In a luxurious marriage of champagne and gastronomy, Moët & Chandon has teamed up with France's three-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno for Le &, a "culinary journey" at Moët & Chandon's estate in Epernay. As we recently discovered, the sensory experience is far from a typical dinner pairing; Le & is a physical manifestation of the extensive research Alléno has been working on with Moët's Chef de Cave, Benoît Gouez.
Their project began purely out of an interest in discovering what each of them could teach the other. "I met Benoît since two years now, because I would like to understand different things about fermentation, things about blending—it's something a winemaker can bring to you. The base of our meeting was around a new way of making sauces, because I think sauces are the DNA of French food and I decided to work on a new way of doing it," explains Alléno. "Since the beginning of humanity we've tried to make ingredients better and better, and to try to make them more interesting to eat."
"I was looking for a chef to work on the principles of matching champagne with food," Gouez elaborates. "A lot has been said on matching wine and food, but nothing on champagne because it's such a specific wine. I have (by experience) some ideas, but I needed someone to help me. I think when you work together, you go faster and you learn from the others."
Champagne by nature has four of the five primary taste sensations: the grapes offer acidity and bitterness, while the dosage (or fermentation) brings sweetness and the yeast staging brings umami flavor. The missing element is salt, which Gouez feels is the key to balancing champagne with food, but in today's health-conscious world, is an ingredient that's out of fashion. Gouez and Alléno set forth to create modern sauces with "less fat, less salt, less preparation, more lightness, purity and precision" through the process of extraction.
By removing water, all of the elements are concentrated—including mineral salt. Ingredients like cucumber, mushrooms and parsnip suddenly have a high amount of salinity, and therefore turn into sauces that "respect the finesse and the elegance and the lightness of champagne, and at the same time stimulates the champagne."
The upshot of their research can be seen in the decadent sauce-based dishes served in a variety of styles at Le &, which is located in L'Orangerie, an 18th century building surrounded by a traditional French garden. Guests are first served seven small plates that are paired with the classic Moët Impérial. Dubbed the 7 Salt Bar, dishes include an oyster with cucumber extract, pork dim sum with mushroom extract, a floating island on semi-gelled celery extract and more.
Guests are then ushered inside, first passing through a kaleidoscopic hallway filled with piles of salt surrounded by mirrors. Once inside L'Orangerie, guests are seated for a shared meal prepared in the open kitchen and designed to celebrate Moët's just-released 2006 vintage. From there, they can experience the Blind Shot Room, in which a trio of extracted parsnip shots—each more concentrated than the next—are paired with Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 1999. The final experience is the Delice Club which, on our visit, was a smattering of desserts laid out on a table for everyone to gather around and socialize. This sets the tone for the subsequent after party; magnum bottles of Impérial are popped while the DJ turns up the tunes.
The entire dinner mixes tradition with innovation in such a unique way that, for those that can afford it, is completely worth experiencing. Diners will thoroughly enjoy the surprising ways in which chef Alléno accentuates each champagne's distinct boldness and elegance. But perhaps moreover, is the successful demonstration of the pop-up's name. They've called it Le & as a symbol of their intention to bring people together to share in this special blend of food and wine. In fact, as Moët & Chandon's CEO Stéphane Baschiera explains, reservations can only be made for four or more to encourage a collective celebratory experience which champagne is so known for prompting.
For now they're keeping it close to home with a month-long pop-up at their historic 2,500-acre estate in Epernay (which runs from 9 June to 9 July 2014), but Baschiera says they have plans to eventually take their experiential culinary concept around the world. The dinner is €450 per person and reservations can be made online through Moët & Chandon.
See more images from the dinner and our visit to the Moët & Chandon caves in the slideshow below; photos by Karen Day