.
On first impressions the dish looked inviting yet slightly old fashioned. It was well presented although didn’t have the swishes of sauces at ornate angles on a plate 3 sizes too big, just like I was used to. The sweatbread was tender and a little spongy with a unique flavour quite different to other offal. I can see where the sweat part of the name comes from as the flavour wasn’t as savoury as some meat and offal.
Considering we are in France les fromages (cheese) course comes next, via a well stacked trolley, where for me the highlight was the local munster variety.
By this stage the endorphins had taken over my brain and I wasn’t too sure of what was going on. I do however remember dessert being pink le macarre a la rhubarbe sur une crème cruite a la vanilla de tahiti sorbet fraise perfume au poivre de sechan (macarre with rhubarb cream and Cruit with Tahitian vanilla strawberry sorbet perfumed with sechan pepper) and petit fours being rich.
From start to finish the experience was memorable and was one of the most enjoyable restaurant meals I’ve had. Some may find the food a little dated, but for the purists it was executed perfectly.
L’Auberge de L’Ill
2, rue de Collonges au Mont d’Or 68970