Over the holidays, C's godfather R, Mr. Plantsman, came to visit us. One of the things he wanted to do was visit some Belgian breweries & Champagne houses. Unfortunately, most of the breweries we researched only did pre-arranged group tours plus they were closed for the holidays. The big champagne houses weren't any different. Most of them were closed anywhere from a few days to the entire month of January. But Mr. Plantsman managed to find a couple who give private tours of the small Champagne houses.
So in one day we planned the tour. They also made lunch reservations for us at Le Grand Cerf, a one star Michelin rated restaurant. It all sounded perfect. But we still needed a place to stay. Unfortunately, all the B&B's & charming hotels I e-mailed were completely booked. It was as if everyone decided to go to Reims & Epernay the same days we wanted to go.
S was able to find us a hotel within walking distance from the city centre with outdoor parking which is a huge selling point for me. I'm fine with driving in an unfamiliar city but PLEASE DO NOT make me park in an underground car garage. Is there a name for people who have a phobia of underground car garages? Well, whatever it is I have it! lol! Not because these garages are dark & creepy. Oh no, it's because these garages are super TINY! I refuse to park in these areas. I'm fearful of those tight corners when you're driving in circles to the next level and I always feel like I'm going to scrape the side of my car against the wall. I remember once I actually managed to drive my car into the garage (of course screaming the entire way fearing that the roof of the car was going to scrap against the ceiling) and when I opened the trunk it touched the ceiling. Yeah, I'll leave those open parking spots for the mini Cooper & Smart cars. So when S told me the hotel had an open air parking lot I didn't need to hear any more details. And within a day we set off to Reims.
On the way, we made a stop at the Le Creuset factory outlet. It was our 2nd visit within two weeks. Did I forget to mention that R & I love to cook. lol! I picked up a great grill pan for 40 Euros and some ramekins for 6 Euros. I'm kicking myself for not buying more than 4. After we shopped we had lunch at the La Brasserie de l'Abbaye du Cateau which R loved.
We arrived in Reims in the late afternoon and the area around the cathedral was absolutely deserted unlike our visit in the spring. I suppose that's one of the benefits of traveling to Europe in the winter. But the church was ice cold. You could see your breath everytime you spoke.
Afterwards, we walked around the city for a bit. It was much nicer than I remember. We stumbled upon a kitchen shop that specialized in bakeware. They had a huge selection of decorative silicone bakeware so I picked up a pretty cake pan.
When we arrived at the hotel in Epernay, R & I couldn't stop laughing. Our hotel was absolutely awful! The minute you walked into the place it smelled like fried foods. Blah! The bathroom was so awful I swore to use it as little as possible. The walls surrounding the bathroom were like cardboard. But it did have a GREAT outdoor parking lot! R insisted there was no way he was staying there for more than one night. All throughout dinner we laughed and joked about how awful the hotel was and how we were so embarrassed by our hotel accommodations that we were going to wait for our champange guide at the end of the street. What would he think of us? Two friends splurging on a private champagne tour, dining at a Michelin rated restaurant and staying at a hotel that smelled like fried food or better yet a hotel where you needed a code to enter the building like it was in the bad part of town. lol! Our laughter that night was contagious - even our waitress started laughing with us when she gave us our bill. So after dinner we set out to find another hotel. Of course the one we found had an underground garage but when they gave R the maximum car measurements we knew there wasn't even a chance my car would fit. But luckily, there was plenty of street parking which meant I'd have to parallel park.... Another car phobia of mine! By the time we got back to our hotel, part of the H in the "Hotel" sign went out and it looked like it said, "Motel". The place was looking really bad now. lol! But we felt better knowing that it was only for one night.
When Christopher, our Champagne tour guide, picked us up he informed me we'd be the only ones on the tour. R & I have the best luck with getting private tours... first Egypt & now Epernay & Reims, France.
It rained the majority of the day so we didn't get to walk around the vineyards which was a shame but now we have a good reason to return. ;) The first place we toured was the Abbey of Hautvillers. The houses near the Abbey were absolutely charming. I would have loved to walk around the area snapping photos but the rain was a big deterrent.
After our visit to the Abbey it was time to start sampling some champagne. We visited three small Champagne houses which were all unique in their own way. The first house was J.M. Gobbillard & Fils in Hautvillers. At this house, we tried the Brut Blanc de Blancs, champagne made with only Chardonnay grapes. Mr. Plantsman absolutely loved this champagne. It was very fresh and clean.
The second house we toured was Nicolas Maillart. Our guide was able to take us through the areas where they actually make the champagne. It was very interesting to see how the technology has changed the industry. Before we left, we tried two different champagnes by Nicolas Maillart.
Before continuing on with our Champagne tour, we stopped for lunch at Le Grand Cerf. I was quite excited about dining at a Michelin rated restaurant. The restaurant was decorated nicely. Lots of natural light. We were seated at a table near a large windows with an area leading out to their gardens. Those gardens must be especially gorgeous during the spring & summer seasons.
