Wednesday, 18th September/Thursday, 19th September 2019 – Restaurant a l’Echevin, Colmar
As part of the deal at the Hostellerie Le Maréchal we had two night’s dinners included (not three, no matter what the young man on reception when we checked in insisted) and although you never know what you might get when it comes to hotel restaurants, in what is clearly paradise for gourmets, Alsace and the restaurant A l’Échevin did not let us down. The first night we drank a glass of local crémant in the bar first, alongside a snack of some rather wonderful pastry straws that were as light as you could wish, which suggested that at least their pastry chef was up to speed.
We then moved into the restaurant and were pleased to be shown to our table (Table 2 apparently) in the long, narrow dining room that overlooked the waters of La Lauch and the barques moored outside. We were slightly less pleased with the acoustics that meant we could hear every word issuing from the irritating couple on the table behind ours (Table 1) but that’s not the hotel’s fault! We were on a set menu with matching wines as part of the deal that the hotel had offered so the decision making process had been largely taken away from us. Now to see if the rest of the brigade could cook as well as the pastry chef. An amuse-bouche of a foie gras paté and an apricot sorbet suggested the answer to that question might well prove to be “yes”.
The menu itself started with what was listed as “Presskopf” of smoked haddock and smoked trout, basically the chef’s take on a regional speciality, brawn, but with fish and not the more usual meat. It was light, delicate, the jelly perfectly set and the herbs just providing a lift of flavour to counteract the oily fish. There were tiny chunks of vegetable alongside the chunks of trout and haddock and it not only looked lovely, it was lovely.
Fillet of pike-perch cooked in Riesling, with mangetout turned out to be a perfectly executed piece of fish, the skin crisp and golden, sitting on top of a bed of mangetout, with a puddle of creamy Riesling inflected sauce. Throw in the odd micro-herb and enjoy! It was also a perfect excuse to rip off a piece of the brilliant bread roll and dunk it in the leftover sauce afterwards. The kitchen was having none of that back!
With both the fish dishes we drank a 2018 Alsace Pinot Blanc from Pierre Henri Ginglinger. The wine comes from a blend of Pinot Auxerrois from different parcels, harvested by hand and fermented over several months before being aged on fine lees. It’s a bright yellow in color, with white-fleshed fruit aromas, and peach notes. We liked it enough to make a note of it and to consider whether we needed to visit the Ginglinger domaine. While we pondered that question, the meat course arrived, a serving of leg of deer with cranberries, cross-border pasta specialty spaetzlés (as the French appear to spell it) and fromage blanc. The meat was cooked to perfection, as were the vegetables and to add a fillip to what might have seemed quite a restrained plate, there was also a “pastilla” full of slow cooked meat to enjoy alongside the pink cooked flesh that we’d been expecting. It was all beautifully executed and we knew we’d made a good choice to eat in the hotel.
A serving of perfectly kept Munster cheese from a local farm came next and was just the thing to help us finish off the red wine, a 2017 Alsace Pinot Noir “Les Princes Abbés” from Domaines Schlumberger, one of the big wine names in these parts. The wine itself is made of a blend of Pinot Noir (80% from the limestone Bollenberg plot and 20% from the marl-limestone Saering plot). Vinification occurs during a maceration period of two weeks and it is then matured in traditional tuns for 10 months. What you get is a wine that is cherry red with purple reflections, and an aroma of red fruit scents (blackcurrant, cherry) and a hint of rose. Redcurrant, blackberry, vineyard peach as it opens out and slight woodiness also come through. It was served at what we might consider a low temperature for red but to get the most out of these wines 16°C is what you’re looking for. It was smooth against the punchiness of the cheese and the combination was really rather wonderful. The spoonful of cumin seeds served alongside the cheese were an interesting – and welcome – touch too.
We finished off with a gourmandise du pâtissier which took the form of a gloriously gooey plum and raspberry confection, on a biscuit base that couldn’t be faulted, the ice cream all creamy and rich and the sorbet sharp and cleansing on the palate. It was looking good for our second night, and we went to bed happy after finishing our dessert wine (and cheering when the annoying pair behind us had cleared the room and gone to their own beds). It made the wine taste even better, which, as it was a 2017 Gewürztraminer Tradition – Gold Medal wine from Bott Frères was quite a smart trick. The wine is brilliant and crystal-clear in shades of light green and has a youthful, fresh and flowery (rose and acacia) aroma, added to an exotic taste of pineapple and oriental spices characteristic of Gewürztraminer. Perfect with dessert and on its own, as we went on to prove!
On the second night we wandered out for an aperitif, ending up drinking a glass of wine by the waterside at La Krutenau, for the simple reason that it was the first bar we came across that had waterside views and an empty table. It was another lovely evening so we were quite content to be outside a while longer.
