Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France
Published: June 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Not quite French, not fully German, the traditional taverns of northeastern France have a vernacular all their own, full of paneling, checked tablecloths, regional wines, and a thousand variations on pork.
The Alsatians wring more feeling out of stub than seems possible for one abrupt syllable that merely translates as “room”—in the domestic context of old Alsace, a combined living-dining room. For the Alsatian writer Gérard Oberlé, stub is synonymous with coziness, a cocoon of “physical, spiritual, and moral happiness” bundling “intimacy, volupté, comfort, trust, tranquillity, security, harmony.” When the stub leaves home to take up occupancy in a public eating place it becomes a winstub, or “wine room,” a strictly codified subspecies of bistro (or tavern, if you prefer) unique to this northeastern region of France. Winstube are often casually described as wine bars, but if that’s what you go expecting, you’ll be very surprised.
Like the bouchons of Lyons, the crêperies of Brittany, and even the cafés of Paris, winstube can be seen as an imperative: the eating and drinking culture in Alsace is so strong and specific it required and evolved its own format. In Strasbourg, the provincial capital, and the romantic medieval towns within a two-hour drive of it, the rules are clear. A restaurant with the trappings of a winstub but that serves roasted langoustines with vanilla butter is not a winstub. Just as, sorry, choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with a theoretically infinite possibility of pig parts) served in a place with valet parking and crystal chandeliers will never be a plat de winstub.
Alsace lies on the fertile plain between the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains, but the mighty Germanic quality of its cooking is traced to more than a shared border with that country. The fact that the Treaty of Westphalia awarded the area to Louis XIV in 1648 did nothing to stop Germany from annexing it during and following the Franco-Prussian War, from 1870 to 1919, and again during World War II. Alsatian cooking worships the pig and glorifies the cabbage, but as I discovered on a search for the most authentic winstube, there is more behind the picture on the poster: savory and fruit tarts, crazy stews involving ears and tails, salads tossing cheese and sausage, foie gras, quenelles, freshwater fish, escargots, and panfried potatoes (for which there is an absolute fetish). Yeast cakes and cookies (and cookies and cookies, especially at Christmas) do their best to satisfy a populace with a deep sweet tooth.
Wines from outside Alsace are tolerated in winstube, if not embraced. Two of the most popular grapes in the region, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, are closely identified with Germany; the third is Pinot Blanc. (Muscat, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir are also cultivated.) The wines are generally vinified dry, as elsewhere in France, and marketed by varietal. Visiting all the vineyards on the Route du Vin—which stretches for more than 105 miles along the eastern foothills of the Vosges, from Marlenheim, west of Strasbourg, to Thann, near Mulhouse—is a nice half-life’s work.
What do winstube look like?They are too familiar to Alsatians, too much a part of the social fabric, for them to be of much help (“A winstub looks, well...like a winstub!”). This means: paneling in warm honey tones. Kelsch, the traditional checked cottons of Alsace, on the tables and at the windows. A kachelofen, a woodstove faced with faïence tiles, for heat. A profusion of pottery: earthenware from Soufflenheim, stoneware from Betschdorf.
The setting is inseparable from the food in a winstub: c’est un tout.
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.
A l’Aigle d’Or, Osthouse
Customers call the cat who freely roams this winstub by name: it’s that kind of place. L’Aigle is the only restaurant in Osthouse, A La Ferme the only hotel, so when you book a room at the one you automatically wind up eating at the other (both places are owned by the Hellmann family). It takes three minutes to reach the hotel from the winstub, a pleasant walk that could be a lot more if Osthouse woke up a little: while attractive in the gruff way of Alsatian farming bourgs, the village is sleepy, and the fear is that sleepiness will soon result in death. A La Ferme has seven rooms, three in an early-19th-century farmhouse, which you choose for their humble antiques. The others, in an outbuilding once used for drying tobacco, are bigger and more “up-to-date.” But a night here is about the breakfast, not the rooms. The younger Madame Hellmann’s kugelhopf—a yeast cake with almonds and raisins baked in a tube pan with swirling fluted sides—is a modèle du genre. All petticoat lampshades and morbid gold swagged curtains, l’Aigle looks like Waverley Root just got up from dessert (cinnamon ice cream, say, and an apple roasted with salted butter) and the hot plates have been toasting in their warming tower ever since. L’Aigle’s menu reads like the excellent Petit Recueil de la Gastronomie Alsacienne (Editions S.A.E.P.). Matelote brings together assorted freshwater fish in a sauce of fumet, cream, and mushrooms. Pot-au-feu always begins with a bowl of bouillon, except in Alsace, where it begins with marrow quenelles in a bowl of bouillon. When I remarked on the clearness of the broth, Madame Hellmann said, “Well, it had better be, monsieur. It had better be!” L’Aigle also observes regional pot-au-feu distinctions by serving it with individual carrot, cucumber, celeriac, and beet salads. These are in addition to the root vegetables from the pot, and yet somehow the salads seem so necessary (unlike the sautéed potatoes).
