Sharing your life with a caviste in France means that it is highly likely you will frequent restaurants and be surrounded by gourmets. With fine wines goes fine foods. And I happen to be particularly lucky as my caviste has a serious palate as demanding, as mine, and will go to great length to appeal to them both. And so for my birthday, I was swept away to the Vosges Mountains of Alsace and treated to a meal at l’arnsbourg, a three star restaurant.
There are a lot of restaurants in France (3,531), and quite a few of them have one Michelin star (449), fewer have two (73), and a grand total of 26 have three Michelin stars. It doesn’t get higher than that. And while these sorts of rankings can be controversial they can also be a guide as to the quality of the experience. My deduction is that one star means the food is great, two stars means that the food (either meat or fish are the speciality) and service are great, three stars means that any and all food is fantastic (meat, fish AND dessert) and the service is the total theatre experience.
Full disclosure: I’m a total sucker for the theatre of French dining since this sort of service is non-existent in North America. My caviste has an issue with most of the dramatic touches by the sommeliers (don’t get him started on the ‘seasoning of the carafe twirl’) in these sorts of establishments but I find the ritual of this sort of attention very chic.
L’arsnbourg is tucked away in a narrow valley near the small town of Baerenthal. Just driving there makes the trip worth it as the landscape is breathtaking. Inside, the main dining room is heavy with exposed pine and minimal with impeccably clean white linens. The main room has a three-sided bay-window that looks onto the forest with complimentary lighting outside that lights up the evening view.
Cathy Klein and her staff exhibit service that is beyond organized, with the precision of Swiss watch making and a complete lexicon of subtle body language and silent understanding. The waiters speak French, English, German, and some speak Japanese as well as a gamut of other languages. When one walks into the dining room, the service takes note of your appearance but the only way you know is because it seems like the wheels of a discrete machine have just begun turning. Flawlessly the menus materialize, before one gets to ask the question regarding the wine list the sommelier is at attention, and once the meal is ordered, the only word that comes to mind is flow.
Jean-Georges Klein’s skill can’t really be described as anything other than pure. This autodidact has an understanding of what ingredients should taste like as well as a keen sense of observation. Numerous dishes in the 10-course tasting menu incorporated flavours typically dis-associated but that were in perfect harmony – foie gras and cocoa. Others were dishes that showcased the versatility of simple fresh foods – the liquor that comes from freshly cut tomato slices aromatized mozzarella gnocchi set below in two-tiered a colander plate. We traveled a lot during this 3 hour meal that was accompanied by a fine Alsatian wine for the most part and a glass of a Rhône beauty for the Wagyu beef (9th degree) course. And as ephemeral and wonderful was this meal, so was this menu as it changes according to the seasonal offering.
As pretentious as it may seem, having a three-star Michelin restaurant experience is one that I would highly recommend at least once in a lifetime. Some people spend on great theatre tickets but in a restaurant of this sort is a fine substitute as the artistry, the quality of the actors, and the sensation of satisfaction are very similar. It will be an evening spent where all senses, including gustatory, will be appeased and tantalized. And if one really wanted to go all out, I suggest staying at the Hotel K across the road, recently opened as a compliment to the restaurant and very worthy of its Relais & Chateaux status. Not to mention that having breakfast on your private terrace is fabulously indulgent...
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