In the midst of Champagne's endless fields of potatoes, wheat, and cabbage, villages are pockets of trees and character. Courcelles-sur-Vesle is a town with history - it's where Napoleon first met Josephine, arriving in her carriage - and the one-time manor house, now hotel, is deeply a part of it. Now a walled-off oasis, the closed service gates still give on to the compact town's main street. Its inner tranquility includes gardens; a heated outdoor pool, steaming on a cool fall day; fields for horses; and a lovely canalized stream, whose reflections at sunset provided some of the best photographs of the trip.
We began our dinner in the comfortable lounge with flutes of champagne from the Domaine de Picquard, a small champagne producer. Nibbles includes a foam of salmon and freshly-baked bread sticks. We didn't have to choose dinner - the choice of meal came with the package - but they were entirely willing, as a good restaurant should be, to adapt it to our requirements, i.e. no fish for C.
The main dining room is in an elegant nineteenth-century greenhouse-style extension, overlooking the gardens in the daytime. The spacious room was organized around a large service table, with linen-clad tables along the outer wall. After an amuse-bouche, the first course arrived: slow-cooked rabbit back, rich and wonderful, served on a thin tasty pastry tart base with tomato chutney and eggplant "caviar", with an extraordinary tomato sorbet with sweet mustard, although I could have sworn it was horseradish suffusing the sorbet with such piquancy.
The next course, after another introductory nibble, was meaty red mullet, seared in olive oil, with an artichoke mousseline, and a fun crunchy salad of steamed funnel with curry powder, among other ingredients. A second hearty main meant I was moderately full but, given time, very interested in continuing the Adventures With Cheese we were having in France. And indeed, we tried four or five cheeses apiece. I don't know at this distance what they all were, but the most interesting among them were Boulette Avenes (a very strong goat's cheese) and Brin d'Amour Brebis, a robust and fragrant soft cheese coated in herbs.
After a digestive break and a pre-dessert, dessert arrived, a whimsical construction themed around rhubarb, with a creamy, very light rhubarb tiramisu, stabbed through with a white chocolate tuile, and accompanied by a rhubarb popsicle. The parts and pieces didn't physically coordinate well, but were all low-key pleasures in their own right. Much as it was good, dessert was the weakest course of the meal for its slighty chaotic nature. We were too full for drinks, but a plate of mignardises arrived anyways, four apiece, including a slightly dry mini two-bite apple pie, a fruit jelly, and a truffle.
The meal wasn't perfect, but it was very, very fine, with excellent service, a comfortable pace, pleasant ambiance, generally very good food, and a little too much of it. It had a spark of fun and liveliness to it with made up for its more mundane moments; most of the dishes were excellent. Suddenly, it didn't seem so inopportune that the hotel room was out in the converted stables - it provided a brief bit of a walk through cool air for digestion, and for appreciation of a lovely, lovely setting.