Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

IWFS Kuala Lumpur visit to Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace September 2016 - Day One

This is the first in a write up of a trip organised for selected members of the International Wine and Food Society Kuala Lumpur by one of its members, taking in the regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace in France. Short version is, it was brilliant and belly busting, with some delightful wines and dishes being tasted along the way inside some amazing locations and with wonderful fellowship and company. Which is what the IWFS is all about. Doesn't get much better. Enjoy and salut!

Prologue - CDG Paris
Friday 23rd September
The Italian Red - aperitif, nightcap and breakfast
We had arrived at CDG Paris Airport from a wonderfully put together IWFS event in Edinburgh all relaxed and ready for an easy day. As it turned out, CDG would prove a nightmare trying to get to the Ibis Styles hotel. First off, there are two - one near a terminal and another further in to the Roissypole village. Second, the instructions are not clear where to get off for the first - apparently, Ibis emails everyone with how to get there from the CDGVAL and bus, but we still managed to miss it and both the driver and the bus signage did not indicate when we needed to get off. Third, we were told to get the "black bus" by Information which was a circular bus that toured the terminals. So…after having wasted forty minutes on the circular bus followed by another forty minutes on the correct bus but with no indication of where to get off followed by another ten to get to the right stop and another ten to wheel the luggage to the hotel entrance, I was pretty stressed and bothered. Two hot wasted hours touring CDFG Airport. And you can't get a taxi because a) there are none and b) it is not worth their while to go the short hops to airport hotels. We also had a bad experience leaving CDG but more on that later. I have learnt - CDG does not like me, neither do I like it. I will not willingly go or stay there again. And better to stay at the Ibis Styles Roissy or somewhere other than the Ibis Styles CDG - they are a little bit further out but at least the bus stops there and you can get it back when you are ready to fly. 

Met up with Mr and Mrs Governor on the second bus round and we managed to all get to the hotel where we met Dear Leader Wong who was off to a meeting. We checked in, got showered and had to crack a bottle of Italian red we had bought on the Scottish Trip to de-stress. The only glasses available were the little plastic jobbos in the bathroom used for cleaning teeth. Never mind - needs must and the wine was absolutely necessary and ultimately wonderful to soothe the frayed nerves. We quaffed half the bottle in twenty minutes. Our original plan of heading into Paris for a quick shop and eat was now impossible - the time wasted on the CDG internal transport had put the kibosh on that. We settled for a pleasant and easy burger and fries at the Ibis and an early night, though not before borrowing some decent glassware to polish off the wine. We figured an easy night of food was not a bad idea given that there would be a lot of food to come in the next few days. Truer thoughts were never thunk.

Saturday, 24th September 2016 - Paris CDG and Reims

Woke up at about 7 following a fitful night's sleep. The air-con was cold whilst the blankets were hot. Bathroom visits also dislodge the sleep rhythms, but what to do? Figure the body always gets the sleep it needs with naps and catch ups and so far so good. 

We packed the bags and I finished off the wine before going down for a good solid carbo breakfast of Orange Juice, crusty baguette with ham and cheese and croissant with orange jam and coffee (which would be the breakfast of choice for most of the ensuing hotel stays). I went back up to get the small bags and do my business before heading back to check that all the Ibis troops were up and ready to jump on the bus. Dear Leader Wong had bravely braved the mental CDGVAL system to go fetch those arriving on the Qatar flight and had previously and strangely appointed me to be shepherd for those already on site. 

Which proved wonderfully easy since all were indeed in attendance. And with all their bags ready and eager to get going. One advantage of there not being much to explore around the Ibis Styles was that my sheep could not wander too far from the reception fold. I went outside for some air - quite crisp in the shade, grey skies but a good prospect of the sun behind the buildings. 

The Whatsapp had been pinging with messages from members arriving on Qatar Air saying that the party had already started and where was the #$#%% bus. Dear Leader had himself pinged with news that he was with the bus and driver. Which was comforting.  Difficulty was that when the bus got to the Ibis it was two buses rather than one and both a bit small at that. Seemed our big bus had been booked out for the day though it would be available on the morrow and "would we maind doing thee two leetle booses for toodaiy pleeeze?" As if we had a choice. Bloody French.

