Located in an elegant 1904 vintage limestone mansion on the outskirts of Reims, Les Crayeres has long enjoyed a mythic status as a French destination hotel among foodlovers from all over the globe. Some part of this exaltation might be explained by the fact that visitors to this eastern French city are invariably here for the most mirthful of reasons--to joyously deepen their knowledge of Champagne, Reims being the Oz of this most famous of sparkling wines, and then there's the fact that Les Crayeres has also been synonymous with the pinnacle of French gastronomy almost ever since it became a hotel.
My first gastronomic experience of this famously epicurean place occurred just a few months after I'd moved to France, when a friend and I decided to cast off the gloom of an endlessly rainy winter and treat ourselves to a day trip culminating in a really good lunch. And what a lunch it was! Chef Gerard Boyer, who had three stars at the time, engraved his name on the living pith of my memory with a (widely copied) artichoke cappuccino with black truffles, the best smoked salmon I've ever had, and a veal chop with a satiny citrus sabayon and a garnish of baby onions and wild mushrooms.
When Boyer left, he was replaced by the amiable young Didier Elena, who came fresh from a stint as head chef at Alain Ducasse's lukewarmly received restaurant in New York. I ate here several times when Elena was in the saddle, and if the food was always very good, I often found it a little gimmicky and trying too hard, especially when any chef at the most prestigious hotel in Reims should have the modesty, faux or otherwise, to offer menus that serve as perfect screens against which to discover the glory of Champagne as a table wine (as opposed to its most common casting as an aperitif or a party tipple). During the Elena era, I also found the dining room at Les Crayeres had become a bit stuffy around the edges--when people feel that it's incumbent upon them to whisper at the table, something's clearly gone wrong.
With all of this history, and a great affection for Les Crayeres, I was very keen when I went to sample newly appointed chef Philippe Mille's menu for lunch this past week (as most people know, Reims is now just a hop, skip and a jump from Paris since the new TGV train line opened). Arriving, we met Herve Fort, a charming Auvergnat who has just become the property's new general manager, and I understood why I had immediately detected a change in the ambience of the hotel--Fort, a passionate foodlover, wants to make Les Crayeres "the best resort in France, a place known for its conviviality and its generosity." Suffice it to say that he's well out the gate.
Then we were seated, and while sipping a superb J.L. Vergnon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra Brut, everyone decided they wanted to drink Champagne all through the meal, always a brilliant way of discovering the extraordinary complexity of this wine. Our "Menu Gourmande" opened with an hors d'oeuvre that sent a very clear signal about Philippe Mille's style and intentions, a soft aspic-like soup of cubed boiled beef and carrots and parsnips and two superb garnishes, horseradish spiked whipped cream, and a crispy little beignet filled with chopped cornichons (pickles) and capers. Earthy but sophisticated, and displaying a technical excellence that was engagingly blunted by a bit of gastronomic wit (the garnishes), this dish instantly told me we'd be eating well.
Mille had most recently been second to Yannick Alleno at Le Meurice in Paris, and before that had worked with Frederic Anton at the Pre Catelan and Michel Roth at Lasserre and L'Espadon at the Hotel Ritz), so I was very curious to see if this excellent opening salvo of a culinary calling card played out. And mostly it did. I'm not a fan of King Crab legs--I'd rather eat langoustines, but as the first course in our menu, the crab was pleasantly garnished with citrus segments, a citrus vinaigrette, avocado puree and a few baby beet leaves. John Dory braised with seaweed and garnished with chopped ormeaux (conch fished off of the Channel Islands) and razor shell clams renewed the excitement of our hors d'oeuvre and then we had a sublime slow-poached Bresse chicken breast with a slightly silly decoration of pureed summer truffle 'zebra' stripes and a delicious garnish of pasta with black truffle shavings.
"Les Crayeres" was a terrific dessert, too, with "biscuit rose de Reims," a sort of cross between a soft meringue and sponge cake, with grapefruit sorbet and a gelee of Champagne with citrus fruits.
All told a truly excellent meal, and if Mille has found his footing this quickly, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Les Crayeres once again became one of the great restaurants of France.
Not many people are likely to take me up on the suggestion of a trip to the rue de Dantzig at one of the farthest flung corners of the 15th arrondissement, but for anyone whose looking for a solidly good bargain feed in a very pleasant setting and doesn't mind a long Metro ride, La Cantine des Tontons is a great address. To be sure, the concept of a serve-yourself buffet in cozy, convivial surroundings isn't exactly new--La Cave de L'Os a Moelle and several other restaurants pioneered this very good idea a longtime ago, but this place is very pretty (owner Jean-Guillaume Dufour loves to scour flea markets in search of objects that will elicit a poignantly nostalgic reaction in French eyes) and the quality of the very French food and wine is very honest.
I loved the terrine de campagne and the hot vegetable soup on the first-courses sideboard, and a jarret de veau (veal shank) braised with shallots was enormous, tender and full of flavor. Desserts could be better, but the cheeses were good and there's a terrific selection of very fairly priced wines like the 22 Euro Morgon we drank at dinner the other night.
Part of the fun of this place is that you sit at table d'hotes, and so we ended up chatting with a very friendly shoe-importer and his wife who had just come back from a cruise to Libya, a place I've always wanted to go. They had a fascinating trip, they said, but the supremely French grub served at La Cantine des Tontons was driving them to near bliss after ten days in a country they described as "pas de tout gourmand."
Les Crayeres, Boulevard Henry Vasnier, Reims, Tel. 03-26-24-90-00. Average 150 Euros, Prix-fixe 110 Euros, Lunch menu 65 Euros and 85 Euros. Closed Monday-Tuesday.
La Cantine des Tontons, 36 rue de Dantzig, 15th, Tel. 01 48 28 23 66. Metro: Porte de Versailles. Prix-fixe three-course menu 21 Euros. Closed on Sunday.