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.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

IWFS Kuala Lumpur Visit to Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace September 2016 - Day Two

Art Underground - the Cellars of Champagne Pommery
Sunday, 25th September 2016 - Reims

This was a bit of a lie in (well, 8am) which was most welcome after the assault that was the previous two days. Well, the madness that was CDG at least - yesterday was most pleasant. So we enjoyed a leisurely wake up in the spacious and bright Mercure room to our Cafe 21 instant coffee breakfast, a slow shower and quick dress and down for swift breakfast then back up and business and grab the bag for downstairs and on to the bus. Breakfast itself was the normal ham and cheese baguette with a strawberry jam croissant and coffee.  The breakfast was on the mezzanine floor and it was crowded - weekenders I guess - the following day was far less so. Consequence was that the single working lift was also busy with everyone looking to get up or down (mostly down for some reason). Seem to recall one dopey mmeselle who kept pressing the button and not giving the lift a chance to move - had to shout at her to stop. I did it in English so she probably didn't understand a word. But I think my tone and black thunderous face conveyed the message because the lift moved. Bloody French. 

Champagne Pommery Art
On reaching the lobby, many of the Members were already sat waiting for the bus. Clearly the fear of perdition had been put into everyone by the idea of getting fined for lateness and everyone clearly seemed keen to avoid such sanction. Quite right too. Outside looked bright and sunny so after a few "Good Mornings" I went for some fresh air. It was indeed a glorious day, sunny but crisp in the slight morning chill.

The Mercure Hotel overlooked a canal river on which were some moored boats. Across the river was a spaceship style stadium, all rods and spikes, which made a somewhat bizarre view in the morning sun. But all this faded with the joy that was the arrival of a proper long 50 seater bus on which we all could sprawl ourselves and spread out nicely. 

The President prepares to decapitate the Fizz
I seem to remember an earlier time of getting on the bus than the 10.45 on the schedule - I think perhaps we left a bit earlier to avoid the early morning rush and get first in the queue. It took the bus about ten minutes to get to the Pommery gate where we got off and walked up the grand promenade to the main entrance where Dear Leader quickly sorted out our tickets and tour guide. 

Lenglui and I had visited Pommery on a trip in 2014 but had not gone down to the caves - the lift was not working then and the steps were pretty steep. This time we went for it, and were well glad we did. The history and art hidden there is amazing and the lighting is bright enough to enjoy it all without overpowering the majesty of the place. Like Ruinart, the caves are chalk based which means that it keeps an even temperature no matter what the weather is like up above. It is a cool humidity which is perfect for keeping the corks from drying out and thus letting the priceless booze get ruined by oxidation. Seems Mme Pommery was a great lover of art and had commissioned various luminaries to develop projects for display throughout the winery. As you enter, for example, you are greeted with a huge champagne wire cork stopper and an elephant standing on its trunk. Yes. And all through the cellars and caves, sculptures leap out in shadow and light from the walls impassively defying you to take a decent flash-less photo of them. Again, we thanked the man who invented elevators and the good Mme for having one installed. 

The amazing tasting room at Pommery
Dear Leader must have signed us up for the full package because after the tour we got whisked past Trunky the Elephant into a private room to sip the fizz. This room was delightful, light and airy and with some amazing paintings and photos around the place. Also hearing stories about old wines and treasures being bricked up during World War II and still being discovered. We were also made to gather outside in the courtyard area where President David was invited to decapitate a bottle of fizz with a ceremonial sword (which he did quite expertly). Drifting around the room checking the art and photos whilst most members sat and sipped Mme Pommery's best was charming. There was a great sense of history about the room, a timeless quality that you felt would outlast most of us passing through and gaping at it all. Quite humbling in some ways. Sharpens a sense of one's insignificance in the whole scheme of the world and its turnings. The sight of massive opulent wealth can have that effect. Ultimately, all of us serve some higher process we feel is necessary to be perpetuated beyond our lifetime. Or not. Kind of depressing, if you allow it to be so. Where's that bottle?

Lydia and Edna

The Pommery Gate Gang
We made our way back to the gate to meet the bus for transfer to lunch and took some group and small group shots - beautiful sunlight for shooting. We were told the location was a five minute walk up the road, but it was resolved better to all stay together for this first re-boarding of the big bus. The five minute bus drive became fifteen as we circled around Pommery's twice with our driver being unable to spot the entrance to lunch. Finally some sharp eyes on the bus spotted the signboard of the place and we unloaded for a gentle stroll up the driveway that was the Domaine Les Crayeres. 