Le Clou, Strasbourg
According to Marie Sengel, the charismatic owner here and a born gatekeeper, winstube are an exclusive club with few members: Le Clou, Le Sarment d’Or in Riquewihr, Wistub Brenner in Colmar, Caveau Morakopf in Niedermorschwihr, A l’Aigle d’Or in Osthouse, Burestubel in Pfulgriesheim—and that’s it. (Strasbourg’s Zuem Strissel, she says, is a fake.) While the list is short, ignoring what most French food professionals consider to be the facts, you can’t dismiss it. Sengel is a practicing authority, and her view, like the Illwald, establishes a yardstick, use it or not. I’ve never seen Le Clou not crowded. On a soggy winter day the smell of Muenster melting over an entrecôte mingles with the steamy, doggy exhalations of boiled-wool jackets. Tables are shared, which most Americans are really not comfortable with, so you just hope for the best. The walls are hung with Hansi village scenes and the marquetry landscapes the Spindlers of Boersch have been chiseling since 1893. No matter how many times I have the winstub staple salade strasbourgeoise I still find the idea of combining Gruyère; cervelas, a sausage with the texture and color of mortadella; and oniony vinaigrette delicious but weird. When I’m in Strasbourg on a day when I know one of my meals is going to be choucroute, I make the other one this salad and a plate of marrow bones and don’t feel too deprived. Other dishes from the winstub canon include escargots à l’alsacienne (with bouillon spooned into the shells, in addition to the standard parsley-garlic-shallot butter); and high-and-fluffy cheesecake, taken with a glass of kirsch.
Chez Yvonne (“S’Burjerstuewel”), Strasbourg
This winstub was founded in 1873, but it was Yvonne Haller who, running the place from 1954 to 2001, gave it institution status as “the Lipp of Strasbourg” (the reference is to the famously snooty Paris brasserie). Haller treated the winstub like her living room, padding around in carpet slippers, acting cozy with the artists and politicians she liked, and icy to everyone else. Some now say that the food wasn’t all that great, that you went for the personnage. That is not my memory, and Haller wasn’t even nice to me. I’m sure she earned the 1990 reviews I gave her salade strasbourgeoise and a dessert the kitchen still produces, prunes poached in Pinot Noir. It would have made no sense for restaurateur Jean-Louis de Valmigère, Chez Yvonne’s new owner, to keep the name but change the look—the look, after the name, was what he paid for. It’s all still there, down to the last stork engraving. The banquettes are as cruelly padless as ever. The food is another story. Inserted into the menu are all sorts of irresistible things that are as alien to winstube as hamburgers, like a tartare of scallops and vegetables. Chez Yvonne is still basically what it was under its matriarch, but Valmigère is a businessman (he owns the disputed Zuem Strissel plus a Strasbourg taqueria, a stain he seems to have survived), and he wants it both ways: winstub + “modern bistro.” The regional dishes have nothing to apologize for. Slices of stuffed goose neck—a mixture of ground meats, pistachios, and foie gras sewn into the bird’s neck skin—are served on a block of lentils. Smoked brisket draws on the microcuisine of the Alsatian Jews. There’s something cavemanish, in a good way, about the pork shank braised in beer and orange bitters, its gelatinous sleeve of fat shrunk back like a fallen sock. Hold the sautéed potatoes.
