ÉPERNAY, FRANCE — Day 4: A trip to Epernay and the Champagne region, and a return to my favorite restaurant in Paris.
Big day today. We’re picked up in front of the hotel for a trip to Champagne region, a 90-minute drive that stretches to two hours because of heavy traffic. (Taking the train from Paris is easy and a joy, but France is currently experiencing rail strikes — some scheduled and some improvised — so our able leader Mikael arranged a comfortable van.
Our guide for the day is Clemence, a wine expert who will shepherd us from door to door.
Our morning stop is the house of Cattier, a family-owned winery located in Chigny-les-Roses, a Premier Cru village of the Montagne de Reims.
(Before we go any further, let’s discuss the pronunciation of Reims, even though we’re spending the day mostly in the area of Épernay. I’ve known for a long time that its was not pronounced REEMS. I had thought it was Rehm. But according to Clemence, and there’s no reason to doubt her, she being French and all that, it is pronounced rs, or more precisely uhres, one syllable, very quickly. You can master the pronunciation, but it’s not likely anyone in the U.S. will know what you’re referring to.)
Cattier describes itself as bigger than the smallest and smaller than the biggest among the Champagne producers, which was just about perfect. We had a personalized tour of the caves, with the temperature dropping as rapidly as the steps into the corridors carved into chalk so many years ago.
Most of us on the tour were already familiar with the process of producing Champagne so we didn’t need a basic tutorial, but we enjoyed being able to ask more probing questions of our tour leader and, later in the tasting room, of some of the house’s executive staff who had come out to greet us (one was a former Walt Disney World cast member!).
And good Champagne, too. A couple of us in the group started plotting how we could get someone back home to represent the label for export to the U.S.
For our lunch, Clemence had chosen a restaurant in Épernay called La Banque because it occupies a former bank. However, we were seated on an outside terrace in the warm sun.
I had mussels in cream sauce, the little nuggets good and chewy.
My main course was red mullet with a light seafood sauce reduction, accompanied by peas, carrots and mushrooms.
One of our group ordered a starter course of risotto and escargots. I liked my mussels and mullet, but I would have been happy with the snail risotto as my whole meal.
We had another Champagne house tour in the afternoon. Moët and Chandon, perhaps you’ve heard of it? It is now the producer of Dom Perignon, which is named after the “inventor” of sparkling wine.
Here the tours are structured and strict. The group you’re in with an English speaking guide can’t move too quickly or it will catch up to the Portuguese group. Go too slowly and the Greek-speaking group will be at your heels.
The tasting room is Instagrammable with an M&C backdrop. Here we sampled two wines: a blanc de blanc and a rose. Sadly, the Dom was not made available for us.
And, no surprise here, we exited through the gift shop. We loaded back into our van and headed back to Paris.
The members of our group were told that dinner was on their own, but I let them know that I was going to have dinner at my favorite restaurant in Paris and anyone who wanted to come along would be welcome. All of us went to Chez Denise.
If you’re read any of my posts regarding my previous years’ visits to Paris you’ve probably heard the name Chez Denise. It’s a small restaurant in Les Halles, closed on weekends but open nearly 24 hours during the week. It is classic French — the menu is printed on a blackboard at the rear of the restaurant, and if you ask if there is an English menu the answer will be non.
Seating is cramped, with diners elbow to elbow at small tables with checkered cloths topped by the restaurant’s personalized paper cover. Cyril, my favorite waiter, whom I’ve written about before, arranged a table for us and we all tucked in.
We were gifted with a house terrine and sliced sausages as we tried to interpret our way through the menu.
I don’t need any time to go over it, I always order the same thing, the Haricot de Mouton, white beans with lamb, a cassouletlike concoction that never fails to satisfy (and I’ve never been able to finish it).
A few people in the group all selected Daube de Boeuf, a Provençal dish of chunks of meat braised in wine and herbs. Instead of individual servings, the meat and gravy melange was brought in a large copper pot (probably from E. Dehillerin, just across the way) to the table for the three to share, along with a platter of pasta to dish it over. All pronounced it good.
Kevin Fonzo, with whom I co-hosted the tour, was on an organ meat recital tour, opting for offal whenever available. So he had the Rognon, known more commonly in the states as chitterlings. He was in heaven, and since no one other than I would have a taste, he had the whole serving to himself.
Another of our group had the rillettes, wonderfully fatty and porky.
It’s always an iffy proposition when you introduce a place you love to new people, so I wasn’t sure how Chez Denise would be accepted. But everyone said they loved it. In fact, when they compared this meal to the one two nights earlier at Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower, they said they preferred the food here.
Off to bed — well, a nightcap first in the hotel bar where the bartender makes one of the best damn negronis I’ve tasted (he adds orange bitters) — and to throw things into the suitcase, as we head for Lyon in the morning.