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O On a mild day in early summer, as the evening light bathes the world in soft pastels, a young woman in her late thirties enters one of the best restaurants in the world’s most renowned wine-growing region. Slender and petite, she is dressed in a dark blue suit, modest silver jewellery, discreet glasses, her blonde hair styled into a bob. In the entrance of L’Assiette Champenoise on Avenue Paul Vaillant Couturier, a few miles west of the historic quarter of Reims, she is, like all guests, welcomed with radiant cordiality by Madame Lallement, the mother of the chef. Someone takes her light, sand-colored coat and escorts her into the dining room. It would never occur to anyone that this friendly, unassuming young woman with a slight German accent—let’s call her M.—would, with a tiny gesture, be able to cause the intricate mechanical clockwork of one of the most renowned restaurants in France to skip a beat, to shift its perfectly choreographed staff into a frenzy. She would merely have to reach into her purse, open her wallet and put her credentials on the table: SCA Compagnie Générale des Établissements Michelin. For days M. has been on the road incognito in the Champagne region. First in Reims, where she ate at the already distinguished one-star restaurant Le Millénaire. But she also visited the Bib Gourmand restaurant Le Pavillon CG and the Assiette MICHELIN restaurant Le Pré Champenois. M. has roamed this beautifully dreamlike region like a secret agent, reserving tables under an assumed name, stealthily peering through the windows of closed restaurants, always striving to never be revealed. The only conspicuous thing about her is the matte grey Mercedes-AMG S 63 Coupé, which the valet at L’Assiette Champenoise parked with an unconcealed glint in his eyes. L L’Assiette Champenoise is the culmination of the tour through Champagne. With a smile M. now accepts the menu, orders a glass of champagne as an aperitif, then she begins to read. Whether Arnaud Lallement and his elegant restaurant will be a glittering dream destination of travelling gourmets from Tokyo to San Francisco for another year depends in no small part on her order, on her impression this evening, even if the final decision will be collegial. For one of the best restaurants on the planet, certified by the three stars of the MICHELIN Guide, there is nothing greater. At first, Lallement will probably not even notice that M. dined at his restaurant. He won’t know if she came alone or as part of a couple, in the afternoon or at night, one or more times, what she ordered and how she liked it. Compared to the star sessions, those secret meetings attended by all inspectors to award stars, the papal conclave is like a transparent election. Only after the publication of the selection will the chefs make the pilgrimage to Paris to get feedback. The world’s most recognized restaurant guide can afford this only because it has accumulated an almost unbelievable, incomparable trust fund. And it’s exactly 116 years long. WWhen the first MICHELIN Guide, created by brothers André and Edouard Michelin— inventors of innovative pneumatic tires for the then-rapidly spreading automobile— appeared in 1900, it initially listed all the cities of France alphabetically and the respective distance between them over its 575 pages – along with recommendations for hotels, filling stations and instructions for expertly changing a flat tire. In 1926, the MICHELIN Guide began conferring its famous stars, and ever since there has been no more exalted distinction for ambitious chefs around the world than a star in the crimson guide. Year after year, the industry feverishly anticipates the appearance of the MICHELIN Guide as the award of one of the coveted stars is worth an increase in The top restaurants in the Champagne region L’Assiette Champenoise Chef: Arnaud Lallement The menu: Lobster, crustacean à la nage, lemon caviar Potato gnocchi, vin jaune Seabass, turnips, Noilly Prat Suckling lamb, glazed young vegetables Praline, Breton shortbread www.assiettechampenoise. com Le Millénaire Chefs: Laurent & Thibault Laplaige The menu: Fricassee of snails and bacon on parsley coulis and garlic shoots Roast loin of lamb, thyme, herb carrots Creamy hazelnut dessert, raspberry tomato concasse, granita www.lemillenaire. com 21


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