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l'Assiette Champenoise in Reims - 3 Michelin stars

Rating: 93.
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When l'Assiette Champenoise was awarded a third Michelin star in February 2014, it had been more than 10 years since the Champagne area had had a three-star restaurant. The last one had been Les Crayères (now two stars) during the reign of Gérard Boyer, until his retirement in 2003. l'Assiette Champenoise is a family run hotel and restaurant in Reims, France. Executive chef is Arnaud Lallement (b. 1974), who has been at the helm of the kitchen since 2000, when he succeeded his father Jean-Pierre. The restaurant received its first Michelin star in 2001. Sadly Arnaud's father passed away only a few months later at the very young age of 51. A second star was bestowed on the restaurant in 2005. Before joining his father in the kitchens of l'Assiette Champenoise in 199, Arnaud trained with some of the best chefs in France, such as Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Alain Chapel.

l'Assiette Champenoise is open for lunch Thursday till Sunday and for dinner Wednesday till Monday. The restaurant offers an à la carte menu (starters and mains €55 to €115, desserts €26), a multi-course Heritage - Père en fils menu for €245, a 6-course Saveur menu for €175 and when I visited the restaurant there also was a seasonal 6-course Alba Truffle menu on offer for €315. I had lunch with my husband at l'Assiette Champenoise on Saturday 11 October 2014 and we both ordered the Saveur menu.

With our aperitifs, which we enjoyed in the bar, we were served two tartelettes (no photographs), one with a goat's cheese cream filling and a green herb jelly, and one with a foie gras crème filling and a grapefruit jelly. The pastry of tartelletes had a lovely crumbly texture and a hint of sweetness.

Next to arrive was a lovely amuse bouche of foamy and intense cauliflower cream, draped with two thin slices of smoked John Dory, and garnished with some lime zest.

The first course of the Saveur menu was scallop, served with crisp potato rounds and a spelt 'risotto' flavoured with leek, a few leek rings and a creamy scallop and lemon sauce. Beautifully cooked scallop, lovely caramelisation on the outside, nice and delicate on the inside. The sauce complemented the scallop nicely, but had quite intense, tangy, buttery notes in the aftertaste. Great texture and elegant nuttiness from the spelt risotto, and the sweetness of the leek matched the sweetness of the scallop wonderfully. Lovely sharpness from the leek rings, which added a little extra oomph to the dish.

Second course was freshly picked white crab meat, lightly seasoned with lemon zest and covered with slices of crunchy pickled turnip. Spread across the plate were blobs of brown crab, ponzu and turnip jelly. A superb dish with a fantastic balance between intensity and freshness and a great interplay of textures. The jelly was sublimely flavoured and surprisingly light; the ponzu balanced out the richness of the brown crab wonderfully. At first I thought there would be too much jelly on the plate, but the amount was perfectly fine.

This was followed by a piece of firm and moist John Dory, served with baby turnips, green tea 'caramel' and a creamy shellfish sauce. An original flavour combination that worked very well and the bitters of the turnips and the green tea (including some green tea powder that had been sprinkled on the John Dory), balanced the richness in the dish nicely. The sauce had an incredible depth of flavour, but also had those same intense, tangy, buttery notes as the first course did. It is a flavour that is attractive, but at the same time quite dominant on the palate.

Main couse was expertly cooked chicken with wonderful moist meat and a lovely carmelised skin, accompanied by celeriac, carrot, potato, and pumpkin, and a foie-gras based Albufera sauce flavoured with white port. The Albufera sauce was absolutely exquisite: first you get the richness of the foie gras with a hint of cream, followed by the elegant sweetness of the white port and finally some subtle bitters in the aftertaste.

Before dessert we had a cheese course. l'Assiette Champenoise offers a fine selection of well-matured cow, goat and sheep's milk cheeses.

Dessert was a 'mille feuille' of caramelised pastry with filling of tart apple cream and an equally tart green apple sorbet, served with caramelised apple rolls, which were quite strongly flavoured with honey. A dessert that looked wonderful, but didn't deliver on flavour. The pastry was nicely caramelised, but surprisingly it also had raw floury notes. Both the apple cream and sorbet were too tart for my taste and I wasn't keen on the honey-flavoured apple either. 

To accompany our coffees: sugary biscuits with lemon curd, caramel and yuzu chocolates and canalés.

It is always cause for some excitement, when Michelin awards a restaurant a(nother) star and in particular when it is the third one. When a restaurant is elevated to that illustrious category occupied by the hundred or so best in the world, it is an indication that something very special is astir. It also means that the expectations of those who make the journey there to find out for themselves, are understandably high and usually there is a price tag to match. When I went to l'Assiette Champenoise, it delivered a wonderful meal with some clever touches here and there, but I did not find the level of inventiveness or complexity that I admittedly had anticipated, and that would really have set the restaurant apart. The crab and the chicken stood out, but there were some snags too, and while in some cases these may have represented stylistic choices (e.g. the sauces with the scallop and the John Dory), the dessert was clearly flawed. Overall however, l'Assiette Champenoise stands for excellent cooking, but without the ultimate in refinement or precision.

Posted 10-11-2014


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