On the outskirts of Reims is Assiette Champenoise, located in a 35-room hotel. Chef Arnaud Lallement trained with Roger Verge, Michel Guerard and Alain Chapel after qualifying from catering college. He came to Assiette Champenoise in 1997 and joined his father, who had run the restaurant since 1975. He gained a Michelin star in 2001 and a second in 2005, and the restaurant was elevated to three Michelin stars in the 2014 guide.
The dining room is on the ground floor and has an attractive garden terrace. The room seats 65 diners, with well spaced tables laid with crisp white linen, windows looking out on to the terrace and white padded fabric squares along the back wall. Lighting was murky and became darker as the evening progressed, so by the time dessert arrived a white stick would have been a useful accessory to help locate the plate. Overly loud music played in the dining room; it was a little surreal looking at the menu with Barry White crooning over the loudspeakers. In a lounge adjoining the dining room was a display cabinet with what seemed to be every Michelin France guide going back to 1900.
There were menus at €198, €158 and €138, as well as a la carte choices that are priced at levels roughly equivalent to the set menus, with starters €49-79, mains €65-98 and desserts €26. The wine list was vast and seemed to be entirely French, with 3,500 different labels to choose from and 26,000 bottles in the cellar. Wines included Les Sorcieres 2011 at €47 for a wine that you can find in the high street for around €16, Cuvée Frederich Emile 2004 at €133 compared to a retail price of €47, and Clos des Fees Cotes du Languedoc 2008 at €188 for a wine that will set you back around €54 in a shop.
A tray of nibbles comprised beef tartare on a cracker, peanut marshmallow, paella tartlet and goat cheese flavoured with herbs. The beef seemed under-seasoned to me and its cracker a little too hard, the cheese harmless, the paella not having much flavour (14/20). Bread is baked from scratch in the kitchen and was excellent, having light, airy texture and a good crust (18/20).
Cauliflower mousse with strips of John Dory lightly smoked with coconut was pleasant and avoided too much smokiness, though the fish flavour rather overpowered the cauliflower (16/20). Asparagus from Vaucluse came with mushrooms including morels steeped in chicken stock and a vin jaune mousse. The asparagus itself was excellent, carefully good and of high quality, the vin jaune sauce nicely made (18/20).
Norwegian salmon came with turnips and leeks, together with a creamy sauce flavoured with Japanese tea, the latter mercifully subtle. This was a pleasant dish, but the salmon did not have a great deal of flavour, as is sadly the case with most salmon these days; the turnips and leeks were very good, however (16/20).
Line-caught sea bass came with peas, celery and oregano mousse. The fish was grilled, and of the four pieces that we tried three were fine but one was still raw in the centre, a strange slip given the otherwise high technical standard of the meal. The vegetables were of high quality, and the fish had good flavour (16/20 if I ignore the problem with the one piece of fish).
Pigeon from Bresse came with radishes and a lovely reduction of the cooking juices. The pigeon had excellent flavour, was precisely cooked, and the sauce was superb, intense but not over-reduced (19/20). One nice feature of the presentation here is that sauces were presented in their own little serving cups, so you could add more if you wished. In the case of the superb sauce here this was most welcome.
Cheeses were from Philippe Olivier in Normandy and were in excellent condition. A lemon dessert had lemon mousse and meringue topped with a candied lemon shell, the balance of the acidity just right (easily 18/20). This was rather better than a raspberry desert whose fruit itself was excellent but whose mousse with lemon and white cheese was somewhat uninteresting, though the biscuit base was good (perhaps 17/20).
A selection of coffee beans was presented in a series of jars, and you were encouraged to sniff them before selecting your coffee. A range of mignardise appeared, including excellent fruit jellies, yuzu chocolates, delicate cannoli, little lemon tartlets and, best of all, superbly delicate palmier biscuits (19/20).
The bill came to €475 for two i.e. £195 per head. If you went for the cheapest menu and ordered a modest wine to share then your bill might be as low as £150 a head, though £170 per person would probably be about average. Service was excellent after a slightly slow start, with dishes arriving at a steady pace, and faultless topping up of bread, water and wine. Overall this was a very enjoyable meal, with appealing dishes, high quality ingredients and generally excellent cooking technique. For me it was some way short of three star level except for one dish and the petit fours, but this s a criticism of Michelin's scoring rather than of the restaurant, which served us a very enjoyable meal. It is well worth a detour, if not quite a special journey.