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Les Crayères in Reims - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 96.
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Les Crayères was originally built in the early 1900s as a family home for the Marquess and Marchioness of Polignac, at the time the owners of the Pommery Champagne house. In the seventies the château was purchased by Xavier Gardinier of the Gardinier Group, who decided to convert the château into a small luxury hotel and restaurant. Renovations began in 1979, the same year that Gérard Boyer and his father Gaston had been awarded three Michelin stars for their restaurant La Chaumière in Reims. A couple of years later, in 1983, Xavier Gardinier signed on Gérard Boyer and his wife to run Les Crayères. The entire restaurant staff of La Chaumière and the concomitant 3 Michelin stars moved to the château and the restaurant was from then on known as Boyer "Les Crayères".

When Gérard Boyer retired in 2003, the restaurant was demoted to 2 Michelin stars. In 2009 Philippe Mille became the new head chef and in the next Michelin guide Les Crayères was stripped of both Michelin stars. Mille managed to win back a star the following year (2011 guide) and in the 2012 guide the restaurant was back at their 2 Michelin star rating. Philippe Mille received his training from some of France's most celebrated chefs, including Louis Grondard (Drouant, Paris), Frédéric Anton (Pré Catelan, Paris), Michel Roth (The Ritz, Paris) and Yannick Alléno (then at Le Meurice). Since 2011 Philippe Mille has been the proud holder of the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France; for chefs it is customary to signify this honour by wearing the tricouleur on the collar of their chef's jacket.

(courtesy of Les Crayères)

Les Crayères is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. The restaurant offers an à la carte menu (starters €58 - €78, mains €68 - €125, desserts €22 - €24), a 5-course seasonal menu for €120, a 5-course 'Les Incontournables' menu for €170, a 5-course 'Produits d'Exception" menu for €210, and there's a 3-course set lunch menu for €69. I had lunch with my husband at Les Crayères on Sunday 12 October 2014.

On the day of our visit Les Crayères also had a special 7-course 'Transmission & Partage' menu on offer for € 250 with a champagne pairing for € 100; the menu included dishes from chefs who at one point in their careers worked in the kitchens of Les Crayères or at La Chaumière. The chefs featured in the menu are: Gérard Boyer, Alain Passard, Vincent Thierry, Philippe Labbé and Philippe Mille. The Transmission & Partage menu was first served at Les Crayères in 2013 and in 2014 the menu was only served in the months of September and October. Since this was a unique opportunity, we decided to go for this menu and the (well-priced) pairing of exquisite and rare champagnes. When in Champagne ..... right?

With our aperitifs we enjoyed a selection of wonderfully crisp tartelettes. The fillings were: creamy ham and cheese, carrot puree lightly flavoured with cumin, and aubergine topped with grated black olive.

Lunch continued with four canapés (left to right): foie gras 'sandwich' with passionfruit jelly - goat's cheese bonbon with mango on toast, Scottish cured salmon with dill on toast - and a crisp cylinder filled with an aubergine crème. Four incredibly precise canapés with refined flavours and great textures.

The first course of the menu Transmission & Partage was "Langoustines royales en habit vert, beurre de Champagne au caviar Osciètre Impérial", a dish by Philippe Labbé, former executive chef at 2-star l'Abeille in Paris. Labbé is currently 'between kitchens'. A superb, sweet and juicy langoustine, wrapped in cabbage and topped with a dollop of glistening Imperial Oscietra caviar, served with a Champagne beurre blanc. A sublime combination with an expertly made beurre blance, the champagne flavours coming through beautifully, and the caviar delivered a touch of elegant freshness. This dish was paired with Champagne Louis Roederer 2006 Brut Nature, the first new cuvée to be introduced by this house in 40 years, in collaboration with Philippe Starck.

Second course was "Lasagne de Homard Breton, contrepoint de Girolles et Noix de Ris de Veau, Mouillée d'une Bisque Légère", a dish by Vincent Thierry, former executive chef of Caprice in Hong Kong (then 3 Michelin stars). A spectacular dish of succulent lobster and caramelised sweetbread covered with a thin sheet of pasta, and accompanied by earthy and buttery girolle mushrooms, a gorgeous bisque sauce and garnished with finely chopped chives. Fabulously made bisque sauce with great depth of flavour - it was like drinking liquid umami - and with some chopped skinned tomatoes in there for balance and freshness. The lobster lasagna was excellently paired with a Champagne Billecart-Salmon 2004 Blanc de Blancs Brut.

