STRASBOURG – We left London on Eurostar and traveled via the Channel tunnel, also known as the Chunnel, to Paris. But instead of jumping immediately into the City of Light, we hopped from the Gare du Nord to the nearby Gare de l’Est and boarded a train to this city, the capital of the Grand Est region, once known as Alsace.
Because of its proximity to Germany, Strasbourg, over the centuries, has been claimed by both countries from time to time. Because of that, there are French and German influences in language, culture and, of course, cuisine. (Strasbourg today is firmly under the French flag but is also the formal seat of the European Parliament.)
Over the two nights that we stayed, we had two wonderful yet different dining experiences.
On the first evening we were directed to a small maman et papa operation called La Cuiller à Pot, or the Pot Spoon. Here, the mom and pop are Grégory and Pauline Reich – he is the chef and she runs, no, commands the dining room. It’s clear the two care very much about the quality of the food and the manner in which it is served.
The menu is succinct, and by the time we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation, several of our first choices were no longer available. Pauline suggested there was still plenty of filet de cheval left, but I wasn’t in a mood to have horse.
Instead, Rick selected the filet of veal and I chose the squid with vegetables and risotto.
My starter course was little puffy fritters of crab served on a salad with red and yellow tomatoes. The fritters were light and ethereal and the crispy crust gave way to a creamy, crabby interior.
Rick had the terrine en croute, a house pate of foie gras, wonderfully fatty, enwrapped in a delicious pastry.
The entrecote de veau was a beautifully grilled piece of meat and sat atop various asparagus (asparagus is currently in season and is just about on every menu in town), with fried potatoes and a deeply moody reduction sauce.
My calamari featured large rings, almost steaks, that were incredibly tender. They were accompanied by roasted potatoes and tomatoes and topped with crispy potato gaufrettes.
The food was unexpectedly good, and the graciousness of the hosts and staff made the experience even more enjoyable.
The surroundings at Cuiller were spartan and not at all atmospheric.
Our meal the next night, at La Maison des Tanneurs, initially looked as if it would be all atmosphere. We approached it reserved that we were about to have a tourist experience. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Though it did not start out well. We were shown to our table on the second floor (or the first floor by European standards; the ground floor is zero) where a large party of approximately 36 people dominated the room; we were seated next to what was essentially the kids’ table. Non, non, non, I told the host, and he frettedly moved us to another table, though we were still in the room with the birthday party group. C’est la vie.
The host brought us two flutes of sparkling wine as a concessionary apology and we were served a couple of shot glasses of gazpacho for an amuse bouche.
Here I ordered the escargot, shown at top, a full dozen of the slugs served in the shell with loads of garlicky butter. I grasped each shell with the special tongs (which look sort of like eyelash curlers) and used the tiny fork to coax the meat out. Delicious, every one.
We also had the house duck foie gras, a smooth and rich pate.
Here, the Alsatian specialty of choucroute was a must. I chose the house version that came with a haystack of sauerkraut surrounded by various meats and sausages, gloriously, and somewhat incongruously, served under a silver cloche. The meats were accompanied by yellow mustard and fresh horseradish, both with sinus-clearly capabilities. At one point I could see that all of the ingredients covered a design on the plate. But no matter how much I kept eating, I realized I would never see the empty plate.
Rick had the duck breast, tender and full flavored, served with a lovely reduction sauce.
For dessert – good god, we ordered dessert! – we had baba au rhum, which was breadier than most (it even seemed to have a crust) but was so soaked in rum and accompanied by a mountain of whipped cream that it didn’t matter.
Service couldn’t have been better. The party was still going when we left, but we left quite happy.