Looking at the restaurant from across the Ill, not much has changed here during the past decades. The river runs past it, allowing guests to take their aperitif on the lovely terrace, and serving as a bucolic backdrop for the meal. The old Alsatian house has been lovingly restored, rather than drastically changed. Only once you step inside will you see that this is not a restaurant that has stood still in time.
Entirely re-designed by talented designer Patrick Jouin, the dining room feels airy, modern, and is underpinned by an almost camouflage-like pattern that runs through the soft furnishings. Instead of dated, rural chic, this is the sort of dining room that could easily be found in a large city.
Whilst the restaurant has managed to retain its traditional charm on outside, and has a decidedly modern interior, the food served by Marc Haeberlin and his team is both classical and contemporary. In a restaurant with such a rich tradition he is almost forced to keep a few of his ancestors’ classics on the menu, but does not shy away from serving his very own dishes
Among the classics, simple preparations like the goose liver terrine show that good quality produce, paired with solid technique can give a lot of pleasure even decades after the recipe has been devised. Somewhat more original (at the time at least), and still very satisfying is the frog leg mousseline created by Paul Haeberlin. Served with a Riesling sauce, this is classical French cooking unlike any that you will see elsewhere these days. It is creamy, rich, soft, and full of flavour. These are dishes that feel old-fashioned, but at the same time have a peculiar, almost poignant charm to them. They still are among the Auberge’s very best dishes, and make you think back to the days were a meal in a 3* had more substance to it, and did not simply consist of a few leaves and grains.
A bridge between the great classics, and contemporary creations is the pigeon ‘cotelette’ with foie gras and truffles. A pigeon breast is layered with truffles, and foie gras, before being wrapped in a way that resembles a chop, explaining the name. This is a dish that brings very strong flavours together, but does so without ever becoming too rich. Served with a hearty jus, it is deservedly gradually joining the aforementioned dishes on the list of the great classics of the house.
Whilst the Auberge de l’Ill seems to have managed to stay up-to-date remarkably well in many ways, there is an aspect of the cuisine that is less convincing. Some of the more recently created dishes have a tendency to be less coherent in taste, perhaps due to a desire to make an idea work on the plate. One such dish is a lobster salad with brunoise of vegetables, and a sesame tuile. Served with basil emulsion, the result is a dish that is served too cold, and dominated by sweetness. This might look pretty, but has nothing to do with the glorious dishes, this kitchen is capable of producing.
For a restaurant this old, the Auberge de l’Ill is remarkably youthful. The classics are still delicious decades after having been created, the room has been given a face-lift, and the Haeberlin’s run one of the best classical restaurants in France. Given its legendary reputation, and historical relevance there is no excuse not to eat here at least once.