[Note: this article by Mireille and Edward first appeared in Quarterly Review of Wines, Spring 2009. While this list is updated periodically to account for restaurant closings, please call ahead before you visit.]
“En passant par la Lorraine” (While walking through Lorraine) is a famous folk song French kids used to learn in elementary school. Today, you can take the TGV. Early in our marriage, we used to visit Eastern France rather often to see relatives (Edward’s French family by marriage), but with most relocated to the South of France or simply gone, we’ve neglected going back to Nancy and Metz, two small, attractive provincial cities that have been getting ready for the 21st century for quite a while. Ah, can you go home again? Tourists who visit Paris and long for a quick trip to see some idyllic French countryside or manageable heartland city in record time, had very few opportunities till recently. (Tour buses galore will capture the Loire Valley in a touristy day or two, but the idylls there are idylls of the king, not exactly everyday France.) Now, a TGV trip to Reims will take you 45 minutes versus the too often nightmarish drive trying to get in or out of Paris and a race along the Autoroute de l’Est A4. And add about 30 minutes by TGV from Reims to reach either Nancy or Metz (or both with a 30-minute ride between them) and you will be transported to places rich in historical, architectural, gastronomic and cultural heritage as well as a slice of non-Parisian life. Plus, the view from a window seat is pure country.
Without doubt, Nancy’s dazzling Place Stanislas is a sight worthy of anyone’s checklist while on earth; today it is sparkling with newly refinished golden gates and facades. Nancy dates back to the 11th century, but it was in the late 18th century, thanks to Louis XV’s father-in-law, Stanislas de Leszczynski (who lived there in exile) that it was added to and became known for its splendors. Emmanuel Héré was the architect in charge of the work on the Square and Jean Lamour was the metal worker of genius. Today, the square is for pedestrians only, surrounded with cafés terrasse, the most famous linked with the Grand Hôtel de la Reine (2 pl Stanislas; tel. 03 83 35 03 01), an 18th-century pavilion where Marie-Antoinette stayed. It is the most luxurious hotel in town and houses a dining room overlooking the square. The intimate atmosphere of the Place d’Alliance and the majesty of the semi-circular Place de la Carrière combined with the charm of the Old Town nearby make for a rather exceptional center of town. Lovers of Art Nouveau will enjoy the many examples from artists Emile Gallé, Louis Marjorelle, Jacques Gruber and others from the Nancy School as well as the famous house of Daum crystal. Nancy has a lot of small streets such as Trouillet or Haut-Bourgeois where one can admire gorgeous homes, and there are several small-to-medium public gardens like La Pépinière with its lovely music kiosk and its rose garden.
If you decide to stay overnight, we’d also recommend the small D’Haussonville hotel (9 rue Trouillet; tel. 03 83 35 85 84), a gem of a private renaissance mansion with imposing iron gates, a charming courtyard with a lovely fountain and stone balustrades. You’ll feel like you’re living in another era on a quiet street with all the modern comfort added during a recent renovation.
Nancy is renown in France for its culinary art. Every French city has a few signature brasseries (with people shucking oysters outside) and Nancy boasts three fine representatives, one of which is nationally known as an Art Nouveau monument, l’Excelsior Flo (50 rue Henri Poincaré; tel. 03 83 35 2457). Its high ceiling, woodwork by Marjorelle and glassware by Gruber, velvet banquettes and great lighting make it almost museum quality. If you want to eat there, reservations are a must. The place is always packed. According to an écailler (the man who opens oysters — 100 in five minutes for a skilled one — and shellfish), they manage to serve over 500covers a day and go through 16 tons of shellfish a year. Specialties here include such dishes as quiche Lorraine (bien sûr), a sample of five fishes, a rumsteak (French beef) and desserts such as floating island or baba au rhum — un vrai bistro-brasserie. Le Capucin Gourmand (31 rue Gambetta; tel. 03 83 35 26 98), a local institution that has fed the Queen of England, Prince Romanov, Jean Cocteau and Simone de Beauvoir, is where one can sample snails braised with bacon and herbs, stuffed leg of rabbit with pasta and baked apples with salted butter and cinnamon ice cream. An eatery of a different style we recommend and prefer is Le Grenier à Sel (28 rue Gustave Simon; tel. 03 83 32 31 98), a delightful, tiny (eight tables) restaurant located in one of Nancy’s oldest houses. Truffle tartlets (yes, they do have “gray” truffles in Lorraine coming from the Meuse area) and the local Toul wines will pleasantly surprise you. The young chef who started there in 2000 offers seasonal menus that many local foodies consider the best in town. It is also quite a setting for romantics with a view on Place St. Epvre with its massive neo-Gothic church. La Toq (1 rue Trouillet; tel. 03 83 30 17 20) is another choice for modern local fare such as sandre (a delicate river fish) or sea bass served with leeks and truffles, a delicious combination.