Walking to Les Parc Des Crayeres
Dear Leader had billed this two star Michelin as "One of the top restaurants in Champagne. Extensive wine list and deep with classics. Relais and Chateaux elegance." And it was indeed a stunner. Walking up and through this statuesque building filled with art and glass display cupboards and out on to a verandah overlooking a huge park was a standout. The skies had dulled slightly from blazing to pastel blue, but this took nothing away from the green grandeur of the place. The park was a vast expanse of verdant lawn, and if I'd had a three wood I would have happily tried to whack a golf ball straight down this magnificent fairway (how do you say "fore" in French?). As it was, we all settled for sitting at tables on the verandah ahead of lunch with glasses of delicately firm and sunlight bright Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Premier Cru Champagne and nibbles of deep fried cheese wafers and prosciutto ham. Delightful. Lots of photos got taken. There was a menu being passed around but naturally it was all in French and no one really knew what it all meant. Google Translate was a total saviour and allowed Dear Leader a better idea of what wines on the Crayeres list would be good matches. 

Lenglui Ho Leng hor?
Domaine Les Crayeres bills itself as "an entire estate in the heart of the Champagne area. The Park and terrace were constructed under the supervision of Mme Pommery and continued by daughter Louise. Inaugurated in 1904, it survived WW1 German artillery and WW2 occupation by the British RAF and US Army, though suffered substantial damage. The Castle was restored from 1947 to 1955 and purchased by the Gardinier family in 1980. It comprises a Relais & Chateau hotel, a British style "Winter Garden" Bar, a Brasserie ("Le Jardin") and our venue for lunch the "Le Parc" Gourmet Restaurant. Chef Philippe Mille joined Le Parc in 2010 who got his first Michelin star in 2011 with the second getting awarded the following year. The Hotel features regularly in the top global Travel awards with many wins over the years. 

We repaired inside to a room with three tables for all of us and parked ourselves where we could (there would be no fixed seating for the group throughout the entire trip). 

There was a change of champagne - we now got a 100% Pinot Noir Benoit Lahaye to start, which was all macho bubbles and acidic citrus whack between the cheeks.The balance across all of these and the lowish alcohol was fabulous. 

First out for the food was an amuse bouche of sharply sweet tomatoes, tiny croutons and creme fraiche, and what tasted remarkably like ketchup (surely not in a 2 star Michelin?). It made for a good salt and spritzy blitz across tongue and cheek, though this all threatened to kill the tongue when sipped with the fizz.

The  next out Terrine de Foie Gras was solidly firm in texture with a good bite through the thing and nicely cold without feeling chilled and frozen. Darn good with the Brioche and a great foil for the Champagne, cutting the acidity to release almond and hazelnut in the mouth. The accompanying crunchy mushroom chutney was very full and earthy, and getting paired with the sweet prune and (what felt like) balsamic vinegar was a brilliant expression of contrasts. But it was the Brioche that brought all these elements into wonderful focus, having that light white smooth and crusted carbo to give foundation to the whole. Most excellent. 

Terrine of Foie Gras - wonderful with Brioche and Butter
The Brioche disappeared fast so I turned to the table bread and butter to finish off the Terrine. Yet again this proved to this peasant that there is no greater match on this planet than good bread, excellent butter and a slab of pate with a glass of wine, and the ambience of the surroundings help to raise the gastronomic heights to which this combination takes me. Lenglui also passed me the remains of her Brioche which I devoured. My notes say "Butter on the FG + Brioche = F**k me." Res ipsa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself. 

Salmon in Butter and Herb Sauce
The service proved supremely efficient with regard to setting and clearing cutlery and plates. All young and well dressed (mostly) men, hugely polite and well versed in knowledge of the hotel and wines. And speaking English. No more need for Google Translate. Maybe. And the choreography of both food and wine service was excellent - all wines were poured ahead of the food which came out hot and on to the tables across all tables in less than three minutes. Fantastic. And never was a glass left empty - felt totally wine sated at the end. 

