Perched on a Spring-flooded riverbank with massive willows and a gorgeous lighting scheme, it doesn't get more classically French or classically beautiful than this restaurant in this particular Alsace village. The location itself seems pulled from a fairy tale novel about French restaurants.
This restaurant in particular is one of two or three that I had been most looking forward to out of the entire tranche of global 3-star restaurants, alongside Osteria Francescana in Italy and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan. The Haeberlin clan, Alsatian culinary masters, have run a restaurant on this site for over 150 years. For most of that history, it was called L'Arbre Vert (the Green Tree), but after it was destroyed near the end of World War 2, the family renamed it Auberge de L'Ill, short for Illhausern. It won its first Michelin star in 1952, its second in 1957, and its third in 1967. So, long story short, it has held 3 stars for almost 50 years. Reasonably, I expected a lot.
For many reasons, this place didn't live up to my high expectations, but foremost among them was the clueless, cold, and often incompetent service. For example, to celebrate my joy at attending this most prized restaurant I ordered two glasses of wine. They brought the wrong selection not once, but twice in a row. I've never had that happen at any restaurant I've ever been to, to say nothing of a 3-star restaurant. They recognized their mistake and gave me the initial glass on the house, but the sommelier made a comment in French that implied I had maybe somehow purposefully bamboozled them out of a glass of wine ("Et très heureusement on peut maintenant les comparer." Wasn't quite sure what to say to that one. Ha, I hypnotized you into fucking up your one job?
ILLHAUSERN (ALSACE WINE COUNTRY), FRANCE
PRICE PAID: $259PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
Illhausern itself, perched at the Northern end of Alsace wine country, is a gorgeous ancient gem of a town. I only had a few hours to explore both this and nearby Ribeauville, but I could have spent a week.
Walking into the main entryway, they had trotted out their Springtime panorama complete with lambs, eggs, and a whole bunch of other nonsense. I got the feeling the place was trying to convey that it didn't take itself too seriously, but upon later reflection it does indeed take itself way too seriously, so this decorating choice is strange and inconsistent.
See what I mean? This is a dead-serious dining room, complete with gorgeous hand-cut flower centerpieces, strong lighting, and a whisper-quiet romantic noise level.
First, a few bites to start. From left to right, Asian herbs on a rice cracker. The middle one was oilier and had a balsamic middle. The one on the right was a butter cracker filled with butter and a butter glaze with roasted nuts. Decadent but delicious. 8/10.
Right around when this bread and butter landed 10 minutes had already gone by, my order had been taken, but I had't been offered water. Odd but not entirely out of bounds.
The puck of salted butter was from St. Malo, a part of Bretagne famous for its awesome buttermakers. The bread had a hard and extremely crunchy outer shell- I felt like I was deafening my co-diners around me by biting into it. 6/10.
An interesting dish- a unique combination of almonds, pistachios, and langoustine all in one plate. The langoustine was incredibly fresh and well-cooked but extremely soft; the nuts were thrown into the dish at the last second and so they were still very crunchy. I understood the objective of playing off the textures and creating a neat flavor interplay, but it felt pretty disjointed- the crunchiness of the tree nuts overwhelmed the experience. 7/10.
20 mins, still no water. Getting thirsty.
This next dish was a really cool idea- a foie gras presented to look like a piece of sushi together with a Junmai sake. Ten minutes before the foie arrives, the server pours the sake to give it a chance to breathe. From a sake house founded in 1505 and famous for samurais' preference for this brand on the eve of battles, this Kenbishi Junmai exhibits an extremely interesting nose- very expressive- with notes of fresh chocolate. Appropriately, the foie is plated "with Japanese inspiration," including a border of seaweed, making the foie look like sushi. Some pineapple on the right for a nice tropical fruit kick. The foie itself just melts, and pairs fantastically with sake. 8/10.
Sea bass served on a bed of coriander and dashi. The fish itself flakes apart easily, and is fresh and totally excellent. The triangular dumpling is made of rice noodles; another subtle Asian reference. It tastes almost exactly like fish sticks, and has a bizarre texture that makes your teeth click. Carrots and cucumbers inside the dumpling are a nice touch. 8/10.
I can't think of a more classically French combo than lobster, morel mushrooms, and asparagus. The lobster is perfectly cooked and not too buttery. Morels add a bit- another dish that can describe as buttery, fatty, and overly rich but good. 8/10.
Check out the color on that pigeon flank. The bird itself is is earthy and rich as hell, you can taste the farm it comes from. Surprisingly, the lentils that accompany are cooked unevenly- some are soft and overdone, some are firm and just right. The tortellini is bread-y and mushroom-y. 7/10.
If I was expecting any restaurant to knock the cheese cart concept out of the park, it would have been these guys. And, I'll say they mostly nailed it. A wonderful and diverse collection of soft, hard, goat's, and blue cheeses from across France but with a focus on Alsace-regional producers. I selected a handful of Monk's and Pont L'Eveque-style cheeses, and regretted 0% of said choices. 9/10.
A delightful small tray of mignadises- lemon marshmallow, Kiwi tart, madeline, and a rose-flavored macaron. Awesome. 8/10.
This dish is, quite charmingly, titled a "crispy" of red fruits. It's actually a zabaglione (an Italian-style dessert of whipped egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine) with some insanely awesome rhubarb and raspberry flavors. 9/10.
A truly incredibly banana sorbet with citrus and kalamansi. The two fruit flavors paired off perfectly. Definitely the high point of the meal. 10/10.
A variety of small final dessert set to finish things out- pâte de fruits, noisettes, and chocolate. 8/10.
As I reflect on my final thoughts about these restaurants, I'm trying to consider why my service experiences in these French 3-stars have been so uneven. Some restaurants, like Guy Savoy or Pavilion Ledoyen, the service was warm and approachable, friendly and thoughtful even. It's not the US-Style chef-handshakes and kitchen tours, but the attitude was at a minimum kind and courteous. Both this place and L'Ambroisie were both rude disasters- self-important, careless, cold. Others who have visited at least one of those restaurants point to a high-end restaurant culture in France that is made to cater to regulars, not visitors, but I doubt that actually captures the full extent of it. Nor would I fall back to ugly stereotypes about high French culture being conceited or arrogant. It felt more like a rational response to incentives- their three stars are unlikely to ever get taken away (and in any case, I obviously wasn't a Michelin inspector), they're always going to have a backlog of people willing to cough up to try their restaurant. To them, perhaps, providing a high-end service experience is simply not something they invest in or train for because it has no impact on their ability to create their art or get customers. I'd love to hear what others think on this topic.