Brasserie Le Jardin, restaurant review: How the French still get away with being old-fashioned
Ed Cumming discovers that the joy of lunch in Champagne is not always because of the food
Restaurant recommendations are the only good thing about Twitter. Boring to read but useful to receive. Maybe not for you. I don’t know who your friends are.
But I am now followed by enough self-confessed “foodies” and “gourmets” and “gastronauts”, that when I ask for a hot tip they scramble over themselves to provide advice. Or at least, normally they do.
But when I harmlessly asked for some tips the other day I was accused of “elitism” and sarcastically told I was providing “yet more relatable content”. You can’t do anything these days without being accused of showing off. I was only looking for a decent lunch in Champagne.
In the end, I gave up and googled it myself. It came up with Domaine Les Crayères, a grand old chateau hotel in Reims, next to the Veuve Clicquot estate, the kind of situation to send you to the barricades singing the songs of angry men. Apparently, it’s famous, but if I’ve heard of it I wouldn’t be the kind of critic who has to tweet begging for restaurant advice.
It’s a large light-stone building with tall windows and manicured lawns standing above a landscaped park. A room costs around £700 a night. Walking in the grounds we followed a trail of candles and discovered a yoga yurt.
The hotel has two restaurants, Le Parc and Le Jardin. The Parc has two Michelin stars, but when I emailed they wrote back with their commiserations.
They did, however, have space in Le Jardin, a (comparatively) more cheap-and-cheerful brasserie a short distance from the house where the set lunch is only €50 (£45).
Because I didn’t learn to drive until I was embarrassingly old, I still find it glamorous and exciting to drive through France, especially when you roll into the forecourt of a leafy chateau, chuck out the Maoam wrappers and saunter up to a table set in the shade of wise-looking trees.
I’m still terrified of complaining about French meals. I can’t shake off the assumption that any faults are really in me. But there is something about the protein-n-sauce routine that feels old-fashioned, and the food at Le Jardin was not perfect. We both ordered the set lunch, €50 for three courses, the kind of pricing that means you are practically obliged to talk about what good value it is. Is it really, though? Fifty euros, for three courses.
Both of the fish courses had a vaguely mournful air. A fillet of cold baked salmon garnished with a limp scattering of purple and green leaves was served too cold, as if it hadn’t expected to be brought out so soon.
A fillet of weedy European bass came in a pool of pink-brown champagne sauce, too pungently earthy for the fish. The main was surprising but only because we failed to translate it properly. D’Inde is turkey. We know now. When was the last time you ordered turkey for lunch in a restaurant before a long drive in the sunshine?
I wondered if the whole meal was a conspiracy to make me fall asleep dribbling at the meal and trundle idly into a péage barrier. Pudding was strawberries. With hindsight, there was the faintest whiff of airline about it all.
None of that mattered. I was sitting opposite an old friend, holding a glass of light crisp blanc de blancs, the chill of the liquid seeping onto my fingertips, listening to the chatter of Frenchmen in dark blue shirts.
I could have been eating anything, or nothing: this is the joy of lunch in Champagne. The words sound elitist because the thing is elite.
Should you go? Yes, if you are driving through Champagne.
Would I go back? Yes, if I was driving through Champagne.
Could you take our parents? Absolutely.
Le Jardin, 7 Avenue du Général Giraud, 51100 Reims, France