The Smokey Brown Quail - yum
Our white for lunch was a 2009 Chablis 1er Cru from Domaine Francois Raveneau. Bit of a stinky nose at first, but o what a taste of heaven after a little while in the glass and decanter. Tropical soft fruits with banana and melon, nose like a breath of Maltese spring air with notes of acacia honey and walnut, and liquid honey to finish. As said, time in the glass enlarged the mouthfeel - big, big wine. My note says "ho chiak" which is Chinese for "outstanding". Dam straight - one excellent glass of wine.

Ambience at Le Parc Des Crayeres
It was being matched with poached and lightly salted Salmon and lightly fried macedoine of what felt like carrot and celery and chopped cabbage. The salmon was melt in the mouth texture yet retaining fantastic taste and wonderful in its creamy butter parsley sauce. There was also a sprinkling of croutons on the macedoine which was oily salt carbo genius against the soft vegetal crunch. The combo was superb - perfect poached salmon and salt parsley sauce against (possibly) duck fat saute confit of vegetable and garlic croutons. Total crackerjack of a dish. 

2009 Domaine Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru
Great choice of a wine to pair. Lot of both delicate and large tastes in the dish which needed quite a versatile wine. The Chablis was brilliant - big enough to tame the sauces yet broad enough to allow lots of lighter notes to shine against the fish. To repeat - most excellent. 

Bread and Orchids. And Ice Bucket. Empty.
Next wine up was a 1999 Volnay from Domaine Michel Lafarge. The label said "Vendange Selectionnes"  - selected grapes - so one would expect a cut above the Village. And indeed it was - smoky, vibrant, intense and powerful. Dark forest fruit, plum, and conspicuous by the absence of any cherry on the nose. Forward tannins, chewy cherries in the mouth, nice integration between fruit and tannins. Long finish and a fabulous drop of deepest masculine Burgundy. 

Winston and The Money
It was being paired with quail which (my notes say) had been done sous vide (so as to retain those intense and rich smoky brown flavours of the bird) and then I guess lightly seared for the crispy skin. Result was a total smoke bomb of taste and succulence in the mouth. The bird itself was firm and well seasoned and stood up well to the smack and whack that was the Volnay. Actually, the Volnay would have stood up to a curried mutton or a charging bull - darn powerful this boy…  There was garlic mash and more vegetables with the dish but these got left untasted - we were pretty full by this time. 

Lenglui had opted for the alternate pork dish, of which I had a taste from The Money. It was stunning - wonderfully prepared and seasoned meat, and with amazing taste and texture. Hugely intense pork flavours, lightly enough seasoned and with an amazing gravy. Total match with the Volnay which loosened up a bit to let silky and sleek textures come through. Stellar, stellar, stellar, stellar - my food and wine match of the year. 

Light and fluffy Souffle
Out came some delicately cut cheeses in a whipped creme fraiche kind of gunk ahead of dessert. It tasted okay, but came across as a bit of a stomach churner after all the previous - milky goo can be a gas bomb to the mildly lactic intolerant so regrettably it went uneaten. 

Li Dong and Lenglui chomping on the Minardises
Dear Leader had ordered a fourth wine, which the label named a 2013 Remy Bouzy Rouge. This was all fresh light wild cherries, both on the nose and in the mouth. More New Zealand in structure - lean, taut, nicely integrated acidity and tannin, though leaning toward the austere and perhaps not enough fruit to make it for the long term. It was a total contrast to the Volnay, kind of Old School v New School. Put me in mind of a front row Rugby player - powerful, forceful, take no prisoners. There's power and intensity in the Remy, but was not immediately clear what food would pair well. Beef, probably - default for all Burgundy. 

Lengjai chomping on the, er, Minardises
The finale was the Souffle and - wow. So much going on in this thing. Got air, light texture, hot and cold, crispy apples, sweet and sharp sour, mint. All sitting in a perspex bowl of hot water which kept the thing nicely hot. It came with Valrhona chocolate sprinkled with Ginger sugar which was inspired and brought out the deep cocoa - magnificent. There were some crunchy bits which gave necessary texture to the chocolate, though the wafer was a bit snuzz and forgettable.

Le Booze. C'etait magnifique. Oui.
Outside of my nit picky little digs, this was an unforgettable lunch - food and wine and ambience and service. Great wine matching by Dear Leader. That is the beauty of these group trips - the pooling of the funds help all of us try wines that would normally be out of reach to most. Absolutely delightful. Would happily come back but need to close your eyes to the bill. We didn't see it but would have even if we had. 

