Les Crayères

desserts

I realized that a little while back I posted some pictures about my visit to Les Crayères, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Champagne region, about an hour from Paris. But I never wrote about the meal or my experience. Since I’ve been planning another trip back—hopefully soon, it prompted me to share my lunch, at last.

Champagnes

Perhaps some people coming to Paris want to take a day trip out of the city. Or for those of use who live here, it’s a nice break away from the hectic city life and away from the stress of it all. (Especially after tangling with those Monoprix cashiers.) If you fall into either of those categories, a swift, new TGV train will whisk you from the Gare de l’Est and right into the heart of Champagne country in less than an hour. And before you know it, you’ll be sipping sparkling wine in high-style, surrounded by trees and servers waiting on you dressed in sharp suits, with a bottle of bubbly always ready and waiting.

French butter King Crab

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I love Champagne. When I worked at a well-known restaurant, we had a rule (which, admittedly, we made up on the spot one evening), that every night that we did over a hundred diners, we’d open a bottle of Champagne from the cellar for us.

Of course, the restaurant was always booked. So we did, indeed, indulge in a bottle (or two) nightly. And we were sure to treat ourselves to the good stuff, as it was one of the owners idea to initiate the ‘rule’ in the first place. Let’s hear it for understanding bosses.

Champagne list Tasting Champagne

Yet I never spent much time in Champagne. I think I went like once, about twenty years ago, and don’t remember much (so it must’ve been a good trip!), and did most of my imbibing in Berkeley. (And in Paris.) So I was excited to be invited to Les Crayères with a small group that included my favorite dining pal, Alec Lobrano, author of Hungry for Paris, to lunch on the cuisine of young chef Philippe Mille.

fish

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the only time you get butter with bread in restaurants in France is either if you order oysters (which come with rye bread and butter), or if you go to an upscale or Michelin-starred restaurant. And if bread dishes aren’t offered, you just keep your bread on the table. Of course, here they we had them, which was a good thing because the bread (and butter) was so good that I made a major mess with it.

Les Crayères has two Michelin stars, so I guess that merits offering two different butters; demi-sel (salted) and doux (unsalted). I only eat salted butter now, because the salted butter in France is always amazing. And who doesn’t love salt? Flecked with little crackly-crystals of salt, when you bite into French salted butter (called beurre demi-sel aux cristaux de sel), the little sparks of salt explode in your mouth, gently, and I find unsalted butter too dull nowadays in comparison. So I was in heaven when I tasted their extraordinary salted butter, which, if that was all we had for lunch—with a glass of icy-cold Champagne, I would’ve been quite content.

les crayères

Everyone was a bit triste that the weather was so gray outside, but I thought it perfect for dining indoors when the room has expansive panes of glass, overlooking trees and grass. I love being indoors and hearing the rain on my roof, one of the benefits of a rooftop apartment. And when you’re in a sumptuous dining room (unlike my less-than sumptuous apartment), protected from the elements in such splendor, it’s hard not to feel coddled.

Chicken, noodles and Truffles Comté

The two standout dishes I had were, surprisingly, the simplest, and the most rustic. The chicken breast with a zig-zag of black truffle purée was fine, but the pasta alongside of it was absolutely amazing. Soaking in a thin, but flavorful reduction of pan juices, the earthy swirls of pasta and generous shavings of black truffle made me sit up and take notice. If the French had doggie bags, I would’ve ordered an extra helping, snuck it home, and reheated it that night for dinner.

Right before dessert, the waiter wheeled out a modest cheese cart. He explained that instead of offering a huge cart of various cheeses (many which can’t be reused, which I’m sure makes the waiters and kitchen crew happy during staff meal, if they can’t have Champagne), they offer a carefully edited selection of cheeses from famed Alsatian affineur (a fromager who specializes in ripening cheeses), and Alec let out a slight gasp, whose power could be felt across the wide expanse of the linen-topped table. He is always right on the money, and I knew we were in for a treat.

alec lobrano

A Comté cheese that’s been cave-aged for 48 months from Bernard Antony, in Alsace, was carefully sliced by the waiter. The cheese was on the verge of being too crumbly to make perfect portions, which the waiter adeptly handled, and when I took my first bite, I returned Alec’s gasp: it was one of those life-changing things that I’ve eaten and I’ll likely never have such an exemplary cheese again. When I went home, I changed my will and left everything to Monsieur Antony in exchange for presenting us with this magnificent cheese.

