Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

IWFS Kuala Lumpur Visit to Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace September 2016 - Day Seven

Heading to the bridge and (not) our boat
Friday, 30th September 2016

I have little memory of the Columbier Hotel room or of getting everything down and on the bus. Some vague recollection of a forgettable breakfast at the hotel, with all the Pilgrims being directed into a separate area to eat. I seem to recall quite spartan offerings at the trough, with somewhat underfresh bread and cake. Perhaps I am confusing the hotels. Anyhow, all the bags got loaded and on the bus and we were off for what was the last day of our tour in Strasbourg. The grey overcast start to the day pretty much stayed all the way through the morning though thankfully the threat of rain stayed off.  After a pretty nondescript drive, we rolled into Strasbourg where Napoleon again silently dumped us at the roadside alongside a river. Dear Leader had scheduled a boat ride planned for the morning, the boarding for which was on the other side of the river. So off our Pilgrim Crocodile trotted to a bridge that would get us to the dockside ticket office and some seats. 

Almost at the bridge - our lepak waiting area
With over a million people across the city and Metropolitan area, Strasbourg is both the capital and largest city of the Grand Est region of France. Wikipedia says that various European institutions are located here, including the Council of Europe (with its European Court of Human Rights) and the Eurocorps, the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman of the European Union. Strasbourg is also the seat of the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine and the International Institute of Human Rights.

Strasbourg just reeks with history, with buildings dating back centuries still standing. In 1988, UNESCO declared the city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island)  a World Heritage site, which Wikipedia notes is the first time such an honour had been placed on an entire city centre. Although much disputed territorially between France and Germany, Strasbourg has remained a cultural bridge between the two nations thanks in large part to the University of Strasbourg and the sense of religious tolerance the city sought to maintain by encouraging the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture and now Muslim culture (the Strasbourg Grand Mosque was inaugurated by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls on 27 September 2012). Initial impressions of the town were that it is quaint and pretty but grey and faded, as if its best days were in the past. Notwithstanding it being home to the European Parliament, all the buildings looked Gothic and Medieval and felt aged and in need of a spruce up. 

David checking for opening time?
Most of the Pilgrims looked in need of a pee so we hurried in search of les toilettes. En route, I have memory of David crossing the road to look at the menu of a Chinese Restaurant located there. I guess he might have been checking opening times. My experience of the Malaysian Chinese on Europe tours is that, whilst thoroughly enjoying all of the food and wines, there is a hankering for a decent bowl of rice or noodles ("fur" it is sometimes called) that kicks in after about three or four days in country. Many in the West have a similar thing for potatoes and bread - all the fancy food somehow doesn't fully satisfy and we need something that sticks in the craw. More on this later.

Heading to the boat
Once across the bridge, the Pilgrims lurked for a few minutes before being advised by Dear Leader that there were about twenty minutes before the boat could be boarded. Lenglui and I found a coffee bar just across the way and shared an espresso which was our price for using the bar's bathroom. As I reached the washroom I saw one of our Pilgrims swiftly and furtively nipping out through the back door having clearly used the facilities without buying the usually expected coffee. Made me feel stupid for having bought the coffee when I could have done the same - bugger. Wonder how said Pilgrim found out about the free pee? Whatever, the coffee was excellent as was the packet of free ginger biscuits and created a nice shared memory with Lenglui of coffee in Strasbourg. There was a market happening in the streets so I sat at the table and watched the world whilst Lenglui had a quick bout of, literally, market research. Don't remember it being fruitful on this occasion.

The new European Parliament...
We tootled back to the Ticket Office where most of the other Pilgrims had gathered and Dear Leader gave us the starting gun to move the Pilgrim herd down to the riverside for boarding. The boats (well, more like oversized barges) were long and blue perspex glass covered affairs with about thirty rows of about six seats on each side of a narrow aisle. We got sat near the waterside edge and fiddled with earpieces we got given at the gangplank to try to find the English audio voice recording that would accompany the tour. The boat filled up quite quickly which I found a bit surprising - I somehow did not expect such a trip to be so popular. There were locals, tourists, people with suitcases and backpacks - and mostly European. On a working day some more. There you go. 

and the Old. The inside of either I will unlikely see...
The boat let slip its moorings and we motored into the middle of the water. Strasbourg sits on the River L'Ill and according to the map the old town centre is islanded by the Foss Du Faux Rempart. All of the main historical sights are quite viewable from the boat, though the perspex windows made decent photographs a bit difficult. I took a few en route but was not pleased with the results. Was also not pleased with the audio recording. Initially unable to find the British version, I had settled on what sounded Australian. Presumably in an effort to make our Antipodean cousins feel at home, the voice tone was that of a Bushwhacking Tucker man just back from a kangaroo hunt, me old cobber. Ingratiatingly false and hugely patronising in language, I put up with it for a while, but when he started talking about composers like "Bark" and "Moe-zaaart" I had to pull the plug. Well, pull the earplug. A little more fiddling and I found a young Mancunian Brit who was a lot more informative but who after a while also became irritating. There's only so much of a chirpy North Yorkshire voice that one can take under a grey Strasbourg sky. Well, this one anyway.