For atypical fare nothing beats Le Gastrolâtre (23 Grande rue; tel. 03 83 35 51 94) offering a unique interpretation of classics such as a baeckoeffe of foie gras, several Mediterranean dishes and a chocolat parfait with olive oil from Maussane or a papillon de poire Belle Hélène. L’Arsenal (24 pl de l’Arsenal; tel. 03 83 32 11 01) is the latest addition to the strong line-up of dining spots and already has a solid local following. An amuse of rillettes of curry chicken with toasted baguette set the tone for a fine meal that includes a superb thick slice of homemade poached terrine de foie gras with Arabica, a squab with squash purée and a nutmeg sauce and an apple tatin with maple syrup and a Chantilly made of whipped yogurt. After a long day of sightseeing and walking through town, it provided the best meal of our visit. Le V Four (10 rue St. Michel; tel. 03 83 32 49 48) is a small establishment that changes menus frequently and offers modern bistrot cuisine (known in Paris as bistronomie). For meat lovers, we recommend Les Nouveaux Abattoirs (4 bd Austrasie; tel. 03 83 35 46 25) and for a wine bar Les Pissenlits (25 bis rue des Ponts; tel. 03 83 37 43 97) which is located in a former chapel, and just the place for cold or warm tartines or rather copious regional cuisine accompanied by a nice selection of wines selected by la patronne.
It is obligatory and deservedly so when mentioning food and Nancy to note the city is famous for macarons, the real stuff — egg whites, almonds and a bit of sugar versus the ubiquitous modern oversweet colored version with added ganache or other butter mixtures that are shunned by the purists. For the best, head to Nathalie Lalonde (3 rue Stanislas; tel. 03 83 35 60 27) where the charming Nathalie serves lunch (quiches, tourtes and salads only) till 5:00 p.m. and at tea time it also morphs into a pastry and chocolate shop. And what is France or Nancy without madeleines, which originate from nearby Commercy. Nancéens all have their favorite place for macarons and madeleines as well as gingerbread. To those we can add the bergamote, the famous citrusy and refreshing candy made from the essence of a woody tree.
You’ll need to walk off those pastries and meals, and The Musée Lorrain located in the Ducal palace is worth a visit for its exterior alone with its gargoyles and superb buildings. Definitely worth touring is Le Musée des Beaux Arts for the famous Lorraine painter Georges de La Tour’s room as well as a few gems by Rubens, Manet and some contemporary artists. L’ Ecole de Nancy museum is another attraction. And if you are not ready for an opera, look at least at the Opéra de Nancy’s architecture, a reminder of the best of Versailles. Finally, with the university, Nancy is a very dynamic city with students from all over Europe making the town with golden doors a cosmopolitan town as well.
Metz may not be as dazzling and crystallike as Nancy, but it has seductive charm with the Moselle river winding through the center a bit like the Seine in Paris. The city’s well-regarded university is located on one of its islets surrounded with gardens and wide riverbanks where locals and visitors stroll during the warm months admiring the ducks and swans parading like kings and queens. We are not sure this is the ideal setting to study! The colors in Metz are unusual as many buildings were made with the yellowish Jaumont stone. The highlights are the 12th-century Cathédrale Ste. Etienne and its 60,000 square feet of stained glass windows, a few of them by Marc Chagall; the Musée de la Cour d’Or (which school children visit for its archeological section); the old city with its steep streets and its arcades near Place St. Louis and the smaller monuments and statues that recall the German presence.
Metz, too, has its culinary specialties: quiche, of course, as well as cochon de lait en gelée (pig’s head in aspic) still served at weddings yet an acquired taste. The mirabelle plum is a delicate and sweet/sour yellow small plum used in tarts, clafoutis, soufflés and makes a strong eau de vie (clear brandy). Plums, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries come from nearby Woippy. The famous red currant jam from Bar Le Duc and known as Lorraine’s caviar is a sweet tradition dating back to 1344.
The place to stay is La Citadelle (5 av Ney; tel. 03 87 17 17 17), a former military building located in the center and home to one of the city’s top restaurants, Le Magasin aux Vivres, where the ambitious and successful chef offers inventive variations on the same theme and a sample of three preparations of foie gras or lobster or crayfish works surprisingly well. We also enjoyed the filet of lamb with confits vegetables on a tarte sablée, and the parfait with caramel ice cream, peanut ganache and a caramel/chocolate tuile. Another hotel full of charm is the small De la Cathédrale (25 pl Chambre; tel. 03 87 75 00 02) where Mme. de Staël and Châteaubriand stayed.
