Arnsbourg is in a fairly remote part of Alsace, an hour or two’s drive from just about anywhere you are likely to be. The scenery is very pretty, with a nearby forest and river. The building itself now has some rooms attached (very useful as there are no really convenient hotels nearby), on the opposite side of the road from the dining room. As you enter there is a large lounge area, and the dining room has two conservatory areas built out with views over the woods. On a sunny day the view is very pretty indeed.
The dining room has a mauve carpet rather than a wooden floor, so noise levels are low. Tables are large and generously spaced, with white linen tablecloths carefully ironed on each table. On this sunny September day the dining room became uncomfortably warm in the conservatory section, which was a pity. The building that houses the restaurant was originally a home for forestry workers, but became a restaurant in the 1980s, gaining its first Michelin star in 1989.
Chef Jean Georges Klein was unusual in being a front-of-house manager at his family restaurant before moving to run the kitchen relatively late in life (aged 40), taking over from his mother and guiding it to three Michelin star level in 2002. The cooking style is decidedly modern. The main tasting menu, which we tried, was EUR 160, with a smaller menu at EUR 135, in addition to the a la carte. There is apparently a cheaper lunch menu available on weekdays.
A series of nibbles arrived as we looked at the menu. The first set was tomato, basil oil and mozzarella mousse, with a dried tomato served on a spoon. It was paired with a nibble of sheep milk, a mini sandwich with liver flavour, and rice toast with shellfish (8/10).
The 21 page wine list started at €45 (Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2004, which sells for €17 in the shops) and climbed rapidly in price, with mark-up levels that variable and far from kind in places. The excellent Vega Sicilia Alion 1999 was a little matter of €280 for a wine you can buy in a shop for €51, more than five times the retail price, one of the worst mark-up levels I spotted on the list. Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2000 was €120 for a wine you can pick up for €40, Leflaive Pucelles 2004 was €270 for a wine you can buy for €150 in the shops, while Leflaive Batard-Montrachet 1999 was €580 compared to a retail price of €291. The Winesearcher database lists the average price of Hermitage la Chapelle Jaboulet Aine 1990 at €492, but it was listed here at €3,600; perhaps this was a typo on the list, but I fear it was not. Water was a ludicrous €14 a bottle. We drank Leflaive at €75, a relative bargain for a wine that retails at around €25.
Yoghurt croustillant was nicely caramelised and was lovely (9/10). Yellow pepper cornet was served alongside green pepper sorbet and yoghurt cream, with verbena oil and herring tartare. The pepper cornet was nice but I did not think the green pepper nibble flavours combined very well, though at least the verbena taste was mercifully subtle (6/10).
Much better was an initial course of sardine, black olive, couscous, red pepper with goat cheese ribbon and fresh vinegar, with three different cress as garnish. The mix of textures worked well here (9/10). Lemon and Pisco sour sorbet was very refreshing (9/10).
Next was langoustine carpaccio, with peach and raspberry flavours in different textures: dried crunchy fruits on top of the carpaccio, and also some herbs with a lemon flavour, with the fruits as mousse on the side also. One problem was that the dish was served really cold, so much so that the flavour of the langoustine was rather lost, though the flavour combinations worked better than they sound (7/10).
Bread, initially a choice of white or cereal, was served warm and had very good texture but was not dazzling (8/10).
Sea bass was precisely cooked and served with Paris mushrooms and a bouillon of angelica oil and salty lemon; this was probably the best dish of the meal; perhaps not coincidentally it was one of the simplest dishes (9/10). Beer bread and baguette appeared at this stage.
The enigmatically named "Up and down. Earth and sea" dish was served in a bowl covered with a plate of prettily presented vegetables and herbs that were surprisingly lacking in flavour. After this was eaten the plate was removed to reveal the other part of the dish underneath in the bowl: blue lobster with seaweed from Japan, and an emulsion of paella. Unfortunately the innovation of having the dish in two stages meant that the hot part of the dish, the lobster, is left to congeal while the diner is busy consuming the salad, which is a really odd idea. Surely it would be better to serve the salad on the side so that the lobster stays hot and fresh (6/10 is a kind mark).
Napolitan “spaghetti” was actually just tomatoes in agar shaped into a spaghetti shape; this was hardly an innovation as El Bulli had done this many years ago. The texture itself was not that great, though the Parmesan mousse was nice. However was this really as good as a real plate of high quality pasta? No. This tells you that in this case the kitchen has opted for showing off a cooking technique over the actual taste experience (5/10).
