I must admit, for me, L’Arnsbourg is a special place. Memories from absolutely stunning meals (I still remember the roasted foie gras with Wakamé tee and lemon structures from 2007), a beautiful interior in a quite remote almost enchanted location and a warm-hearted special, almost family-like service. But, in 2008 I (and several other frequent visitors) had the impression that Jean-Georges Klein did struggle and couldn’t live up to his previous performance. The always delightful blue lobster showed up in rather mediocre quailty and the whole menu dramaturgy (one of the key points in Klein’s cuisine) wasn’t that convincing anymore, coupled with some quite questionable dishes. So, it was time to revisit…
Located in Baerenthal in Alsace, L’Arnsbourg is a family business. Back in 1900 the Arnsbourg was a restaurant and hostel for forestry workers. Klein’s grandmother then turned it into a small boarding house, his mother into a gourmet restaurant winning its first Michelin star in 1989. After Jean-Georges got back from hotel management school he worked about 20 years in the dining room before succeeding his mother at the age of 37(!). Remarkably, he is a self-tought three star chef (since 2002), an autodidact who, very similar to Michel Bras, has found his own way of cooking: innovative, but not technique-obsessed, always interested in creating unique dishes and composing harmonious menus in an opera-like dramaturgy. His sister, Kathy oversees the service brigade and his wife, Nicole, joined them to open the beautiful Hôtel K in 2006, newly built across the street.
Klein offers two menus, one large “Menu Decouverte” comprising 9 courses (€145) and a smaller “Menu Saveur” with 6 courses (€115) whereas both are enriched with lots of small bites before, in-midst and afterwards. The à la carte selection is quite remarkable and offers slightly more traditional dishes (like seabass or meat for two) including some outstanding vegetable dishes (like the fruits and vegetables casserole). Maybe, for a two day stay one could go for menu first and then ALC the next day… As I mentioned above, the dramaturgy is an essential cornerstone of the overall experience, so we chose the large menu which had been reduced by one course (still very reasonably priced):
As usual, the menu kicked-off with some fantastic nibbles: a superb madeleine with salmon and fennel and an excellent ‘cocktail’ of almond milk with puffed rice. Then, a variation of mackerel: rice cracker with tartar, a macaron with yuzu and a raw mackerel with Asian tangerine. Finally, an egg filled with egg yolk, Hollandaise, chicory and bread croutons – the contrast of creamy egg and the bitter chicory was simply wonderful!
Klein had served more nibbles previously, and for the first time we missed a real amuse and we felt that the difference in complexity between the small bites and the first course was slightly too big. Maybe that was also because the first course, a variation of Hokkaido pumpkin was a complex demonstration of modern cuisine in the best sense: a small cornet made of pumpkin cream filled with a mouse of pigeon liver, juniper and pumpkin ice cream with some chocolate pieces, a yoghurt mousse with pumpkin seed oil and a pumpkin sorbet and, finally, crab with puffed wheat, a pumpkin tagliatelle with mascarpone, pumpkin crème, a gel of confit lemon, pumpkin mayonnaise and jus d’escabèche. This was nothing more than brilliant, an incredibly balanced and absolutely stunning masterpiece of complementary flavours (sweet-sour, rich-light) and textures. Simply DIVINE!
After this light yet intense starter Klein cleared our palate with a splendid Gillardeau oyster with lemon gel and verbena air. Excellent.
The second course, scallop with Jerusalem artichoke textures was equally balanced and step-up in intensity. Especially the interplay of the slight roast notes and the sweetness of the scallop and the earthy Jerusalem artichoke was quite remarkable. An excellent to outstanding dish, yet a somewhat herbal counterpart would have made it even better.
Like the first dish this was different from Klein’s previous starters, more elaborate and dense playing with textures like Sergio Herman. The third course, sole roasted à la plancha with pomelo gel, almonds, potato pil-pil and kaffir lemon oil showed the previously known style of Monsieur Klein – intensity, purity and outstanding product quality coupled with surprising flavour combinations. Here, he replaced the traditional jus by a light kaffir lemon oil in just the right dose. The resulting flavour accord is simply amazing – roast/crunch, bitter/sweet, sour/sweet and nutty along with the creamy, slightly spicy potato pil-pil. Outstanding and a very clever ‘other’ fish preparation.
An excellent langoustine with a cauliflower bonbon, algae and coconut air was next. Again, an ‘old-style’ Klein preparation with a little Asian touch which he had always used to enrich the flavour spectrum of his dishes. This was just harmonious, very balanced with the algae adding a nice fresh note – excellent!
Next up came a variation of beets and truffles in two courses. First a fine selection of yellow, white and red beets in fresh and pickled form served with truffles espuma (on the removable top part of the plate) …
… and second (in the lower part of the bowl) two open beet ravioli filled with foie gras served with a nutmeg bouillon. Especially this second part was just yummy and delicious. Also the staging had a nice effect – first to introduce the earthy, slightly sweet beets and then to enrich this flavour with foie and nutmeg. Outstanding!
For the main course we had venison with black olive chutney, black salsify purée and kumquat gel. The venison was simply perfect, a bit mellow as it should be for game and topped with some small nuts to add crunch. Although the composition seemed rather traditional at first sight, the kumquat gel made this quite unique as it added an unexpected freshness and lightness to the dish. Excellent to outstanding, only the jus was a bit ‘boring’ compared to Klein’s coffee or chocolate sauces in previous years.
To lead over to desserts Klein always serves a cappuccino containing some sweet espumas, this time a cappuccino of butternut and hazelnut. As always, this was pure pleasure. Before, he used a real cappuccino cup which he replaced by a nice Hering piece.
Desserts at L’Arnsbourg were always strong and didn’t disappoint this time either: each piece was stringent in itself and formed a natural part of the overall dramaturgy. Fig, fig jam, gentian and a citrus sorbet – a wonderful demonstration of the small edge between too much sweetness (working with jam) and too much acidity. Here, the milk air served like a binding element and softened the contrasting flavours. The gentian (my first time encounter) added a slight freshness, and voila, it worked perfectly!
The apple and maple sirup combination was also truly memorable and just unexpected and different. Granny smith sorbet is served with apple confit topped with a maple sirup mousse, anise caramel and some hazelnuts as far as I recall. Another stunning balance of sweet and sour flavours!
This was an excellent lunch throughout at three level, no single let down and many memorable dishes. It seems that Jean-Georges Klein and his team have managed to reinvent and modernize themselves (new textural-focused dishes inspired by Benelux masters as Sergio Herman and Jonnie Boer but with a clear Arnsbourg touch) without losing their key strength of product quality, flavour pairing and menu dramaturgy. And, given the very unique restaurant setting and the special warm-hearted service, the overall experience provokes emotions beyond eating. It feels like Klein is telling a story in his own style, witty, precise and with surprising and unexpected parts.
Can’t wait to go back!