Friday, 11 December 2015

I’m back! Continuing my travels in Reims

It’s been a shockingly long time since I posted, call it a sabbatical if you will… I’m not going to apologise. What with taking on a bigger role, indulging in the fairer sex and moving house I feel I have, understandably, been quite out of the loop. Be it from taking in the impressive Simon Schama re-hang at the National Portrait Gallery (or NPG to those in the know) or dining at Polpo, I have become something of a louche fellow about town, much in the cast of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey… but I jest, I lack the requisite style, panache and the ability to drop my ‘g’ for that accolade. Let’s put it this way, I’ve had a good time and left you quite on tenterhooks for the next leg of a French adventure. 

While it seems like a long while ago it still seems burnt in my memory. I’ve been back to France since and have just booked a few more trips to that magical place (North France to be exact), but it will hopefully keep me informed to write an extended piece on the subject at some stage. Here it seems apt to pick up where I left things, in the capital of Champagne, Reims. 

For those who can cast their minds back, Reims in my mind was a rather underwhelming city. Yes, it had a marvellous Cathedral and a couple of very impressive museums, but it wasn’t really for me. I had been underwhelmed by the surrounding countryside on the train journey in. The hills were too soft, there was something of a malaise about the whole area and the drizzling, overcast sky did nothing to help things. 

No matter, as I sat in a very agreeable Champagne bar with my coup of Blanc de Blancs, nibbling on shavings of saucisson, I reflected on the mysticisms of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. A book read when sixteen didn’t hold as much resonance, maybe it had something to do with the location? Who knows. 

I made my way to the main drag and had a small beer before I made my way to what was the crowning glory of Reims, L’Alambic - recommended in the travel supplement of a one-time Saturday Daily Telegraph. 

Again, it was table for one in this eccentric, contemporary restaurant in which the dining room was situated in a former wine cellar. I was greeted on arrival by Karol, the charming owner of the restaurant who addressed me by name (I was the only solo diner) and led to my table, past the vast copper alembic which lends its name to the restaurant. For those not in the know, it’s an essential part of the distilling process. On a little side table next to it, proudly presented, were some bottles of eau de vie (fruit brandy) from their favourite supplier, one Rene de Miscault. I knew as soon as I saw it, I was going to enjoy the food here as this is my favourite distiller, based in a small Alsatian village called Lapoutroie in the Vosges foothills. 

I was going hell for leather on this one, and as the very attractive and engaging Karol informed me she was going to tend to my table, I knew I was in excellent hands. Here’s how it panned out: 

A glass of house Champagne 

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Smoked duck breast stuffed with foie gras, green salad, vinaigrette

A glass of Chablis

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Rack of lamb (pink) with Dauphinoise potatoes, savoy cabbage and a light ratatouille

1/2 bottle of Pomerol 

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Vanilla parfait with Raspberries drenched in Marc de Champagne

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Coffee and eau de vie (Marc de Gew├╝rztraminer)

It was an exquisite meal, more so for its simple, bold flavours and bone fresh ingredients. It was a very clever chef who prepared the meal. The lamb was so so succulent and the Dauphinoise was luxurious without being too-rich, the use of garlic was judicious. The great surprise was the starter, the juxtaposition of the duck breast against the smooth liver… divine. The pudding was pure decadence with a real kick of alcohol and tang of fresh raspberries and coulis. I’m almost transported back now, to that low ceilinged dining room as I write. All through the meal I was given impeccable service, friendly and not overbearing. What a meal, and topped of with some of Mr Miscault’s (who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago) glorious Marc de Gew├╝rztraminer.

The real fun started though when I went up to the reception desk to pay the bill and I was encouraged by Karol to enjoy a glass of homemade cherry liqueur before I left! Let’s just say that I stayed for more, trying the full range of homemade ratafias and I experimented with my broken French and she spoke to me in her impeccable English! Of course two or three more toasts were consumed, this time from her stash of Miscault! Plum, Mirabelle (a type of plum) and pear were dispatched very merrily before I paid the bill and staggered out for a night-cap and a Gitane or ten! 

What an evening, what a host and what a restaurant. If you find yourself in Reims, make sure you visit L’Alambic for an experience you will never forget!