For classic cuisine head to Au Pampre d’Or (31 pl Chambre; tel. 03 87 74 12 46) where we enjoyed frog legs, foie gras, andlocal fish with a sorrel sauce. For a more modern fare try Maire (1 rue Pont des Morts; tel. 03 87 32 43 12) located along the Moselle with a terrace offering a nice view of the city. We had a salad of mâche with slices of grey truffles, local fish with wild mushrooms and iced Mirabelle soufflé. Deliciously simple and unique. L’Ecluse (45 pl Chambre; tel. 03 87 75 42 38) specializes in dishes with local truffles (not quite as expensive as Italian or South of France truffles). Should you wish to try more classic local cuisine, Eric Humbert (8 rue du Grand Cerf; tel. 03 87 75 09 38) has a wide choice and the cochon de lait is offered as appetizer or as main course with a salad. Thierry “Saveurs et Cuisine” (5 rue Piques; tel. 03 87 74 01 23) is a chic bistro with Asian influence. We were pleasantly surprised and pleased by the Thai soup and green tea, chicken and coconut milk, the fritters of sole with tandoori spices, and the apple crumble with caramel ice cream.
The people of Metz, Messins, who look for great desserts when entertaining go to the 50-year-old Pâtisserie Maas (6 rue Harelle; tel. 03 87 36 45 11) celebrated for its chenilles de pâtes à choux with whipped cream, an airy profiterole version to end a meal or as we would say for any occasion, whether it’s teatime or just to allow for a moment gourmand when it rains … and it rains quite a bit in Metz!
Reims with it glorious cathedral and spectacular Champagne cellars is nevertheless not what we would consider an exciting city visually or perhaps otherwise (though pretty vineyards and village countryside are nearby); it has been badly destroyed during two world wars, and the modern buildings are not favorably striking for a city where kings used to be crowned. Still, one makes the rewarding pilgrimage to Champagne to visit those famous caves (cellars) and vineyards and to see the celebrated cathedral. Also called Notre-Dame, it overwhelms with its smiling angel above the imposing entrance door and an impressive interior which is moving no matter your religious beliefs with the rhythm of its columns, the dizzying height of the nave, the light and colors of the stained glass windows from the vivid blue ones to the more sober grisailles (a style of stained glass windows) made by a local artist in the 20th century to replace damaged ones. The Palais du Thau is worth a visit to see some of the artwork removed from the Cathedral and stored here to be protected from pollution.
Another excellent (and sybaritic reason) to come to Reims is for a meal (and perhaps also a stay) at the spectacular Château Les Crayères (64 bd Vasnier; tel. 03 26 82 80 80), one of our favorite hotel-restaurants in France. It used to be the property of the De Polignac/Pommery Champagne family and overlooks a grand park (perfect for a walk after a Champagne meal) with views on the Basilique St. Rémy and the Cathedral. The rooms, all different and fit for a king and queen, are huge and with high ceilings. Some have large terraces. The food in the restaurant is pretty special too. Didier Elena, the talented chef trained at Alain Ducasse, is more and more in tune to creating dishes paired with the most spectacular Champagne list in the world (where else would you expect to find it?) and a daily by-the-glass program that will give you an easy opportunity to graduate in Champagne education in style differences. The bar salon with its huge verrière is a superb place to start your aperitif time (and Champagne studies) while perusing the choices for your meal, a challenging task as one of our guests said, “I’d like to try everything.” Crayfish with watercress velouté is a delightful way to start a meal that could follow with sweetbreads (a great pairing with a Rosé Champagne); other dishes worth considering include all the fish dishes, particularly the cod with wild mushrooms and a bouillon with olive oil, the venison with celeriac and pear, and for dessert the peanut soufflé with fresh fruit and a cocoa/lime sorbet or the pomme de nos régions with beurre Suzette, a creative apple concoction for a taste of real apples.
Our second choice is Le Millénaire (4 et 6 rue Bertin; tel. 03 26 98 26 62), possibly the best value in town with an emphasis on seafood and fish — try the roasted langoustines or the grilled turbot with a Champagne sauce (superb for Champagne pairing), the king crab, the John Dory and Swiss chards with a garlic/ parsley butter. For meat lovers, the veal chop from the Limousin region served with mushrooms and rattes potatoes is a treat. The roasted pineapple with juice of sweet spices and exotic sorbets and any of the chocolate desserts are a winning way to end the feast.
