Posted on Wednesday, 13th August 2008
Champagne, a beverage that conjures up images of all things grand, of monumental occasions and causes for celebration. Perhaps fitting then that Reims, our destination that evening and the capital of the Champagne region, was for centuries the coronation ground for many French monarchs. It was here in the cathedral, the Cathedrale Notre-Dame in Reims that some thirty odd French kings were crowned, including Charles VII as Joan of Arc watched on. Also here in Reims is a little French chateau called Les Crayères, home to the talents of Chef Didier Elena. As explained to me by the locals, crayères in French translates as chalk.
Chalk, you say? Well, it’s the chalk in the earth that the grapes are grown in that helps give Champagne its flavour for it helps to provide good humidity and drainage. It would be easy to assume that Les Crayères is so named for this chalk in the earth and is perhaps meant to embody all that which gives the Champagne region its flavours. If so then, how could one resist sampling the offerings of this restaurant, a two-star-Michelin restaurant, symbolically situated in the land of Champagne and the birthplace of French kings?
On entering the majesty of the gorgeous restaurant that lies behind the gates, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store. A stroll around the palatial gardens conjured up images of the grandeur of French court life. We were seated by immaculately tailored wait staff in a rectangular dining room that from all angles looked out through French doors dressed with lush curtains onto this aforementioned garden. The style of the restaurant dining room was period, the décor lush but unpretentious.
In these sumptuous surroundings we sipped champagne (starting from €25) in the sitting room and then elected to feast on a seven-course traditional dégustation menu (€185). There was also à la carte and an alternative tasting menu (€225) with the option of accompanying champagnes (€305). After ordering we were immediately presented with a trio of amuse bouche and breads, five varieties, so hardly lacking for choice. Freshly baked, the cheese and the sausage options were the winning flavours; the crusts were just right and the dough so tasty it almost seemed an injustice to eat with butter.
Our first tempting morsel was the crab and avocado puree accompanied by a niçoise salad. Placed before us was a rainbow of colours, the avocado serving as the bed of grass overlaid with a multitude of colourful vegetables as if an enchanted forest. The flavours were subtle and perfectly balanced, the crunchiness of the greens contrasting with the smoothness of the avocado and the meatiness of the tuna.
A roasted gamba was also the picture of exquisiteness. Sweet and firm, it was placed over a pillow of creamy crunchy squid ink rice. However, accompanied by a slightly bland pimientos cake, the dish in its totality lacked real depth of flavour or bite. A turbot was cooked to sweet moist perfection and lightly flavoured with fragrant lemongrass. Served with a concentrated tomato reduction, its astringency and tartness contrasted perfectly with the subtlety of the fish.
The roasted veal and veal confit also proved delightful. Immersed in a mushroom velouté and veal jus and served with a sliver of raw tuna, capers and tuna foam, it was perhaps the most complex of dishes with its multi-layering of ingredients. The flavours and textures perfectly complemented each other; the sharp saltiness of the capers with the sweet richness of the veal jus, the firmness of the veal against the softness of the raw tuna.
However, the roasted duck breast and duck confit proved a little disappointing. Texturally it was too gooey because of the all too thick, slightly starchy, ginger infused duck jus lavished over the tender duck meat. Consequently it submerged rather than highlighted the gamey flavour of the duck.
With the presentation of desserts Didier Elena again demonstrated how he was clearly a man of contrasts. Three mini peaches were layered with almond and raspberry jam, the savoury of the almond jostling with the natural sweetness of the peach and the intensity of the jam. A chocolate ball with salted caramel ice cream and hot chocolate sauce was sweet and salty, hot and cold.
The service by the wait staff throughout the evening was attentive without being overwhelming in the ‘in your face’ kind of way. However the kitchen operated at break neck speed to induce a world record time of two and a half hours for the completion of our very lengthy tasting menu. To this end, I would’ve instead preferred a slightly slower pace to savour the view and to catch my breath.
So it wasn’t long before it came time to leave the restaurant. Despite the sprint, I couldn’t help but think that it would be nice to visit again at some point. What had come before us was a parade of complex constructions, cleverly presented, harmonised by layers of textures and contrasting flavours to achieve a purpose of depth and harmony. Whilst some of the dishes didn’t always engage, we were still royally treated and the surroundings were sublime. As I rolled out of the restaurant, I couldn’t help but feel for one split second like a princess for an evening.
Les Crayères at:
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier,
Tel: +33 (0)3 26 82 80 80