Nestled in the Vosges mountains of the Lorraine just outside the tiny village of Baerenthal is the three-star L’Arnsbourg; this is the site of the best meal we have ever eaten. After the sashimi and sushi experiences in New York left us in paroxysms of pleasure, this really restored our confidence in classical European cooking and demonstrated that the limits of pleasure are yet to be defined or reached.The restaurant itself is in an extensively converted farmhouse. On entering you walk over a glass floor offering views of the wine cellar below. The dining room itself is in a modern extension, a large, light and open space. As we dined we could see mist gathering in the valley in which the restaurant sits; I half expected pixies to come out and start dancing. On arrival we were swiftly ushered to our table by staff that all seemed to speak perfect English and were given the menus and wine list promptly. This resulted in the restaurant having a very relaxing atmosphere.
Since we had travelled so far for what is thought of as the second best restaurant in France we naturally ordered the tasting menu. Eleven courses which all sounded interesting. A picture of the menu is below:
At the time I (David) was having a bit of a problem with wheat, I told them this and they breezily said this would not be a problem. It turned out to be quite good for me.We ordered half a bottle of Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune 1996, a bottle of Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg L’Inedit 2000 from Domaine Weinbach and a bottle of Volnay Premier Cru Champans 1999 from Marquis d’Angerville. We would be drinking well, at least. The wine list was extensive but not exhaustingly large. It was a bit pricey, but there were a few bargain offerings for those who do not want to drink so well. The meal started off with innumerable amuses-bouches. I particularly enjoyed a ‘nougat’ of foie gras that was given to me as I couldn’t eat one of the wheat based offerings Daniel had. All the amuses-bouches were very compelling and really excited us about the prospect of a good meal.The first course was simple incredible in terms of quality and extremely well presented. We had rectangular plates on which there was a rectangle of very thin sheets of raw veal. On top of this were scattered tiny cubes of feta and granny smith apples. This was then dressed with a light truffle scented honey. It almost seemed a shame to disrupt the plate, but it was well worth it. It tasted fantastic.The poached langoustine that followed was also extremely elegantly presented; this was a recurring theme in the meal. It was warm, but almost raw. It had a superb texture and had a mouth-coating flavour that was very rich and unctuous. These first two courses were simply brilliant and so our excitement for the rest of the meal was palpable. An extra course was thrown in at this stage, and we were incredibly happy that it was. It was an oyster. Since this was served in the mountains rather than by the sea one might have been worried, but it was quite lovely. The oyster water had been replaced by a rich stock, whilst the water itself had been whipped into what is termed ‘an air’. This could have been contrived and clumsy, but here it somehow managed to have both the most perfect oyster flavour and texture combined with considerable richness. Words can’t do this justice, we both loved it.We then had some grilled foie gras that was cooked perfectly: the outside had a slightly firm crust and the inside was meltingly soft. Red mullet followed with a tomato-sorbet affair that really complimented the flavours of the fish. The accompanying tapenade was of the first quality, too.We then diverged slightly from each other. My wheat problem was dealt with very well, as whilst Daniel had his truffley semolina pudding I had a bowl of one of the famous house specialities, a foam of potato soup topped with a layer of summer truffles. Potato soup may not sound terribly interesting, but it was bursting with flavour and was incredibly decadent. Daniel looked quite envious.A palate-cleansing savoury caipirinha with a wonderful texture came next, before we had our pigeon. The pigeon cooked with incredible skill. It was tender and very flavoursome. It went very well with the Volnay. The puréed Ratte potatoes with it were very good.You might think, at this stage, that we’d be getting tired of all of this food. Not so. The portions were perfectly judged in size and the pace of the meal was very carefully judged; we were not rushed nor did we find ourselves waiting overly long at any point. The cappuccino de petits pois was a subtle affair, but the taste of peas and olive oil were very distinct and complemented each other very well.I fancied some cheese that this stage to assist with finishing off the red wine. Bernard Antony, their affineur (cheese maturing expert), is clearly an incredibly skilled man. I have never eaten Comte as good as that served. All of the other cheeses were in top condition, including a Morbier as exceptional as that cheese can be.After numerous pre-desserts, the main dessert course was a cherry soup and ice-cream affair, which seemed nice enough. The cherries were very good.
Having cleaned up the petits-fours and chocolates, we retired to their lounge and ended up discussing food with a visiting owner of a Dutch one-star. We felt we had done extremely well that night and celebrated with a big glass of rum each from their excellent spirits list. I also had a huge cigar.
Whilst we were sitting waiting for our taxi, getting increasingly jolly, we noticed a toddler who had been exceptionally well behaved in the restaurant, having a nappy change. The Maître d’ seemed perfectly happy to spirit away a used nappy. This sums up the standard of service; friendly, keen to satisfy, yet unobtrusive.Jean-Georges and Cathy Klein clearly have a winner on their hands. It is a shame it is a bit inaccessible, but they will be opening an associated hotel shortly so it will be easier to stay over after dining. It was a faultless meal in wonderful surroundings: we shall return.
David and Daniel.