I dined at a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants during my recent trip to Champagne, with interesting results.
By far the most enjoyable meal was at Hostellerie de la Bricqueterie, a boutique hotel outside Epernay that also served as our base for exploring the region. Lunch in their one-star dining room, under the direction of Chef Michael Nizzero, began with an amuse-bouche and included a tartlet of veal sweetbreads with pecans and vinaigrette; red mullet crusted in tapenade; vanilla pannacotta and strawberries, accented by red berry marmalade and a mint granité. The courses were accompanied by three champagnes from Nicolas Feuillatte: the NV Reserve Particuliere, the oak-aged Cuvée Rosé 2005 and the spectacular Grand Cru Chardonnay 2002.
Another lunch at the Michelin one-star Auberge de Relais, a small hostelry overlooking the Marne Valley, featured the cooking of Chef-owner Martial Berthuit. Here, the amuses were more intricate and complex—a mousse of tomato and feta cheese, miniature tomato and mozzarella, and a cold parfait of chevre and pureed spring peas. The first course, a timbale of crabmeat and avocado surrounded by tomato gazpacho, was ambitious as well, but marred by small bits of shell throughout the crab. However, the chef recovered nicely with a main dish of turbot in beurre blanc, and triumphed with a dessert of cherries prepared four different ways, accompanied by the rare Palmes D’Or Rosé 2004.
It was a decidedly mixed experience at the two-star Assiette Champenoise on the outskirts of Reims, under the direction of Chef Arnaud Lallemont. This was all the more baffling as the restaurant is considered to be the top gastronomic experience in the Champagne region, particularly considering the decline of Boyer Les Crayeres in the past decade. Like Les Crayeres, the establishment is located in a turn of the century building (the 20th century, that is) surrounded by spacious gardens, and houses guests as well as feeds them. Our six-course dinner, served in a private room on the second floor, suffered from sluggish service and never really rose to the level of two-star Michelin cooking, with one exception—a perfectly cooked filet of sea bass a la plancha, in a spicy caulifower sauce infused with coriander.
Despite the occasional flaw, dining in the Champagne region is a delight. The cooking is light, elegant and graceful, the pace is unhurried, and the restaurants tend to combine luxury with a sense of nature.