(Okay, I didn’t really. Instead, I left him my blog. So in case you see a sudden uptick in high-quality cheese postings, you’ll know something happened to me.)

pain aux cereales tile floor

Before we hit dessert—or perhaps it was after; we’d sampled a lot of Champagne, so excuse me for the oversight. But it was at this moment that the sommelier carefully brought out a bottle of Port and a pair of nearly red-hot tongs. I waved my hand over it because, like when I was a waiter and I’d tell guests the plates were hot, they always wanted to touch it for some reason, too. (What is up with that? Perhaps they wanted to see if I was lying?) And everyone started flipping out that I was going to touch the tongs.

port tongs

No, I ain’t stupid, but I was curious as to what was up, and the sommelier explained that he was going to use the hot tongs to remove the neck of the bottle of Port, before serving it to us. I wanted to ask “Why?”, but I’ve learned after living in France for a number of years, that it’s often the process—not the result, that’s important. And I spend a lot of time on a lot of les processus, let me tell you.

removing port cork filtering port

Apparently using port tongs are the preferred method of opening bottles of vintage port when there’s a fear that the cork might crumble when it’s extracted. Also it allows the bottle to be opened without disturbing any sediment at the bottom. And it’s also used to scare the wits out of French restaurateurs into thinking a misbehaving American fellow is going to burn the crap out of his hand in their fancy dining rooms.

port bottle

The bottle broke cleanly and the port was filtered into a bulbous carafe, which allowed it to breathe a little after all that drama. Plates were cleared, some petits fours were dispatched to the table—tiny lemon meringue tartlets, puffy-squat macarons, coconut marshmallows, and a dab of chocolate mousse ganache resting on a neat square of dark chocolate ganache.

broken port top chocolates

Of course, no one had room for the chocolate palets d’or. Except for me, of course. And I ate as many as I could without looking like I was eating more than my share. But people were begging off the food at this point, and we retired to the salon for cups of café express. Then it was back to Paris, on the express train. Bien sûr.

Les Crayères
64, boulevard Henry Vasnier
Reims, France
Tél: 03 26 24 90 00

The Michelin-starred main restaurant at Les Crayères is Le Parc, which offers à la carte and fixed gastronomic menus. At lunch, there is a “Menu Gourmand” for €65. (Subject to change.) Of course, adding Champagne adds a bit to the bill. But you don’t come to Champagne to drink water, do you? There is also a more casual brasserie, Le Jardin, located in the gardens of Les Crayères.

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59 comments

  • I think I just cried a little.

    Why do I not live in France???!!!

  • Oh what a beautiful description and explanation. I think you just upped the tourism for the Champagne region this season!

  • long time reader, first time writer

    Sorry for my english. If you want to go to Reims by train from Paris, please, don’t go to Saint Lazare’s station but rather to the gare de l’est station !

    Trains from Saint Lazare go to Normandy, the exact opposite side of Champagne !

    Félcitations pour ton écriture sur la cuisine.
    Cordialement
    Julien.

  • ohh, who cares about the champagne? Real vintage port! In France! I am insanely jealous ;)

  • 65E for a two-star lunch? That’s actually really impressive…might have to put that one the “things I want for my birthday” list.

    The brasserie sounds like a good safety net, too.

  • Wow that food looks amazing. I like the port tongs. I have never seen these before but they look very cool.

  • I’m with sunny with this : 65€ for such a meal, it’s more than impressive.

