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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Au Tilleul restaurant in Strasbourg

The day: 2nd July, Dinner
he place: 5 Route de Strasbourg 67206 Mittelhausbergen (Strasburg, France)
The venue: Restaurant Au Tilleul
Closest airports: Strasbourg (Air France from London Gatwick)
The food: Fine modern French
The drinks: Impressive list of French wines (around 400 labels)

On our way back to London from Trento (and en route to...Nashville, Tennessee – more on this story later…) we took a break midway in Strasbourg. As usual we chose with our stomachs, but as bonus came the pretty little village in the outskirts, just 5 minutes drive form the main train station in Strasburg.

The Lorentz family have run a simple hotel since the 19th century, but it is with young chef Jacques that they have been put on the gourmet map of Europe. There are in fact two restaurants in one, a more rustic Stube offering traditional Alsatian fare, and a more formal and gastronomic one, La Table de Jacques, where Chef Jaques gives free rain to his culinary imagination (careful: this is closed on Tuesday evenings and all day on Wednesday). Of course this latter choice is what we went for.

This is the outside for both venues:

The main room is warm and elegant without being pompous, with large and well spaced tables:

(Woman was struck by the old dough mixer you can spot under the large painting). The menu pricing is very simple and quite stunning for cuisine at this level (as we shall see!): three courses (Entrée’, fish or meat main, and cheese or dessert) at €32 and four courses (where you can have both fish and meat) at €37. A la carte the prices are 12.40 for entrees, €17.20 for fish mains, 18.80 for meat mains, €6 for cheeses and €8.30 for desserts.

Although we skipped aperitifs, we were generously entitled to some nibbles meant to accompany them:

Roasted and sugared walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and green and black olives. Nicely unconventional to set the tone (call us provincial but we are used to salty pumpkin seeds).

The room manager insisted that we choose the entire menu ‘au debut’, forcing us a frantic early scan of the dessert list: this touch unconventional too. So we go for... (to convey our strain in ordering –we speak very little French- we give them in French, leaving the accents as an exercise for the readers who wish to brush up their French , and we describe what we ate below) :

Entrees : Creme glacee de petis pois a la trouffe d’ete, fichelle au trois sesames; and Petis farcis de Provence servis froids, et coulis de tomates au basilic

Mains : Rable de lapin farci au homard europeen, fricassee d’artichauts et tomates cerises confites, jus au thym frais ; and Cote de veau aux petites legumes, risotto Carnaroli a l’orange, jus de veau au citron.

Desserts : Creme brulee aux abricots et pistache, sorbet abricots ; and fondante au chocolate noir de la Maison ‘Weiss’, cœur Grand Marnier, creme anglaise au basilic, sorbet chocolat.

The bread arrives :

Two mini-baguettes and two brown rolls (rye ?) with oats. Nice.

But as a reward for exercising our lousy French, there is also an ‘amusant bouche’ (another shock, we’ll never use our usual term ‘amuse bouche’ again!):

Warm asparagus cream with truffle oil, and cold cod and potato quenelles. The cream was a fine one, very thin but not in a negative way, strongly perfumed of truffles and very balanced in Woman’s opinion (Man though enjoying it thoroughly too found the truffle almost too dominating). The quenelles were really excellent, with very clean flavours. There was a perfect interplay of textures and temperatures between the two components of this very well conceived dish: a classy start.

And now the the entrees:

The ‘crème glacee etc.’ was a cold pea soup with black Summer truffle and mangetout. The latter had been cooked excellently and the soup was very perfumed, with the truffle coming out without killing the peas. Perhaps a tad too salty to our taste. Overall very good.

The ‘Petit farcis…’ consisted of three different stuffed vegetables: an artichoke heart filled with olive pate’ and cut into two, a cherry tomato filled with sweated onions, and a round courgette filled with a finely chopped ratatouille (aubergines, peppers, courgettes and tomatoes). The presentation was admirable. The base of tomatoes and basil was very good, and the whole was a triumph of flavours from the garden.

At this point an unexpected interlude:

A passion flower granita (coarse sorbet) marinated in red wine with honey. Delicious flavours, the honey and the wine tannins playing in your mouth, the only negative note being some too large icy chunks.

So we were ready for our mains:

The ‘Rable…’ consisted of rabbit saddle boned and lined with 'homard europeen' (homarus gammarus, a type of lobster), rolled and sliced in small pieces. It came with artichokes (where did he find them in July?) and confit cherry tomatoes, with a thyme reduction. The slight dryness of the saddle was perfectly complemented by the moist confit tomatoes and artichokes, with the homard lining yielding a subtle flavour. The potent reduction was excellent, for Man almost the protagonist of this dish.

The ‘Cote de veau…’ was in fact a nice piece of veal which had been stuffed with morels, olives and vegetables, roasted and then sliced in two very generous chunks – any London restaurant could have easily got away with one. This too was a very successful dish, with an intense lemon scented reduction. The orange flavoured risotto on the side (on its top you see a piece of ‘crispified’ ham), continued the citrus fruit theme; while a little too ‘compact’ by Italian standards (i.e. not al dente, it provided an interesting match to the meat. The meat itself was cooked excellently.

Man found these two dishes a joy to look at, in their pseudo-rustic and colourful robe, expressing great personality. Woman kept munching

Now the bit Woman likes best, desserts!

The apricot crème brulee was well made, with the half apricots giving a nice bite. We trust the pistachio was there, but we did not detect it. The accompanying apricot sorbet was also powerful, very pleasing.

And how about the chocolate fondant? Supreme, with a delicate and creamy Grand Marnier core, and very thin basil custard (here again we did not distinguish the basil, but it was still excellent). Woman is convinced that the chocolate sorbet was in fact chocolate ice-cream, but who cares about terminology when the thing is this good?

We finished with two coffees, definitely not the strongest point of the dinner , which came with a small selection of petit fours:

Coffee meringues, chocolate ‘thingies’ (we did not taste them), and… in place of those red dots on the right there were two blackberry jellies which we were too greedy to leave there for the picture!

With a one litre bottle of water at €4.20 and a bottle of Minervois Domaine de Gally Cuvee Pierre Joseph Cros 2001 at €30, the bill came at €103.20, much below our expectations: next time should we splash on a €75 Pinot Noir to get up to our £100 limit?

We found this operation charming all the way: service is friendly and unstuffy, remarkable for this kind of establishment. Congratulations are due to the whole Lorentz family, but of course most of all to the young (he is a Jeune Restaurateur d’Europe, so must be below 40 years of age) talent Jacques. A real pity, because this way we’ll never try the Stube…unless he cooks there too. Why this place hasn’t got a Michelin star (from the same guide that gives a bib-gourmand to the place we reviewed here) is completely beyond our comprehension. As few other of the places we have reviewed so far (most notably Latium/Maurizio Morelli, both the former Fior di Roccia/Walter Miori and Osteria fior di Roccia/Michele Menestrina , not to forget L' Ortica/Piercarlo Zanotti), this is exactly what we are looking for: top level cuisine, real passion and stunning prices. Go there if you happen to pass by Strasbourg.


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