La Stub, Obernai
La stub is part of the large Le Parc hotel complex in the semi-countryside a 10-minute walk from the center of Obernai. If you linger in one medieval town in the region, Obernai should be it. Others on the Route du Vin claim to be prettier, but nobody takes them too seriously (unless the town is Riquewihr). The appearance of storks traditionally signals spring in Alsace; in Obernai they make their nests atop the neo-Gothic church of Saints Pierre et Paul. With 62 rooms, two pools, and a spa, Le Parc enshrines a certain idea of taste and comfort you may have to be French, middle-class, and from someplace other than Paris to appreciate. Still, it’s not a hardship to spend the night here. Rooms decorated in an Alsatian idiom, i.e., with a lot of wood, have more atmosphere than those done in a “contemporary” style. Having established a serious restaurant, La Table, at Le Parc, owner Marc Wucher opened a winstub the way fancy chefs in other parts of France open bistros. He did a magicianly job creating it from scratch, filling it with paneling salvaged from a church, Betschdorf steins, and a kachelofen below regulation rails for drying tea towels. La stub specializes in heart-attack food, but what a way to go. Every winstub does a whole brick of breaded-and-deep-fried Muenster; judging this treatment too tame, chef Jacky Schweighoeffer coats it instead with grated potatoes and onions bound with egg. “Deep-fried” isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of tête de veau, but Schweighoeffer finds a way, enfolding it in brik pastry. A boat-size meringue glacée comes with enough ice cream for an eight-year-old’s birthday party. The too-muchness makes sense when you learn that Schweighoeffer is also the chef at La Table. Somersaults aside, he dresses a marbly terrine of foie gras and pork cheeks with Melfor vinaigrette, and you have to like him for it. Produced in Alsace, Melfor is a distilled beetroot vinegar infused with plants and softened with honey.
Le Marronnier, Stutzheim
If you knew in advance that Le Marronnier had 500 seats you’d never go. But forget everything you’ve suffered in French restaurants that accept groups and, when staying in Strasbourg (at Le Chut, l’hôtel du moment), book a cab and cover the 6 1/2 miles to Stutzheim. Built as a farmhouse in 1748, Le Marronnier was re-created as a winstub in 1990 by the Friederich family, who removed the plaster masking the beautiful half-timbered façade and transformed the courtyard into a shady spot for savoring pork-liver quenelles. Among the warren of dining rooms, La Salle Bleue is in a newer addition, but it’s at least as adorable as the older spaces, with a massive stepped kachelofen, an integrated bench following the oven’s zigzagging contours, and a quantity of embroidered samplers. Le Marronnier is not always besieged by groups; there were none the night I was there, only what looked like local families. They come for the flammekueche, which is also known as tarte flambée, which tourists insist on calling Alsatian pizza, which irritates the Alsatians to death. What it is is a round of rolled-out bread dough topped with smoked lardons, thinly sliced onion (both uncooked), and crème fraîche. Three things to look for in a flammekueche are blackened edges; just a scraping of cream; and very little onion. By these measures Le Marronnier’s is perfect. Purists reject variations with cheese, and you can see why: when flammekueche loses its innocence, it loses its allure. Venison with chestnuts and grand veneur, the old-school large-game sauce, is more to the point, especially since it’s served with nubs of pasta: the winstub workhorse spaetzle.
Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.
Getting There & Around
There are direct flights to Strasbourg International Airport on Air France from Amsterdam, London, and Paris, among other cities. From there, rent a car to best explore the region. Plot your route and find more information on the Alsatian Wine Route at vinsalsace.com.
Where to Eat
14 Rue de Gerstheim, Osthouse; 33-3/88-98-06-82; dinner for two $42.
Le Schnellenbuhl, Sélestat; 33-3/88-85-35-40; dinner for two $75.
10 Rue du Sanglier, Strasbourg; 33-3/88-32-84-15; dinner for two $75.
Le Parc, 169 Rte. d’Ottrott, Obernai; 33-3/88-95-50-08; dinner for two $90.
3 Rue du Chaudron, Strasbourg; 33-3/88-32-11-67; dinner for two $76.
18 Rte. de Saverne, Stutzheim; 33-3/88-69-84-30; dinner for two $78.
1 Rue Turenne, Colmar; 33-3/89-41-42-33; dinner for two $63.
Where to Stay
Great Value 10 Rue de Château, Osthouse; 33-3/90-29-92-50; hotelalaferme.com; doubles from $114.
Great Value Place des Six Montagnes Noires, Colmar; 33-3/89-41-60-32; hotel-le-marechal.com; doubles from $177.
Great Value Le Schnellenbuhl, Sélestat; 33-3/90-56-11-40; illwald.fr; doubles from $91.
Great Value 4 Rue du Bain aux Plantes, Strasbourg; 33-3/88-32-05-06; hote-strasbourg.fr; doubles from $120.
Great Value 169 Rte. d’Ottrott, Obernai; 33-3/88-95-50-08; hotel-du-parc.com; doubles from $177.