    I definitely would like to go there with my man for our anniversary. I almost passed out when I read your description of le comté , 48 months, and par un maître affineur, s’il vous plaît !, I want to try this before I die :) !

  • Ummmm — I can only imagine dining at a place like that — thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. And there’s nothing like laying in bed and listening to the rain
    falling on your roof — one of my favorite things to do :)

  • If I did not already live in France I would be planning to move here after this post. A meal with salted butter, aged cheese, cold champagne, truffle pasta, breaking bottles….it doesn’t get any better!

    I will try the Le Jardin restaurant when we go to Champagne this Fall :)

    Merci

  • I agree with Veronica the Vintage Port sounds superb. I love the idea of theatre of breaking the bottle, an insane way to ensure the cork doesn’t crumble.

  • Okay, I only got through the intro to this post when this sentence stopped me in my tracks: “that every night that we did over a hundred diners…”. You were sure poppin’ somethin’ if you did a hundred diners! I’d be at the bubbly, too, in that situation, although I am sure that I would also be exhausted. ;-)

    Unless that is some kind of chef terminology of which I am unaware, could you have possibly meant DINNERS? *giggle*

    *commencing rest of reading now*

    (Oh please do not think I am one of those awful semicolon misusage hunters that has to report it to you!! I seriously got the biggest giggle I have all day so far from that sentence up there. Whether it was intentional or not, thank you. :) )

  • Sorry. I then got to this sentence where I laughed even harder thinking of the previous one: “Of course, the restaurant was always booked.”

    No kidding! I bet it was!! :D

    (Okay, I promise. No more comments about it. I’ll be a serious little reader now.)

    *giggle*

  • Okay — ready to be serious now.

    A wonderful post, yet again, where I really felt I was living the experience by your side. Your writing and photographic abilities always make me feel like I was there. Thank you.

    The most interesting thing to me was this: “Apparently using port tongs are the preferred method of opening bottles of vintage port when there’s a fear that the cork might crumble when it’s extracted. Also it allows the bottle to be opened without disturbing any sediment at the bottom.”

    Wow! I never in a billion years would have guessed that there are such things as port tongs and that they are hot and that this would be a preferred method for opening a port bottle. You’re right: talk about The Process. I would have wanted to touch them, too, lol.

  • All I can say is “Wow”.

  • Thank you, David – what a lovely post! I have spent very little time in Champagne, but have fond memories of a dégustation we once went on. Mmmm…. champagne!

  • Hi David! as always, loving the entries.

    I don’t know if this is a stupid question, but is buying champagne in Champagne, France a little more affordable? Just because it’s local? In a shop and in restaurants?

    thanks

  • Evie: Interestingly, wine and Champagne that you buy at the wineries themselves usually costs the same, or a bit more, than what you can find it for in stores in France. I think the same holds true in California, if I remember. There may be laws that prohibit lowering the price of wine at the wineries; I think somewhere I heard about that a while back. The good thing about going to the wine-making regions, though, is that you can discover small wineries (and Champagne producers) whose bottles aren’t easily available in shops and they’re often good-value as they’re not well known.

    stephanie: I am still kicking myself for not running through the rain to see the little bistro across the garden. But I think we were pressed for time to make the train back to Paris that day. If you do get, report back on how it was!

  • Wow – you really got to me with the butter, in fact butter AND champagne. I just got the shivers. MMMM

  • My former in-laws had a rule: Whenever someone gains or loses a job, break out the bubbly. In the time I’ve known them that rule has morphed into whenever something notably good or bad happens. I’ve further adjusted it to “whenever I feel like it”! I think it’s a great rule that more people should live by.

  • Such high drama. It’s like watching a great movie that you don’t want to end, especially the Port Saga ending. Anything with wonderful champagne and cheese is good for me. Thanks for enjoying it for us.

  • That first photo is fantastic. Yum!
    There is nothing I love more than bread and butter. I hope one day I can try french butter!

