For Jack’s birthday yesterday we went back to the same restaurant in Alsace that he took me to for my birthday, the l'Auberge de l'Ill. We left about 11:00 Saturday morning. When we left Frankfurt, it was raining little frozen things, not quite sleet but "things"—but not very much. By the time we were a half-hour under way on the autobahn, the skies had cleared and the sun was shining. When we got into France, the sun started shining even more brightly. It takes just a little over two hours to get there. We had called from home to the inn where we stayed before. It turned out that they were closed! But they did recommend a hotel that was open in Ribeauvillé, a lovely little town a couple of miles away. Once we got there we drove around and walked around Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, two old, walled villages. Most things were closed, not only because it was Saturday but also because most places are closed in January and February anyway.
But one of the places that wasn’t closed was a cave or a vintner who has a tasting room (the cave) where you could try out his various wines. It turned out that the owner himself was in there pouring that day. The last time we went his daughter or daughter-in-law was there. She did eventually come in and she even recognized us, but then we recognized her and their funny little dog, Max, who likes to run outside and bark at the cars going by. So we tasted several wines and then bought a few. Then we went back to the hotel and got ready for dinner.
The dinner was as wonderful this time as it was the first. We ordered the fixed menu, which means that they just keep bringing food for several hours. The choice in terms of selection is theirs, not ours. They begin with a "pre-appetizer" called an "amuse-gueule" in French (gueule means tongue). This was a terrine of pâté de foie gras wrapped with beef tongue, one-half a quail egg, and red lettuce garnish. This set the stage for the rest of the meal. There are all these extra little touches like the quail’s egg and the fancy lettuce. Next comes the genuine appetizer which was a thick slice of pâté de foie gras (an Alsatian specialty) in an aspic with tiny, tiny minced vegetables in the aspic.
We rested a bit then. In came the soup course, and its fragrance was wonderful! It was a potato-based fresh truffle soup with six to eight shaved slices of fresh truffles floating on the top. This was the first time that I actually tasted truffles. Sure, I’ve had chopped bits of them in dishes before, but I’ve never had anything like this where you could actually taste what truffles were all about. Finally the fish course came: a poached piece of turbot stuffed with a white-fish mousse, garnished with grated fresh ginger, lightly browned, resting in a sabayon with fresh mussels, unusual bits of white corn, shredded green beans, and little "balls" of carrots. Again an interlude before they brought the lobster course. Can you believe this? The lobster was out of the shell, just big pieces of meat cooked with calf’s head. At least that’s the way the waiter translated it. And indeed there were bit of calf’s head, barley, minced vegetables (mostly leeks, carrots and minced parsley) all in a rich brown sauce with the lobster. The taste was spectacular despite the weird description.
Next came the main course. Wow! It was two thick slices of rare roasted venison in a rich, brown, winey-flavored sauce served with tiny noodles that were a variation of Spätzles, wild mushrooms, a puffy, batter-fried apple slice filled with wild cranberries, and some kind of cranberry pureé that had horseradish in it. After a short rest came the cheese course, which included a thick slice of Roquefort (which I adore) studded with green grape slices and wrapped in a spicy, air-dried ham. Another cheese was chèvre or goat cheese that was wrapped and fried like a fried wonton. Also there was a piece of mild, shaved cheese. But the way they cut it, the shaving, made it look like a wild fungus, perhaps like a baby pig-ear mushroom. After another rest they brought us a palate cleanser before the dessert course or maybe as a warm-up for dessert. It was a coconut sorbet with white rum—I think they called it a piña colada sorbet. After that came the "real" dessert.
Despite how rich and filling this sounds, we were not stuffed. But of course you do sit there eating over a four-hour period. Dessert was pretty. They brought a large plate on which were arranged several items: a 2˝-inch in diameter charlotte that tasted as if it might have something like a pumpkin in it, two kinds of sorbet—one vanilla and the other I think was fresh pear, and then a lacy, gingersnap, filbert cookie basket that was filled with a winter fruit compote and probably rum. There were things in it like dates, figs, apples, nuts and who knows what else. We took a breather after this but eventually ordered a cognac, which they called a digestif. And we ordered coffee too. When you order coffee that automatically means that you will get a plate of sweet goodies along with your coffee. This plate of goodies was two-tiered. It has little cream puffs, chocolate truffles, lacy nut cookies, orange geleés dusted with sugar, small cheese cakes, a chocolate hazelnut crunch, and a small crème caramel. And I probably missed something here. Finally the dinner came to a close at this point. We gathered ourselves together and went back to the hotel.
One would think that we wouldn’t need food again for several days after that feast; however, the next morning we decided to have a big mug of café au lait in the hotel’s "salon de thé" before we drove off. But they said we could still have a continental breakfast (which was supposed to end at 10:30) even though it was now after 11. This continental breakfast was something else: two baskets of breads and rolls, little bottles of jam, packages of honey, and Normandy butter. There were croissants, brioches, a stuffed puff pastry thing, a chocolate roll that had something like tiny, tiny chocolate pieces that just exploded in your mouth when you bit into it, a couple of French breads, slices of walnut bread, and another kind that I can’t even remember. Just before they brought the coffee and breads over, a woman brought a note and a wrapped package to Jack. The note said "Happy Birthday" and the package had a bag of French chocolates inside! Not only that, the name of the chocolatier was "John." I don’t think they even realized the connection. It was a lovely gesture. This hotel is only six months old and seems to be run by three women about my age. They take care of things as if the place were their own homes instead of their workplace. We even took Crumpet along with us again, and they said that she was more than welcome there. She settled in right away. I guess she thinks she’s a traveling cat. Since she’s eighteen, we don’t like to leave her alone in the apartment. Heavens only knows what she’d do.
Because the weather stayed nice on Sunday, we decided to stay off the motorways for a while and to drive through the little villages on the Route de Vin. The wine route is so designated because it goes through the vineyards in Alsace. So we did that and encountered ancient village after ancient village. A few of them advertised the fact that they were both walled and old, some from the thirteenth century. After an hour or so of that, we got on the autobahn and we were home by about 4:30. It was a relaxing weekend. It felt as if we had been away for several days.