The day: 22nd December 2008, Dinner.
The place: La Wantzenau (Strasbourg)
The venue: Au Moulin de La Wantzenau
Closest airports: Strasbourg
The food: French
The drinks: Not too long, mostly Alsace and Burgundy, on the pricey side
Yet another stop in Alsace. After our other experiences (here, here, here, and here) we are beginning to think that Alsatians restaurateurs can do no wrong, that this is a blessed culinary land where no disappointment is possible or even conceivable. Let’s try this new (for us) venue, charmingly located (together with a hotel) on the premises of an old mill (the original dating back to the 17th century).
The room is attractive, in its dominant wooden and red tones, very warm,
the mise en place showing the little touches of somebody who cares, like the dried fruit decorations on the table:
You wouldn’t expect it from the tepid welcome of the manager, who looks like a real @!&#! (Man wanted to write ‘asshole’, but fortunately Woman prevented him). What is a host doing there if he can’t even bring himself to greet the (smiling) guest? Go to sleep then! Providentially, there is also the sweet and smiling maman to put us at ease.
The a la carte menu is rather heftily priced, with entrees and mains in the twenties and thirties. Luckily, there’s plenty of set menus, ranging from €25 for the menu marché to the €65 for the full tasting menu.
We opt for:
– Menu gourmet (four courses at €48)
– Menu saveur et santé (flavours and health, sound interesting!), three courses at €34.
Our bread appears:
It looks wonderful, but the taste, while not poor, does not quite match the expectations. The crust is not as crispy as it could be.
Oh, a nice looking amuse bouche is placed on our table – pity that the @!&#! waiter only describes one item and then, maybe bored, leaves.
It comes in the guise of a mussel mousse with some caviar, a warm carrot cream/soup, bread with a sort of sausage inside, and a mushroom flavoured cheese cream. Very good, if a little elaborate, Man thinks: both agree on the great variety, really ‘amusing’ in the sweet-salty contrasts, in the temperatures, in the textures (liquid-mousse-cream-chunk).
The entrees for both menus arrive:
– Foie gras (from the gourmet menu)
– Vegetables sautéed (from the healthy menu)
The foie gras is excellent, resting on a bed of delicate stock jelly and accompanied by a warm brioche. But those little tomato cubes, tasting like potatoes: what an absurdity in December.
The simply boiled root vegetables appear a little extreme in their blandness even for a health menu. On the other hand, the pied de mouton mushrooms yield some pleasure and are well presented in a crispy crepe, with a whiff of pepper and rosemary all round (the rosemary branch is pretty but uncomfortable, thinks Woman, who has done the donkey work of clearing the spikes away by the time uncomplaining Man gets to it…). But, once again, that terrible mushy tomato!
And now the second entrée of the gourmet menu:
– Dublin Bay Prawns, seabass and chanterelles.
The prawns are fine on the palate but their extreme, excessive softness makes one suspect that something untoward has happened in Dublin Bay… Again, the seabass rewards the palate, being fresh and well-seasoned, but for us it is overcooked and the skin is far from crispy (mercifully also far from completely soggy). To complete the triptych, the mushrooms, first rate but not cooked precisely and left a little watery. The boiled rice is…well, it’s boiled. Mmmh.
For mains we are treated to:
– Veal (from the health menu)
– Hare stuffed with fois gras (definitely from the unhealthy menu)
Is this veal really a ‘saveur et santé’ specimen? How supremely tender, succulent it is, and lifted by a great combination, the pungent reduction with the sweet vanilla pods. The topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) puree tasted to us like celeriac, but was pleasantly fresh, as was the accompanying cabbage. And there is a strange but welcome touch of little cubes of candied orange peel. Overall, an impressive dish.
The hare and foie is not for the faint hearted. The flavours are most potent, animal, coming at you in an undisguised fierceness and richness in which you have no choice but to immerse yourself and give in: it’s not subtle, but it is very good. There no relief in the concentrated reduction, dense, salty (maybe with blood in it), but we find in an accompanying apple compote with sultanas an almost perfect match.
Nice side additions of red cabbage
and (very) buttery spatzles, too.
Finally, our desserts:
– Winter fruits (from the health menu)
– Pineapple with coconut sorbet (from the unhealthy menu, really!)
Here, a role reversal: the health menu looks somewhat more unhealthy than the other one, but they were both pretty good.
Cubes of what tasted like gingery pineapple with some spirit (Cointreau?) were huddled in a hulled pineapple, with a fresh coconut sorbet nesting in a hollowed passion fruit struck Man for their nice presentation. Woman, less easily swayed by a pretty face, still had to agree this was a successful dish, the coconut sorbet being particularly good. The ‘but’ comes from the fact that these same two specimens also figured in the healthy dish of winter fruits, accompanied by an endearing mango mousse (of the consistency of Italian meringue) and a very convincing plum tatin, plus assorted sliced exotic fruit (which are not really that available in Winter, except from the Equator down, but there you go). In spite of repetitions and deviations, no hesitation (note: this is for readers who follow the BBC comic radio program ‘Just a minute’): quite a satisfying way to end our meal, in fact.
Well, here is where it really ends, although the petit fours were brought before the desserts:
Meringues, aniseed biscuits, chocolate brownie, sort of gingerbread biscuit, and a ‘croccante’ with hazelnuts. Very good.
With a jug of free tap water brought with no sulks and a bottle of Pinot Noir Trimbach Reserve 2005 ‘Cuve 7’ at €32 (a little square but with personality), the total comes to a most reasonable €114.
The service was disappointing. Some of it was not the fault of the front of house: the dinner took more than three hours with very poor pacing: very annoying. But some members of the FOH contributed with some of their own. Dishes only partially described, impatience, lack of any warmth, brusque manners in laying the plates.
Well, so we have discovered that even in Alsace one can have somewhat mixed and frustrating experiences. Even putting to one side the wait and the service, which may have been the result of an off night (the place was heaving on a Monday night), the cuisine left us overall satisfied but not fully convinced. On the positive side, there was great generosity, in the portions, in the labour going into the dishes, and in the pampering extras. But there also was also unevenness, occasional cooking imprecision and heavy handedness and lapse of taste. Mind you: this was still a well above average performance, with good flavours and techniques on display, so take our criticisms as relative to the best fine dining we’ve experienced (and we will experience: more on this story later) so far in Alsace. Overall we probably would not go back given the terrific other choices in the vicinities, but we are happy to have stopped by at Le Moulin and we would definitely patronise it in less blessed culinary districts.