Pilgrims getting directed by Monsieur Sanjeev. Oui.
The perspex covering made for rainproofing but it did get a bit stuffy after a while, with little in the way of air circulation through the boat. But the river tour was a very good way to get a sense of the city and its history. Was also a good way to see young Strasbourgians (Strasbuggers? Surely not...) sharing lunch and what looked like migrant refugees camping out under the bridges with cardboard and duvets to keep out the winter chill. Some of them waved to us. I don't remember seeing anyone wave back. There but for the Grace of God...

Bread and beer. O my lordy...
We went up as far as both the old and the new EU Parliament buildings before returning to our embarkation point. The commentary said the New had cost billions of Euro, which raised a question as to "why" and "who had voted for it?" I think I heard that the Old is being earmarked as a museum of something or other. Wonderful. As we passed and U-turned our way back I couldn't help thinking that I would probably never see the inside of them. Brexit would surely see to that - the EU is naturally going to give the UK a dam hard time for electing to leave pour encourager les autres. Which kind of made me feel sad. However people vote, Britain is a part of Europe both geographically, historically and politically. For all of that to get torn up by 4% of the electorate I find darn hard to stomach and leaves me feeling that the UK is now long term economically screwed. Not that Europe is guaranteed a future, but I feel is better to seek reform from the inside than be a single little hammer trying to break down a fortress wall from the outside. Especially with an economically resurgent Russia on the far side of the fortress. Time will tell.  

But all of these thoughts had disappeared once someone had found the short walking route through the town to lunch. This was at a place called L’Ancienne Douane. Small from the outside, the place proved to be internally huge with a warren of rooms both up and down a set of stairs. There were many other groups having lunch at the same time as us, and for the kitchen and staff to be able to cater to all of us with the swiftness that they did was amazing. The logistics alone would tax the best of organisers. 

The Meat Platter. Felt like a homecoming...
We got sat down at two tables. Dear Leader had billed this one as "Casual a la carte lunch at a historic eaterie founded in 1401. Many Alsatian classics." I guess he had given up on using the word "light". But O what a wonderful lunch it would prove to be. Remember I mentioned about some Westerners hankering after solid food? Well, I am one of them. Don't get me wrong - the food had been magnificent. But it had been food for the eyes and belly - I was ready for something for the soul. And L'Ancienne Douane would supply some in spades. The menu whispered of Sausages, Potatoes and Ham and other strange and wonderful sounding dishes. And litres of beer. We ordered various plates of simple delights and shared across the table. It was totally memorable for its wonderful simplicity in contrast to all of the excellent food we had had to date. This was great beer and meat and bread, simply prepared and presented and all the more welcome for it. I was so very happy for the option not to drink wine for a change. As said, excellent swift service from an entertaining football fan of a waiter who wished my home nation Wales all good fortune in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. 

Crisp raw salad
A brief walk around the place found an outside verandah section overlooking the river and with fantastic views of the city. Shame we could not have sat there, but it was a bit cool and there were probably too many of us to accommodate. I stole a couple of packets which I thought were books of matches but which turned out to be books of toothpicks. Would happily come back here for the beer and sausages and this time sit by the river. Great, great memory.

Restaurant A L'Ancienne Douane Strasbourg
6, rue de la Douane
03 88 15 78 78

At the table in L'Ancienne Douane

Pilgrimettes at the Sofitel
We all clambered back on the bus for a ten minute drive before getting dropped off at the Sofitel Hotel. Supposedly Five Star elegance in the heart of the city, I must say I didn't quite get it. Highly modern reception with lots of colours and high windows looking out onto some garden, and not much real character left in the place. On finding that there was a stairwell to get to our room, Lenglui opted to change rooms to one on a floor that was flat. This took thirty minutes to effect. The resulting room was modern with TV and bath. The downside of lunch was that I was totally stuffed and pretty much beyond any decent exercise. So I opted to stay in the room to pack and sleep ahead of a large night and a long day to follow. Feeling pretty bloated, a walk would definitely have been good. But the packing did need doing and I do like to do it at my own pace rather than madly stuffing everything in the case at the last minute at an ungodly early hour with a hangover. Lenglui went for a walk. And a shop. Of course.

