Years ago Joanne and I took our kids to France and Germany. We flew Icelandic Air out of New York and landed in Luxembourg, which I believe at that time was the only place that the airline had the rights to land.
After two days, we left Luxembourg by car heading south for the ROUTE DU VIN (the wine road in ALSACE-LORRAINE), ending up in Strasbourg for a couple of nights before setting out on our wine tour. This, we learned, is where France and Germany collide. Situated not far from the Black Forest, Strasbourg is currently in France but sits right on the border of France and Germany. I say “currently” because for hundreds of years the city of Strasbourg has ping-ponged back and forth between the two countries. Since the end of World War II, it’s been part of France.
Road signs are in both German and French. Beer and wine are equally popular.
But the architecture in Strasbourg definitely leans German – almost Hansel & Gretel-like.
In the heart of the city lies the premier landmark of Strasbourg: The Notre Dame Cathedral, built with pink sandstone from nearby mountain quarries. A beautiful example of Gothic architecture visible for miles around, it was completed in 1439. Actually, “completed” may not be quite accurate because the south steeple was never built. Consequently, the asymmetrical form makes it unique among European Gothic churches. There are various theories as to why the south tower was never finished, but from what I can smoke out, the prevailing opinion was that the earth under the south tower couldn’t support the additional weight.
The culinary side of Alsace is just as fascinating, and a little weird…and a real treat.
The Alsatian dishes had a boldness and earthiness that was no doubt influenced by their German roots, while the French-influenced offerings demonstrated attention to detail, beauty, quality, and nuance. And then there were the “tweeners” – part French and part German…..WOW !!!!
Flash forward to this summer. Joanne and I had just landed in New York. It was around noon, and since we had no breakfast on our morning flight, we were thinking about where we might have a late lunch. I wanted to select a spot near our hotel at 41st and 5th Avenue.
Consulting my trusty Zagat Guide, I came upon a highly rated restaurant on 42nd street called GABRIEL KREUTHER. I had never heard of the place but it was rated 4.8 by ZAGAT. That’s really high.
Arriving about 1:30 PM, we were seated in the corner table (table #73), which was just fine and not busy. Not quite knowing the restaurant’s DNA, we began by puzzling over the bar menu. It was at once refreshing in its “Frenchie” offerings, while at the same time I felt it was looking for its voice – that is, until I saw the Alsatian section on the menu. Then it all made sense. Of course you could have two vastly different cultures and cuisines living together side by side as they have for centuries in ALSACE-LORRAINE. Frogs legs on the menu right next to liverwurst? “Mais oui!” and “yah, yah, der liverwurst, too.”
We started with the “Frenchie” stuff, including Lobster Croquettes ($15), Langoustine Tart, and of course a Foie Gras Terrine with duck prosciutto and porcini mushrooms (any one of those ingredients would get my vote, but all in one dish? Yes, please – and I’m not sharing).
Next, the German counterpoint: Sturgeon Tart over Sauerkraut, Liverwurst with pickled Kirbie cucumbers and grainy mustard ($19), and Kougelhoph (scallion bread) with creamy chive cheese ($7).
Mains? The delightful counterpoints continued. Joanne opted for something French: Roasted Halibut with Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Celery Root and Cockles. I took the Teutonic trail and ordered a large, turgid Country Sausage with Homemade Sauerkraut and Spicy Violet Mustard ($26).
We’re not done yet, folks. We needed to try the “tweeners” – half-German, half-French – and what better expression of the love-hate relationship between the two countries than a special featuring LOADS of white truffles atop cheesy German spaetzel. I don’t remember what it cost – I blocked out the memory – but I couldn’t resist.
Finally, a sampling of Artisanal French and German cheeses ($8 per piece; we had two), shared along with a Bleu Cheese Tarte with Fresh Figs and Balsamic Vinegar.
I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of Gabriel Kreuther until then, but I’ve since found out that he was born and raised in a little town just to the north of Strasbourg. After graduating from cooking school– the Ecole Hoteriere in Strasbourg, he worked at Le Caprice in D.C. for a year-and-a-half before returning to Europe. There he trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Switzerland before returning to the States to work for Jean George Vongerichten and at the helm at The Modern at MOMA in New York, before opening his own place.
What a pedigree, what an apprenticeship – and what a restaurant! No wonder we loved our meal there.