REIMS, France - It was not the sort of comment I expected to hear, even in 1998, in a compact village of 5,000 in rural France: A matronly woman walked into the epicerie and spoke as the French are wont to do to no one in particular and everyone in general. ''I looked through all my cookbooks and couldn't find a recipe for escabeche de sardines. So I found it on the Internet.''
As France modernizes in leaps and bounds, so does the way it looks at food and dining. One area in which it has been slowest to change is in understanding the joys of dining outdoors. Oh, yes, we romantics may take the Impressionist masterworks such as ''Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe'' or ''Le Moulin de la Galette'' as our vision of bucolic outdoor life in France, but more often than not, the reality is the opposite.
I have stopped counting the times I have reserved at a restaurant with an outdoor terrace or garden, only to find that although the day was perfectly gorgeous, diners were shepherded indoors for no explicable reason.
So I was delighted recently when I arrived at the doors of Elyane and Gerard Boyer's Les Crayeres - the Champagne region's finest restaurant and one of the best dining spots in France - to find that the entire dining room had been moved to the chateau's flower-filled terrace. One small step for mankind, one giant step for France. A three-star restaurant serving outdoors? Bravo, les Boyers!
Seated on the terrace of the 18th-century style chateau, overlooking a seven-hectare park of multiple varieties of trees, there is little to do but sip Champagne and peruse Boyer's modern, well-conceived seasonal menu. One will never go wrong with his signature saumon fume a la minute - moist and tender morsels of fresh salmon lightly and delicately smoked - teamed up with new spring potatoes in their skins and bathed in a welcoming caviar cream.
Who could not love a well-executed combination of roasted lobster, delicate risotto and fresh green asparagus points? Or a simple fillet of line-caught bar with crunchy spring vegetables surrounded with a sauce of fresh black truffles and deep green parsley sauce?
Boyer offers the tenderest noisette portion of the lamb chop wrapped in crepinette, or caul fat, and matches them with a rich puree of dates and foie gras. For artichoke lovers, the filet of lamb is ''simply'' crusted with finely minced black truffles then roasted, and offered with a spring ''ragout'' of artichokes, basil, tomatoes, herbs and olive oil.
Desserts are equally unfussy, seasonal and palate-friendly. Try the fresh strawberries set atop an almond macaroon, in a pool of pistachio cream; a soft nougat glace with a honey and apricot sauce, or a low-calorie special - a light ricotta mousse with fruits cooked in red wine and topped with ginger jelly.
And you can find out more about the Boyers at:
Les Crayeres, 74 Boulevard Henry Vasnier, 51100 Reims; tel: 03-26-82-80-80; fax: 03-26-82-65-52.
Closed all day Monday and Tuesday for lunch; closed Dec. 21 through Jan. 11.
Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Menus: 907 and 1,067 francs, including service and wine. A la carte: 650 to 720 francs, including service but not wine.