Here's a break from the endless barbera postings (which are about half done, I'd estimate), and also the overlong essays. So what is it? Food, wine, Alsace. No more than that.
Le Moschenross – Straight out of some forgotten century, through a hotel that looks like it might be decrepit and a lobby so dim that it nearly puts one to sleep, is this surprisingly bright, airy, but frozen-in-time restaurant. In most places, this would be ultra-traditional food, but in Alsace it actually qualifies a little adventurous, moving past the same fifteen or so dishes everyone else serves to…well, let’s call it twenty dishes.
I kid, but only a little. My salad with stuffed quail legs (good, albeit a bit more livery than I prefer) and thin-sliced foie gras is a typically Alsatian rendering of something that would otherwise be light: loading it up with liver and fattened liver is the local variation. (I’m a little surprised there’s neither ham nor starch.) Next is a venison loin, overcooked but flavorful, drenched in a rich meat sauce with excellent steamed-then-fried potatoes, a medley of white and green asparagus, and carrots. Honestly, the stars here are not the meat, nor the sauce, but the accompanying vegetables both stalky and rooted, which taste vividly of themselves. Not something one always finds in northern France restaurant vegetable cookery, especially in Alsace.
The wine list is somewhat short on local bottles (there’s one extravagantly-priced wine from the Rangen, but it’s a Wolfberger, and I’m disinclined to pay around $60 for cooperative wine unless it’s excellent…which, in the past, this bottle has not been), and in any case I don’t think a Rangen anything is a good match for Bambi in this particular form. And so…
Dopff & Irion 2006 Pinot Noir Rouge d’Ottrott (Alsace) – Surprisingly full. Red berries infused with wet soil, a little oak influence, and just enough textural plushness. A very slight bit underripe in terms of tannin, but otherwise well beyond competent and decidedly into the enjoyable realm. This is a somewhat industrial and middle-of-the-road producer that, a few years ago, was trying to make some qualitative steps forward. Maybe they’ve taken a few of those steps.
There’s also a too-sweet alisier eau de vie, fragrant and enticing but just not dry enough, that seems to straddle some middle ground between distillate and liqueur, and indifferent coffee. A good meal, comfortable and filling.
At a rented apartment between two noisy churches in Colmar – really, is it necessary for both to toll lustily every fifteen minutes all day and night? – a quick market-sourced dinner of dos de cabillaud, caramelized leeks, and paprika-spiced haricots verts needs a white wine. And though it’s not a question often asked in this region, why not savagnin?
Boch 2009 Klevener de Heiligenstein (Alsace) – Spice is a regular feature of Alsatian wines, but the spice herein is exotic, white-hued, and all up top. There’s slate, a sort of cold sultriness, and weight pressing down from above. But there’s good structure, too, and some fun leafiness. Nice wine.
Côté Cour – A modernist, slick, clean brasserie right on a busy church-side plaza, and clearly determined to lighten and modernize the local cuisine. Well…to a point. My carpaccio de tête de veau (not, despite the name, raw) is meaty but less complex and interesting than a version devoured a few months ago at the brilliant Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris, and it’s followed by perfectly-cooked rouget abed Robuchon-style butter slightly thickened by puréed potatoes. There’s even a little superfluous foam around the exterior. Everything’s quite good (especially the service), but I’d like to see a stronger embrace of the future rather than just gestures.
Coffee is Nespresso and is indicated as such on the menu (oh, one weeps for the state of French coffee), but the wine list – while young – is fine. Surprisingly, it’s reasonably strong in not only non-Alsatian, but non-French bottlings.
Barmès Buecher 2005 Riesling Herrenweg (Alsace) – Molten iron. Not just the aromatics, but also the weight and density. Almost a really good, dusty, all-mineral wine, but the heaviness is just too much, and eventually overwhelms the palate. Blame the vintage more than the house.
Restaurant Barthodli – If anything here has changed since before the dawn of time, including the staff, I’d be shocked. Be prepared for Alsatian food in Alsatian quantities. For example, my first-course order of white asparagus with ham is nixed by the proprietress, who insists that it will be far too much food if I follow it with the second course I intend ; her advice is surprising, but after I receive a platter of a dozen incomprehensibly bloated stalks, exactly right. The accompanying sauces are a butter vinaigrette (of course) and mayo, and…well, what is there to say? The asparagus is excellent, the accompaniments too much, the marriage of the two surpassing.
Another Alsatian classic follows: veal in mushrooms (lots of both), with an accompanying pan of spätzle big enough for three or four people. It’s hearty, rich, mass-endowed food, and though I don’t know how much place it has in a modern society not engaged in transhumance, it’s good to know that it’s still available.
I consider a digestif, but instead opt for yet another local favorite: frozen dessert drenched in eau de vie (in this case, lemon sorbet swimming in marc de gewurztraminer). It’s as woozy as it is good. As for the wine list: the Bordeaux-minded will do pretty well with some mature-ish wines at good prices, but the Alsatian side, while lengthy, is probably less-represented in the actual cellar than it is the wine list. Which explains how I end up with a wine I’d never have ordered had it not been opened away from, and brought to, the table without asking if I’d like a substitute. Oh, well.