Outside La Vigneraie ahead of a Champagne lunch
Loading the bags proved a thirty minute exercise, with some going on one and others getting stuffed behind seats and in any other cavities and crevices on the transport with the result that 9.00am saw us finally waving farewell to the nightmare that was CDG and on the road to Reims. The grey damp skies gave wonderful way to brightening sunshine as the vineyards of Champagne beckoned. Almost as if CDG would be the last cloud on the trip and the sun would shine down our way for our stay (it pretty much would). 

The two hour drive to Reims passed easily, with initial excited chatter giving way to catnaps and dozing. It is quite a pretty drive along the Marne valley. We stopped at a Carrefour to pick up water and boxes of tissues (having been warned that the French toilets and hotels generally lack these necessaries - general response from Frenchie was apparently  "teeshue? Whai yoo are not yoose thee toilet paipare…") and went straight to the Mercure Reims Ibis to dump the bags in the hotel hold and retrieve one member who had sensibly got there the previous day. 

Table layout was pretty
Reims is a city in northeastern France's historical Champagne-Ardenne region. It is the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-growing region. The 3rd-century Porte de Mars' triumphal arch marks the town's time under Roman rule. For more than 1,000 years, French kings were crowned at its Cathédrale Notre-Dame. It was also where the Armistice following WW2 was signed, and many streets are named after the American Presidents and notables.

To save time, we went straight to lunch at La Vigneraie in Reims. This was a narrow yet pleasant eaterie not far from the centre. The bus dropped us at the top of the pedestrian road and five minutes later we were sat sipping fizz and unwinding from the road-trip. It would be a light lunch and also an all Champagne lunch. But of course - where were we again? Oh yes - Champagne country!

First course was fresh tomato juice in a long shot espresso mug with a pitta bread ham and cheese sushi roll sandwich kind of thing that came with a black straw, presumably to give the option of suck rather than shoot the tomato juice. The tomato and ham/cheese sandwich was a good opener, a nice cheesy bite and chew on light pitta carbo. Not much salt on the juice, and any hopes of it being laced with vodka to become a Bloody Mary were shot down on the first sip. 

Some of us were anxiously awaiting the appearance of the booze which seemed to be taking some time but it would prove worth the wait. We got chewy yeast and light bubbles, with a full biscuit and citrus acidity whack on the cheeks. All in lovely balance and a wonderful way to start the tour. My notes say it was a Roger Manceaux Grand Cru. Was dam excellent.

'Am an' Cheese sandweech wizz a Tomatoe Jooz.
The second fizz followed fast, mostly because the first had got sucked down quite rapidly. It was a Denis Salomon Rose and this was the first time with a fizzy that I could actually SMELL the fizz - the CO2 force was strong with this one. It poured like cherryade, all bubbles and rising to the top of the glass and threatening to overbubble. Many on the table reacted with horror at the thought of the precious fizz going straight to the washing machine, but it all remained under bubbly control. The smell kept nicely inside the glass and for some reason felt totally wicked and sinful. Tastewise I got a dry sour lean and clean cherry mouth with a chewy somewhat strawberry spritz that made for a long tasty finish. O lovely.

Checking to see if the online world still loves us...
Finally we got some bread - the kitchen was a bit slow on the baking, but they did a brilliant job with these white sesame seed sprinkled dough and crispy buns. In contrast to the wine service (which was proving quite smooth and regular) the food service was a bit grim. Efficient, but grim. My bread was unceremoniously thrown onto the plate without a word. Perhaps they were all a bit stressed trying to look after us all and rushing a bit. Which was a bit reinforced later when what looked to be the owner Madame came to clear up the breadcrumbs. So it goes.

Lobster and mussel broth - and bread to soak ze jooose madame. Oui.
There was good firm bite on the magnificently fresh lobster and mussels though not really much in the way of taste on either of them for me. Fresh but no taste, suggesting farmed rather than wild? It was the same with the creamy sauce that accompanied them. Some pepper brought out some sweetness in the sauce, which seemed to improve as it got cold in the bowl. It nicely cut the sweet cherry rasp of the Salomon into a smoother and sleeker sip whilst the bold acidity of the Manceaux stood up well against the cream.