Entrance to Le Buerhiesel
Within an hour I had packed most of the non essential stuff into my Orange Mandarina Duck (more pale tangerine after all the battering it has received at the various airports but still eminently serviceable), leaving out a toothbrush for the morrow. Sadly, the belly had refused to de-bloat sufficiently to warrant a stroll, so I took a shower and a nap ahead of the dinner. The room was modern dark with the curtains drawn and one of the blackest I have ever slept in - total isolation booth with the curtains drawn. Had to keep the TV on to keep a latch on reality. 

I was pretty much dressed for dinner by the time Lenglui returned. She reported that the town centre was very pretty and with some good shops. So it goes. Sorry Strasbourg - maybe next time. If there is one. 

The Pilgrims slowly started to gather for dinner in the reception ahead of our final transport with Napoleon. It seemed he would not be bringing us back to the Hotel from dinner and we would need to get taxis.  I seem to recall a slightly subdued mood on the bus, though this was probably more me feeling resignation at another impending bloatfest when the previous one was still coursing through the system. It was a pretty sunset that had turned almost dark by the time we got to our destination. This was the Restaurant Buerehiesel, a one Star Michelin, and billed as "arguably the best restaurant in Strasbourg in a beautiful setting in a park." Napoleon dropped us off at the Park entrance and as said this was the end of our time together. As I walked to the bus door, I half stopped to say "Bon Chance mon Brave" but he was busy counting money with his back to everyone as we all got off. Pretty much summed up this relationship. Bye bye Napoleon, thanks for not crashing the bus with us on board… 

"Garcon, ou est le booze.... please?"
A gentle walk along a park path led to the restaurant. As said, dusk was quickly turning to dark, which made for a somewhat eerie darkling stroll. It somehow felt that there could be Vampires abroad, in the shapes of all the young Frenchies out for an evening run or bike ride, all getting ready to bite Pilgrim necks and drink Pilgrim blood. Though with the levels of booze coursing through our veins they would have got alcoholic poisoning. The lack of decent lighting did twitch the antenna a bit as suggesting a perfect spot for a mugging, so the watchdog in me kept an eye out. Unnecessarily as it would happily turn out - we all got there safely and arranged ourselves on the stairs up to the place for some group photos before piling in.  Maybe the Vampires went after Napoleon...

Ambience and setting at Le Buerehiesel
The Michelin One Star "Le Buerehiesel" (which translates to "Farm House" in Alsacienne) was actually a working farm dating back to 1607 and which was transported brick by brick to the Parc de l'Orangerie for an international exhibition in 1895. Viviane and Antoine Westermann bought the property in 1970 for it to become Antoine's first restaurant. The Michelin Guide give him his first star in 1975, a second in 1983,  and the third star in 1994, at 48 years old. He left the Le Buerehiesel kitchen for pastures new in 2007, though the family connection remains with the kitchen now being helmed by son Eric.

Orchid ambience
"Over the years, Westermann has revisited the Alsatian culinary tradition in his own way, and many emblematic dishes have emerged, becoming part of his three-star repertoire: “Truffle Foie Gras Crusted Pâté”, “Young Hen in a Baekeoffe”, “Frog's Legs with Schniederspaetle”, “Beer Brioche”, “Young Fatted Hen Terrine with Fennel & Foie Gras”. Naturally curious, his first love outside of Alsace would be the cuisine of Southwestern France. Some have said he is the most Mediterranean of the Alsatian chefs. As early as 1994, he would be listed among the five top chefs in France, along with Alain Ducasse, Bernard L'oiseau and Michel Bras. His preferred cuisine is generous, festive and elegant." (wikipedia)

Dinner was in yet another delightful room and split into two tables. Water and fizz came swiftly, as did a tray of pleasant sweet and savoury nibbles to get things underway. This was quickly followed by a delightful Amuse of what tasted and felt like Rollmop Herring with lemon vinaigrette and dill, all in a sourish yet sweet oil. It put me in mind of Copenhagen for some reason, kind of raw fishy rollmops of seafood freshly caught from the seas. The salty combo was a perfect foil for the wonderfully restrained yet excellently bubbled Cremant by Rieffel. It had great balance with enough acidity to scorch and tease the cheeks yet not so that it would burn the throat. It also nicely stimulated the salivatories enough to make one want to hawk like a Chinaman contractor. But it did need the cold - the fizz got a bit flabby when it warmed. Outside of this, lovely finish, and a lovely drop. 

