This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the top tables in the Champagne region, all well worth the short trip from Paris for a memorable gourmet feast.
Le Domaine Les Crayères was built at the dawn of the 20th century for the Marquis and Marquise de Polignac. Bought in 1979 by the Gardinier family, who turned it into a luxurious hotel-restaurant presided over by chef Gérard Boyer, the imposing mansion grew into one of the most famous landmarks of the Reims region. Most of its 20 sumptuous rooms look out over its 17-acre park and gardens to the city’s great Gothic cathedral and the Basilica of Saint Remi—a refuge of luxe, calme et volupté right in the city center. Boyer’s restaurant soon boasted three Michelin stars, and food-lovers from near and far made the voyage to Reims for his faultless classic cuisine.
After more than 25 years at the helm, Boyer retired in 2003. There followed a few fallow years, with renovation work on the hotel and an excellent new chef who didn’t understand the region or the clientele of Les Crayères.
But the arrival of new director Hervé Fort gave a jolt to a staff that had become slightly demoralized. He increased their number, since, in the interim, the contemporary brasserie Le Jardin had opened in the garden and become a mainstay for local residents. Most importantly, Fort hired a new young chef, Philippe Mille, an assistant to Yannick Alléno at the Hôtel Meurice. Fort describes the chef, the maître d’hôtel, the sommelier and himself as a string quartet: they have to play together, and in the same key. His goal was to revive the legendary spirit of Les Crayères.
Indeed, with Mille at the helm of both the main restaurant Le Parc and the brasserie Le Jardin, the cuisine has rapidly regained its élan. The new Crayères won its first Michelin star in 2011, and—a great rarity—the second star swiftly followed this year. And in the meantime, Mille also was awarded the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF).
Behind his calm demeanor, the 37-year-old chef is an incredibly hard worker, driven by a passion he shares with his close-knit team of nearly 40 people. His credo: “I search for the essential, the purest flavor of each product; I try to pare down, and add nothing superfluous.” He aims to give pleasure, and he wants that to be evident in his dishes. “I refuse to cook a la plancha. A fish, for example, I’ll roast it, moisten it with butter, cook it to exactly the right point, and serve the sauce in a sauceboat alongside for an extra touch of gourmandise. We’re in a jewel box here—there must be a relationship between the place and what’s on the plate.” He pauses and adds, “I love this place. For 15 years I dreamed of working here, even as an assistant, and here I am, the chef. I’m a happy man.”
Mille also makes an effort to buy local products whenever possible and to offer some dishes made with modest ingredients—smoked haddock, for example, which he serves in a fish bouillon with saffron potatoes and fennel whipped cream. Other dishes recently on his menu include scallops with foie gras ravioli and artichoke risotto, sole steamed in champagne and, in this autumn game season, stuffed breast of Scottish grouse and hare à la Royale. For dessert, pistachio soufflé, or poached pear in a crisp shell, with a mousseline of crème caramel and pear sorbet.
Mille’s extremely intricate cuisine is nonetheless very simple in taste. On weekends he takes his staff to visit champagne houses or other suppliers—he wants everyone to grow along with the restaurant. His enthusiasm for running the kitchens of Les Crayères shines through right down to what’s on the plate. The front-of-the-house team is part of it all, too—a well choreographed ballet in which everyone seems to enjoy taking part. There’s nothing stuffy about the pinpoint service, just a great professionalism that puts everyone at ease.
Head sommelier Philippe Jamesse, at his post since 2000, has built up his wine list patiently and is rightly proud of his champagnes, with more than 450 references. But that’s only the beginning. Fully half of the wines consumed at Les Crayères, he says, are still wines—bought long in advance and slowly aged in the restaurant’s cellars.
Jamesse may be a soft-spoken and calm man, but he’s also passionate about his profession. He knows how to listen and to propose champagnes, not only to accompany specific dishes, but also to satisfy the tastes of his guests. He discreetly tries to comprehend a client’s budget, and encourages diners to try unknown or rare selections. His love for wine led him to create a line of hand-blown glassware made in Reims by Marne glassmakers. Except for the water goblets, all the glassware on the tables at Les Crayères was designed by Jamesse.
64 blvd Henry Vasnier, Reims, 03.26.24.90.00. www.lescrayeres.com. Rooms €360–€710. Menus €65 (weekday lunch), €110; à la carte €170.
Prices are approximate, per person without wine.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of France Today
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