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Thursday, July 17, 2008

A l'Agneau

The day: 28th June, Dinner.

The place: 185 Route de Lyon Illkirch Graffenstaden (Strasbourg, France)

The venue: Restaurant a l’Agneau

Closest airports: Strasbourg, Basel

The food: Fine modern French

The drinks: French, not too long but interesting,.

Oh well, we are falling into the habit of stopping by in Alsace on our way back to London. Our designated victim this time is Restaurant a l’Agneau, on the high street of the small village of Illkirch-Graffenstaden (how much history in these German sounding names), in the outskirts of Strasbourg. Again, a pretty line up of characteristic Alsatian houses, and there at the corner is our target, still shut:

Cute, isn’t it? We had got a written confirmation for a table on the terrace, perfect for the warm summer evening…but as we get in, we are told these tables have already been taken up. Our surprise and less than skilful mastery of French (and total absence of German) combined dissuaded us from pursueing this further, but stole a “forget about the tip” muttered with clenched teeth.

But the interior is nice too, with an interesting 'faux-crack' on the ceiling:

Uhm, is that a vacu-vin on top of that bottle? Tsk, tsk...The flatscreen above the range cooker (!) flares up with images of past dishes, and our initial smirk turns into some kind of trance as the beautiful dishes follow one another and we try to guess the ingredients…

Now for the menu: the set menu is five courses, and this would normally be too much for us (especially after a day of forced immobility while driving, and before one other long drive), yet the dishes seem so light, and then, well you know we like a bargain, this set menu is €33… so it is a done deal. Should you wish to go a la carte, the pricing structure is very simple: starters go for €13.50, foie gras dishes for €18.50, and mains for €22.50. The menu is short (three of everything, i.e. starters, foie gras, meat main and fish mains) but interesting; we were intrigued by Sweetbread with peanuts, toasted walnuts, almonds and pinenuts, and betterava sorbet from the starters, or the Turbot with Hibiscus flowers and vegetable pancakes.

Let us start.

First an unadvertised amouse bouche: olive tapenade with a pepper mousse:

Nice contrast in textures and flavours, with the aggressive and ‘bodily’ tapenade tamed by the almost ethereal peppers: this is looking promising.

Next, the bread, from a tray. The table next to us gets to choose after being exhaustively informed about the varieties of rolls on offer; we only get a random one put unceremoniously (but with a smile) on our dishes. Our initial mumbling must have promoted us to total dupes…there is obviously no point in explaining. Nice bread nonetheless:

Now, the first course of our menu:

- Meringue frosted in liquid nitrogen at your table

This is a Port mousse that is siphoned in front of you, then dropped into liquid nitrogen for a few seconds, then placed onto a cube of frozen melon jelly (or at least this is how it felt to us). You eat it in one bite – this much we deserved to be told ;-)

Besides the choreographic element (some would say the main point of the matter), the two worked quite well: the ‘meringue’ turns out slightly hollow (which is fine otherwise the whole would be too cold and simply shatter your teeth!), and smooth and sweet and fat, while the melon is so crisp and intense. Fun and pleasant.

Next up is:

- Marinated salmon with sesame symphony and dill sushi:

The rice in nori was the most forgettable part of the dish (says Woman); the salmon was simply superb, velvety, soft and luscious like the best we had e.g. at Latium or Havis or L’Ortica, and the dish overall was fresh and light. The leaves were also interesting, with some intriguing flavour that we could not recognise (no, neither sesame nor dill, we get that far).

The soup arrives:

- Cucumber duo with iced soup and chive yoghurt ice cream:

Imagine some kind of gazpacho variation: the ‘soup’ was mainly cucumber, salty and thin, with a piquant note, while the central ‘ice-cream’ was both salty and sweet and slightly cheesy. The squiggle you see is of sweet balsamic vinegar. So this might sound excessive, this combination of very sweet and salt, but it worked out remarkably well. An extremely accomplished and clean combination of flavours, balanced and again refreshing and light.

Time for the main dish: here we avoid choosing, and opt for one of each:

- Sea bream fillet on courgettes;

- Duck breast in currant sauce, confit tomato gratin and sweet peppers

The sea bream, which had been cooked perfectly, was fresh, plump, good. The courgettes were sitting on an unadvertised ‘cake’ of beans which constituted a very suitable base for the fish favour, with the whole taken higher by a great sauce, which we suspect must have been some sweet reduction. Very satisfying.

The duck was a rather complex combination: half of the dish was somewhat Northern’, with the honey glazing the duck and the currants. But the other half was ‘Mediterranean’, with the ‘brick’ of finely sliced potato soaked in egg and peppers, reminiscent of a Spanish tortilla. In spite of all this, the dish held together sumptuously, with the right equilibrium between acidity and sweetness, with much to intrigue your palate and your brain. Only one blemish: the duck could have been tenderer.

A pre-dessert of strawberries is what we need for a clean mouth:

Here you have strawberry ‘pearls’ in a strawberry ‘mousse’: the dish comes with the pearls on the bottom, then a strawberry thick liquor is poured on top. Really very pleasant, the only problem being that the ‘pearls’ may get stuck to the bottom of the glass, with the result that you either sigh at the sight of the poor abandoned things, or get sucked into some undignified and complicated fishing operation.

Finally, dessert:

- Cherry concert with morello cherry juice and 82% cocoa sorbet

Ok, it is hard to go wrong with chocolate and cherries, but here we were bordering on the divine: all components at the same time very light and very intense. Sublime.

And we even had room for one coffee (€3), simply because we had eyed the nice accompanying chocolates…

With a 0.5 litre bottle of water at €3 and a bottle of Gewrutztraminer (a choice strongly disapproved by our waitress, but damn good) at €39 the total bill came to €92.81 before VAT, or €111 after the 19,65 VAT (and by this time we were so pleased that all was forgotten and, in case you wonder, yes we reneged on our vow not to tip…). Yes, once again less than 100 quids.

Service is taken care of by a trio of efficient and courteous, if slightly distant, young ladies that are certainly not intrusive but take good care of you. The price is amazing for the quality of what we had. You might say, they have low running costs because you are in the middle of nowhere: but, besides there being several e.g. Italian restaurants lying in the middle of nowhere and charging €10 for a bottle of water, in fact in this case you are not: you are at the outskirts of a very busy business centre, and this is the living proof that you can get top notch fish even several hundred miles inland. As for the kitchen, you might have noticed that this time we omitted the French description of the dishes, as – to our uneducated ear, to be sure – they sound a little less pompous in English. But this is as far as our criticism can go. We had a dinner as light as the flavours were clean and intense, a dinner screaming for you to go back. The hand in the kitchen is very assured, the complex combinations of flavours and textures the obvious expression of thoughtful research, the menu is constructed with great intelligence, and this is yet again one of those establishments that make you wonder what else in France one must do to get a star in the red guide (at least these people are in the 2008 edition with three forks) – this chef puts to shame certain starred celebs in London…. And, another living proof that you can offer excellent cuisine at reasonable prices, one to add to our collection that spans different countries.

We’ve got the feeling we will just happen to stop by Illkirch-Graffenstaden again :-)


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