We laike ze Salomon verrr' much. Ai only speek ze Fwrench when Ai am drunk. Salut!!
Fizz number three was an Agrapart 2009 and…   OMFG. Total business of a fizz. Sweet oatmeal biscuit, slight honey in the mouth, delicate beads, bit of melon. Amazing mouthfeel, like sprinklings of stardust on springwater that just lingered and lingered. And lingered some more. The balance is magic and the heavier than normal texture and weight totally distinguished this one from many that have gone before. The finish was endless. Apparently the Sommelier chose this one for us, and kudos to him for it. Total stunner of a fizz - easy, full, vibrant and sexy and ticking all the boxes. Absolute Booze Nirvana. Om.

Prawn and Egg Souffle thingy in Prawn Bisque
I have no idea of the name of Dish Three, but it felt like egg souffle laced with prawns in a prawn bisque. I scoured the menu looking for something that might match this but… zip. Light and pleasant texture on the souffle, though the creamy bisque felt a bit thin on the taste and needed some pepper. It made for a firm full combo, contrasting light and fluffy with with the bite of the prawn, though the bread was necessary to give some firm carbo support. It all paired fairly well with the champagnes, but these were all such stunners that they were better enjoyed on their own with friends rather than the food. 

Lenglui with Chocolate Bomb. Yum.
Searching for the dessert name on the menu proved as equally fruitless as the dessert itself. It was a pinky sponge with pink ice cream and red sauce so presumably strawberry in everything. The sponge was light and with a centre like a Japanese milky mousse which made for an amazing texture. The ice cream was, er, creamy with indeed hints of strawberry that made for enough to taste but not overpower. Ultimately, it all worked together nicely, though perhaps a larger hint of fruit would have made for better acidic balance. 

Of the petits fours, the chocolate was the bomb - full, rich, dark and sinful. The others were pleasant in a cakey, spongey kind of way and excellent with the espresso. Good lunch.

We all fell out of the restaurant into the cool shaded street to either wait for the bus back or go for a stroll into the town centre. We opted for the latter to walk off lunch. It was a brilliantly sunny day, alternating hot and cold depending if you were in shade (which we aimed for most of the time). Reims has lots of shops in a pedestrianised centre where all roads lead to the Cathedral and then away. It felt like lots of tourists were here, but then it was a Saturday. After a slow round of the town we meandered back to the hotel to chill and get ready for a 6pm bus ride to dinner at the Maison Ruinart. This was the first established House of Champagne and has been in operation since 1729. The schedule said we would take a trip down into Ruinart's cellars, 38 metres below the city, the chalk mining pits (Les Crayères) of which were designated as a Unesco World Heritage and Historical Monument in 1931.

Reims Cathedral - perfect lighting
A shower and a nap later and with the clock saying it was ten to five we thought we had loads of time. This would have been true had someone not forgotten that time in France is one hour ahead of time in UK. So it was that at ten past the hour we got a frantic call from Dear Leader asking where the @#$% were we and the bus was going. I ran down to say we would get a taxi but could we have the address. He passed the detail. Got back to the room and changed the fucking clock. 

So it was that a 10 minute 15 Euro taxi ride by a pleasant Armenian looking driver dropped us off at the Ruinart main gate at about 7pm French time. I had to lurk at the hotel door cos a Frenchie was also lurking there and I didn't want the bugger stealing my ride. The guard at the Ruinart gate seemed to know we were expected and my French seemed to be okay to get the gate open. We walked the main avenue to the impressive looking palace styled building feeling for all the world like foreign dignitaries who had been invited for a glass with Royalty. Which was true in some respects - Ruinart is royalty in the world of fizz. Our guide into the depths was a tall chap named Alex, who spoke perfect French but who had apparently grew up in London. On arrival at the reception area, he passed us a white blanket, saying we might need it underground. He was not wrong. Polar bears might also have needed a reinforcing against the damp humid chill.

There was an elevator which whisked us down and we pretty much joined the group who kindly decided not to whack us for our oversight. 

Into the Ruinart Caves - who's shooting who?
Big suckers the caves were, tall and cavernous and stinky dank cool. Deep underground too, with spire-like funnels cut into the rock for ventilation. And loads of bottles. We silently praised the inventor of elevators on reaching the surface. 

Very Important Monsieur - very steady hand
Repaired to a dinky reception bar area where the Magnum Ruinart "R" was chilled and getting poured by an elderly maitre kind of chap in white and loosened black tie. Knowing the French, he might have been Mr. Ruinart himself, but no-one said anything. Seems Ruinart doesn't sell generally and only goes to designated customers - I guess this maintains its desirability. Still owned by the family (if I heard right). The doors opened out to the courtyard and tables and watching the sun set in the evening chill and gloam was lovely.