On our return we decided it was getting a little too cold to stay out for a second aperitif so we took to the room just off the hotel’s courtyard for a second glass of wine and some more of their fabulous pastry straws, before swinging indoors to see what was on offer on the tasting menu. As ever they started us of with a delicate little amuse-bouche before things got serious. We’d deliberately avoided anything after the charcuterie plate at Joseph Cattin’s for the remainder of the day because we reckoned we’d be best arriving hungry. We didn’t even do the flammkuechen as aperitif nibbles thing because that seemed unwise. This time they started us with a cheesy mousse and a tiny tomato gazpacho, which was refreshing and sharp.
And then it was into the serious wine and food. The starter was a terrine of duck foie gras with figs and a fruit chutney. It was smooth and rich and fabulous and it probably didn’t need the toasted brioche with it (though I have to say we both caved and ate part of it). Given we also had more of their fantastic bread as well it was overkill, but gloriously so. With it we moved from the crémant to a far more suitable wine, a 2017 Pinot Gris from Maison Martin Jund, who are now entirely biodynamic in their practices. This wine is described as “expressive and tender, from the very beginning, a fruity wine if there is one”. The resulting wine is a golden yellow with metallic reflections, and the aroma is of ripe yellow fruits (pear, peach). It’s perfectly sweet and an ideal match for foie gras.
The second course was a crayfish casserole, tiny and packed with pieces of sweet-fleshed, juicy, tender crayfish tails, dotted with chives and swimming in a creamy sauce. I loved it (and the little Staub cocottes it was served in, which are from a brand that started in Alsace, and that cost an absolute fortune). I pondered the possibility of getting out of there with one hidden in my handbag! the sheer weight of it put me off the idea, if Lynne had not also vetoed it. We already had a fabric heart that was in our room as a present from the hotel when we arrived. That would be far easier to carry… I settled for mopping up the sauce with the bread roll and we sat and waited to see what else we would be fed.
The second fish dish was a piece of nicely filleted halibut, in a saffron sauce. Saffron is tricky stuff – overdo it and you have a sauce that is bitter and deeply unpleasant. Get it right and you have something golden and warm. They got it right and the fish was also perfect, white and flaking and moist, sitting on a small pile of fresh carrots and a pool of pale golden sauce. Both this and the crayfish came with a 2016 Grand Cru Froehn Riesling from Jean Becker. This wine is made from grapes grown on limestone and sandstone at 270 to 300m on soil consisting of dark gray schistose marls, with fine white limestone beds as well as carbonate and ferruginous nodules. The wine resulting wine is floral and fruity, combining richness, finesse and breadth regardless of varietal and there is a fine and strong acidity that becomes salinity and minerality with aging. Am excellent choice once again. Someone really knows their wine and food matches, and they want you to have the best Alsace can offer
The interlude was a palate cleansing lime and apple sorbet which really woke the tastebuds up and prepared us for a meaty main course and a change of wine.
This came in the shape of a pink-cooked beef fillet, with a fine selection of small organic vegetables including a smooth as silk potato puree, some pickled radish and onions (tiny, sweet, giving a lift to the meat), courgettes, carrots, fine beans and broccoli. The meat could probably have been cut with a spoon, it was so tender and perfectly cooked. There is a sure hand at work in the kitchen, in the shape of the head chef, Thierry Chefdeville, who has been here for two decades, producing a very harmonious menu where each dish could stand along but equally fits together. I would happily eat there again, and that was before we made it all the way through the menu.
The wine served with the beef was a 2017 Alsace Pinot Noir from Pierre Henri Ginglinger. This is made from a blend of Pinot Noir from different plots, harvested by hand, then de-stemmed and allowed to macerate for 15 days. It is then moved to old wooden casks for malolactic fermentation. What you get as a result has a beautiful purple hue, and a nose that is very fruity with notes of cassis and cherries. It’s light, fresh and pleasant with a little tannin and is best served chilled down to between 12 and 14ºC. It also went very well with the assortment of three cheeses which included a relatively young Comté which always makes me happy. But then, Comté always makes me happy, a fact that can probably be confirmed by the bloke at Borough Market who sells it to me and to le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons!
Pré-dessert was chocolate in a number of forms, including ice cream, and would have been a dessert in its own right (and certainly more than sufficient), especially with meringue as well, and I could have happily stopped there.
I was glad I didn’t stop there though. The pineapple and lemon cappuccino mojito-style might not have been desperately photogenic but it was desperately good, with a hit of alcohol and sharp pineapple, underneath a light, foaming lemon cream.
We ended the night full of food and nursing the dreaded food baby (twins I think), more than satisfied with our two dinners in a fine restaurant. We did get stuck with a second table full of irritating fellow diners again though, who were first minded to be annoyed by the service, which they felt was too slow (OK, it’s not quick but you’re there for an evening out so I’d prefer not to be rushed), and who then talked utter nonsense all night, strong in so many incorrect opinions (the Italians didn’t have any colonies or any colonial “adventures” – tell that to the Libyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalians – and the Germans don’t make cheese being just two of them). So if you do go try and get Table 1 so there won’t be anyone behind you!