Other good spots for fish are Le Boulingrin (4 rue de Mars; tel. 03 26 40 96 22), a brasserie par excellence with Art Deco decor where seafood is your best bet unless you are willing to try dishes such as steak tartare, smoked herring on a bed of potatoes, choucroute, andouillette or tripe, which require an acquired taste. Le Foch (37 bd Foch; tel. 03 26 47 48 22) with tasty appetizers such as oysters with caviar from the Aquitaine region and cucumber granité or velouté of cocoa beans and calamars with pistou and Parmesan; a John Dory with caramelized endives and an orange and curry sauce were exceptional and the cylinder of Tanzania chocolate with truffle ice cream a luxurious treat.
For more simple fare, Le Café du Palais (14 pl Myron Herrick; tel. 03 26 47 52 54) is good for terrasse eating in the summer and the best is to skip the heavy main courses like andouillette or potée champenoise and have one of their lovely assiettes (plates) with salmon, smoked ham or the day’s special, a selection of mixed salads and/ or a dish of tagliatelles served with foie gras, salmon or snails and finish off with the floating island and Reims biscuits.
One place outside Reims dear to our hearts is Le Grand Cerf in Monchenot (50 route nationale; tel. 03 26 97 60 07) where chef Giraudeau (who trained with Gérard Boyer) and his partner, Champion, offer delicious menus. A soufflé of John Dory with lobster sauce was superb and so was the roasted squab with foie gras, the crispy chicken with risotto and zucchini and the finishing touch of a refreshing roasted pear with vanilla.
A few other options for a stay in the area include Hotel Crystal (86 pl Drouet d’Erlon; tel. 03 26 88 44 44) which has a private garden where breakfast is served when the weather permits; La Villa Eugène in Epernay (82 av de Champagne; tel. 03 26 32 44 76) a 19th-century mansion with rooms decorated with style, and the charming Manoir des Charmes in Ay (83 av Charles de Gaulle; tel. 03 26 54 58 49), a typical maison bourgeoise with five rooms and a garden which will make you feel at home in the country.
If you rent a car, you should visit cellars in Epernay and in the small villages of the Champagne region and see the rolling hills and manicured vineyards in the countryside. You will no doubt want to try some local fare like at Bistro le 7, the restaurant of hôtel Les Berceaux (13 rue des Berceaux; tel. 03 26 55 28 84) or La Briquetterie, both inn and restaurant, in Vinay (4 route de Sézanne; tel. 03 26 59 99 99).
If you are fond of cheese, do visit La Cave aux Fromages (12 pl du Forum; tel. 03 26 47 83 05) in Reims for a taste of the local cheeses not available abroad such as the cendré de Champagne, Langres or Chaource. If you are set for a picnic, buy some and add a baguette and bottle of wine for a leisurely stop alongside the vineyards.
For sweets, head to Biscuits Fossier (25 cours Langlet; tel. 03 26 47 59 84) in Reims to taste and buy a stock of the famous pink biscuits the French are so fond of. First made at the beginning of the 18th century, they are wonderful with floating island or any cream desserts or by themselves with a glass of bubbly to finish a special meal. La Petite Friande (15 cours Langlet; tel. 03 26 47 50 44) in Reims is known for the Champagne cork made with dark chocolate and filled with marc de Champagne, first created in 1951. Finally, if you are a chocoholic, bring back some chocolate and/or sample a chocolate dessert from Vincent Dallet (26 rue du Général Leclerc; tel. 03 26 55 31 08) in Epernay as he is one of the best artisans in France.
A good way to learn about Champagne is to visit one or two of the grand international houses — Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger, Roederer, Henriot or Bollinger and then go and check out a smaller house and the best vignerons (wine growers) in the countryside. Recommended are Gosset in Ay (tel. 03 26 55 17 42) for its wines of exquisite power — while in Ay visit Billecart Salmon in nearby Mareuil and taste their delicate Brut Rosé — Egly-Ouriet in Ambonnay (tel. 03 26 57 00 70) for the richness of its Pinot Noir; Larmandier-Bernier in Vertus (tel. 03 26 52 13 24) for its creamy Blanc de Blancs, and Pierre Moncuit in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (tel. 03 26 57 52 65) for wines of great elegance and finesse. Cheers.
You can go home again, it’s just not the same you or the same home … except as you are prompted to relive the tastes and memories. We’ll drink to that … say a Veuve Clicquot 1990.