Dinner was at a long white table in a long white room. Again, nothing of the food or the booze springs back. But the room was magnificent - like a summer palace from the days of the Dauphin with candles and white. The candles were actually fake - I guess they were battery operated - but they were very good fake. General lighting came from a big hanging lampshade from the ceiling and painting lights. 

The verandah at Maison Ruinart - very pleasant way to enjoy aperitifs
The first course Royal Gambas (translate into King Prawn) was a big sucker with a good firm bite to it, though I think I got perhaps a hint of slightly overcooked. Lacked that little bit of juicy you get when they are perfectly steamed. The seasoning on the dish is excellent, especially on a salty Parmesan wafer which I don't see in the photos, and finely chopped celeriac giving everything a zippy ping. The asparagus is amazing with a full on soft chew and vegetal crunch.And sweet - not a taste I would have expected with asparagus but this boy had some natural sugar.  Excellent.

Royal Gambas, Coral Bearnaise Sauce, Green Asparagus Brunois
The "R" was doing sterling work, its cold crisp fruit and bubbles cutting the sauce and letting some apples and sherbert lemon come through. Truth be told, I would have preferred a slightly heavier Chardonnay or Sancerre for the prawn, but in Ruinart you drink Ruinart and I was not about to whack the host. Just keep smiling and say thank you for pouring us such wonderful booze. Yes.

Pan Fried Fois Gras, Stuffed Choux, Duck Broth
Course Two was a Cabbage Leaf stuffed with chopped duck alongside some pan fried Foie Gras and both paddling in what would turn out to be a wonderful broth. Don't remember too much about the duck, though the Foie Gras felt a bit liverish and somewhat fierce - perhaps a bit over aged. Like when duck tastes a bit "ducky", the FG felt a bit "foie gras-ey" - that pungent, almost gamey sense of the thing. But against this, the Duck Broth was stellar, full of taste and sweetened wonderfully with some chopped carrot (which lent texture to the thing). Very good.

Our Entourage. Sans moi. Oui.
The "R" continued getting poured. I was starting to find that its acidity was starting to lock air in the belly and bloat, though some surreptitious and sneaky belching helped move things through. Ah, the things we do for the food and booze. My poor liver.

We were told that the Dom Ruinart Rose 2012 was 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot. Supposedly with a caramel nose, I found it delightfully light and tasting of cherries and rose petals. Floral and fragrant and feminine. 

Veal Medallion, Foie Gras seared, potatoes and greens. Excellent. 
The veal was magnificent - tender in texture, rich in taste, good bite and chew and absolutely the best I have ever eaten. Totally outstanding - never been a great fan of veal, but now I understand. The jus was smoky and rich, real bistro style gravy with cream and that light brown whack. The potato is superb with a slight cheesy crisp about it and the combo works brilliantly. Sadly the Foie Gras again felt a bit old. 

The Rose worked exceptionally well with the veal, coming over like a light breeze from the Provence to kiss the food and declare that all was well with the world. Absolutely. 

The Dom Ruinart Blancs de Blanc 2004 had an oak nose, crisp mouth, excellent balance - but somehow came across at the start as a bit ordinary. Perhaps it was the company it was keeping, but I could not really distinguish this from a standard Veuve Cliquot or a Bolly. Totally dry, with apples and pears and not a hint of sugar - almost like a sandstorm drought on the tongue. Perhaps I was overdosing on Champagne?

Troyes Cheese in thin crust with honey and pine nuts
Course Three was a sweet cream cheesey curd kind of thing which came in a thin pastry crown wrap and with a salty salad that I opted not to eat - some of my worst reactions have come from iffy salads. The cheese with the sourdough bread is superb, a combo of cheesey goo sweet, salt and carbo - if cheese has umami, then this was it. Did a search for Troyes Cheese but nothing turned up except a reference to Amish style cheese - I don't think so. Perhaps Troyes is a spelling blip?

Food Service not top end - no napkins folded on return from the toilet visits - but the champagne just flowed endlessly with efficiency and professional friendliness. 

