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Insider's Strasbourg

One of Alsace's top vintners reveals where the locals eat--winstubs and all

"Why do I love Strasbourg?" André Ostertag asks. "The Nôtre-Dame cathedral," he replies, stopping smack in the middle of a cobbled street that ends at the cathedral plaza and affords the best view of the grayish-pink structure with its single soaring spire. "And not just because it's monumental," he adds. "The Romans had a sacrificial altar here. It's always been a sacred spot, and its building stone--the sandstone of the Vosges--is the soil of Muenchberg, my best vineyard."

We're on our way to lunch, but Ostertag pulls me into the cathedral to show me a drôlerie not mentioned in the Michelin Green Guide--a tiny sculpture of a man exposing his butt. Ostertag knew it was there because he had made a film on the cathedral and was given the keys to its doors for the duration.

André Ostertag, 40, an intense, sinewy man with warm brown eyes and a minimalist goatee, is one of the most extraordinary vignerons I've ever met. Not only does he make the most controversial, talked-about wines in the Alsace region of France, he's also a poet and sometime filmmaker. He, his wife Christine, who is an artist, and their son, Arthur, prefer to live in Strasbourg rather than beside the family vineyards in the village of Epfig, about 20 miles to the south. Ostertag, who knows Strasbourg as thoroughly as he knows every row of his vines, has got to be the city's best tour guide, finding the unexpected in even the most visited sights.

Strasbourg is an ancient city on the banks of the Ill, two miles west of the Rhine river, which separates France and Germany. Not just any provincial town, Strasbourg is the capital of United Europe. It's also a famous eating city, starting with the restaurants Buereheisel and Au Crocodile, each with three Michelin stars. But Ostertag suggests I skip the predictable choices in favor of a handful of less obvious places, from simple cafés and wine bars to serious restaurants.

After a five-minute walk from the cathedral, we come to the first of them. Terres à Vin, a terrific wine shop and wine bar, has a selection of more than 1,500 wines from top growers from California to Italy and Australia, with about 80 choices from Alsace. (A large percentage of those comes from Ostertag.) Co-owner Eric Demange, 35, sits with us for a lunch of chicken liver terrine, arugula salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano and sun-dried tomatoes, fresh pasta tossed with cheese--and a Chave Hermitage. According to Ostertag, Demange has a palate with perfect pitch: Ostertag has repeatedly tried to stump him with obscure wines, but Demange always guesses correctly.

For dinner Ostertag sends me to the winstub Chez Yvonne, a Strasbourg institution. The word winstub comes from wine and stub. In country homes, the stub is the room with the wood-burning stove, between the kitchen and the living room, where the family relaxes. The TV is in the stub, not the living room. "Cooking in winstubs is familial," Ostertag explains. "Everybody has one winstub and only one. Ours is Chez Yvonne." Rustic, unpretentious Chez Yvonne is just steps from the cathedral and it's packed with delegates to the European Parliament. Yvonne, a woman of a certain age (she took over the winstub in 1954), sees to it that I have an ur-Alsatian meal of cold foie gras with aspic and toast and then choucroute, washed down with Ostertag's ultra-concentrated Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines) Sylvaner, a dry white that cuts the richness of the pork and sausages. A pungent Munster cheese follows, which Yvonne pairs with Ostertag's spicy, lush Late Harvest Gewürtztraminer.

The Ostertags had recommended that I visit one of Strasbourg's recently revitalized neighborhoods, the home of the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain, which opened in November 1998. And after an absorbing morning there, I come to agree with Christine, who feels that the museum's strong point is its collections of works by Wassily Kandinsky, Jean Hans Arp and Victor Brauner. For lunch the Ostertags had suggested I try the museum's Art Café. A large room painted in bold Matisse colors, it is packed at midday, not with museum visitors, but with a well-heeled crowd from nearby offices. The menu focuses on complicated salads named after artists. I opt instead for two appetizers, a soothing pumpkin soup and a very good céleri rémoulade, a shredded celery root salad tossed with mayonnaise and topped with crayfish and avocado.

When I meet up with the Ostertags later for a drink to plan my next meal, Christine can't resist joining me for dinner because the restaurant I've selected is La Cambuse--one of her favorites. It is on a pretty square in the heart of La Petite France, an enchanting neighborhood of half-timbered houses overlooking a canal. As we walk there Christine gives me the rundown on the owners, Philippe and Babeth Lefebvre. Philippe, a landlocked Alsatian, is in love with the sea. He spent three years decorating La Cambuse to look like the inside of a yacht, and he runs the front of the house. The decor could be kitsch; instead, the room is cozy with gleaming woodwork. Babeth, of Vietnamese and German ancestry, is a self-taught chef. In a kitchen hardly larger than a ship's hold, she cooks the freshest, most delectable seafood in Strasbourg, including Vietnamese ravioli stuffed with sea bream in a broth fragrant with cilantro--Christine's favorite dish.

For my final meal we all go to A la Barrière, a newish Michelin one-star restaurant in La Wantzenau, a suburb of Strasbourg. According to the Ostertags, Claude Sutter, the chef-owner, is a brilliant saucier with a streak of iconoclasm. His spare decor and collection of contemporary art--which Christine characterizes as "modernisme soft"--has proved anathema to the hidebound Strasbourgeois, who refuse to hold business lunches in such untraditional surroundings. And Sutter's hyperactive imagination can spawn the occasional howler like beer ice cream. But most of the things that come out of his kitchen work beautifully. His juicy saddle of lamb, for example, seasoned with a blend of rosemary, thyme, curry, fennel seed, mustard and bread crumbs, is well-conceived and delicious. Sutter also has a fabulous wine list. A 1991 Gevrey-Chambertin Champs-Chenys from Joseph Roty is brilliant with the lamb.

Drinking it, I suddenly I see a major fringe benefit to André's commute. On his way back to the city after a day in the vineyards or the cellar, he often makes a pit stop at A la Barrière, relaxing with Claude Sutter over steaks and a good bottle of red.

Jacqueline Friedrich is the award-winning author of A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire (Henry Holt).

Published October 1999
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