Third course was "Blanquette de cèpes et truffes blanches, Cuisses de grenouilles meunières" a dish by Philippe Mille. A glass bowl with a set onion cream at the bottom, followed by a layer of chopped ceps in a cream sauce, covered with freshly shaved white Alba truffle and mini pommes soufflés and with two perfectly tender frog's legs sticking out. A luxurious and aromatic dish with balanced, rich flavours; the garnish of baby sorrel leaves added just the right touch of acidity. The onion cream, however, could have done with more intense onion flavours. With this dish came a glass of the stunning Champagne Charles Heidsieck 1995 Blanc des Millénaires.

Next up was a dish by Alain Passard - "Turbot grillé, béarnaise au vin jaune, Gratin Dauphinois au céleri-rave". Beautifully cooked turbot (cooked on the bone, filleted tableside), complemented by three small puddles of a very pure-tasting leaf celery foam, into which a Vin Jaune béarnaise sauce was spooned. The béarnaise had a wonderful consistency (not too foamy) and the Vin Jaune delivered a lovely hint of nuttiness. Best of all was the celeriac Dauphinois, which was deliciously sweet and buttery. This splendid dish was paired with a glass of the equally splendid Champagne Dom Pérignon P2 (Plénitude Deuxième) Blanc Brut 1998.

Sixth course was "Le feuilleté de pigeonneau au foie gras, Emincé de choux, son jus au fumet de truffes", a dish by Gérard Boyer. Pigeon with a mushroom farce and a mixture of cabbage and foie gras, cooked in pastry, served with a full-bodied pigeon and black truffle jus. An extraordinarily rich and perfectly seasoned dish, but even though the flavours and textures were sensational, I couldn't finish it. This pigeon Wellington was paired with Champagne Bollinger 2004 La Grande Année.

Shortly after, the cheese course arrived - "Brie farci de fruits secs à la fève de tonka, Pain de Campagne grillé aux sarments de vigne" by Philippe Mille. In short: Brie stuffed with pistachio, hazelnuts and fig cream, served with some delicious Pain de Campagne toast, that had been grilled over vine branches, which added nice flavour and aroma. Also on the plate was a pear 'cylinder' filled with finely chopped, marinated pear. This course was paired with a glass of Champagne Bruno Paillard 1999 NPU - Nec Plus Ultra.

Last and eighth course was dessert - "Soufflé chaud praliné fruité, crème glacée au café torréfié" by Arthur Fèvre, Les Crayères' pastry chef. A wonderfully nutty and light praline soufflé, prepared in an unusual serving dish, served with a coffee ice cream and a mixture of lightly caramelised nuts, such as hazelnuts and flaked almonds. A fantastic dessert with a great interplay of textures and temperatures. With the soufflé came a glass of Champagne Lanson 1990 Vintage Collection, served from magnum.

Remember gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne! - Winston Chruchill once said. Even though I did not have the Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut on the day, I was mindful of John Maynard Keynes, whose only regret in life it was that he had not drunk more champagne and I acted accordingly. "Too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right" and no better place to indulge than at Les Crayères, one of the finest restaurants in the region since more than three decades, with a virtually unsurpassed champagne selection of some 600 labels. This lunch was a truly outstanding meal from start to finish and not only because the majority of the dishes contained liberal doses of the "Dolce & Gabbana" of ingredients, butter and cream, which were used to marvellous effect. The dishes featured on the menu showed that the kitchens at Les Crayères possess truly impressive culinary skill; this was superb cooking on all levels. I do realise that the Transmission & Partage menu is not necessarily a reflection of Philippe Mille's own cooking, but the absolutely brilliant execution of these generally quite complex dishes from different chefs amounted to a stellar performance; a balancing act which not many restaurants would be capable of. The champagne pairing worked wonderfully well and the overall experience was most satisfactory. Most satisfactory indeed!

Posted 07-12-2014


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