Le Parc Les Crayeres Lunch Menu
Terrine de Foie Gras en gelee de ratafia de Champagne Chutney de girolles et prune en aigre douce

Saumon confitaux agrumes, Choux vert au poivre Timut

Supremes de caille de Pel et Der en robe de fleur de courgette
Pommes fondantes et courgettes

Chaource foisonné a l'huile de noisette
Coulis de cresson, des de brioches craquantes

Souffle chaud a la pomme
Sorbet Granny Smith

Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Premier Cru Champagne
Benoit Lahaye Champagne NV
2009 Chablis 1er Cru Domaine Francois Raveneau
1999 Volnay Domaine Michel Lafarge
2013 Remy Bouzy Rouge

Lenglui and Li Dong in the Parc

Sze Wan, Jaya, Rajan and the distracted Stephanie on the Verandah

Tony and Vanessa

Li Dong and Lydia

Lenglui with flowers and Champagne
Back on the bus to digest lunch in the hotel room ahead of a revision to the schedule and dinner in a local Reims brasserie legend rather than a trek out to Epernay. Which made sense - why trek out and back to somewhere when good and solid were on the doorstep? We lazed and rested and watched news and football on the TV. 

What booze, boss? Perusing the Wine List at Brasserie Flo
The bus drive to the Flo Brasserie took about five minutes and we got dropped and led to an upstairs room and long table. Flo Brasserie is one of the older and leading eateries in town and seems to make the lists of Tripadvisor and all the other "where to eat" webbies. This marketing clearly works - the downstairs was packed and the upstairs also, with our group sharing the room with one other table of six. 

Les Escargots
The deal was that we could go for either the Brasserie Menu (two dishes for Euro28.50) or the Flo Menu (three for Euro35.50).  Since we were all a bit stuffed, we went for the Brasserie and figured to share. Choices for first starters were Duck Foie Gras, Snails in Chablis, Onion Soup with goat's cheese or Oysters. Choices for second mains were Charolais Beef tartare, Griddled Salmon with vegetables, Roasted Guinea Fowl and Hanger Steak with chips. No one went for dessert. Lenglui did the snails and the beef while I tried the soup. 

Les Huitres - yumyum
There was some champagne going round at the start, though I have no note as to what it was. Half a memory of it being the Veuve Cliquot. Certainly one of the standards. Water was in plentiful supply and I was chugging big-time on the Evian avec le Gas to try and stimulate the reserves that were ballooning inside the intestines. Phooo…. lot of bloat. It was also quite stuffy in the room so the big bay window was necessarily opened to let in a good flow of cold evening air. Problem was, yours truly was sitting directly in the draught this created with the door through which the food and service had to come. Can't win sometimes, eh?

Hangar Steak in the Gravy Sea
Given most of us were having the beef, Dear Leader suggested the 2010 Chateau Montus as a good firm red to match the beef. This is an 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon offering from a winemaker by name of Brumont from the South West of France. We don't see much Tannat over here, though it is quitee popular as both a varietal and blending grape in Uruguay and Argentina. It was not quite as muscular as a Bordeaux though still with sufficient oomph to tackle the somewhat overtenderised and large chunk of steak that was swimming upstream against the sea of gravy on the plate. 

David, Pitt Lee and Suzuki
To be frank, the Flo felt a bit… ordinary.  But coming on the back of lunch at Le Parc Les Crayeres anywhere would probably feel ordinary given the calibre of the place. Always a context, eh? But it was the same with the food and the wines - solid, but ordinary. Getting very particular by the look of things. And people seemed to be leaving a lot of the food on the plates this evening - either the portions are quite large or the stomach cannot take the continual stream of food and wine that it seems to be getting force fed. I got the Fatty Liver Blues.

Jaya and Sze Wan
After dinner, some people sensibly walked back to the hotel to take some night photos and walk off dinner - we took the bus and the remainder of the night seemed to refute the finding of the previous evening as to the effect of Champagne on the McIntyre system. Positively trombones in the ether. Guess this makes it official. Yes. 

Vranken Pommery
5 Place du Général Gouraud, 
51100 Reims, France 
Tel: +33 3 26 61 62 63 

Le Parc Des Crayeres
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier, 
51100 Reims, France
Tel: +33 3 26 24 90 00 

Brasserie Flo
96 Place Drouet d'Erlon, 
51100 Reims, France

Phone: +33 3 26 91 40 50


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?