Memories of childhood surface as I shimmy behind the table to squeeze myself in between my seat and the window at Craigie on Main in Cambridge. I haven’t felt this “coziness” in dining since my childhood, when I was a thin little girl, ordered to a seat against the wall — because nobody else could fit in the small space. But here I am, squished in my seat with a large group who gather together to taste wines of Alsace.
Alsace is located on France’s eastern border, adjacent to Germany and Switzerland, where the main towns: Strasbourg, Colmar (the wine capital) and Mulhouse are set in the backdrop of a magnificent landscape, sheltered by the Vosges Mountains. Once owned by Germany, its ownership shifted from France to Germany and back and forth a few times before settling in to France’s territory. The only consistency is in the landscape and wines, which have been made in Alsace since the 4th century.
A flute filled with Cremant d’Alsace (Schoenheitz Brut NV, $14 retail for a bottle!) sets me at ease within the tight quarters of my long table, and soon I am ready to delve in to the Alsace experience at Craigie on Main, a bustling restaurant on a Wednesday evening, and one that I had heard created a fantastic menu. Snuggled as I am, I am glad to be here. And the Cremant d’Alsace proves a fitting start to a splendid table. This Schoenheitz wine, which means “a taste for good thing” in Alsatian, is made using the traditional method of sparkling wines. The 90 percent pinot auxerrois and 10 percent pinot blanc grapes were aged on the lees for 24 months and crafted to perfection. I will definitely get a bottle or two … or three. I’m thinking New Year’s Eve.
A few small bites are passed around to pair with the Cremant d’Alsace before we begin our five-course dining experience with three amuse preparations served in tiny portions. They may be tiny servings, but each one is packed with flavor: a Nantucket Bay scallop in crystallized ginger vinaigrette is quickly devoured, followed by squid noodles which are also gone in an instant, and then smoked sablefish rillettes, which I’d never tasted, but had already established a trust for Chef/Owner Tony Maws’ culinary concoctions – so without hesitation, I fork forward. No disappointment whatsoever. Maw’s culinary skills are top notch.
Ninety percent of Alsatian wines are white, and these white wines account for 18 percent of France’s total AOP still white production. So, we taste mostly whites all evening, which turns out to be a great experience, beginning with one of four noble grapes: Riesling poured from a Flute du Rhin, which is a tall, slender green bottle that Alsatian wines call home. Our Riesling “Cuvee Frederich Emile” Trimbach 2006 is poured from a magnum – not an easy task for our server. I swirl to get a better nose, and oh what a nose it gives! Strong aromas of minerality lead me to taste the crisp, freshness of this pick, paired with Kona Kampachi sashimi, Asian pear, pinenut-miso puree and a dollop of pickled mustard seeds that make the dish come together nicely. It’s all good.
The clay in Alsace’s soil gives the fatness/richness to the Riesling grape, and it proves to be full of character. Next, we try a glass of Riesling “Hengst Grand Cru” Josemeyer 2009, and I can see the thickness in the swirl. This wine offers a sweet finish, so now I taste the sweetness of Riesling. But it is the 2005 Riesling “Herrenweg” Schleret that steals my heart. This is a very good wine, paired with a slow-cooked Tasmanian Sea trout with chorizo and scallion, boudin noir-housin sauce. Again, I am unsure about the dish, as I’d never had Tasmanian Sea trout, but I trust Chef Tony and take a bite into a warmed, pink fish that is tender and absolutely delicious. I glance around my table and realized this dish was devoured pretty quickly from everyone’s plates. I am in good company.
Next is a plate of house-made whole wheat fettuccini in a foie gras-Jerusalem artichoke cream with Brussels sprout leaves and house-cured lomo (cured pork loin) that offers a smoky flavor and pairs well with a glass of Pinot Gris (another noble grape) Rolly Gassman 2004; in fact, I would say this is perfection in pairing. The wine is fantastic and dances down my palate, as does the unique flavor of this dish. We also have a glass of Engelgarten Marcel Deiss 2007 – a more subtle wine, and one I am told works well for Thanksgiving dinner.
Just when we thought we could not eat another bite, a plate with slow-roasted pheasant breast and confit leg with quince, chestnuts and matsutake mushrooms is served with a sweet Gewurztraminer Becker 2011, a fatty, full-bodied Alsatian wine (and a noble grape) – and a Gewurztraminer “Hengst Grand Cru” Zind-Humbrecht 2010, a wine in which I enjoy immensely. The aroma of rose petals and grapefruit led to a quite delicious taste. Although I do try the pheasant, I have to admit I am not a fan, so my table neighbor benefits with an extra serving.
Alsace is one of the greenest regions in France, but they don’t market themselves as such. And with this thought in mind, we enjoy a green palate refresher of celery apple sorbet with local stracciatella (pulled mozzarella cheese) before we are served our final course of dessert: whole wheat crepes with Macoun apples, pepitas and butternut ice cream, served with an unbelievable glass of Pinot Gris Vendages Tardives “Altenberg Grand Cru” Charles Koehly 2001 to which we are told the winemaker died from a sudden heart attack in 1999, leaving no heirs to his winery, so this is the last of this delicious wine. I plan to find at least another bottle to store ($55) so I can taste it one last time. Our final glass is a Gewurztraminer Vendages Tardives “Bollenberg” Valentin-Zusslin 2008, which offers a bit of effervescence and is nice, but my favorites are the Cremant d’Alsace, the Riesling Trimbach 2006 ($50 for 750 ml and not produced every year, but only when the Trimbach family believes the quality of grapes is high enough), the Riesling Schleret 2005 ($25) and the two pinot gris wines: Rolly Gassman 2004 ($45 and biodynamic) and the Vendages Tardives 2001, may it rest in peace.
All of these wines may be purchased in the Boston area.