Inventive cuisine along a canal in Alsace
ALTWILLER, France - L’Ecluse 16 restaurant is the kind of place that isn’t unusual in rural France. Sometimes you have to go far off the beaten path to find a gem.
This one is located in an idyllic setting near the Canal des Houillères in Alsace, in the northeastern part of France. Ecluse means navigation lock; 16 is the number of the lock at that point along the canal. The restaurant, housed in a 1909 red brick house, sits in a peaceful location.
Jean-Yves Leroux, 38, is the chef and owner with his wife, Carole, 34. He is originally from Brittany, in the northwest; the couple moved to Alsace 13 years ago so his wife could return to the region where she’s from. He worked with Hubert Maetz, who currently runs a one-star Michelin restaurant in Alsace. The Lerouxs bought l’Ecluse 16 seven years ago. He is the skill behind the stove while she waits on tables and takes care of the business side. Weekends, when the 50-seat place fills up, two extras - a waitress and an apprentice in the kitchen - come to help.
The food here is traditionally French with an inventive twist. Appealing dishes showcase local ingredients that follow the rhythm of the seasons. On a recent menu, verrines of sauteed chanterelles are topped with light mashed potatoes (verrines are small layered dishes, often served in glasses). This is accompanied by delicate pieces of lettuce dressed in verbena and balsamic vinaigrette. Trout comes from the Vosges, a mountainous region nearby, char is fished from local ponds, chicken is raised in Alsace.
The decor in the dining room is unassuming, with dark wood tables, nicely spaced, and off-white walls. The restaurant has one small bar and a large dining room. Next to the brick structure, a tree-shaded terrace with small chairs and tables is an ideal spot for cyclists and pedestrians along the canal to rest. There’s also a small shed with a horse and donkey, a garden in the back where Leroux grows his own herbs, and open fields all around.
Because Leroux is cooking with the seasons and his diners are adventurous, he offers kebabs of venison accompanied by pickled sweet onions, and a fricassee of snails served with delicate baby zucchini. When they are in season, mirabelles - small yellow plums that only grow in this part of France - along with strawberries and raspberries make light desserts. The chef adds some very modern touches to his presentations: strawberry-tomato gazpacho has a basil foam, and his tiramisu in a glass is prepared with lychee, pink grapefruit, and raspberry sorbet. The dishes are eye-catching, as nice to look at as to eat.
You can order a la carte or choose between several prix fixe menus. For 23 euros (about $34), you have the choice of an appetizer with main course, or a main course with dessert. Add 5 euros to upgrade to a three-course meal. For about 40 euros, the chef suggests a tasting menu, called saveurs.
Leroux draws inspiration from many places. “I like to keep up with new trends and use cooking techniques that make sense to me,’’ he says. A favorite ingredient is vin jaune du Jura - literally yellow wine from the Jura area, a wine close to sherry in taste - which he uses in place of white wine to give more body to his dishes. The Jura is a mountainous region in the south of Alsace. The chef uses the wine in his herb risotto. “I am inspired by molecular gastronomy, of course, but don’t like to overuse it,’’ he adds. He artfully balances tradition and novelty.
Lunch and dinner always start with complimentary savory mise-en-bouches (little bites) and end with sweet treats. Our meal, for instance, starts with a sip of refreshing curried lettuce gazpacho accompanied by perfectly formed crispy Parmesan tuiles. We finish with a tiny chocolate nibble: a duo of mousses served in shot glasses accompanied by round paper-thin caramel lollipops - a real treat for the eyes and the palate.
Even if it’s not on your way, any of these are a perfect excuse to make the detour. After you dine, get a feel for the area by strolling along the canal before you hop back into the car.
L’Ecluse 16 , Lieu dit Bonne Fontaine. 67260 Altwiller, France. Closed Monday and Tuesday, 011-33-3-88-00-90-42, www.ecluse16.com.