All our champagnes for the evening. Salut!!
The Ruinart Rose was a blend of 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir. Orange garnet in colour, a light fragrant sweet sugarish cherryade nose, bit sharp and sour in the cheeks, good grip on the throat. It all felt a bit rough after the vintage champagnes, but there is always a context

Rose Champagne Jelly with Raspberries, Soft Biscuit and Grapefruit Foam
Dessert was like a frozen rice pudding but with a wheat flake taste. The berries are perfectly fresh and the grapefruit foam sharp citrus contrasts nicely with the champagne jelly. A dish of excellent texture and taste contrasts, lots of fruit zip against wheat and flour carbo tastes. Nice. Doesn't pair well with the Rose - sharp plus sharp equals very sharp. But it fared better with the earlier offerings, especially the 2004 which was starting to come into its own as it warmed a bit in the glass. The dessert softened the grapefruit and eased the dryness and brought out a bigness in the champagne. It was now firm and full with a brilliantly zippy finish.

Brilliant ambience and table setting, though the candles were battery operated
The petit fours were spongey, cakey sweet pistachio creations, and more refined in presentation than the rustic bombs we had at lunch. 

David started speaking about a memorable trip we had all previously been on, and had to turn to Dear Leader Wong to be reminded of the name of a restaurant we had visited. Priceless, totally vintage David. 

My fiancee. Apparently. 
Somewhere during the dinner our wine hostess poured off the dregs of a bottle into my glass and promptly informed that this was a sign that I would be married before the end of the year. This caused some hilarity at my expense by the table. Okay. But probably not going to happen. Then our friend staged managed for the NEXT bottle to be emptied into my glass by some judicious pouring into the glasses of the neighbours. Double reinforcement. I promptly asked our wine hostess if she would marry me and got a slap from Lenglui. I actually meant in a ceremonial capacity but figured at this time of the night the joke might get lost, so I promptly shut up and continued eating dinner. I later sought to strike a deal with my marriage broker whereby if I were to get married then would Ruinart supply the booze? "We can negotiate'" was the response. In my experience, this usually means "no."

On the buses and back to Ibis for a hugely restless night's sleep. Lying horizontally gave the previously restrained air in the system full vent to expel itself and I let rip all night like a bull elephant chasing down a tiger. The only thing that I can connect this monumental Gas attack with is the vintage champagne - and the more impressive the vintage, the louder the report. Quite sad. C'est la guerre... I guess. Please tell me I am not alone in this affliction.

Yin-How with La Vigneraie Chef
Ruinart Menu
Royal Gambas, Coral Bearnaise Sauce, Green Asparagus Brunoise
"R" de Ruinart

Panned Foie Gras, Stuffed Choux Pastry in Brunoise, Duck Broth
"R" de Ruinart

Veal medallion Topped with Foie Gras crispy wrapped, Charlotte Potatoes with Demi Glace Juice
Dom Ruinart Rose 2012

Troyes Cheese in a Thin Crust, Honey and Pine Nuts
Dom Ruinart Blancs de Blanc 2004

Rose Champagne Jelly with Raspberries, Rose Soft Biscuit, Grapefruit Foam
Ruinart Rose

Ibis Styles CDG Airport Hotel
Rue de la Haye
95735 Roissypole
+33 1 70 03 14 00

Mercure Reims Centre Cathedral
31 Boulevard Paul Doumer, 
51723 Reims 
Tel: +33 3 26 84 49 49

La Vigneraie
14 Rue de Thillois, 
51100 Reims 
Tel: +33 3 26 88 67 27

Les Taxis de Reims
03 26 47 05 05

Maison Ruinart
4 Rue des Crayères, 
51100 Reims 

Tel: +33 3 26 77 51 51

More photos

Our Lunchtime Champagnes 
Courtyard and Building at Maison Ruinart
Zees ess mai booze, you are laike eet? 
Yasu, Jeremy and Yin-How with Canapes and Ruinart Champagne. Vraimant, la vie en rose, n'est-ce pas?


  1. Nice report, Brian, looking forward to further instalments!

    Ruinart is still owned by the family...the LVMH family.

    1. Cheers Julian! And thanks for the Ruinart fact check. PS have submitted your IWFS KL application form, will need for you to attend 2 events for it to proceed. In theory. Malaysia boleh see how :D

    2. Pasti Boleh!

      When's your next event?

    3. November 18 at Villa Danieli, Sheraton Hotel. Details be emailed out tomorrow 👍