Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Relais de la Poste

First published Canberra Times 4 May 2011
We arrive at our weekend destination, the hotel Relais de la Poste in La Wantzenau, in good shape due to the excellent navigating skills of our helpful, Irish speaking GPS friend. We find this hotel through unexpected coincidences and contacts, initiated through Chef Emile Jung, the former owner of Au Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg. He kindly provided an introduction to the owner, Mrs Caroline Van Meanen of this Michelin starred hotel after I had contacted him for a recipe I was researching. He recommended we visit the historic 18th century hotel and sample the food in the restaurant, which is now run by his former chef Monsieur Laurent Huguet.

Dragging our too-many-bags-for-one-weekend from the boot of the car, I look up at a three storey, half-timbered Alsatian chocolate box and expect to be greeted by Hansel and Gretel. Instead we are warmly and efficiently welcomed and offered a drink on the sunny terrace, but first opt to install our multiple bags in our first floor room and we ascend in a postage stamp-sized lift.
The room is decorated in a mix of modern and Alsatian furnishings, including the original timber dowelled roof beams painted milk white. It’s hard to ignore the hot pink, crushed velvet bed-head and the floor to ceiling red satin curtains that dominate the room, bathing it in a pearly pink glow. The overall effect is of an eclectic mix of edieval vs Louis XIV – is there such a thing? I’m not sure- but it really works.
verandah dining
We wind down the original timber curved staircase to the terrace, taking in the murals and the luminous dining area with luxuriously set tables. On each table, the double white cloths, napkins and aged silver cutlery provide a backdrop for the coloured glasses, and a single purple orchid in a glass bud bowl casts mauve prisms. Mrs Van Meanen appears and greets us warmly to explain some of the history of the building.
Le Wantzanau, on the banks of the River Ill, situated just north of Strasbourg, is a former fishing village that is famed for its eel, pike, tench and perch. The Relais de la Poste was constructed as a farmhouse in 1789 by the Oberle family and was later used as a coach-stop. It was transformed into a bistro and tobacconists shop many years later and in 1975 it opened solely as a bistro. Mrs Van Meanen took over the reins in 2009 and with the appointment of Chef Laurent Huguet, formerly of restaurant Au Crocodile, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin Star in 2010. The reputation is enhanced by award winning Sommelier, M. Herve Schmitt who is officially rated as the “vice best sommelier in France 2008, and presides over an outstanding cellar.
chevre entree
Now deep in conversation with Mrs Van Meanen, the aromas and noises coming from the kitchen indicate preparations are in full swing ready for the evening and we are told the restaurant is close to fully booked.
Our dinner reservation is for 7.00pm - yes, unfashionably early again. The staff appear periodically in the dining room to check that everything is just right. Champagne and wine glasses are lined up like glistening soldiers and the ice bucket is crammed with well known Champagnes and an impressive array of Alsatian grand crus and cremants.
We are seated at our table and the restaurant unobtrusively fills. Delicious morsels begin to magically appear from the kitchen, delivered discreetly with the flair and flourish of a top notch restaurant.
In addition to our ordered food, the sommelier advises a lush Alsatian muscat, served with a mini pastry filled with an intensely flavoured herbed bass. A small bowl of chilled asparagus and mint soup follows, with a bite sized square of smoked eel and shredded fennel. Our entrees of lobster salad, green asparagus and gingered champignons, and Chevre cheese with spring baby vegetables in an herb vinaigrette, are next. A cleansing pineapple sorbet arrives before our shared main for two, a single duck liver cooked in a salt crust on a bed of Tarbais haricot beans, bathed in a bay flavoured broth. This dish is highly regarded in Alsace and great show is made of the presentation, as the foie is ceremoniously prepared at the table by a waiter who deftly slices, plates and sauces the meal with grace and style. We both agree that this silky and sublime dish rates as one of the best we have ever eaten.
The decadence continues with a cheese trolley laden with a selection of cheeses of your choice. The grand finale was a lemon and vanilla bean fromage blanc in a meringue pocket on a bed of poached crisp green apple, and a mini chocolate pot with crispy praline balls with a dessert wine.  
The components of each dish were intense and alive, with the local landscape and climate determining many of the dishes on the menu. The passion for fresh and local produce is obvious with many of the restaurant ingredients sourced from local small scale food producers, including charcuteries, boulangeries and fishmongers.
Tarbais haricot beans were used by Chef Laurent for this dish. They are sought after for their thin skin, and buttery, delicate flavour and very low starch content, making them easy to digest. In 1930, almost 10,000 hectares of Tarbais beans were recorded as growing in France, but by 1970 there were only 55 hectares left across the 650 farms in the Hautes-Pyrenees Region. Tarbais beans are often found in the home vegetable garden, and for sale at the markets of Tarbes and Lourdes. The Tarbais bean remains an important part of the local regional diet and the seed is guarded jealously by individual families, handed down through generations.

Duck liver in salt crust
Serves 2
duck liver in salt crust
one whole duck liver, 300g
1 kg coarse salt flakes
3 eggs
80g flour
200g dried haricot beans, soaked overnight in cold water 100g onion, finely diced
100g carrot, finely diced
60g of good quality smoked ham fat, diced and rind removed
1 bay leaf
100g eschalots, diced
250ml Madeira
100ml good quality brown stock 
Preheat oven to 200C. Drain water from beans and set aside. Combine soaked haricot beans, onions, carrots and bay leaf in 6 cups of unsalted water and cook covered for 20 minutes until the beans are fork tender but not mushy, set aside without draining. 
Prepare the salt crust in a large bowl by mixing salt, egg, flour and mixing by hand to make a dough. Roughly roll or pull the dough to shape until it is large enough to wrap around the liver. Place in an oven roasting dish on baking paper and cook for 17 minutes at 200C. When cooked allow to sit out of the oven for 10 minutes. 
The silky foie on a bed of tarbais beans
In a small pan, place the Madeira, the eschalots, then add the brown stock and reduce by half. Adjust seasoning at this stage, by adding salt and pepper to taste.
The beans should have some of the cooking broth still in the pot. Heat the ham fat in a separate small saucepan until much of the fat has melted, about 10 minutes and set aside. 
When the liver is cooked, delicately cut the salt crust from around the liver and remove, slice into 6 large servings, 3 per plate. Discard the salt crust dough. 
Place a thin bed of white beans capturing some of the cooking broth on each plate, and pour over half of the melted ham fat. Place the liver slices on the bed of beans and pour a ribbon of the Madeira sauce over the liver. 
This can be served with a crisp green salad or a selection of cooked baby vegetables as a main or in small single serve portions for 6 as an entree. Photos by Steve Shanahan. To view more photos of Relais de la Poste see picasa web album at