Only three years ago L'Auberge de l'Ill got the ultimate culinary accolade: three stars from Michelin. Since 1967, it has gone on to be considered among the top three or four of this select dozen.
Gastronomically, the three stars belong to Paul Haeberlin alone, for his brother and partner, Jean-Pierre, has nothing to do with the food. The inn, which has no rooms, has been in the family for 100 years. The cooking used to be done by the women in the family.
Paul learned regional cooking from his mother and aunt. Then he went on with ever finer and ever more inventive preparations that must be classed as grande cuisine, even if matelote au Riesling (eel stewed with Riesling wine) and foie gras are after all, Alsatian in origin.
Surprisingly, Paul, who is the bigger and older brother (they are both in their middle forties), is shy to the point of timidity and speaks in a soft, breaking voice.
The Alsatian kitchen team he has formed calls him "chef." They speak together in Alsatian dialect. Such is the respect that Paul commands that his quiet suggestion as to how much longer the pâté en croûte should cook carries more authority than a general's battlefield order.
Even when dishes are wholly invented by Paul Haeberlin, they have the perfect harmony and necessary counterpoint of the most classic time-tested preparations. With Paul's brother Jean-Pierre, I tasted a new dish that Paul has just perfected and which is as yet unnamed. Let's call it turbot de l'Ill (the stream that flows beside the inn).
A beautiful turbot fillet is simply fried in butter and then surrounded, not napped, by a magnificent cream sauce into which have gone tomatoes, lobster, chopped tarragon and almond-sized pieces of cucumber. The latter go nearly unnoticed, so soft are they in the mouth, but they give a tender delicacy to the sauce and form an almost imperceptible counterpoint to the rich texture of the fish. There are obviously secrets to this composition but they are Paul's.
Other unusual dishes are frog soup and mousseline de grenouilles, a mousse of pike surrounding a core of boned frog's legs in a light cream sauce atop a bed of fresh spinach.
Still, a three-star restaurant is more than food. And it is Jean-Pierre who takes care of the rest, for he makes the service and décor – he is a talented painter – as much a part of the enjoyment as the meal itself.
The lovely flower-filled garden of the inn is Jean-Pierre's creation and he often puts in a morning of gardening before dressing to receive his noon guests, who take their apéritif and coffee at tables under the weeping willows along the quiet-flowing Ill.
Jean-Pierre is as outgoing as his brother is shy and thus the two complement each other remarkably. Where they come together is in their total commitment to gastronomy.