Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Christmas trip to Reims

We went to Reims for an overnight stay back at the beginning of December to visit the Christmas market, do a shop in Calais and have dinner at the 2* Lallement restaurant at the hotel Assiette Champenoise (this is where we stayed).
There had been some problems with the cross channel ferries in the first week of December and we were worried that the conditions would be too bad for the ferry to sail, but fortunately we were OK. My husband was determined to have the cooked breakfast in the "restaurant" - it was the most foul-looking, poorest meal I have seen in a long time. I have had better airline breakfasts. And to add insult to injury it was £7 !
After getting into France it's easy to get to Reims, straight down the motorway. The hotel is right on the main route into Reims; Tinqueux is a suburb of the city, with residential housing and, rather bizarrely, lots of motor shops. There is a florist next door to the hotel with the most beautiful flowers, and very well priced. This, of course, is the advantage to taking the car, and we loaded up with some lovely exotic flowers which would have cost a fortune here in Blighty.
L'Assiette Champenoise is a family owned hotel which is clean and well appointed. The staff are friendly and were putting up their Christmas tree when we arrived. There is a big Alsatian dog in the hotel - watch out for her giant paws tripping up unsuspecting guests !
We headed out to see the Christmas market, which was very prettily decorated. It stretched from one end of the Place Drouet d'Erlon to the other and consists of some 70+ wooden alpinesque chalets selling all manner of treats, from hot wine with a heady orange and cinnamon flavour, to a stall dedicated to selling teeny-tiny carved wooden christmas decorations. We bought paté en croute from a gnarled old man and his oven - he was rolling out the pastry and making up the terrines behind his counter, full of glistening treats. We bought a packet of the cripsy, rose coloured biscuits de Reims from Fossier, perfect for dipping into our demi-sec champagne cache. We saw a peculiar cartwheel type thing decorated with holly and other christmassy foliage and ribbons; we wondered what it was - our curiosity was satisfied a bit later when we saw a queue of toddlers waiting for their turn on the donkeys.
Last time I went to Reims I fell in love with the Patisserie Durot, a few minutes' stroll from the Place Drouet. We went in to have our breakfast - an apple cake similar to a doughnut, but plaited and a pizette. We also bought some cakes for the journey home.
We went back to the hotel for our dinner and took champagne in the bar, where I was engrossed by the cognac cupboard (a thing of beauty). The photos of Lallement that follow are not my own work, but have been very generously lent to me by Julian Teoh, a fellow Egulleteer Thankyou so much Julian ! .
We decided to go for the tasting menu "Retour aux Sources" as it featured sea urchin, something we both wanted to try. The breads served were brioche, ficelle, a campaillou style roll and a seeded wholemeal variety. Unsalted butter and 2 varieties of salt on the table - sea and plain table. the bread was constantly brought round, I consider myself greedy but was surprised at the sheer quantities of rolls being consumed by the other diners - at the table next to us, 4 businessmen, they were taking 3 or 4 rolls at a time
The first course was described as scallops, lettuce, cepes and champagne vinegar. The dish itself came in 3 plates and actually consisted of 3 variations on the scallop theme - one served with an emulsion and cepes, one on a very thick puree of lettuce and the final one served with a warm champagne vinegar vinaigrette and brunoise of beetroot. The beetroot was my favourite presentation. I was not so keen on having 3 plates in front of me - this was a little unwieldy and left one wondering what to do with the empties.
The second course, the Sea Urchin, was served with a spiced mousseline sauce. The mousseline sauce was more of a foam, and was extremely light. This dish was certainly, erm, interesting, and no doubt extremely good if you enjoy the unique taste and texture of sea urchin. We gamely finished the dish, but I would have been grateful for more of the foam. I would not choose it again !
The 3rd course was a fillet of John Dory served in a light vin jaune sauce. Vin jaune is a dessert style wine from the Jura region of France with quite a particular taste. This worked extremely well with the dory and was very succesful in retaining the fresh flavour of the wine. An excellent dish.
The "main" course was venison fillet served with a coconut sauce, artistically served but was a very small portion indeed. The sauce was again served as a foam, and I think this was one foam too many. I did not particularly enjoy the coconut flavour, which did not really do much for the venison. It was served with jerusalem artichoke puree, which was very tasty. The dish was topped with a heady, cocoa nib crisp, which elegantly reinvented the classic venison/chocolate pairing. This dish would have been outstanding had the coconut sauce been removed.
Cheeses were served from the trolley, a wide variety of goat, cow, hard and soft. If i remember rightly I chose Langres, gruyere, boulette d'avesnes (my guilty pleasure) and a soft, local goats cheese. The cheeses were in excellent condition and there were a lot of champenoise cheeses. The waiter knew what he was about and made some good choices for my husband who is fond of soft cheeses and blues. There were not many blue cheeses on the trolley, which was a shame.
Following the cheese were the mignardises, which were a parade and served on the most delectable selection of silverware I have ever seen. Small trays with the chef's name engraved on them on which were served doll sized eclairs and the chocolates. Served on a silver half grapefruit with holes in were two sticks of candy floss, just like at the fair ! there were sugar lollipops, palmiers in silver salvers and my personal favourite, some jellies and truffles served in a solid silver cocoa pod. I was only sorry I didn't have a larger handbag.....
The dessert choice had been either a plate of fruit desserts or chocolate. We both went for the chocolate. It was fantastic. Again each of the three elements was served on it's own plate - A light chocolate mousse served with a spearminty sorbet; a milkshake served with a popping candy coated popsicle and a slice of very rich chocolate tart.
Espresso was served with yet more chocolate, I'm at a surfeited collapse at this point and have to admit defeat. To our great suprise Chef Lallement appeared around this point and did a tour of the tables, making culinary chit-chat with the diners. A gracious and softly spoken man, he enquired how we had enjoyed the meal and our stay in Reims. The final coup de grace occurred on our way back to our room - one of the staff came running after us and presented us with a brioche to take home as well.
Apart from the coconut sauce, the food was faultless. They clearly have a very good pastry chef because all the sweet items were a real knockout. The service is attentive and professional, in the best French tradition, but now snooty or overwhelming. The sommelier managed, somehow, to make our bottle of Philipponat 96 blanc de blancs champagne last the entire meal, a miracle in itself. The wine list has a lot of champagne, as you would expect, with countless permutations and houses and a very comprehensive selection of blanc de blancs (my favourite). Rumour has it that Chef Lallement has set his sights on a third star, and I cannot imagine it will be long before this dream is realised. An excellent meal, at 150e per head plus 85e for the wine.
Our pre Christmas splurge finished at the end of the motorway in Carrefour Calais - with a obscene amount of cheese, fish, shellfish and booze !
Patisserie Jean-Noël Durot, 13 Rue Cadran St Pierre, 51100 Reims Assiette Champenoise, 40 Avenue Vaillent Couturier, Tinqueux, 51430 Reims

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