Chateau les Crayeres, Reims

The Chateau Les Crayeres in Reims is an institution. It used to be the residence of the Pommery family, and now houses one of the finest hotels in France. Since a few months a new chef has taken over: Philippe Mille. Ex-sous-chef of Yannick Alleno at the Meurice and winner of the Bocuse de bronze a little while ago, he is certainly someone who is to be watched. Having spent a day in the Champagne, I decided to have lunch here, whilst sipping Raphael Bereche’s fantastic Reflet d’Antan in his winery. If you already came that far, you might as well enjoy yourself I thought. Plus, there was a bit of time to kill before moving on to Avize, where a few bottles were waiting for me. So, what better thing to do than grab lunch?  The room hasn’t changed from my first visit a year back, and most of the service brigade was still there too, including Philippe Jamesse, the very good and knowledgeable sommelier.

The wine list here is impressive, a few houndred different cuvees from the Champagne are on offer, and the rest of France is not misrepresented neither. Price-wise things are very friendly too: Selosse’s brut Initiale is 110euro, whilst Coche Dury’s Meursault Rougeots from 2005 is around 150. That’s a decent price for such wines, especially in such a grand dining room. Other steals included some of David Leclapart’s wines. I decided to drink a glass of Roederer’s blanc de blancs 2004 with my starter and a glass of Henriot Cuvee des enchanteleurs 1996 with the main course. The Roederer was very fruity, rich, and intense, with a nice freshness that kept things in balance, whilst the Henriot was great. It had exactly the richness I love in some Champagnes. In addition the mousse was very fine, the nose a dream, and the wine as a whole an unexpectedly fine partner with the main I chose.

Whilst perusing the menu, we were served a few nibbles. There was a marinated white fish on a spoon, a foie gras cube, some hot pomme dauphine or something of the sort and a little tube, filled with a kind of ham mousse. These were nice, and pleasant, but not really groundbreaking.

The amuse itself was interesting though, a salad of beef cheek was served with a lemon cream and a cromesquis of cornichon and capers. I liked the beef salad, but unfortunately it was too cold to have much flavour. The mousse on top was too powerful, and if one had a bit of both, the mousse overwhelmed the beef completely. If taken away, the beef was nice though, and not necessarily bad, but still no outburst of joy or so. Nice. I was beginning to wonder if it was worth coming so early after Mille’s take-over…

Here came the starters though. First up a few scallops with artichoke ravioli and foie gras. Technically perfect, this dish was a real 3* plate. The products were of fine quality, the cooking very precise, the ravioli equally well made, and the whole thing lovely. I adored it, and was rather surprised how quickly Mille had settled in. It left me wanting more, and regretting to not have taken the longest menu available. Excellent.

Next up was a risotto with green asparagus and Iberico ham. A generous portion of a very well made risotto was topped with two nice, fat green asparagus and a few slivers of Iberico ham. In general I’m not a big fan of eating risotti in a restaurant, as the Ducasse recipe is more convincing than what many restaurants serve.  Here however, the risotto was great. Creamy, al dente, well seasoned and served with perfect asparagus, it was a very good classic. Hard to fault, and very delightful.

The fish course was a sea bass with shellfish. A fat piece of sea bass came with a creamy shellfish sauce and a few mussels, cockles,…. Another French classic, which is very simplistic in it’s approach, but doesn’t let any mediocrity on the side of the products and execution pass. But, there was no real problem here with either of the two, as the fish was beautiful, cut from a very large wild sea bass, it was cooked to perfection and served in a decent pool of unctuous shellfish jus. Hard to beat if it is as well made as here. Excellent.

Finally the meat came, a pluma of Iberico pig was served with traditional French garnishes: the condiment of a sauce charcutiere. First of all, This was by far the best pluma I’ve had so far. Incredibly juicy, tender and tasty the meat was simply magnificent. Of outrageously good quality, it didn’t really need the garnishes, even if they were very convincing and worked well with it. An outstanding course, one of the best of the year, concerning my experiences so far.

We skipped cheese and went straight to the sweet side of things. An exotic fruit dessert was served. It looked more than pretty, and was refreshing, well made, and interesting. A very good end to the meal.

Overall, if one considers that 3 of these courses cost 68euro, this is very fair value, and the cooking is in safe 2* mode. I must say, that the food on this occasion was much better than when I visited the restaurant a year ago, even if Mille has just taken control of his new kitchen. He seems to rely on a few classics at the moment, but executes these so well, and with some really interesting ideas, that I have absolutely no problem with that at all! I will certainly be back, as there are quite a few things in this region that are worth discovering.

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