The debate about the future of formalised experiences and fine dining is akin to Brexit; three commentators, four opinions. Many critics have stated repeatedly that several high-profile closures – including Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus in 2016 – combined with a general consensus that consumers prefer ‘casual dining’ is evidence enough that formal dining rooms will become a moribund feature of our gastronomic landscape. Instagram-happy Millennials, they claim, are not interested in starchy, white tablecloth dining.
Yet there are two problems with this assertion. Firstly, fine-dining has never been the preserve of Millennials – by and large, wealthier Baby Boomers fill Michelin-starred restaurants, and younger couples celebrating a special occasion. Secondly, as Le Parc so effortlessly demonstrates, there is nothing mutually exclusive about offering your guests a relaxed environment, and providing only the very best standards of service and professionalism. When I enjoyed lunch at the restaurant in June, the dining room was full to bursting. I saw no indication that this style of dining is in rapid decline.
Indeed, Le Parc is arguably stuck in something of a time warp, but it’s a time warp that its regulars and tourists seem very happy with. The ornate and exquisite dining room is part of the luxury hotel Les Crayeres, a handsome chateau in 17 acres of grounds on the outskirts of Reims, built in 1902-1904 and situated next to the Pommery champagne house. The current head chef is Philippe Mille, a protege of Yannick Alleno at Le Meurice in Paris. Under his stewardship, the restaurant regained a star in 2011, then a second star in 2012. Expectations were therefore high. Graciously offered a glass of Champagne to start, I knew that great things were to follow.
However, despite the grandeur of the setting and genius of Mille’s culinary technique – only using high quality seasonal ingredients is his raison d’etre – there is nothing uncomfortably formal about eating at Le Parc. The dining room seats a maximum of 60 diners, and has a high ceiling and picture windows looking out on to the terrace. Tables were well-spaced, large and set with fine white linen tablecloths. It’s smart and elegant, rather than suffocating or funereal. The staff keep the balance right between professional and friendly, but most importantly of all, Mille does not disappoint in the kitchen.
There probably isn’t sufficient space here to do our meal justice but the food was faultless, created with plenty of technical skill but never overwrought. We started with a tray of nibbles: duck foie gras and artichoke cream with mixed vegetable crudités in white wine vinegar were the highlight, an inspired combination that offset the richness of the liver. Soft egg cooked with mushrooms powder, hazelnuts zabayone, artichoke, mushrooms and duck foie gras was a textbook example of how to make such varied, and potentially conflicting, ingredients sing from the same hymn sheet.
Subtlety is very much his watchword. No singular flavour dominates and nothing on the plate clashes. That said, my meat dish was the undisputed highlight of the lunch – quail from Pel et Der served with chanterelle mushrooms, pureed onions and “délicatesse” potatoes. Paired with a glass of Blanc de Blancs Champagne, silence descended across our table for a good while.
Regarding dessert, you must try the award-winning ‘lemon waves’, an undulating crisp with lemon cream and caramel, lemon milk mousse, lemon milk sorbet, and caramel mousse. It’s exquisite.
My only regret is that we had a train to catch, so we missed the kitchen’s dazzling cheese selection; coffee was gulped rather than sipped. But my last impression is the value on offer – £75 euros for an expertly compiled lunch menu is by no means excessive for such a high-class package. A supremely polished and yet also relaxed and jovial experience, it’s little wonder that there were no tables unoccupied the day I visited. Fine dining moribund, you say?
I don’t think so.
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
51100 Reims, France
33 3 26 24 90 00