Doc Rajan and Stephanie
Next out was the Blue Lobster with Roast Potatoes (Homard Bleu Roti). Blue here means "very rare" as the flesh is supposed to remain a shade blue. The yellowish sauce in which our almost live Lobby was paddling tasted of Cumin and so imparted a pleasant spiced Kurma curry hit to the thing. This hint of Indian cuisine followed through, given the addition of some sweet apple which somehow lent a Mango Chutney note. The carrots were brilliant - sweet and softly crunchy and full of firm taste. But what really set the whole thing off was apparently some radish - somehow it brought the apple and lobster and all the goo into some perfect vegetal sweet salty bite and set the pleasure buzzers in the brain to overload. No words - my notes say "Fantastic - radish (?) + lobster + goo to finish was genius.  GENIUS." Though I think perhaps the second "genius" was more to make the first one legible. My scrawl can get indecipherable after some booze. But it was a well tasty dish. Naturally, I slopped up the Carrot and Kurma gunge with the bread and butter which was wicked good. The butter and carbo add suck and oil and the resulting crusty chew was absolute wow…  should create a new word for it - how about "imamu"? It is kind of the opposite of umami - sweet butter salty crunch with bisque-y fire and oil. What say?

Aperitif nibbles
The plates were cleared and there seemed a bit of time before the next made it to the table. Which somehow got me reflecting on the quality of the water being served. It struck me that we often take it so much for granted that our drinking water at the food table is potable. And we think little of it beyond the fact that it is there, and it is ordinary and not much more than a swilling agent to clear the tongue. Yet the night's offerings were definitely characterful. We had Evian still and (I think) Badoil sparkling and both were very good. Nicely neutral but enough minerality and body to cheer and cleanse. Somehow on the night, it seemed to make a difference. 

Amuse Bouche
Next out were Frog's Legs served with packets of Ravioli (which contained Onion, according to one recipe on the web) and served with the sweet honey bomb that was the Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris (I think this was the one Lenglui and I bought at the Domaine during our visit a couple of days previously). The Legs were all upright and somewhat akimbo, and put me in mind of some inverted Dead Frog Can Can. They were drizzled with what felt like a light ragout style sauce and naturally tasted like tender nibbles of oily chicken well supported by the sauce and the perfect ravioli. I have no note nor memory of the onion - so it goes.

Blue Lobster - sounds like the name of a band...?
The Pinot Gris was a darn good choice to pair, its sweet acidity cutting the sauce and melding together into a rich, sweet, tenderly chewy…  ahhhhhhh in the mouth. Double double yum. 

The Dead Frog Can Can - all together now: "laaaaaa, la la la la laaa laaa...."
Dear Leader had perused the wine carte and decided that there was enough budget to splurge. So Wine Three would be an icon - a Meursault from the Coche Dury operation. I had vaguely heard of the label and understood it to be serious and hugely sought after. Which is why we love to join Dear Leader on these food and wine adventures - as a result of his extensive knowledge of taste and value we get to try wines and visit restaurants that would otherwise be beyond… well, my imagination certainly.  

Liquid Brickfields - the Coche Dury Meursault
What I did not expect was that it would smell and taste of curry leaves. It was like liquid Brickfields, all muruku and murtabak and Deepavali (NB Brickfields is the Little India District in Kuala Lumpur). It apparently cost Euro180, though at home would easily sell above RM1500. Got a crisp acidity with an excellent mouthfeel, of aged lemon and nectarines. Also that sense of power and grace and elegance which somehow lets you know you are in the presence of greatness. Great great wine. 

It was being paired with another one of St Peter's fish fillets in Tandoori style with some Portuguese clams. The fish felt a bit understated tastewise, though texturally it was perfectly poached. The amount of spice was enough to taste and not overwhelm. In contrast, the mussels and clams were hugely fresh and so full of taste, cutely underscored by a hit of mustard. I decided to pass on consuming the whole serving, given that we would be travelling on the morrow and one bad clam can put the whole journey in intestinal jeopardy. Shame - it was darn tasty. 

The Tandoori naturally intensified the Brickfields aspect of the wine which felt pleasantly odd - totally new sensation. Could almost hear sitars playing…    Chef should come to Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps he already has...

