Monday, August 29, 2016

Champagne at Les Crayères

Since today is my birthday, I thought it only appropriate to write about my favorite experience in Champagne :)

Champagne is my prefered drink for nearly every occasion, so when our AirBnB host suggested we go for a glass of champagne on the grounds of the five star hotel Les Crayères, we did not hesitate :) Les Crayères is behind the Pommery estate, but a world away from its mass commercial enterprise atmosphere.

If you want to stay on the property, rooms start at around $400 USD, and meals at the main restaurant by a MOF chef, start at about $200 per person, not including beverages. If you want to enjoy the space without taking out a loan, there is a garden cafe with a set menu beginning at around $40, or you can enjoy the veranda views with glasses of remarkable champagne beginning at about $30 per glass.

The view of the veranda in the back is as stately as the entrance.
Some of the views from the veranda.

The foot paths throughout the property invite strolling.

You can see the hotel from the far end of the domaine.
They grow their own herbs and vegetables on the property.
I chose a Laurent Perrier Rosé and my friend the vintage Tattinger for about $70 USD.
Parmesan crisps and fine jambon were complimentary accompaniments.
Vineyards surround the property, a reminder that there is no substitute for terroir :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cute Crepe Place & Creamy Pasta in Reims

Reims is close enough to Paris in both distance and lifestyle that the town empties for vacation in the summer. My friend and I went in July but the residents had already left, so I imagine August is even more of a ghost town with many places closed for les vacances and the places that are open usually have seasonal staff, e.g., students working summer jobs, who are both inexperienced and have no interest in gaining any expertise before they go back to school.

The center of town is the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Opera House, which serves as the central transportation hub for trams and buses.
The number of people you see here are the maximum we saw during our entire stay.
Just two blocks away there are some very nice pedestrian streets, with attractions like this fountain sculpture and chain stores like Galeries Lafayette and Sephora.
 We saw this crêperie downtown and the nice terrace tempted us to try it for lunch.
 The decor of Louise was cute and it's a lovely place for some wine
or water with delicate bubbles (most French people will not drink regular Perrier with a meal because "the bubbles are too big").
 Although we were tempted to come for crêpes, my friend ordered a ham and cheese sandwich,
and I ordered a gésier (gizzard) salad. We both enjoyed our choices and decided to split a dessert crêpe.
The lemon juice dessert crêpe was undercooked and we left about half of it on the plate, but for a lovely light lunch at a reasonable 20 Euros ($23 USD) each with wine, we were quite content with our choice.
For dinner we decided to try La Villa which had gotten great reviews from both websites and people we knew. Since we were in champagne, we splurged a bit with a glass of champagne to start our meal at 12 Euros ($14 USD) each. The small producer choice was much better than the Pommery we had after our tour of the cellars.
The summer staff's inexperience was very evident as we tried to place our order, giving us a comedy routine akin to "Who's on first" à la Abbot & Costello. We saw white asparagus on the appetizer menu and wondered about it since white asparagus was out of season in July, so we asked the waitress about it. She checked with the kitchen, came back and said "Yes, white asparagus is out of season. They will substitute green for the white." We said, "Ok that's great, then we'll have the asparagus appetizer." Our waitress replied, "Oh no we don't have that." My friend and I looked at each other wondering if we had both just heard her say they were substituting green for white asparagus. So we asked, "Didn't you just say the kitchen is substituting green asparagus for white?" Her reply was "Oh yes, all the dishes with asparagu will have green, but we are not offering the asparagus appetizer." We decided to order pasta and skip any appetizer after that conversation.

My friend chose the gnocchi with jambon cru and although the gnocchi were fresh and light, they were literally bathing in a cream sauce that filled half her bowl.
My seafood spaghetti was likewise freshly made but also bathed in a cream sauce and lacking enough garlic to really make it sing. As my friend and I remarked, the dishes were done for French tastes, which actually is a good thing in a restaurant because that means it has local regulars. The prices are very reasonable, under 20 Euros ($23 USD) for a main course, and it is a lovely space, so I would not hesitate to go if you like your pasta with cream.
 We opted for an easy tram ride instead of walking 20 minutes back to our rental :)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Coming Back to La Cantine Du Coq

La Cantine du Coq is the only place we revisited for food during our stay, and we would have become regulars if we lived in Reims. It is just a block away from the forum plaza, and there is another location that is more of a wine bar closer to the Notre Dame Cathedral. 

