Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Strasbourg I

15 August

After leaving Lausanne, I had a brief stopover in Basel and then a short train ride to Strasbourg.  The train station in Strasbourg is unlike any other I saw in France.  The elaborate stone facade has been covered in a huge round glass and steel bubble.

From the train station I took a bus to my hostel, CIARUS - it was the best hostel I stayed in during my whole trip.  There were elevators.  The room I stayed in had four beds (as usual, for most of the hostels I stayed in) but none of them were bunk beds, and the room was about 3x larger than the typical room I stayed in.  The room included a shower and a toilet and not one but two sinks.  On the sink there were shrink-wrapped plastic cups and bars of soap and hand-towels - none of which were offered at any other hostel.  At the free breakfast each morning, in addition to the standard tartines they also offered croissants.  Hello, luxury!

After dropping off my luggage at the hostel (thank goodness for the elevators - my room was on the 4th floor!), I headed out to explore the city a little.  The center of Strasbourg is surrounded by canals.  The bridges to cross over the canals are beautiful:

Look at that!  It's only mid-August, but we're beginning to get some autumn colors along the canals!

The heart of Strasbourg is the cathedral.  The architecture here is so different from what I had seen in Provence and Lyon.  Gone are the beige stucco buildings with red tile roofs - here, the stone of choice for important buildings was a beautiful pink sandstone from the Vosges.  The Cathedral was a perfect example of this stone:

As is typical of Gothic cathedrals, there were sculptures of Saints and important biblical figures surrounding the portals; however, I don't think I've ever seen so much personality in sculptures like these:

Adoration of the Magi at Portail St-Laurent
I stepped inside the cathedral just as Sunday evening mass was ending.  I'm not sure if there was a special celebration that night, but following the service the main portal was opened, and everyone - church officials and attendees alike - filed out of the cathedral two by two and walked slowly around it to the right.  The procession was interspersed with a number of groups of four men carrying sculptures on wooden platforms.  I wish I knew what was going on!

I did a little more exploring and crossed a few more canals before deciding to head to dinner.

I chose to eat at Chez Yvonne, a winstub: a traditional Alsatian restaurant.  Literally, it translates as "wine room," they are homey restaurants serving traditional Alsatian food.

Don't tell him, but I kind of have a crush on my Hansi dinner companion
There are many very traditional winstub elements on this table.  The heavy wooden chairs are typical throughout Alsace - though these, carved to depict kitschy figures, were more decorated than most I saw.  The grey pitcher with blue decoration is the typical style used throughout the region - note, too, the small jar of mustard on the right side of the table in the same style.  The wine glass is very traditionally Alsatian, too, with its green stem and short, fat, tulip-shaped bowl.

Alsace is an important wine region in France that grows seven main varieties of grapes.  Unlike in the rest of France, where wines are named after their regions (such as a Saint-Emilion or a Médoc from Bordeaux), in Alsace, wines are named by their cépage, or grape varietal, as they often are in the rest of the world.  Perhaps the best-known Alsatian wine is Riesling, which is what I drank with this dinner.  The riesling had a nice floral nose and a pleasing minerality to the taste, with a nice, crisp acidity.  Very nice.
The guidebook of French cuisine that I had with me claimed that Alsace was the region where the food was the "most 'foreign'" in all of France, given its similarities to nearby German cuisine.  Given how greatly French cuisine varies from region to region, I'm not sure I would agree with this assessment; who is to say Alsatian baeckeoffe (a marinated baked dish of vegetables and meats) is any more foreign than axoa (a traditional Basque dish of ground beef flavored with piment d'esplette, a mild hot pepper) or kouign amann (a traditional Breton pastry sweetened with honey)?  In any case, Alsace is also a hotspot for one of the most prized components of French cuisine, foie gras d'oie:

Foie gras literally means "fat liver," while d'oie means "of a goose."  The birds are force-fed to fatten their livers to make this delicacy - that may not sound like a great endorsement, but foie gras is absolutely delicious stuff.  At Chez Yvonne, the foie gras was prepared in-house and was served on a stone platter with a fig compote, a drizzle of excellent balsamic vinegar and one of honey, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and hot, crusty toasted bread.  The foie itself has a lovely, smoky, velvety flavor and perfect smooth and creamy texture.  The sweeter, fruity accompaniments are an excellent balance to the richness of the foie, while the salt and pepper add a little spicy piquancy, and the bread adds a perfect, satisfying crunch to the bite.  Délicieux!

For my plat principal, I chose the coq au Riesling:

While coq au vin (literally, rooster in wine) is a common French dish, traditionally prepared with an old tough rooster that is slow-cooked in wine to tenderize the scant meat, in Alsace the dish is typically prepared with Riesling.  In this case, the dish was served with one breast, one leg, and one wing, all with the skin still on.  The chicken was served with mushrooms in a pale yellow creamy sauce.  The chicken was super tender, falling off the bones on my fork, though it seemed a little dry.  The sauce had a nice bright acidity that paired perfectly with the Riesling I drank, picking up many of the same notes but more mellow after cooking.  The mushrooms really soaked up the flavors of the sauce.

The coq au Riesling came with spätzle:

Spätzle (sometimes spelled spaetzle in English) are egg noodles found in Alsace as well as in Germany, Austria, German Switzerland, and Hungary.  While they are typically cooked in boiling water just like regular noodles, these had also been browned in the oven or on a stove top with a little oil, giving them a satisfying crisp edge surrounding a tender chewy bite.  They were eggy and a little salty with a nice tanginess - very tasty, and definitely the best part of the main course.

After all this, I was a little too full for dessert, so I chose to stick with just a déca:

When you ask for a déca, it's like ordering a decaf in the US, only because we're in France, it comes in espresso form, of course.  This one was mellow and smooth - a perfect finish to the meal.  Note the typical Alsatian Hansi figures dancing along the bottom of the cup.  Note too the small square of dark chocolate - I passed the window of a Weiss chocolate shop earlier in the day as I was walking around Strasbourg.  The chocolate was not too bitter, with fruity and woody notes - superbe.

Overall, it was a very nice meal, though I was not blown away by the coq au Riesling - perhaps I should have chosen a more adventurous plat!  But I had plenty of other opportunities to order more Alsatian fare to make up for that.

After dinner, I headed back to the hostel.  After being seriously behind on my sleep after the weekend in Switzerland I was pretty exhausted, and I fell asleep around 9 pm!

Coming soon: additional Alsatian adventures abounding in amazing architecture, awesome artistic apparatuses, and attractive ancestral attire.

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

I would eat coq au reisling and spaetzle..............