Once I made up my mind that I would travel to Paris from London by train, I looked at a map and realized it would be silly to return to London to fly to Munich (where I’d be meeting Craig for the Munich Film Festival two days later); a far more sane idea would be to keep moving east, via train, stopping over somewhere along the way. When I put the question to Twitter, a follower (I forget who; sorry follower!) mentioned Strasbourg. Before I knew it, I was reading about one of the great world’s food cities–on the border of France and Germany–in the Alsace-Lorraine region where we get Riesling, Alsatian pizza (aka: tart flambée), and a dish Jeffrey Steingarten celebrates in one of his books called Choucroute Garnie. Needless to say, I booked a EuroRail ticket, booked a hotel (the Hotel Rohan, nice and reasonable), and after kissing Paris goodbye on a Friday morning, boarded the train to Strasbourg.
If you’ve seen Before Sunrise, I don’t need to tell you this, but there’s something very romantic about traveling through Europe via train. These trains move so fast, you get wherever you’re going in just a few hours, and on the way you can look out your window and enjoy the countryside. On my train to Strasbourg, a young tyke was causing a ruckus and a perturbed French gentleman stood up and made a speech to the child’s father that began, “Monsieur,” and I didn’t understand the rest, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
My train pulled into Strasbourg around 1:45 and being the food-obsessive that I am, I knew I only had 30 minutes to get to Chez Yvonne for lunch because it closes at 2:15. I read about Chez Yvonne in one of the numerous articles I read about Strasbourg before leaving L.A., and apparently it’s famous for its renditions of traditional Alsatian food. So I hopped into a cab at the train station, raced up a cobbled street to the Hotel Rohan…
…dropped my suitcase in my room (which was amazingly air-conditioned; my first air-conditioner of the trip! I loved it) and booked it for Chez Yvonne, which was about 10 minutes away. (See the name on the little sign?)
I made it just in the nick of time. Here’s the view from my table right by the front door:
And here’s my lunch date, a chair that I named Brunhilda:
I ordered a small pitcher of Riesling, which tasted better here than anywhere else I could imagine drinking it (sort of like drinking Florida orange juice in Florida):
Lunch began with a slice of onion tart. Confession: I thought I was ordering tart flambée but that’s not what this was. This was more like a quiche with onions and eggs and possibly cheese in a lovely flaky crust:
Despite not being tart flambée, it was terrific and I ate every last bite. A mistake, I’d soon learn, because my entree was a meal fit for a king, a queen, a knight, and a jester (and an entire court of hungry eaters): the famous choucroute garnie.
This, my friends, is a whole array of meat cooked with sauerkraut and served with a little ramekin of horseradish:
My soul quaked, a bit, at the array of meats laid out before me, but I was a good soldier and I marched into battle with a brave face. Here’s an overhead shot:
At 12 o’clock there’s a potato; at 1 o’clock a pig foot; at 3 o’clock, a piece of ham; at 6 o’clock, pork shoulder; at 7 o’clock sausage, 9 o’clock sausage, and at 11 o’clock some kind of meatball made with the offal. In the center, of course, sauerkraut.
Here was the most surprising thing about this dish: whenever I fantasized about eating it or making it at home (I have a recipe in one of my cookbooks) I thought the whole point of the dish was that the sharpness of the sauerkraut played against the richness of the meat. But the sauerkraut, here, wasn’t sharp or vinegary at all; the sharpness had been cooked out, so you just had this pile of subtle, only slightly sour cabbage and a big plate of meat. The horseradish, then, was what provided the zip.
The dish reminded me most of Pot au Feu, the French dish where all kinds of meats are boiled together and then served, along with the broth, for a hearty supper. It’s also similar to the Italian bollito misto. All three dishes are best eaten in winter; this being June/July, I ate as much as I could, then paid the check and started walking around Strasbourg on foot. Oh, but first I used the bathroom and took this picture at the urinals because the artwork in there made me chuckle:
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet: Strasbourg is a gorgeous city. The architecture, the streets, the design… all a beautiful mash-up of French and German culture (fitting for a city right on the border; a city, incidentally, that’s gone back and forth between the two countries over various wars).
The cathedral at the center is so striking, it’s hard to capture all of it in one picture:
The inside is just as amazing:
Check out this organ high up on a wall:
Here are some pictures from my walk, with minimal commentary:
(Inside another church.)
(When I snapped that picture of sausage at a market, the man selling it said to his friend: “Les Americans.”)
Who wouldn’t want this sculpture next to their bed?
At this point, I was pretty pooped, so I took a nap in my hotel room (did I mention the air conditioning?). Refreshed, I showered, got all spruced up, and began my walk towards the big park for my big blow-out dinner at Buerehiesel.