  • Yes, David, you are right about the wineries in California. The wines at the winery is often more expensive than what is commonly available and usually more exclusive. One of the best draws for winetasting. :) Your wonderful story of a fine lunch with friends is going to make me smile all day. Thank you for sharing – may you have another similar opportunity soon!

  • I used to work next door at Charles & Piper Heidsieck (57 Boulevard Henri Vasnier) and lived on the other side of the street, 10 steps away :) Your article was a trip down memory lane… Thank you!

  • I used to work next door at Charles & Piper Heidsieck (57 Boulevard Henri Vasnier) and lived on the other side of the street, 10 steps away :) Your article was a trip down memory lane… Thank you!

  • What a delightful post, thank you! I am now adding this to my itinerary for when I’m in Paris this summer! If taking the train, are there taxis are the Reims stop for getting to the restaurant, or is it nearby enough to walk?

  • My husband and I spent a night at their hotel while on our honeymoon. Beautiful place! We didn’t eat there, but looks like we should have.

  • I agree with Julien; pretty sure the trains to Champagne leave from the Gare de l’Est.

    Also, in France you will get butter for your bread if you get fresh radishes as an entree….the combination of the crisp radishes, smooth butter, and chewy baguette is heavenly.

  • My trip to Paris was cancelled because of the volcano. I thought I was over it until I read this post…

  • jux & joe: Since I usually meet Alec at the Gare St. Lazare (and the SNCF website was down), for some reason that stuck in my head. But it is the Gare de l’Est and I changed that..thanks!

    Nancy: It’s slightly too far to walk. We took a mini-shuttle, but there should be taxis at the station, since it is a TGV station.

  • David – this piece, from the pictures to the writing, is absolutely sublime, and leaves me wanting to have lunch there, but with you and your friends…for surely a meal like this must be shared with those that love every facet of the experience as much as you do. To be redundant, I’m crying a little too, along with your first commenter.

  • Just another Lunch in Reims! how often can you Lunch Michelin? Lucky you! Thanks for the Great Photo’s

  • I stayed there and their breakfasts are incredible too – as are the rooms. Thanks for reawakening the memories.

    Did you go shopping at the Veuve Cliquot boutique down the street? The have killer umbrellas – really, they are so big you will impale people if you use them on the street.

  • You had me at “champagne.”

    Do share with us other of your rules. They seem to be of high level, leading to a good life. I agree: bread, salted butter, champagne – all that’s needed. And grey drizzly days can be very romantic.

  • Off topic, I just received a copy of your book the Perfect Scoop, and I must say, I love you.

  • What a mouth-watering post. The butter and the pasta sounded amazing! And the thing with the port and the tongs was really interesting. First time I hear about it.

  • Look at that plate of petit fours! Agree on the salted butter… but it has to be the good kind of salted butter. What a fantastic meal (and bottles of champagne) you had.

  • Even without your description, I saw that cheese and let out a little sigh of envy. It’s very hard to find a good Comte in Australia, though I’ve found some tasty blue and goat cheeses… but that’s nto what I want right now! Sob.

  • I have radishes and gorgeous butter with big salt crystals in it in the frigo, and two weeks left in Paris to use it all up. Now for a baguette. Thanks to Joe for sharing that combination.

  • Thank you! I’m biking Paris and Reims at the end of June and this article gets me excited. While I’ve never focused on a quality trip to Paris, in this one we will experience the special things you have recommended.

    I didn’t know about the bottle breaking of port. What a special experience to witness this process.

    I’m glad to hear that you have fun with the French service and style.

  • David! You seem to have this uncanny ability to write about things that pertain to my current situation… Seriously – it’s bizarre. For instance, right now me and my partner are sampling bubblies for our wedding… very strange.

    I love champagne. And not just for the whole romance behind it – it really is a delicious wine… and so versatile with food. You’d be hard pressed to find a bad match.

