Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace dates back to 1950, gaining a Michelin star in 1952, a second in 1957 and the ultimate third star in 1967. The Haeberlin family have maintained this level ever since, with the original chef Paul Haeberlin handing over to his son Marc in 1976. The riverside setting here is surely one of the most beautiful of any restaurant in the world, the running water framed by mature weeping willow trees. There are ample outside tables where you begin your meal with drinks and nibbles. You then migrate to the dining room and can return to the riverside for coffee and petit fours. There was a tasting menu at €188 (£166), but we went a la carte, and they kindly allowed some half portions so we could construct our own tasting menu.
The wine list was, naturally, mostly French, and featured labels such as Kuehn Kaefferkopf Riesling 2012 at €50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €32, Trimbach Cuvée Frederic Emile 2009 at €120 compared to its retail price of €65, and Domaine de la Pousse d’Or En Cailleret Clos du 60 Ouvrees Volnay 2010 at €175 for a wine that will set you back €99 in a shop. Naturally there are posher options for those with the means. Higher up the list was a relative steal in the form of Coche Dury Puligny Montrachet Les Enseigneres 2013 at €530, whose retail price is now €710, whereas Guigal La Mouline 1983 was €1,450 relative to its current market price of €1,094.
The meal began with some nibbles. Choux pastry was filled with Munster cheese and cumin; although I have hardly met a gougere that I disliked, this was not the very best I have had in terms of texture. A little pie of foie gras was better, and best of all was a roll of salmon and horseradish cream with a little purslane (average 18/20 nibbles). Bread was from a baker in nearby Colmar, and though perfectly good it was really no more than quite good. What was puzzling was that the following morning I had croissants made in the kitchen here, and they were spectacular. Given this, I am baffled as to why they don't make their own bread, as I am sure they could improve on this. The final amuse bouche was deeply flavourful oxtail with courgette and a hint of spice, unusual in France and reminiscent of a Vietnamese dish (18/20).
The star dish was the first one from the menu, one of the Haeberlin family classics. Salmon soufflé came with a block of puff pastry and a concasse (roughly chopped) of tomato with a Riesling sauce. This was fabulous, the flavour of the salmon superb, the puff pastry spectacular, the tomato intensely flavoured and the wine sauce being of the glorious standard that you might hope for from a top French kitchen. This dish was even better than I remember it from a prior visit (20/20).
Next was calf sweetbread with morels and asparagus, a classic combination. This was also lovely, the texture of the sweetbread lovely, the morels having great flavour, the white asparagus excellent. My dining companion remarked that the only thing wrong with this dish was that it had the misfortune to follow the perfect salmon soufflé (19/20 comfortably).
Bresse chicken laced with black truffles came with sauce Albufera, a classic sauce that dates back to Marie-Antoine Careme in the early 19th century, who created it in honour of a Napoleonic general Suchet, who was named a duke of Albufera after a victory in Spain during the Peninsular war. The sauce is based on a veloute, to which is added foie gras butter and Armagnac. Bresse chicken is of course very famous, but I have found that it varies considerably in standard. This one was exceptional, the truffles adding their characteristic earthy aroma, the sauce superb. On the side was a little bowl of risotto of black truffle made with chicken stock, which was also glorious. There was even a second serving of the chicken, the bird returning in the form of a pie, with truffles. Heaven, simply heaven (20/20).
We tried one more savoury dish, another old classic. In this case a whole black truffle is encased in pastry and cooked with goose liver and Perigord truffle sauce. The sauce was fabulous but the casing for the truffle seemed to me a bit undercooked, though the truffle itself was of high quality (18/20).
For dessert I had crepes flambeed and cooked with cherries. I remember this dish from many years ago, the quality of the cherries being the key. Here, right in season, they were superb, and although this is quite a simple dish it was superb (between 19/20 and 20/20). Mignardise comprised a delicate strawberry macaron, caramel and almond tuile, pineapple and passion fruit tart, chocolate tart and cherry marshmallow, all excellent (19/20).
The bill was of impressive dimensions, but this was because we conducted a lengthy excursion into the upper reaches of the wine list. That Coche Dury 2005? Reader, we drank it, along with some Batard Montrachet Gagnard Delagrange 2011 (at just €360 compared to its retail price of €486), Leoville las Cases 1994 and, well, some other wine too; it was a long evening. The food element of the bill was €268 each, but the total bill came to €973 (£851) each. If you instead ordered a sensible amount of food and shared a modest bottle of wine then your bill per person with coffee, water and service might come to €230 (£201) all in. Service was superb all evening, the staff attentive and charming.
Auberge de l’Ill is the complete package: a truly glorious setting, superb classical cooking and a wine list that is not unkindly priced and with a few bargains tucked away. If they just tweaked the bread and the nibbles then it would be even closer to perfection than it already is.