My logic was this: Craig doesn’t like fancy frou frou dinners (unless they’re at a place that’s a sure bet) and since I’d be joining him the next day in Munich, this might be my last chance to eat the kind of European Michelin-starred meal true gourmets experience as they make their way through Europe on one of those palate-expanding, mind-expanding trips you’re always hearing about in chef bios. This wouldn’t be an act of self-indulgence; it would be an act of self-improvement. (Do you like my justification process?)
The walk was over a mile, a questionable enterprise in my nice clothes but I didn’t mind. I passed a statue of Goethe:
And gradually made my way towards the park where the restaurant is situated:
It may be one of the most spectacular entrances to a restaurant I’ve ever experienced:
Not because it’s so over-the-top, but because it’s so lovely and pastoral and unusual, especially situated, as it is, next to a little zoo.
This owl and I had a staring contest (I won):
And these monkeys were endlessly entertaining:
Especially the baby ones:
At last, I made it to the restaurant:
You have to admit, that’s a pretty outrageous entrance. Right next to it is the estate that Napoleon once bought for Josephine:
This place had some serious history.
Walking into the restaurant, I noticed this glassed-in space that seemed pretty:
And sure enough, that’s where I was seated once I presented myself to the hostess.
The waitress suggested that I start with a glass of Muscat from the region; I couldn’t say no to that:
Behind me, the room was glittering, it was all so beautiful:
It’s the kind of restaurant you fantasize about when you imagine splurging on a big meal in Europe. I was so happy I decided to go.
Speaking of splurging, I decided to order the large tasting menu (there was a smaller one of four courses; I went for seven). My logic: when will I ever be here again? Now you understand why my bank account has 0 dollars in it.
The cruelest thing, though, was that after presenting me with these little bites (one a savory madeline; one a mini Alsatian pizza):
They served the most incredible, irresistible bread and butter:
Do you see that roll all the way on the left? The crust was remarkable; it was crackly and deep, golden brown, and tasted like caramel. I’d love to know how to make it. On second thought, I don’t want to know because then I’d make it all the time and never stop eating bread. It took all the will in the world not to eat all of the bread in the basket before the meal began (and the butter was so good too).
This was a subtle little soup that may have been a pre-menu bite:
Here, the waiter suggested I order a half-bottle of Riesling from the region to complement the rest of the meal. I nodded my head in agreement and out this came:
It really was spectacular; crisp, slightly fruity, but dry too and a great foil for all the food. Again, that Florida orange juice metaphor is apt; it’s so nice to drink Riesling in the region where it’s made.
The first course: lobster (from Brittany) on white asparagus.
That presentation is something you don’t see much of in America; it’s a grand gesture, a dish that harkens back to the height of French cooking in the 20th century. And the flavors were spot on.
One thing I’ve noticed in Europe: lots of restaurants serve a dish and then serve a little bonus element on the side. Here it was a lobster soup with chunks of lobster on the bottom:
Next up, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: frog’s legs with a side of ravioli.
I used my fingers here and the meat came right off the bone; yes, it tastes like chicken, but way more delicate and in that brown sauce, absolutely unforgettable. Maybe I said this in a previous post, but my main takeaway from eating in Europe is: sauces are worth the trouble. Especially the brown ones.
Here was a lovely fish dish (turbot? Sorry, I misplaced the menu) with peas:
Veal sweetbreads–crusted and fried–in another brown sauce with asparagus:
Sweetbreads are another big takeaway from Europe: they’ve got so much fat and flavor, no wonder European chefs love to cook with them. They crisp up beautifully and the insides are so tender.
Finally, there was this lamb dish that came with the most perfectly placed bit of lettuce; it was a surprising note, but one that worked really well:
On the subject of grand gestures, the next part of this meal was something that epitomizes the excitement of eating a grand meal in Europe: the cheese cart.
A waiter pushed it over and presented all the cheeses to me, allowing me to choose which ones I wanted to try: I chose goat (which I gobbled up so quickly, I forgot to take the picture first), camembert, and a blue.
You may be wondering how I didn’t pass out at this point from too much food–and I was on the cusp–but then out came this gorgeous dessert:
Those are layers of chocolate and raspberry with a scoop of raspberry sorbet on top all sitting in a chocolate foam masking another layer of chocolate mousse underneath. It was a bit of a throwback, that combination of chocolate and raspberry, but such a winning combination, I have to confess I scooped up every bite. I vow to make a chocolate raspberry tart upon my return to L.A.
When the check came, these cookies came with it:
I could barely nibble one without keeling over.
No question, though; this dinner was the meal of a lifetime; the kind of edifying European culinary experience I’ve always wanted to have but hadn’t yet encountered. Now, when I write my memoirs some day, I’ll tell the story of the night I walked to a strange restaurant in Strasbourg in a park next to a zoo and Josephine’s estate and how I ate myself silly and drank lots of wine and became a better person for it. I’ll skip the part about going home to an empty bank account and an expanded waistline; those details are best left on the editing room floor.