The second part of our travels through Northern France landed us in the Champagne region. Our first three days were in war-torn Verdun, and now we were staying among vineyards and famous names like Dom Perignon. Click here to read more about the forts of Verdun and the small village of Hautvillers.
But now that we were firmly planted in the Reims area, we were ready to indulge in some French-style, rich food. In the city of Reims, there are dozens of fine eateries, but after some careful research and reservations made weeks in advance, we made our way to Le Parc at the Les Crayeres, a 5 star hotel and grand chateau with a 2 Michelin star restaurant on the compound. Not only are reservations mandatory, but it was very clear we had to confirm two days in advance or else our table would be let go. The dress code was not Victorian strict, but jackets and slacks were encouraged. Normally when Jeff and I travel, we don’t indulge in such luxuries, so this was an exceptional treat to share with my parents.
From the moment we parked the car, we knew we were in for an exquisite evening. Next to us was a Porsche, Ferrari, and an Aston Martin, and that was just in the car lot. We were met at the door by waiters and hosts in suits and ushered to a booth for an aperitif while our table was prepared. I am such a novice when it comes to fancy protocol, so I’m sure I looked like a deer in headlights with each exchange and option. Thankfully, they spoke English so I didn’t have to stumble my way through basic French. Ce avec quoi?
We were handed menus to peruse and a menu of Champagnes and wines that rivaled Moby Dick. We left the important decisions to my father who expertly picked a magnificent Champagne to accompany our aperitif appetizers. In order to fully enjoy myself and be present, I did not take copious notes of everything that was presented, so I apologize at my faulty memory not remembering every detail, but I will do my best based on my pictures.
While we enjoyed some acoustic Pink Floyd being played by a man in a British flag jacket and a woman with wild hair, we sipped our wine and had tiny bites of pumpkin and carrot mousse, beef tartar, foie gras with lemon jelly, and a fourth that escaped my memory. The lemon jelly and foie gras stands out in my mind because of the sheer tartness of the jelly against the fatty liver. It wasn’t my favorite flavor pairing, but it certainly was unexpected and unique, and the presentation was beautiful.
Our dinner choices were between everything black truffle, an a la carte menu, and a surprise concoction from the chef, but in order to be surprised, all four of us would have had to have chosen it. Because of my stomach limits, I played it safe with making my own choices. After we had picked our meals, we were taken to our private table in the depths of the majestic restaurant. It was absolutely stunning and the service was off the charts. To give you an idea: if you needed to run to the restroom, not only did your private waiter escort you to make sure you didn’t get lost [by accident, or intentionally], but another waitress came by and took your napkin and replaced it with a fresh one using tongs.
When the wine came, the waitress expertly decanted it under superb lighting to give a glow and romantic air of the service. I realize a lot of the tricks were simple and delicate, but it was no less dazzling. From that point on, the four of us decided to sit back and enjoy being catered to.
Our appetizer came. Since I had ordered a la carte, I was given a pumpkin and fennel mousse. It was so I would not feel left out as my parents and husband had ordered specific dishes. My parents enjoyed lentils with lobster tail, which I got as my next course. The mousse was light and creamy, but the lentils and lobster had black truffle flower cut outs that were just crispy enough to add the needed crunch to the dish. By far, this was my favorite dish of the evening.
Next came the main entree in full pomp and circumstance. I ordered the “milk-fed lamb” with olive spread and roasted vegetables. My parents continued on the black truffle kick with “Black Diamond Chicken.” Jeff had a pigeon breast with roasted vegetables, and all of us were completely satisfied.
It was about now in our meal things became comical. When we ordered our meal for the night, we picked three dishes. What wasn’t mentioned that in fact we get seven plates of food. Over the course of four hours, we were having a hard time imagining how this would go. The cheese tray was wheeled out and each of us tried a couple of French cheeses, which the names all escape me except the black truffle laced brie. Then a palate cleanser of vanilla ice cream and sweet beet root sorbet came with a red cracker that looked like something out of Mario Bros. followed by our desserts. I had ordered a lovely candied grapefruit and chestnut mousse. It was light, crunchy, and just the right tang to end the perfect meal.
We finished our glasses of Clos des Ruchottes Grand Cru wine and burst out laughing when our waitress brought out our post-dessert of small bon bons. She saw us laughing and asked if we would prefer to have the nibbles boxed up to bring home. We profusely thanked her for this offer and took her up on it. We managed to roll out of the restaurant to the car and made it home to sleep off our rich dinner to turn around a few hours later for another decadent lunch at Le Foch near the Reims Cathedral.
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Le Foch sits not a quarter mile from the famous Reims Cathedral, which I will write about at length in my next post, and is incredibly well-known for it’s own Michelin star. We walked in for our 12:15pm reservation and saw that the atmosphere was much more casual than the previous night. I wondered if that was because of the location, time, or general air of the space. On Sundays, they only take reservations for one hour, so it was competitive to grab a table a month in advance.
Miraculously hungry after the previous night, we looked over the menu and saw it was all in French. The night before, we were lucky to be given menus in English, so we sat staring and desperately trying to translate the sentences. Our basic French skills were no match for the descriptive details of the French menu writers, so Jeff and I both chose the tasting menu and decided we would trade dishes if I couldn’t have something or if he decided against escargot.
Our Moet Vintage 2006 was brought to the table, and we ordered with some difficulty with the staff. Because we were obviously stumped, the waitstaff brought a bus boy that had some English skills to our table to help us translate. We were incredibly grateful because he saved us from making some embarrassing culinary choices.
Four small aperitif bites came with our wine shortly after we ordered. We were no strangers to the morsels after the previous night’s adventures, so we relished each one: a parsnip puree with spring peas and bacon, a square of ham hock wrapped in cheese and covered with mustard seeds, and a pimento cheese tasting bite with a small strip of pepperoni. It may have been more elegant, but that’s certainly what it tasted like.
I had an inventive shrimp and lime with seaweed appetizer topped with bubbly foam and then enjoyed a lovely bowl of garlicy escargot. Jeff duly traded dishes since he was not a fan of the squishy mollusks, but I relished in them and shared with Dad. Timed to perfection, my white fish with carrots and mashed potatoes came out. I didn’t eat much of the potatoes because I knew that sneaky dishes were on the way still. I was prepared to be bombarded with more rich food, but we did collectively decide against the massive cheese tray that hovered near us like a threat. I’m sure it was a mistake knowing the local cheeses are not to be rivaled, but when our desserts came, we knew we made the right decision.
My parents and husband enjoyed braised bananas under a dome of spun sugar with vanilla ice cream. It was quite elegant to look at, but I was thrilled to see a macaron on the menu with black cherries and pistachio ice cream. Topped with a cotton candy-like cloud, the chocolate and pistachio was perfectly paired. None of our plates were completely clean as we were all at our stopping points, but true to Michelin form, our post-desserts came as a tropical fruit puree, apricot puree with dark chocolate, a toffee bite, and a small rum cake.
Once again, we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and continued on our vacation a few pounds heavier and convinced we wouldn’t eat for a week, but we were certainly happy and full.
But fine food and dining is not all that Reims has to offer. Stay tuned next week for the gorgeous pictures of the massive cathedral in the heart of the city as well as its rival structures in Amiens and Rouen.