Rabbit ballotine was served with maize, the rabbit itself stuffed with rabbit kidney, garlic puree and served on a sherry gelee with olive oil. The gelee was rather glutinous in texture, though its flavour was good, and rabbit itself had good flavour (8/10).
Cappuccino of black truffle and potatoes is a signature dish of the restaurant, but although enjoyable and with good truffle flavour was marred by significant over-salting, too much even for my taste. This was a pity as the person we went with, who had eaten this dish on multiple occasions, said that it was usually better executed than this (8/10 at most today).
Cheese these days is from Bernard Antony, and so is of very high quality.
Dessert comprised a wild strawberry gelee with a few strawberry slices, pine sorbet, fig sorbet and Sambuca emulsion. This worked quite well, the strawberry flavour itself excellent (8/10). A tuile of ceps with green tea and a dried grapefruit tuile was a misconceived idea in my view. Pineapple with meringue and ginger nice was nice, while a concoction of peanuts and mango tasted just weird. A herb jelly hardly rescued things. Although technically fine, some of these flavours were really not that pleasant (6/10 is a charitable score).
Service was extremely good throughout, though I did not really need my breadcrumbs swept up after every course, messy eater though I am. However the dishes arrived at a steady pace, topping up was excellent and our waiter was particularly good. The bill came to €208 per person, with one bottle of wine between three and mineral water at a ridiculous price of €14 per bottle, a new record in my experience, at least at the time of writing. I don’t mind paying a premium for sophisticated cooking, but a bottle of water at much more than 10 times its retail price rankles. Overall I felt that this meal hung together less well than my previous experience. Some flavour combinations seemed odd, while in a couple of cases theatre or technique seemed to be showcased at the expense of the flavour of the dish, which cannot be right.
The notes below are from a meal in June 2002, just after its third star.
This was elevated to three stars in March 2002, and it should be noted that it is a slightly tricky place to get to. It is about 70km north-west of Strasburg 4km from a tiny village called Baerenthal. The restaurant had no rooms when I came here, but has added some rooms since. Alternatively you can stay in a simple 2 star place called the hotel Kirchbourg in the village, which at least avoids a lengthy drive.
The restaurant has an attractive rural setting, the modern dining room looking out over fields and woods. The chef here is definitely interested in pushing the boundaries of cuisine, with bold use of flavour combinations that will not suit everybody. However while much of this type of thing seems gratuitous, here it mostly works: some of the flavour experiments come off well, and there is a faultlessly high level of technical execution. However if you want a classic traditional 3 star meal then this would not be the place to come.
Amuse-bouche are numerous: a simple oyster in a little meat stock, a Parmesan biscuit, some very delicate beetroot with caviar, an anchovy with chopped celery and carrot and a surprising but effective dish of cold pigeon soup. Perhaps 8/10 overall for the amuse-bouche. We went for a tasting menu, which indeed almost everyone seemed to follow. First we had cold lobster and tomato, the lobster delicate and the tomato having great flavour, a counter-flavour being a caramelised onion (10/10).
Next was a very fine red mullet, beautifully cooked, with a little oil of basil (10/10). Next was a roast watermelon topped with a layer of tomato and herbs. As before, the tomato was great, but was this really an idea that worked? I remain unconvinced (7/10) Better was foie gras with lemon oil, an interesting idea since the lemon oil cuts through the richness of the liver – again the ingredients were of the highest quality (10/10). Stella had superb potato pieces topped with black truffle (9/10).
Next we had cappuccino of peas, the peas being rather oddly flavoured with almonds, the soup topped with a little chocolate. This is where I part company from the bold approach, as here these flavours just are not harmonious (5/10). A far better idea was pigeon breast in fine reduction with wasabi mustard. The mustard was used sparingly and added an excellent taste dimension to the classic pigeon, which was served with little turned root vegetables (celeriac, beetroot, carrot and apple). This was unusual (I have seen this tried with veal and wasabe at Tetsuya in Sydney) and yet worked well, with the flavours working together rather than clashing.
Cheese was superb, and interestingly went off the beaten track. I tried an excellent Livarot from Normandy, a Tomme du Larzac from Auvergne, a Brin Armour from Corsica and a Tamie made with Trappiste beer from Savoie (10/10). There was an array of desserts then brought. Most memorable was a gossamer-like tuile with wild strawberries and almond mousse, a banana sponge, a lemon jelly, a fruit crumble, melon balls in jelly, fudge with nuts, passion fruit jelly and a menthol tuile. These were skilled, even if some of the combinations were rather bracing. A strawberry tart with pistachio waffle was followed by coffee with excellent truffles and nougat. Overall clearly 10/10 and a fine 3 star.