Quite often when I’m visiting a winery in some distant region as part of my day job, I’m often treated in the evening to dinner a local restaurant that is a favorite of the winery’s owner or winemaker. We drink some more wines paired to a special menu prepared by the chef.
Last week I was in Reims with some other writers from around the world – Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland, China, Italy, the U.S. – to experience an in-depth look at Krug and its fabulous collection of high-end Champagnes. After visiting vineyards on the Côte des Blancs and tasting current vintages, older bottles and the 2010 base-wine samples at the maison’s headquarters, we prepared to have dinner at the Michelin two-star restaurant, L’Assiette Champenoise.
We were told at Krug that the father of the young chef-owner, Arnaud Lallement, had won and lost a Michelin star before handing over his toque to his son – who in short order re-gained the coveted celestial ranking. “We knew Arnaud well,” said Olivier Krug, the sixth generation to head Krug, “but I was surprised when he said he wanted to use Krug as his house wine. I said, ‘Isn’t that going to be expensive?’ but it was something he wanted to do.” Perhaps as a result of such attention to quality and detail, chef Arnaud now has a second Michelin star.
At the restaurant – situated in the small Château de la Muire inn on a wooded lot within the city – we were greeted by the chef and taken on a tour of the kitchen, an open, bright and spacious affair in spite of having at least 10 chefs darting about from burner to pick-up counter. There, over some lovely hors d’oeuvres, we were treated to the rare and very expensive 1998 Clos d’Ambonnay Pinot Noir microcru, to be released later this fall.
Describing the dinner in full detail would taking many megabytes, but the main dishes were blue lobster on a thin disc of boeuf de Coutancie with peas, wasabi and a tangy fish broth; sea bass (bar) with cauliflower and coriander with a seafood mousse and a spicy oil; a tomato dish that looked and tasted like a deconstructed gazpacho, and an out-of-this-world pigeon en croute with spinach and balsamic. The matching wines were Krug vintages 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2000 (also for release this fall) and the reserve blends from 1989 and 1976 – the latter an especially delicious rarity.
“I know the Krug wines so well that it was easy to put together a matching menu,” Arnaud said through a translator, pointing out how he was sure the vintage 1998 would stand up even to the spicy oil in the seafood dish.
This Krug & L’Assiette Champenoise marriage is special – one as sparkling as the wedding of William & Kate, yet it is one that can occur between wineries and restaurants in less grand settings. I once had a Bouchaine winery dinner in Napa at which winemaker Michael Richmond related that the chef was always dropping by the winery with a plate of something he had just made and tasting it against Bouchaine wines. What a wonderful relationship, one that should take place with more frequency!
But like marriages between people, someone has to move first to get the courtship started. Whether you’re a chef or a winemaker, don’t wait for a matchmaker to show up. Shop locally, source locally, pair up locally.