We were drawn to the place because it was not in the "trendy" plaza. As we walked by it was clear that this was the local lunch spot for residents because everyone knew everyone and service here was very professional and efficient because they cater to clientele who have to get back to work after their meal. Even though we were the only tourists, we were treated as hospitably as if we were neighbors. On our second visit the owner welcomed us back with, "One of each special like last time?" 

We each had a glass of cool refreshing rosé to start our meal at 4 Euros ($5 USD).
There are only two menu choices for appetizer, main and dessert, and for two courses it's only 16 Euros ($18 USD). If you arrive late, they may be out of choices. The fish purveyor was eating at the bar on our first trip, and on our second visit, the owner had his meal at the end of service with another supplier; all reiterating the local fresh connections that make this place a warm and friendly place serving a few choices well.

One day the appetizer choice was fresh mozzarella with arugula and dressed in balsamic vinegar,
or a lusciously ripe melon with uncured local ham.
Another day the choice for appetizer was either a cold pasta and mushroom dish,
or hand made blood sausage with apples.
A main course choice one day was a tender filet of fish in buerre blanc with vegetables,
or a chicken in a cream sauce over pasta that was so copious I couldn't finish my plate:) I was amazed that as plain as this dish looked, the pasta was so tasty and the chicken so moist that I continued to eat long after I was full.
On another day, a hearty main course of braised beef and purée of potatoes,
or delicate salmon in buerre blanc over carrots.
Since my friend had the fish, she opted for a dessert of homemade apple clafoutis with freshly whipped cream. She adored the tart, but didn't like the apples which were a bit too sweet for her taste, so she ate around them :)
We ended with two cafés, wishing we could transport this wonderful place to where we lived; our consolation was that Reims is an easy trip and we could easily come back:)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Champagne Pommery's Big House

Pommery is literally one of the biggest champagne houses and the most vast vineyards in Reims with over 80,000 acres. It's easy to book a tour here either online, or once you get to the property, but make sure you are on time or the tour will start without you and they will not allow a change or reimbursement. There are several options with the basic tour beginning at 20 Euros or $22 USD, which includes a glass of champagne.

Located at a main intersection, there are several buses which stop here and there is a large parking lot if you are driving a car or taking a tour bus. The scale here is enormous as you can see from the people in the photo of the property. Many contrasting styles of architecture are all built next to each other making for an unusual look. Walking around the property I felt as if I was looking at a set built by competing set designers.

This is the Maison Demoiselle, a sister property and champagne across the street (you may purchase a combination tour ticket for both).
Several acres of the vineyards surround the original estate.
Entry here bar coded and automatic; you can buy your pass at the machines at the entrance when you arrive, so this can be a last minute decision if you are visiting and not sure of your time allotments. It's very different from the front desk personal style of Veuve Clicquot which requires a reservation at least a week in advance with a confirmation. The size of the groups and the style is also very different here, with about 40 of us in the group, as opposed to 5 of us at Veuve Clicquot, and the tour guide was definitely scripted with pat answers for her questions and comments. My friend and I would have preferred an electronic audio guide to the human who led our tour.

The tour began with a question about what these were....after a few guesses and condescending retorts from our guide, we learned these were face masks to protect the first guests who took tours of the cellars. The bottles sometimes exploded in the days before they learned how to control the pressure.
 The descent into the cellars is steep and long and it gets colder as you go down.
Once in the chalk pits, you can see how far underground you are when you look up.
 Some of the old machinery is on display along the walls
and above the bottles you can see the old pulley systems used for transport.

 This is stunning showpiece of Pommery bottles.
 Artists carved these over five years by candlelight and went blind in the process :(

 The oldest priceless bottles are kept locked behind bars.
 The end of the tour includes a glass of champagne
served in glasses I would have used only if I had no other drinking vessel. The champagne was on par quality wise with the glass.
The gift shop offers both trendy gifts 
 and their trademark Louise champagne.
Like Madame Clicquot, Madame Pommery was also a widow with a child to raise. She expanded her brand and business worldwide from 18 hectares (44 acres) to over 300 hectares (700 acres). She was also a humanitarian maverick, setting up a pension fund and social security fund for her workers, and the first orphanage in Reims, an admirable and audacious woman in any era.