Wistub Brenner, Colmar
When winstube go wrong they’re pretentious or indigestibly cute; the Brenner wouldn’t know how to go about aspiring to either. The interior is invested with that sort of non-décor décor that people who began their eating careers in France 50 years ago know can be a good sign. Lunching outside is a dream, though you might be thrown off the trail by the Provençal tablecloths and miss one of the most authentic eating experiences in Alsace. The view takes in the river Lauch and a lovely string of chalky half-timbered houses, their window boxes a convulsion of pink and red geraniums. There’s nothing to undo the magic—unless one of those tragic little tourist “trains” swings by. Courage.
My waitress confirmed that I was the only person in Brenner’s history (it opened in 1994) to order choucroute garnie and tripes au riesling in the same meal. I explained that I only get to Colmar about once every 20 years; that the winstub’s choucroute had the reputation for being le fin du fin de la tradition; and that though I’d read I’d be seeing tripe everywhere, this was the only place I’d found it. I thought it made marginally more sense to start with the choucroute—for some reason it seemed better to put the tripe on top of the sauerkraut rather than the other way around. There are two schools of choucroute. One is the pile-on school. Excess is a virtue. Seven kinds of sausage and as many pork cuts is not unusual. The number can climb even higher if the supplying charcutier is ambitious and has stamina. Obscure Alsatian sausages—varieties made with tongue, beer, ham, or potatoes—could all in principle add their charms to a choucroute. Eric Westermann of the one-star Buerehiesel, in Strasbourg, says his family recipe calls for honey and vinegar to caramelize some of the meats. So you see how baroque the permutations can get.
The second dominant school of choucroute is Brenner’s. This is the Virgin’s choucroute, pure but not chaste. The tender sauerkraut has a long, sweet, mouth-filling finish, the result of patient simmering with thinly sliced onions, black peppercorns, juniper berries, Riesling, smoked shoulder butt, smoked slab bacon, and poached salted slab bacon. The pork is joined on the plate by a boiled potato; a pair of frankfurter-style Strasbourg sausages, their taut skins snapping first under your knife, then under your teeth; and a Montbéliard sausage. Flavored with cumin, it’s smoked without flames over the dust of resinous woods like pine and spruce. There are two mysteries to Brenner’s choucroute, great as it is. Why is the mustard industrial?And why, in a region so rich in pork products, does the chef feel the need to cross the border into the Franche-Comté, the pays of Montbéliard?
Honeycomb tripe cooked in Riesling with lots of onions is served in mini made-in-Alsace enameled cast-iron casseroles from Staub. Like Brenner itself, they’re slightly chipped. The flood of thin sauce touched with cream threw me, as did the sautéed potatoes. But then they’re always surprising you with sautéed potatoes in Alsace. (I’m still struggling to love and understand the ancient regional coupling of sautéed potatoes and bibalakas, a mixture of fromage blanc and cream.) Au riesling is never going to replace alla fiorentina as the world’s favorite tripe dish. But anything that keeps offcuts on the table is a good thing.
Auberge à l’Illwald (“Le Schnellenbuhl”), Sélestat
The cooking here is on such a high level it seems mean to more rustic winstube to put them and the Illwald in the same pot. On the other hand, at least everyone knows where the bar is set. Winstub classics like headcheese and baeckeoffe (a stew of beef, lamb, and pork that usually includes a pig’s ear and tail) still look like themselves after chef Frank Barbier flexes his technique. They just taste better: brighter, more exciting, more gastro. The auberge and a 16-room hotel with a nicely balanced new-old feel occupy a handful of vernacular farm buildings disposed around a courtyard where Labradors torture a tethered sheep. The Illwald is hard by a spectacular forest with a large game reserve, and beside a busy road, but I was only annoyed by the cars when walking between my room and the auberge; inside you hear almost nothing. Like the food, the dining room is a high-end spin on winstub traditions. I never walk into a restaurant and think, There’s nothing here I want to change, but the Illwald is beyond improvement. A columnar wood stove warms a corner. Kelsch woven by the Gander family in Muttersholtz drape the tables. Reverse paintings on glass are from the wonderful Arts et Collections d’Alsace boutique in Colmar. Amusing murals suggest how it might go if the animals took over: a hare and a fox ride in a nautilus-shell carriage, drawn by a man.