Friday, 4 April 2014

Champagne Lunch with Two Michelin-Starred Philippe Mille from Les Crayeres

Chef Philippe Mille from the two Michelin-starred Les Crayères of Reims, Champagne, was in town recently for the World Gourmet Summit.  Together with Champagne grower Alexandre Penet, he was hosting a one-off lunch at Raffles Grill paired with Penet's Champagnes, so I didn't need too much persuading to check it out.  Together with Singapore Foodie Victoria and her husband M, we returned to Raffles Grill with some serious expectations of a great afternoon.

Les Crayères is one of the two recognised grandes tables of Champagne, the other being the Lallement Family's L'Assiette Champenoise which was recently elevated to three Michelin stars (and also holds the far more elusive accolade of being my wife's favourite restaurant in the world).  According to WGS founder Peter Knipp, Penet is a friend of Mille's, and his Champagnes feature quite prominently on Les Crayères' wine list.  And if you believe Knipp, it was Penet who persuaded Mille to participate in this year's WGS, so I was looking forward to an afternoon of true culinary alchemy.

Appetiser: Roasted Gamberoni in its own Juice, Smoked Haddock and Saffron Potato
Wine Pairing: NV Champagne Alexandre Penet Extra Brut

A very good starter for a Champagne-paired lunch.  Sweet, crunchy chunks of gamberoni (a giant red prawn) have an ethereal sweetness, balanced with the earthy flavours of smoked haddock flakes and saffron-poached potatoes.  I must admit the cream sauce tastes more to me of smoked haddock than the promised prawn essence; Mille is obviously a fan of the stuff!  It is rich yet subtle, deep yet light, and the acidity of the Penet Extra Brut stops it all from going over the top.  A low-dosage style, it is the most "mainstream" in style of Maison Penet's champagnes, and would not look out of place amongst some of the entry-level labels of the grandes marques.  Not exactly a profound wine, but it has spades of appeal.

Entrée: Cod from Quiberon (Brittany) with Mushrooms, Shellfish-Infused Celery
Wine Pairing: Penet-Chardonnet Grand Cru Brut Reserve Nature

Yowzers.  Next to the dictionary entry for "umami" is a picture of this dish.  The cod, which flakes provocatively under the touch of a fork, is infused with mushrooms and what tastes to me like seaweed (I ask Penet who seems to agree with me), while the broth underneath is saturated with the sweetness of tiny clams, punctuated only with the slight bitter rasp of celery and tartness of granny smith apple sticks.  A masterpiece and worth the price of admission in itself.

The champagne, a 2:1 assemblage of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Verzy Grand Cru, this time with zero dosage, is problematic.  I take a sniff and smell the rank odour of oxidation.  With sherry, vin jaune, this might be a positive.  Here, it is overwhelming, and not in a pleasant way.  I ask one of the sommeliers, who responds that they did a tasting of the wine the previous day and yes, the oxidative characters were the house style.  OK, there is a house style, and there is also "plain wrong".  I should have asked him to stink his honker in the glass and tell me what he thought.  Of course, when Penet comes around, he tells me the same thing.  I actually give him my glass and ask him to nose it.  He smells it and doesn't seem particularly pleased.  I ask if he wouldn't mind opening a fresh bottle so that we can compare the two.  The difference between the fresh bottle and Mr Premox is night and day.  The oxidative nose is still there, but to a much lesser degree, and it synergises beautifully with the earthy, peaty, savoury mushroom seaweed coating.  A wonderful pairing once we got a glass of the wine that wasn't flawed.

Main Course: Mille-Feuille of Poularde and Foie Gras, 1000 Leaves of Potato and Black Truffle
Wine Pairing: 1999 Penet-Chardonnet Cuvée Diane Claire Grand Cru

The mille-feuille, essentially a terrine of chicken and foie gras, is napped with a foie gras butter sauce before being torched lightly on the exterior.  It tastes perfectly fine, but the sauce is a little too salty.  

The 1000 potato leaves is essentially a refined, rich man's version of pommes boulangere, with a touch (spadefuls, actually) of luxury added with disks of black truffle interleavened between the mandolined spuds, and microplaned black truffle scattered over the top.  It is good, but does not reach the heights of the cod preparation.  Against such earthy, meaty flavours, the Diane Claire stands proud with its gorgeously mouth-filling texture and lively freshness (again, a zero dosage Champagne).   To be honest, I was more impressed with the Champagne than its accompanying dish.

Dessert: Intense Guanaja "Mirror", Quenelle of Jivara Milk Chocolate, Caraibes Grand Cru Ice Cream

After so many courses of rich food, the appearance of chocolate was a welcome relief.  I ask Penet if he makes any sweet champagnes to pair with dessert.  "No", he says, straight-faced.  "We leave that job to the others".  So it's chocolate by itself then, but it is top quality stuff,  "This is so good", I remark, stuffing spoonfuls of ice-cream into my mouth.  "WAS so good", corrects M gently, as he scoops up the remnants of the melted ice-cream from his plate.  This dish covered the gamut of chocolate flavours and textures, from solid chocolate, ganache, ice-cream, mousse.  A great finish.


This was a most enjoyable lunch, and it was great to meet Victoria and M.  Penet, a serious, restrained man, was a gracious host who was very generous with his time and knowledge (being a fifth-generation Champagne maker, and with a 400-year family history of growing Champagne grapes, you can imagine he had a fair bit!).  And with grower champagnes being wines of such distinct personality, it was nice to come to grips with Penet's style, which is very much terroir-focused and oriented towards use with food.

Penet himself was very impressed with the food, as were we, and he shared that the menu today was very faithful to Mille's menu back at Les Crayères, so much so that Mille actually air-flew his ingredients over with him for his WGS events.  It was a bit of a shame that Mille did not come out to mingle with the guests.  Victoria mentioned at the start that she saw him stalking through the dining room to the kitchen and didn't appear too happy.  I can only imagine that it was because the event did not sell particularly well.  I called ahead before making my reservations and was told that the event was capped at 30 guests, a fair few seats less than Raffles Grill's normal capacity.  Yet I didn't count more than 17 guests all told on the day, which was a shame because the food, the wine and the synergies between the two were uniformly excellent.

I won't notch this one up to a revival of the Raffles Grill just yet, but this was another wine event of tremendous quality, and another feather in the cap for Raffles' Wine Director Stéphane Soret and his team.

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