Sitting just outside Reims in Tinqueux is the 2-starred L'Assiette Champenoise, a hotel/restaurant that has built up a solid reputation for putting out exciting food.
I was looking forward to this one.
It's a lovely looking restaurant. Modern, but with a subdued elegance. When you walk in you can either head to the table or, if the weather is right, have an aperitif on the terrace.
I didn't come to France to look at terraces, so we headed for the table and had the aperitif there. After a long day walking around the cluster of champagne houses in Reims, a seat and a cold glass of champagne was most welcoming.
We opted for the menu saviour, the larger of the two set menus on offer (of course, they also have a tight a la carte menu. It began with some nice appetisers (fried balls of foie gras, sure!) and a great amuse bouche (fish in a cheese sauce) and by “nice” and “great” I really mean “laden with fat”. I've never been one to complain at the site of a lot of rich/fatty food, but the next 2-3 hours were going to be one of the biggest tests of my life.
First dish. Lobster with a fish soup. Sounds nice and French but it was straight out of Chinese/Malay. The fish soup (served cold, interestingly) was laced with ginger and the hint of chilli. On the side, a piece of toast that more closely resembled a prawn cracker (along with a martini glass of MORE lobster and more soup). It was nice.
Next up, gnocchi with a comte cheese sauce and what tasted like pickled vegetables. On their own, the gnocchi was a tad bland, the cheese sauce a tad too rich, and the pickled vegetables too... pickled. But together they worked perfectly. The pickle cut through the richness of the sauce and the gnocchi carried the dish through.
Then it started to get serious (in terms of blockage of the artery). A chunk of nicely cooked fish sat alone on a plate. On the side sat a bowl of mushroom slices. A pause, then they brought over the sauce: a rich cheese and bacon affair. Oh, and the mushrooms are actually hiding more mushrooms, and a garlic butter dressing. And... they left a pot of the sauce on the table. Dangerous.
Dangerous because the dish was awesome. And we wanted as much as possible. The garlic butter that dressed the mushrooms was perfectly balanced and together with the fish and a bit f the sauce it was a mouthful of heaven. Rich, velvety, comforting, good. Especially when you put more sauce on. And more. And after it was gone, you put more sauce on your plate because you wanted to taste the sauce alone. But then you stopped adding sauce, because the sauce was all gone.
Then into the main course. A large cube of beef cooked (I think) sous vide, with a layer of awesome fat. Alongside that, a potato carved to look like a piece of bone with marrow inside. On top of that, a yoghurt sauce, almost like a raita. And in the middle, a thick, but not too strong sauce. Yes, this was also an excellent dish. Yes, they left the pot of sauce again.
I was full. That was odd.
Looking around, people who started well before us had sticks of fairy floss on their tables. Dessert? They'd been eating that course for a long time, Strange...
The chef did the rounds and said hello to everyone, appearing humble in the face of the effusive praise coming from every table.
Time for another cheese cart. While not as impressive as the one at Paul Bocuse, and maybe not in as perfect condition (but damn close), it still had some stellar cheeses. One of the best camemberts I've ever had and hands-down the best comte I have ever had. If I had comte like that then I'd be making cheese sauces with every damn course too, I think. Every other cheese also hit the mark in big ways (but, hey, this is France).
And then dessert.
The waiter came off and rattled off a list of dishes in French, and I realised that I shouldn't have tried to bluff my way through this meal with the 10 words of French I know.
I heard “La Mirabelle” and it sounded nice. I hoped that was the fairy floss thing.
And then... something happened...
The gates of hell opened and out walked approximately 16,000 desserts and petit fours (petit four-thousands?). Their mission was to destroy us.
They sat on the table and stared at us. Fairy floss, lollipops, toffees, tiny eclairs, lines of chocolate, biscuits.
I guess that was “La Mirabelle”.
The waiter returned with our desserts. An awesome dish of layers of thin meringue and pear purees and sorbets. Another cracking dish. The sweetness was spot on and not over the top and the textures, as you worked your spoon through the layers, Had just the right crunch to compliment the purees. Oh, and on the side, another martini glass, filled with more pears, custard and meringues.
We ate that, and the dessert army stared at us. Surely it would be rude not to try... all of them?
We busted our guts and tried our best to get through everything on the table. But it was impossible. There was so much.
As we went to leave, the waiter stopped us. Another surprise, he said, handing us a small bag.
A monsterous “petit” brioche.
“In case you want something to munch on tonight,” he said, happily.
I threw up in my mouth a little bit, and left feeling pretty damn good. As we waited for the taxi, the chef came out and farewelled us.
From the welcome at the front desk to the dessert onslaught, L'Assiette Champenoise constantly hit the marks. The food was great, the service near perfect, the wine matches from the sommelier were outstanding and the setting lovely.
Was it as good as some of the best meals I've ever had? Better? Probably not. But make no mistake, this is a fantastic restaurant with a bright future. If they continue to make food this good then I have no doubts that we'll be hearing a lot more from this place and, in particular, the relatively young chef at the helm.
Michelin star count: 10