On a frosty January morning, I met Connecticut born Christian Holthausen, international communications director for Piper Heidsieck Champagnes, at the Gare de l'Est to hop an early train to Reims. Holthausen had invited me and another journalist to join him for a visit to the Piper Heidsieck mother ship, a stunningly sleek modern complex that's light years away from the creaking-parquet settings and heavy-handed and not always accurate folkloric history peddled by other Champagne houses. "Even if you think you know a fair amount about Champagne, I hope you'll find something to learn today," said Holthausen, flattering my knowledge of the bubbly, since this turned out to be an an absolutely fascinating day on all levels.
As the train streaked through a frost-rimed landscape that brought Breughel to mind, Holthausen explained that he'd arranged a tasting of the "vins clairs," or still wines from which Champagne is blended, with Myriam Faure Brac, one of the company's top oenologists. Since so few people understand that Champagne is not a wine like "Chardonnay" or "Merlot," but rather an exquisite work of eminently quaffable art created almost like music with notes, these being gustatory, I was keen for this experience.
And it was terrific. Trying three different Chardonnays from the 2009 vendage--Barbonne Fayel 2009, Avize 2009, and Oger 2009, was absolutely fascinating in terms of how different parcels of land in the Champagne AOC produce such distinctively different wines. "The recipe for blending changes from year to year, of course," said the charming Madame Brac was we sipped, swirled and spat. "Chardonnay brings the freshness to Champagne, along with mineral and floral notes," Mme. Brac added.
Next, three Pinot Noirs, all 2009, and then three Pinot Meuniers, all 2009, before we got to go behind the scenes and sample some of the most precious tools of the Champagne maker's craft, the vins de reserve, or aged wines from exceptional vintages used to add particular character to Piper's two very distinctive Champagnes, Piper Heidsieck, which is somehow younger, friendlier and more festive, and Charles Heidsieck, which is elegant, authoritative and ideal for drinking during the course of an entire meal. "The reserves are wines with real personality," said Mme. Brac, reminding us that the "genuis of Champagne is in the assemblage. Finding the correct dosage really is like writing music, you must respect and understand all of the notes you're working with."
Finally it was time to sample two of the company's latest masterpieces, an Assemblage 2008 Charles Heidsieck Brut reserve, which was divine and totally Park Avenue or Beacon Hill, or well-mannered, suave, subtle and discreetly witty, and the Assemblage 2008 Piper-Heidseick Cuvee Brut, a sublime wine to set you up for an interlude of sunbathing and lovemaking on a tropical beach.
They're no tropical beaches in Reims, of course, so instead off we went to lunch at Le Millenaire, a socks-pulled up provincial one-star that reminded me, a Parisian, of how very differently France eats outside of Paris. Even in Reims, with a major traffic of sophisticated international types drawn by the Champagne, this place was more Sunday lunch with the Curee than head-thrown-back good food. That said, the service was charming, in that fascinating way the French have of channeling obsequity, and the food was well-intentioned, although the risotto with black truffles was oddly tame--I wanted to be clobbered by the tuber, and my roast lobster with salsify and Chorizo beignets might have usefully raised its voice, too.
On the other hand, neither of these dishes overshadowed the brilliant Champagnes we drank with lunch--a Charles Heidseick Brunt Vintage 1996 and a Charles Heidseick Blancs des Millenaires 1995 (a drop-dead brilliant wine), and the kitchen here is clearly competent and keen to make people happy.
Having visited other Champagne houses aging caves before--most are ancient Gallo-Roman catacombs gouged into the chalk beds under Reims, I wasn't wildly interested in seeing Piper Heidseick's caves, but after tripping down a flight of stairs into the earth, I realized I was wrong. These cellars were beautiful and with an atmosphere that was almost sacred, like the reading room in a great library, and then Holthausen popped a couple of final corks, and I was utterly blown away by the Piper Heidseick Rare 1988 and the Charles Heidseick Champagne Charlie 1985, and would have remained a very happy and well-liquored troglodyte were it not for the necessity of catching a train back to Paris. I'd like to think I'm pretty impervious to PR grand-standing, but at the Cinderella like end of this day, or me in the Metro heading home, I decided that henceforth I'd be making my bubbles Heidseick, Piper or Charles depending on the occasion.
Le Millenaire, 4 rue Bertin, Reims, Tel. 03 26 08 26 62
If a week doesn't go by when I don't read at least two or three restaurant reviews in the French press that are either outrightly dishonest or much too gentle with the subject being treated, I have to say I was astonished to come across an outright elogy to the really dreadful Brasserie Lipp in a French magazine last weekend. Sure, this table is a favorite of the Gauche Caviar political and literary establishment, but if these people are willing to tolerate mediocre food in exchange for the privilege of being recognized and well-seated, this place offers no consolation whatsoever to the the hoi polloi, of which I'm part.
So against this backdrop of recent events, it was a relief to find that I am part of a general consensus when it comes to the newly opened and unfrotunately named Flottes O.trement, a bistro that's been created from an apartment upstairs (the stairs are new, too) from the popular Les Flottes brasserie in the swanky rue Cambon. It's a good looking place with a big old-fashioned wooden bar and club chairs upholstered in a brown fabric that brought back memories of compartments in Czech trains when that country was still communist. The chairs are comfortable, though, and the lighting's good, which is surely a priority for the tres Parisien clientele of fashion and luxury goods execs and designers its already attracting.
The first surprise was the service. I expected Costes style attitude, but was dead wrong, since it was absolutely charming. The welcome we received was truly courtly, and all through our meal, the waiters and maitre d'hotel jumped through hoops to make us happy (when one of them spotted me raiding Bruno's very good aligot, he instantly asked if I wouldn't like a bowl of my own).
Having eaten an ample amount of cod after several days in Portugal, I was eager for a really French meal, so I ordered an oeuf en gelee, because you never see them anymore, and blanquette de veau, one of my favorite dishes. Bruno didn't feel the same need for gastronomic mothering, preferring a tartare of smoked salmon with salmon eggs and a delicious filet of beef that had been cut into three slices and interleaved with a gently garlic herb butter.
If the gelee of my oeuf lacked the punch of beef bouillon with a little Madeira that I'm always looking for, the egg itself was correctly runny, and my blanquette de veau was tender and full of flavor, if a bit short of sauce and missing the rice with which it should be served. I disliked the mushy consistency of Bruno's tartare, but his beef was good, and the slice of Cantal we shared in lieu of dessert was so good that I brought home the part we didn't finish.
All told, this was a pleasant place, and I suspect it's going to be very successful with a young right-bank version of the same crowd who still frequent Brasserie Lipp. If it weren't so expensive, I might even be tempted to go back, especially because the location is so handy.
Flottes O.Trement, 2 rue Cambon, 1st, Tel. 01-42-61-31-15. Metro: Concorde. Closed Sunday and Monday lunch. Lunch menus 39 and 45 Euros, a la carte 65 Euros.