    Great post as always…

    NM

    (Re: your response to Evie regarding smaller Champagne producers:

    I agree 100%. All the big négociant houses (Moët, Veuve, Bollinger etc) are so heavily marketed that people rarely look to smaller grower champagnes, many of which are just as excellent in quality. It’s as if people think you’re only buying the real stuff when there’s a big name on the label, which is not true at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice glass of Bolly, of course. There is a reason it’s expensive…. :-)

    More marginalized still are smaller sparkling wine producers outside of champagne, who don’t have the magic C-word on their labels. The best sparkling wine I’ve had recently was a crémant de Bourgogne… absolutely wonderful and I imagine most experts would mistake it for a good champers… Definitely not a cheap knock-off.

  • Yes, i enjoyed every bit of it, i mean the reading, and the bread and butter too.
    Thank you!

  • Thank you for reminding me of many FABULOUS dinners I had at Les Crayeres….the 2 cheese carts that are offered at dinner are enough to make your head spin!

  • After the evil Monoprix you surely deserved the bread and the port and the salted butter and all that. I lived in France for a year going to “la fac”, but I have to admit, things in Germany aren’t all that different.

  • Oh, I held my breath as I read this…so enchantingly presented. I wanted to go to Reims during my extended stay due to the volcano. I didn’t, but at least now I feel like I have been.

    Thanks David!

  • I was hooked on this from the opening image – what better way to lead into a discussion of delectable food than with the dessert. You have sent me packing – but, alas not until fall. And if I don’t get there, at least I have enjoyed this with you. Thank you so much.

  • To be in France and to have a meal like this has to be dreamlike. Thanks for letting an American experience the French way. The tongs were quite interesting and your photos as usual are fabulous.

  • I have not been to the Champagne area, but will have to make the effort next trip. I love champagne best of all and I am sure it is incredible to drink it there. What a delightful lunch experience. I agree with you about the salted butter in France. I could just live on a baguette, butter and champagne while there!

  • I so wish that this was posted earlier. My husband and I were in Reims on May 1 and ended up eating at a restaurant near the train station, that had good reviews, but was actually very mediocre. Speaking of train station, we got caught by not knowing that the train back to Paris actually leaves from a different station- that caused some excitement after having a little too much champagne!!

  • Ahhh…the memories come flowing back.
    One of the best meals I ever had…
    It pays to draw for food, though that was never my intent,
    Chef Gerard Boyer invited me from to dine as his guest.
    I went alone and I was treated royally. I still have the most perfect cup and saucer I bought in their shop..
    Thanks for the lovely reminder of Les Crayères David.
    Carolg

  • I just lived vicariously through your description and post, and now I’m feeling incredibly envious. What a meal!

  • Loved reading about the port tongs. I was going to comment earlier this week, but your well-written post had me scouring the internet for cheap airfare instead.

  • Great post David!!!
    Your description about the food is amazing. I would like to live in France.
    Thank you

  • I just felt like I spent a few minutes in France, thank you for that.

  • ..and then Portos fell asleep…

    What a story, what a post!

    Happy guy!

  • Years and years and years ago my mom took me to Les Crayeres. She believed in exposing her kids to fine dining. And the French have no problem with serving champagne to a 12 year-old. So much the better for me. Your writing and especially your photos make me so nostalgic! I remember sitting by that huge bay of windows, eating a crab canape and feeling very grown-up. I must go back… maybe this time I will feel like a kid :)

  • I really really want your life even if it means putting up with surly Monoprix cashiers once in a while. I had the same thought that commenter Cyndy had when reading about that fabulous butter – how good it would be on bread with sliced radishes. Great post, as usual.

  • Drool…

  • I love you !

  • One of my best friends got married at Les Crayères last year and booked out the entire hotel for 3 nights. What a party! And I still remember my first visit when Chef Boyer was still running it…

    Some of us are also lucky enough to regularly enjoy Bernard and Jean-François’ babies here in HK. And we’ve also been lucky to enjoy a 5-year Comté…with an extra year carefully aged in HK. Absolutely wonderful… http://chi-he-wan-le.blogspot.com/2010/03/5-year-old.html