Eat wisely in Champagne
Champagne may be the world's most glamorous wine, but bling bling and flashy extravagance are decidedly out of fashion in the Marne just now, as the region's most famous chefs keep a lid on prices, nudging loyal regulars to keep coming back in what looks being a lengthy recession. As it happens, my favourite two places to eat in Champagne are handily in one building, so covering most budgets. You certainly cannot read this book by its cover.
At first glance, Epernay's Les Berceaux looks like any venerable small French provincial hôtel, as drawn in the sketches of Pierre Daninos's 'fifties comic novel 'Major Thompson lives in France'. But step inside to the contemporary reception area with Japanese-style panels and into the elegant, gastronomic restaurant with the all right touches of comfort and ease; you sense at once that this is the right table in Champagne, innovative yet classical, in the congenial company of like-minded adults anticipating the pleasures of heavenly food, sans chi-chi, at correct prices. No grand views, the best sights are on your plate.
An Englishman in Champagne
Patrick Michelon, the patron at Les Berceaux, is a warm-hearted fellow from Mulhouse, who has won a reputation as an outstanding chef in Champagne. Because of his roots and upbringing in Alsace, he also has a frontiersman's sympathy for dual cultures; he always says that Belgians are his best customers and that an Alsatian is a Belgian who has not yet discovered Switzerland! Patrick also adds that Italians are the most discerning punters, especially from border provinces like Piedmont and the Upper Adige – hardly surprising when one remembers that Italy imports more Krug than any other country, most of it drunk from Rome to Aosta. And so it turned out on a spring evening in April I had come to Champagne to taste the new still wines and needing to fortify myself against all those acids, I dined first at les Berceaux. On neighbouring tables, were a Belgian family who spoke both excellent French and Flemish (actually quite rare, in public at least) and a distinguished old boy from Bolzano and a young relative. All had come with golden reports of the cuisine. They would not be disappointed, and speaking personally after many meals enjoyed here, this was one of the very best.
I had intended to begin with one of my favourites the Rouget au vapeur aux praires (steamed red mullet with clams). But Patrick said you know this dish well enough – try the sole meunière for a change. I had forgotten just how wonderful this classic dish could be: on the night, a whole Grosse Sole de la Mer du Nord, of exquisite fresh flavour, cooked in butter with the first baby new potatoes from the Ile de Ré and springtime petits pois.
"Faites simple" (keep it simple) as Fernand Point, the great chef of La Pyramide in Vienne used tosay. Another superb dish follows: the most succulent pale pink Pigeon de Bresse with girolles served a simple jus made from the carcass. A half-bottle of 2004 Mercurey Champ Martin from Michel Juillot was the perfect partner and probaly a better match than the weightier Mazis Chambertin I coveted but which I couldn't afford. The angels though seem to be watching over me this season, for my friend Louisa Thomas Hargrave, the founder of Long Island's first vineyard, generously suggested we go back to the restaurant for a serious lunch last Sunday. We began with fresh foie gras, its richness perfectly paired with the acidulous flavours of white asparagus -not an easy match for wine, but one effortlessly solved by David the sommelier, who scurried off to the bistro across the hall for glasses of a full-flavoured grower's Champagne, the Pinot-led Jean-Noël Hatton. With lamb and pigeon David proposed glasses of a superb 2005 Lalande de Pomerol, on the other side of the valley from Petrus at a tenth of the price.
After beautiful cheeses – especially Comté and Saint Nectaire – we finished on poêlée of strawberries served with my trusted reviver after any difficult journey from Paris, the shimmering, salmon-tinted bubbly from Louis Casters of Damery, one of the Marne valley's best values. Talking of value, Restaurant Patrick Michelon does an excellent weekday business lunch (26-33 €: 2/3 course) with highly imaginative, perfect dishes like Tartare de Dorade (sea bream) with fresh rhubarb, Dos de Cabillaud (cod-back) roasted with sea salt, Mignon de Veau Cocotte and Jubilé de Cerise Fraiche (cherry) with vanilla ice cream and a super-light tuile biscuit.
On the other side of Reception, Le Sept at Les Berceaux is an outstandinfg bistro that every small town should have, especially in straitened times like these. Here is consistently delicious food from the same great kitchen but with an emphasis on trencherman choices like the best Steak Tartare in Champagne and the acquired-taste Andouilette (pork chitterling sausage), home-made here with particular care. Yet the fastidious epicure is also looked after in crisp-coated Blanc de Volaille (Chicken fillet) stuffed with foie gras or Ris de Veau (veal sweetbreads) braised in Champagne. Thanks to Philippe Wibrotte of the CIVC's great kindness, we drank a superb bottle of Jacques Diebolt's Brut Prestige, one of the greatest blanc de blancs, supremely elegant and complex, the sort of fine wine with which you have a conversation, to borrow Hugh Johnson's brilliant image. From heaven to earth, if you're pressed for time you can have two courses for 17.50 € and a glass of wine from €4.
if you think that Les Berceaux is a one-off for quality and value, think again. The best news from Reims this year is the opening of the grand Les Crayères's Jardin Brasserie. Didier Elena, the other truly great chef in Champagne, is a guy who for all his talent has his feet firmly on the ground. He has always wanted to take care of the 95 per cent of typical consumers as well as the five per cent of connoisseurs – an attitude I find immemsely reassuring. There's a menu at 28 € (3 courses) and a fine choice of 25 wines by the glass ( 3 to 14 €) as well as a very tempting carte. As the guest of Philippe Thieffry, the Widow's wine man and a dear friend, Louisa and I had the most relaxing lunch in the garden, filled with some wonderful trees. 'Dashi-maki' Japanese lacquered omelette, Turbotin vigneronne au Chardonnay, Volaille Fermière au Champagne lubricated with VCP's Yellow label and Colin-Deleger's Chassagne Montrachet 2001. The best hosts in Champagne don't offer Champagne exclusively!
Un grand merci, Philippe.