Joseph Cattin 2007 Muscat d’Alsace (Alsace) – As much structure and flaky minerality as perfume. Good Alsatian muscat has a strange palate action whereby it seems to be pressing against a wall, and this wine fits into that category. Short, as is fairly typical for this grape, but good.
Sparr 2003 Pinot Gris Mambourg (Alsace) – Way, way, way too sweet and structure-free. The aromatics haven’t developed, the syrupy texture is off-putting, and the wine is just a mess.
Back at the apartment, this time surrounded by old friends (of twenty years running) who’ve driven from northern Lorraine. We’ve goose foie gras in terrine form from the masterful Liesel, which is by far my favorite type and expression of fattened liver, and after the tenth or eleventh lecture of my life (from the proprietor) on how vendange tardive pinot gris is the one and only wine one could ever consider serving with goose foie gras, I feel a little blind tasting is in order.
Vincent Stoeffler 2006 Riesling Kirchberg de Barr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Decidedly light and Bas-Rhin-ish. A bit hollowed-out. Stainless steel, very light sweetness, elegance but not much poise. Just OK.
Pierre-Paul Zink 1999 Pinot Gris “Vendange Tardive” (Alsace) – Coppery minerality, spice, bronzed pear, finely-flaked textural swirls. A really gorgeous wine…neither overbearing nor overly sweet (there’s plenty of sugar, but enough acidity to counteract). Quite long. Very tasty.
Jean-Paul Schmitt 2002 Gewurztraminer Rittersberg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – 500 ml. Spiced yellow plum, cashew, and fruity bacon fat up front, but then everything fades rather more quickly than I’d like. A good first third, but after that it’s disappointing.
There are twelve tasters to poll, and I ask three questions: what are the wines, do you like them, and which did you prefer with the terrine? The third wine is the easiest to identify (one even ventures a very specific guess of Kaefferkopf), but guesses about the first two are all over the map; literally, in the first case, as two of my friends engage in a very long debate about how the wine absolutely must be German. The second results in answers that cover the full range of possible responses. But the most important question is about the marriage with foie gras, and here the vote is: four for the riesling, two for the pinot gris, and six (including me) for the gewurztraminer. Yes, there are the individual wine qualities to consider, but this result is revealing nonetheless. Of course, after the unveiling, I’m treated to yet another long discourse on why pinot gris was actually the right choice all along, despite the lecturer’s expressed preference for the gewurztraminer…
Wistub Brenner –This restaurant has everything going against it: widespread fame, a position right on a key junction in Colmar’s touristy “Petite Venise” district, a large terrace (underused during these chilly-to-overly-layered-French-folk spring days), and a menu that looks and feels like hundreds (maybe thousands?) of others in the region. But no. The food, authentic and relentlessly traditional, is extraordinary. There’s not a surprise on the menu…at least, not that I can see…but unless one can’t tolerate the region’s traditional cuisine, there’s nothing to do but love what’s on the plate.
I start with the best presskopf I’ve ever had, the meat and gelatin in perfect proportion and both of surprising intensity, and follow with tourte de la vallée: essentially a compressed pork pie, thick and surrounded by a delicious pastry crust. To finish there’s an intense raspberry sorbet swimming in marc de muscat, a perfect marriage of fruit and flower.
Heyberger-Salch 2007 Muscat “Cuvée Égrappée” (Alsace) – Floral but weedy, with a strappy vegetal note. On the upside, there’s a ton of acidity, but I don’t know that it serves this wine all that well. A few more days on the vine wouldn’t have hurt.
Léon Beyer 2006 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Very dry, almost to the point of being parched, as is the Beyer style and predilection. As such, there’s little in the way of stone or tropical fruit, but instead dried nut powder and the aromatic remnant of beef jerky. Very solid structure. To know if this is ever going to be good, one will have to wait at least a decade. Possibly longer. Worth noting: the wine is inexplicably caveated to me (by the waitress) as “sweet” – which it is most certainly not – and yet three fellow diners reject it as too dry and too bitter.
Trimbach 2004 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – Minerality with little else except some lime-scented acidity. The minerality takes several forms – sheet, powder, and rod – and it’s both dominant and restrained. Very particular, but appealing nonetheless, though one has to like ultra-austere riesling.
Muré 2004 Pinot Noir “V” (Alsace) – Weird in all the ways that Alsatian pinot noir is usually weird, this grand cru pinot noir (it’s from the Vorbourg, hence the not-so-secret code on the label) doesn’t live up to its terroir, except in this way: the fruit’s somewhat soupy, the structure’s both spiky and insufficient, and the wine hasn’t been well-handled in the cellar. Which, it must be admitted, doesn’t much say grand cru to me. A rough go.
Bertrand Eau de Vie Sorbier (Alsace) – That’s “rowan” for English-speakers. Lurid blueberry irreparably marred by a fetid sous bois staleness. I really, really hate this.
Bertrand Eau de Vie Vieille Prune (Alsace) – Standard, straightforward. Some spice, some old raisin, some wood. Not very interesting.