As I sat down & opened my menu I immediately felt a slight panic. Imagine opening your menu and everything is in a language you don't understand. Granted, I could make out a word here & there but I was pretty much at a loss for what to order. The appetizers ranged from 30 to 40 Euros and the main entree was anywhere from 60 Euros and up. As you can imagine ... I really wanted to be careful to order something I thought I'd like. Christopher, our guide didn't speak very much French so he couldn't help translate the menu so we asked our waiter to help. But he wasn't especially helpful. When we asked him about a particular soup he mumbled something that slightly resembled English. So we asked him to repeat himself and still we had no idea what he was saying. So we asked him one more time. And again, I had no clue what he said. But Christopher suddenly understood, "OH, Pumpkin soup!" The waiters responded with a very thick French accent, "YES, that's what I just said." We asked the waiter one more question and his response, "Fish". No further explanation...nothing about what type of fish or maybe how it was cooked. Nada! So when Christopher asked me if I had any other questions I completly lied and said, "No, that was it". Are you kidding me... I had lots of other questions. But when you have a waiter that helpful translating, it makes you not want to question another thing. lol! The way I figured it anything I ordered was like taking a stab in the dark. So I decided to play it safe and go for the menu of the day. At least if I didn't like one course I had 4 more coming. lol! Mr. Plantsman was more decistive and chose the foie gras which he loves and roasted pigeon.
Every single course was a work of art. Beautiful, clean presentation and the flavors just blew me away. And of course the service was impeccible. Everytime we finished a bread roll it seem to be replaced just as we finished chewing the last bite. There was a utensil missing from the table so when the server brought another one it was delicately wrapped in a cloth napkin and very carefully rolled out of the napkin onto the table. And with just one simple glance, your server was immediately at your service. I must admit I've never dined at a restaurant that was so attentive. But I could easily get used to it! lol! Everything we tried at Le Grand Cerf was absolutely amazing! Ok, so enough about the service let's talk about the food! We were served a pumpkin soup with slivered almonds as our amuse bouche which was to die for! If I could have licked my bowl clean I would have! lol! A few days later Mr. Plantsman & I tried to present a Tuscan white bean soup in a similar fashion but we failed miserably on the presentation. For my second course, I had the Souffle de St. Pierre which was a delicate fish souffle. I usually think of souffles as a dessert so it was a bit unusual but it turned out to be absolutely superb!! The consistency was perfect and the flavors were amazing. As my third course, I was presented with grilled beef and tear dropped silky smooth mash potatoes. The sauce was incredible. Next came a wonderful cheese plate with three different varieties, Comté being one of them. The timing was perfect considering I'd just read about how Comté is made on David Lebovitz's blog. By this point, I felt like my stomach was about to explode. I just couldn't eat another bite unless of course it's dessert. In my world, there is always room for dessert. The dessert possessed the perfect balance of sweet & tart flavors... Pineapple chunks with passion fruit sauce, vanilla ice cream tucked into a thin lace caramel colored cookie and coconut marshmallow. Now I love sweets but I'm not a fan of marshmallows. But THIS marshmallow was like no marshmallow I've ever tasted. The sweet, coconut flavors were so subtle and delicious I became a fan immediately.
After our incredible lunch, we drove to Ambonnay to visit Paul Dethune. We sampled a crisp Blanc Noir made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes. What I loved most about this Champagne house was how enthusaiastic the owner was about creating a sustainable viticulture. I purchased a wonderful Cuvee a la Ancienne for S. Everything about this organic champagne is made by hand even the riddling is done the old fashion way. It even has a cork with a string like the way champagne was bottled years ago.
On the way back to our motel hotel, Christopher pointed out a few noteworthy restaurants in the centre of Epernay. So once we switched hotels, Mr. Plantsman & I walked to the centre of town and had dinner at a place called Le Banc. The menu outside looked great but once we entered I realized there was no way our dinner would be as good as lunch. The atmosphere was nice but there was no comparison. But Mr. Plantsman & I were being positive. I wasn't very hungry so I just ordered Lobster Ravoli as an appetizer. This seemed to completely annoy our waiter or maybe it was because I asked for English menus. It was a bad start to a very fun evening. My Ravoli was just awful... the lobster was overcooked and swimming in a sea of sauce. Mr. Plantsman's food was slightly better, but he & I both started to make each other laugh mimicking some of the comments we hear on Top Chef. Despite the food being less than average, we had so much fun laughing over the positive affirmation card I almost left for our waiter.
After dinner, Mr. Plantsman & I walked along the Champagne Blvd where all the big Champagne houses are. It's a beautiful cobbled stone street lined with mansions and lots of Christmas lights to make the area look even more festive.
The following day, we spent the morning hours at an outdoor market where I bought some delicious walnuts and butternut squash. It was a gorgeous sunny day so we enjoyed wandering through the market watching vendors sell fish, meat, cheese, vegetables, and of course lots of fruit.