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Monday, March 10, 2008

Au Cheval Blanc (near Mulhouse, Alsace)

The day: 27th January, Dinner.
The place: 17 rue de Hecken 68780 Diefmatten (Mulhouse, France)

The venue: Restaurant Au Cheval Blanc
Closest airports: Basel (BA)
The food: Fine modern French
The drinks: Extensive and well priced list, obviously strong on Alsatians

Just a convenient 500 miles drive from London, is this family restaurant, the only restaurant indeed in this tiny little village at the southern end of Alsace. So rather than go shopping in Calais for the day, stretch your car a bit further, and here you are.

Chef Patrick Schlienger is at the stove, and should you feel too tired to drive straight back, you will be able to rest in one of the four cosy little rooms in another building opposite.

The interior is huge, and we felt a little lonely being the only guests in the dining room. But not to worry, another three diners arrive to take the pressure off.

The a la carte menu is relatively pricey, and presents a wide choice: besides a selection of foie gras starters (including e.g. Foie gras confit à l’ombre à la fleur de sel de Guérande, at €23: as for the specifics of it, your guess is as good as ours, indeed be prepared that English speaking waiting staff here appear to be few and far between), there are the ‘regular’ starters (well, still plenty of foie gras in there too), from the €15 of the Presskopf Sundgauvien Marie Therese style to the €25 of a lobster and foie gras salad. Mains cover fish, meat and game, and go from €23 for Filet mignon the Porcelet de Marcassine to the €32 of the Mignon de boeuf, foie de oie chaud at Reinette, jus de vin rouge reduit

In addition, there are at least nine different set menus, from €15 to €72, so there is plenty to choose from. We settled for the ‘March du moment’ three course set menu at €39 each.

In the meantime, here comes the bread:

A selection of home made rolls and slices from larger loaves, rather good. And as an accompaniment, some rather generous amouse bouche:

These were cold crayfish, warm mussels in their broth and a fish terrine. The first thing which strikes you is a strong smell of the sea. All was very fresh, and very good, complemented by a very effective use of herbs, with clean and fresh flavours. Well, this puts us in a very good mood! As for our meal, there were choices between several dishes. As for starters we opted for:

- Saumon fume du patron, Bouquet d’herbes et de salade (available a la carte at €19)

- Salade de gambas grillees a la plancha et copeaux de foie gras ‘Espuma de homard’

The salmon was nicely presented (ok, here Woman is less struck) and good, though admittedly not the best salmon we ever tasted.

As for the gambas salad, we agreed the best element in the dish was the lobster mousse, light and simply sublime. The gambas were perhaps overcooked, but still good. Man particularly enjoyed the array of flavours, while Woman was rather overwhelmed by too many of them, though admittedly we agreed they were all very distinctive and pleasant, with the foie gras “shavings” lending substance and body to the dish.

Moving on to the mains, we ordered

- Pave de Sandre rôti aux ‘legumes oublie’, beurre de safran;

- Delice de Pintade aux champignones et garnitures (both dishes were also available on the a la carte menu at €23 each)

The fish had been cooked well, the moist flesh retaining all its taste. All around it, a myriad of very pleasant flavours, with so many elements, a nice and accomplished dish… save for the pasta, and you know what we are used to (why o why do even very good French chefs keep serving this substandard pasta? It was simply awful, and if we could find a worse adjective we would use it. Just terrible). The accompanying mash was instead very good, with a tangy aspect that we could not pinpoint, and the remarkable saffron butter…delicious.

The Pintade was for Woman an even better dish (and rather less of a pasta misgiving here). The meat had been stuffed with the mushrooms, and although thoroughly cooked it retained all its moisture. Here, too, many components (a vegetable wrap here, some kind of mashy apricoty dollop there, chestnut spatzle everywhere) working effortlessly and very well together. A very accomplished and enjoyable dish.

Before our desserts (is this normal?) here come the petit four:

You can recognise two almond thins, chocolate and hazelnut shortbread, some spieced shortbread, coffee truffles and some almond frangipane. Very very good, so much so to wonder whether we should have let the desserts go. But let them that we begin to wonder if we should have let the desserts go – but let go we did not, and in fact we ordered:

- tarte tatin glace vanilla bourbon

- clafouti tiede aux fruit glace aux miel

We were very surprised with the Clafouti (we are spelling it as they did on the menu): it was very runny, more of a 'zabaione' than a clafoutis, with hardly any flour detectable. A mistery for us, nevertheless very pleasant. Tarte tatin was less than a success with Woman, who found the pastry too soggy, but Man had no such qualms, finding the dish balanced and satisfying, and anyhow we both polished off our plates with gusto.

We washed it all down with a bottle of water (€5.50 ) and a bottle of 2004 Pinot Blanc Theo Faller at €27.50, and the total bill came to €111.

Service was sweet (a kid probably apprentice in the kitchen), amicable and efficient, though the five friendly customers did not present a challenge. Though this is not the kind of sharp, focused cuisine that we favour above all, what we liked overall in Chef Schlienger was the lightness of the hand in some rather hearty dishes: in spite of all the advertised creams and butters, it was a festival of light and clean reductions. There is obviously solid and confident cooking in those quite opulent and very generous dishes. If you happen to drive this way, it is very well worth a visit. And if you stay overnight, make sure you also stay for breakfast and have maman’s home-made brioche/cake and jam from the fruits in the garden behind.


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