Sunday, May 13, 2007

L'Assiette Champenoise = Motorway Magic

I am often asked if and when I would return to the United States to live and I invariably respond with Truman Capote’s fine remark that “all Southerners go home if only in a box”. But now that I think about it, two things in the US have to change before I would return: 1) the administration and 2) the food and hotels located off American highways.

As for the administration, regime change may be in the air but what in God’s name is to be done about sleeping and eating off America’s highways. By contrast, I’ve written a lot about the ability to fall off the highways of Europe and into unique hotels and great meals. This week, on our drive from London to Frankfurt, Germany for a very jolly birthday party, we stopped in France for the night at L’Assiette Champenoise, which is a fabulous restaurant (it has 2 Michelin stars) with beds.

Located a few minutes off of both the A4 (east/west) and A26 (north/south) highways and a few minutes outside of Reims in the Champagne region, this is a supremely convenient stopping point for travellers. Like La Villa Duflot in Perpignan, L’Assiette Champenoise sits in a beautiful four acre park hard up against an unattractive commercial zone which you do not notice because of the dense foliage and with a handsome turn-of-the-century chateau at the heart of the property; it sets the right tone for a grand night out. The hotel attached to the restaurant is rated four stars but that is certainly a stretch. The rooms, while charmingly decorated, have seen better days and at €162 for a room with a balcony, are hardly bargains. But still, this is a family run establishment and is certainly more interesting and authentic than any high end chain. But the real reason to sleep at L’Assiette Champenoise is that after dinner, you will have eaten and drunk way too much to go anywhere.

From the moment you sip your aperitif either out on the terrace or in the swanky bar, you know you are in for a very French, very serious gastronomic experience. This sense of the grand occasion grows as one enters the dining room where generous proportions and elegant table placement make every table seem important and dinner is treated as a theatrical event.

Following careful study, Jeff and I settled on one of the two menus on offer as we wanted to experience a meal as the chef, in this case the young, handsome and charismatic Arnaud Lallement, had conceived it. It being spring, our dinner began with three equisite treatments of petit pois which made me think again about the possibilities of this vegetable followed by a fabulous piece of St Pierre fish from Brittany with a chorizo sauce and mashed potatoes followed by pigeon “en croute” with spinach and foie gras, a cheese course and a blow-out dessert of either chocolate based or fruit based concoctions. An absolutely charming addition is Lallement’s nostalgic inclusion of all kinds of treats from one’s childhood with the dessert course including miniature cotton candy sticks, cannelles and lolli-pops. To go with all of this, we began with Sancerre “Marnier Lapostolle 2004” followed by a red wine of the region, a Gosset Ambonnay. This being a Michelin 2 star, one would expect excellent service and that’s what we found. Like a well trained orchestra, everything was delivered and presented perfectly. After the invasion in London of well meaning but sadly ignorant Eastern European waiting staff, it was a pleasure to watch these consummate professional at work.

All in all, it was one heck of a dinner considering our proximity to one of France’s major motorways. Yes, we spent a fortune. Dinner for two ran us a wopping €374 and one could criticise the food for being both a touch too elaborate and too much. But if I were to rate the overall experience of L’Assiette Champenoise, it was, in a word, wonderful. Lallement is a supremely talented chef (he describes himself as progressive and passionate), the dining room is gorgeous and we were blissfully happy to collapse afterwards into a very comfortable bed, as Jeff put it “completely done in by delicacies”.

L’Assiette Champenoise
Chateau de la Muire
40, Avenue Paul-Vaillant Couturier
51430 Tinqueux (Reims)
Tel: 03 26 84 64 64
Fax: 03 26 04 15 69

1 comment:

  1. 2 things in the US have to change before I would return: (1) the administration and (2) the food and hotels located off American highways.

    #1's a fait accompli.

    #2, well your precious darling mother expects you back down home any time now and if sh's not around your kinfolk and I hope they don't know you all ain't comin.