St Pierre fillet
David started a game of Golden Moments, inviting all the Pilgrims to share their favourite memories of the Pilgrimage with everyone. Most of it revolved around food or wine memories but there was universal agreement that the attitude which everyone showed toward the misbooking of the Colmar hotel was outstanding. Difficult to disagree here.

The room was getting a bit stuffy so the staff opened a window to let the chill night air breeze through which was delightful. 

Our next wine was a Beaujolais in respect of which the Marcel Lapierre is apparent royalty and we were having the flagship wine. My knowledge of Beaujolais is minimal - not a wine style I seem to have enjoyed, preferring more beef rather than the light strawberry I recall from the stuff I have tasted in the past. This one drank like a Burg - nice length, good acidity and firm cherries. But perhaps fresher and friskier with a lightness in the alcohol level that was refreshing after the Coche Dury. Lovely, friendly wine - I am now a fan.

It was being paired with Sweetbread and worked extremely well, the acidity cutting the crisp, oily slightly spiced gunky bite of the meat. Bit like the fish maw beloved of the Chinese banquet only with heat, it also reminded me of a deep fried Scotch Egg but without the egg - that peppered and crispy breaded sausage meat taste. Today's offering was not quite to my taste, but those in the know about this delicacy marveled at the taste and tenderness of the thing. I have had it on previous occasions, and I remember something a bit more crispy and less oily. There you go. 

Someone not in the know wondered whether Sweetbread was from the thyroid or the pancreas or the brain? Our waiter advised it was from the throat of a baby cow. So now we knew. Yes.

There was a fifth wine that Dear Leader had selected to pair with the lamb - a 2010 Grand Cru Clos de la Roche from Domaine Armand Rousseau. I half recall buying up some Rousseau following the legendary Vinum Sale when they shut up their Sri Hartamas outlet some years back and we got it for 60% or something, and when the Ringgit was worth….  something. Those wines were excellent and the 2010 we were having here was a darling. Feminine, light, clean and fragrant, elegant and total class.

Lamb Cutlet. Total yum
The lamb itself was tiny - one thin cutlet and looking like it had come from something barely new born. It also looked pretty rare and lonely in amongst the forest of vegetables and jus that seemed to swarm the plate. Notwithstanding, it was wonderfully tender and paired magnificently with the tomato and jus. There were also some potato in a samosa style crispy packet which gave some mushy crunch to give an ensemble taste that was massive rich bistro. Total, total wow. 

Service throughout was excellent. Some last minute menu changes to cater to for individual gastro intolerances were handled swiftly and well. And water, wine and food service and plates removal were equally efficient. 

The wines
Again, no notes on the dessert but it looks pretty in the photo. There was some Coche Dury left in the glass. Time in the glass seemed to have intensified the curry leaf aspect and there was more oil on the mouth. We shall have to try one at Deepavali with the Muruku and a Curry Puff. Yes. 

The evening (and indeed the trip) was winding down so President David took the opportunity to present Dear Leader with a Mont Blanc pen that had been procured following a whip round of the Pilgrims to raise the cash in recognition for his sterling work in putting the entire tour together.  And quite right too. 

David (left) clearly sad the trip is over with Dear Leader clearly feeling the opposite
And that was pretty much that. We got the restaurant staff to order us six taxis. Naturally, only five showed up and we got a promise that "zee ozzer one ees coming, Oui monsieur, yoo plizz wait zere, yes?" Took ten minutes shivering in the now cold and rain laden air for the boy to come, and a leisurely ten minute drive back through the Strasbourg streets to the hotel. Phoooooooo… Belly busted. Again. Crawled into bed to the sound of Sitars. Om.

Lenglui and me - cheers!
Menu Degustation

Mise en Bouche

Homard Bleu Roti
boulgour et fruits,
vinaigrette a l'orange et au ras-el-hanout

cuisses poêlées au cerfeuil et schniederspaetle

Saint Pierre de Petit Bateau
au tandoori, mouselline de coco de Paimpol,
mariniere de coquillages

Ris de Veau Rhonalpin
pomme croustillante, jeu de chou pointu, jeunes carottes de Marthe et petites girolles

Agneau de Bareges
roti et confit, zaalouka, courgette de truffe d'ete
sauce vierge aux olives

chocolat et framboises acidulées
framboises fraiches et en sorbet

Cremant d'Alsace Rieffel NV
Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg 2010
Meursault Coche Dury 2013
Marcel Lapierre Beaujolais 2011
Domaine Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 2010

Restaurant Buerehiesel
1, parc de l'Orangerie
67000 Strasbourg
03 88 45 56 65

Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday

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