Stuart Walton checks out the restaurant scene in Colmar.
The medieval town of Colmar in France’s Alsace is quite a gem. The cobbled streets of the old part of town are lined with the kinds of beamed buildings where you half-expect to come across aproned craftspeople still hand-carving wooden toys. In 884 AD, Charles the Fat came here for a Diet, as well he might have, except that it was the parliamentary kind, rather than anything to do with the weight reduction regimen he so clearly sorely needed.
These days, the town is much more about boutique hotels and luxury goods. There are delicatessen windows piled high with tins of foie gras, but it is still possible to sit within a cork’s throw of the canal (Colmar is one of around three thousand northern European towns with a district laying claim to the title of Little Venice, or rather Petite Venise), and drink a glass of Crmant while you decide what you’d like to eat.
Colmar’s two best culinary shots are not very far from each other, and represent what one might conceive as the twin poles of the modern French approach to upmarket dining.
Rendez-Vous de Chasse is the restaurant of the Grand Hotel Bristol, which sits majestically opposite the little railway station with its Toytown clock tower. It is an elegant dining-room in the grand style, all deep green velour and varnished wood pillars, and the kind of exquisitely formal service that persuades you it means business (in the most amiable manner possible, of course).
In Michaela Peters, the restaurant has a beguilingly confident chef – ‘une femme,’ pointed out the vineyard proprietor with whom I was dining, with that mixture of bemusement and twinkle that says at once ‘Whatever next?’ and ‘Go girl!’ The confidence is evident from the moment the first nibbles appear. A prawn beignet, a sliver of zander en escabche and creamed carrot served in the ubiquitous shot-glass were all spot-on.
I liked the gentle simplicity of a pasta dish that piled girolles and spring-fresh peas on an open raviolo, saucing it with a creamed cuisson made from the stock the main elements had been cooked in. Arctic char wouldn’t normally feature near the top of my list of Most Favoured Fish but, cooked on a plancha and adorned with a bouquet of seasonal vegetables, its firm-fleshed succulence was powerfully convincing. Alongside it, almost extraneously, sat a couple of tempura-battered frog legs with a rather clunky sour cream and chive dip. A Bernhard & Reibel Rittersberg Riesling 2004 ably matched the freshness of the fish.
An anatomised pigeon formed the centrepiece of the main course, the breast meat cubed and skewered on a brochette, the leg served separately (with its clawed foot still attached), the whole offset with some flavourful braised lettuce and slices of beautifully rendered caramelised lemon. The sweetcorn galette that completed the assemblage didn’t quite work for me, being rather dry and underseasoned, but this was one of those dishes overall that did enormous favours to a gentle, and ultimately rather simple, Pinot Noir.
Dessert was a properly made pannacotta, served with pain de gnes (like a lump of genoise sponge) and an intensely flavoured and vividly coloured red fruit sorbet, an appealingly light way to finish.
JY’s, on the other hand, is a breathlessly modern venue in the Petite Venise district, a veritable fun palace of culinary experimentation that ticks off all the reference points, from the glassed-in, ground-floor kitchen where you can watch the boys at work while you sit at the bar with a Crmant, to the chef who bears such an uncanny resemblance to a ginger-hued Gordon Ramsay that he has grown into the role with gusto, touring the tables towards the end of the evening, dispensing expletives of encouragement to the clientele.
This will be JY then, Jean-Yves Schillinger, the big noise in culinary Colmar. He told us he had recently visited Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in London’s Grosvenor Square, and had caused an initial gratifying flurry of alarm among the staff. ‘Eeek, it’s the boss! Oh hang on, no it isn’t.’
Dinner began, classically enough, with two slices of immaculate terrine de foie gras, one adorned with apple and ginger chutney, the other with a blob of caramelised fig run through the centre of it and a scattering of crushed popcorn alongside it. The international trend for elevating the junk-food of childhood into the haute cuisine context runs strong here too, and – to my mind – quite as tiresomely.
Monkfish tail of forthright flavour and precision timing followed, accompanied by delicately constructed green tea gnocchi, the whole sitting in a white foam bath of smoked milk. This worked well, and was especially well served by an accompanying glass of a richly mature 2001 Pinot Gris from Hugel.
The main course was a surprisingly restrained rendition of selle d’agneau with a marsala sauce, like something from a notably upmarket trattoria. JY is shrewd enough to know that a certain customer base will appreciate a level of experimentation in peripheral dishes, but rather like to be reassured at main-course stage, and the meat dishes in particular avoid undue startlement.
I passed on the blue candyfloss sticks, and indeed the petits fours of marshmallows in three colours (raspberry, mint and banana), having long since abandoned my tenth birthday to the mists of memory, but in between the juvenilia was a pretty impressive dessert of verveine parfait with a sorbet of strawberry and basil.
Rendez-Vous de Chasse, Grand Htel Bristol, 7 place de la Gare (tel: 3 89 23 15 86)
JY’s, 17 rue de la Poissonnerie (tel: 3 89 21 53 60).
Stuart Walton is a long-serving food and wine writer, a contributor to the Good Food Guide, and author of The Right Food with the Right Wine.