After a long journey through a white, cold and unwelcoming Ardennes region, I finally got to Reims. The hotel and restaurant Chateau Les Crayeres both are a French legend. For many years Gerard Boyer maintained 3* level and fascinated countless clients from all over the world with his cooking. Since a few years, a Monegasque, Ducasse-taught chef has taken over the gastronomic side of the business: Didier Elena. He originally wanted to study medicine but a meeting with Ducasse made him change his mind. After some time at the Louis XV in Monte-Carlo, he was the first head chef of Ducassse’s New York restaurant. There, he won 3 Michelin stars and 4 from the New York Times, but couldn’t satisfy the New Yorkers’ desires. Now he is « free » to cook whatever he likes and does so in a unique house.
The two rooms are comfortable, you feel a l’aise from the first few steps you take in them. The big windows give sufficient light, the chairs are most comfortable and you quite simply feel very well there. It doesn’t feel as austere or cold as for instance Ledoyen or other old-school grand restaurants do.
After having chosen your obligatory champagne from a very interesting selection by the glass, you are approached with an Alsatian treat: Flammekuechle. I do not know why they serve it in Reims, but it certainly tastes very good and accompanies the wine perfectly. Excellent start.
The mise en bouche consisted of a maquereau juste saisi, pamplemousse sucre, sale, acide, amere. This was one of the more daring combinations of the meal, but it worked marvelously well. The mackerel was covered with balsamic vinegar and sat atop of a few thin slivers of marinated navets, on the fillet sat a few segments of grapefruit which gave the whole dish a very complete taste sensation: Salty, sour, sweet, bitter, peppery, everything was present. Excellent once more.
FOIE GRAS DE CANARD-JAMBON DE REIMS: en terrine, fine gelee au Champagne, brioche tiede. I love it when chefs serve you regional products in a way that gives you great pleasure. Here this was the case with the (cooked) ham, layered in between the foie gras. The terrine itself was very good, albeit a touch under-seasoned for my taste. The only problem in this dish was the other regional element: the Champagne. Now, Champagne is my favourite drink, but this association did not work at all. It was utterly tasteless and too sour. It took away all of the rich taste from the terrine and, if one combined both elements, the only present taste was the sour gelee. I rarely leave anything on a plate, but I simply couldn’t finish this gelee and stuck to the very good foie/ham terrine. Before I forget, the brioche, filled with pruneau marmalade was terrific. It was light, buttery, comforting. If one would have left the gelee out of the game, this would have been very good, due to it, I can only say that it was a rather mediocre dish.
The following dish played a completely different register. LE PRINTEMPS: asperges, pomme de terre de Noirmoutier, morilles et lard d’Ibaiona cuisines ensemble. If there is a divine combination asparagus and morels are definitely competing for the first price. To this, add a nice helping of crazily tasty pork belly from the basque country, some slowly confied potatoes and a hearty pork jus and you have a rich and taste-intesive dish. The portion was gigantic (a starter after all), but being that good, you simply can’t let any drop of jus on the plate. However, a few things have me question this dish:The double use of potatoes (pureed and confied) did annoy me a little, as it fills you up very quickly. The other one is the fact, that morels aren’t at their best yet, so they did lack a little flavour (or were overpowered by the jus). Nonetheless, this was well made, rustic French cooking. Very good.
The first main course was a SAUMON SAUVAGE: enrobe de truffes noires et cebettes, quelques champignons blancs, releve de gingembre. This was back on the level of the amuses, bread and other extras. Perfeclty cooked, aromatic wild salmon with a rich button mushroom puree, some croutons to give it some crunch and of course black truffle and chives. The truffles, as is often the case, did not really add much to the dish, but the dish didn’t really need them. This salmon might have been worth the trip by itself. I would never have ordered it, so I am happy that Elena served it to me as such a product does have to be tasted. Here again, Elena did not salt as liberally as his friend Jean Francois Piege or former boss Cerutti do, but rather let the salmon stand out in all of it’s grandeur. The mushroom puree provided the missing power and both eaten together with a crouton provided a memorable mouth-full. Excellent.
The following dish might still have been a little better. CAILLE SPECIALE: au foie gras, quelques mures ecrasees, gnocchi de ricotta. Quails are normally quite small in size and I can’t remember any memorable quail dish. Here however, the bird was raised in the same way as an ortolan, which means, that the quail was engraissee to make it even more tasty and tender. The result was indeed remarkable: Amazingly tender meat, juicy, tasty and in perfect harmony with the other parts of the dish. Not that there were that many other parts, but all of those complemented the quail extraordinarily well. The ricotta gnoccho, a favourite of Franck Cerutti in Monte-Carlo, the blackberry sauce and the quail-jus just blew you away. Here the school of the Louis XV showed it’s best side: Amazing products, treated by technical perfectionists and served with a simple accompaniment. Such an extraordinary product is a rare pleasure and really makes you want more. Outstanding.
Now to finish such a meal, I decided that two desserts should do me fine. I can’t complain that Elena chose the wrong ones, as both were very good.
The first was POMMES DE NOS REGIONS: en superposition, beurre « Suzette ». A « basket » of Vanilla ice cream contained different apple preparations and was topped by a thin sugar case and later drowned in orange caramel butter. If one took a bit of everything, it was pure pleasure: Slightly acidic, refreshing orange sauce, crispy sugar casing, crunchy, sour green apple sticks, creamy, sweet ice cream; delicious!
The second was a take on the famous Schwarzwaldtorte. All of the essential components of the cake, namely chocolate, cherries and whipped cream, were present in one form or another. There was some chocolate biscuit, chocolate casing, a vanilla whipped cream, cherry sorbet and a few amaren-macerated cherries, and a cherry gelee. All in all, it was a very potent conclusion for a very good meal. Very good to excellent.
But the joyride was far from over. Part of my coming was the chariot des mignardises a cart full of all the sweet bites that just make you want more. I chose to get a few that I always enjoy: Paris-Brest (divine!), tarte au chocolat (very good), cannele (to die for!) and an apple/caramel glass. All of these proved, once more, how able Sebastian Leproux, Elena’s patissier, is. They were all classical French patisseries but the cannele for instance was better than all I had in Bordeaux and the Paris-Brest was equally successful.
To really finish the experience, coffee is served in the adjacent salon. The coffee is definitely one of the better ones around and worth every cent.
What can one say in conclusion?
First of all, the whole building is phenomenal. It is this aristocratic decor, without the coldness, that might annoy some. Also, the service throughout was excellent and gave one the feeling that the house is really generous. They just make you fell well during your meal.
Now to Elena’s cooking. After having read his book, I had high expectations. These were partially let-down, as the presentation was not always as graphical or as neat as I had hoped for. Also, some of the elements in certain dishes did lack a little salt. A third point is this frightening Champagne jelly, which I did not like at all.
On the other hand, the quail, mackerel and salmon all showed what amazing products he uses, and how he can transform them into amazing dishes. These were all memorable and worth the journey. The bread, petit-fours, desserts and Flammekuechle all did attain that high level, showing how capable they are once more. This being said, the 2* are very accurate as a description, as some of the dishes are spot-on, but others do have some odd element here and there.
I would say that it is worth going to when in Reims, as the whole experience is quite memorable, but maybe not worth a trip on it’s own.