Mon-Sat 12-2pm, 6-9.30pm
Earlybird menu Mon-Fri 6-7pm
When we arrived, the downstairs restaurant was full of earlybirds. For £15.50, they were enjoying terrine, steak frites and crème caramel. It was like stepping into a bar in Calais.
You’ve got to hand it to Greg Bureau, the man from the Loire who has taken Bouchon Bistrot into Hexham’s culinary heart. His Gallic gem is popular, and deservedly so.
It’s common for French restaurants to be up their own escargots, but there’s something pleasingly laid back about the warm tones of the downstairs bar area, with its fireplace and pink carpet: it’s like a comfy living room, apart from the earlybirds.
The three of us were greeted enthusiastically, then led up rickety stairs to a more formal dining space, with brick walls and swagged curtains. This room had the stereotypical image of the French: stylish, sophisticated, and always ready for a good meal.
The menu promises honest country cooking. It is short and unfussy, with classics like chicken liver parfait with cornichons, goats cheese tartlet with tapenade, charcuterie, escargots and Parisian-style gnocchi. It’s all relatively simple, but few places in England seem to be able to master this sort of cooking.
There was one special starter: a salad of local lobster, which my eldest daughter immediately snapped up. I chose wood pigeon with puy lentils and raspberry vinaigrette and Mrs Diner elected for that real test of French cuisine, the onion soup.
This arrived with a thick garlicky coating of crouton and Gruyère. It was deliciously dark, intense, and more authentic than a packet of Gauloises. I could have happily ordered an extra portion and called it a night.
It’s not easy to get worked up about a small lobster, but Bouchon’s was fantastic. Sweet and melting, served with homemade mayonnaise, it was fabulous.
|Wood pigeon - not enough blood|
We drank an overpriced 2009 Guigal Côtes du Rhône (£28.50) but there were several better value French wines, and others costing rather more.
For her main course, my daughter had excellent roast cod, moist and strong, with little balls of saffron-laced potato puree, and a puddle of sauce vierge. However, Mrs Diner’s rack of lamb, served with haricots and a vegetable purée, wasn’t what we expected.
|Rack of lamb - where's the other one?|
We’d anticipated half a roasted rack, cut and presented pink in the usual manner. These were just two little cutlets, cooked separately so that, although they were still medium rare inside, you had to cut them to find the pink flesh and, as a result, much flavour was lost in the searing. They’d scraped three portions out of a single rack by substituting a roll of shredded shoulder.
Disappointing – but not nearly as much as my bouillabaisse.
Now bouillabaisse isn’t just fish stew, it’s a feast, an essential part of French culture, born in the port of Marseille, and served with reverence throughout the Côte d'Azur.
There’s a restaurant in Golfe Juan I’ve been to many times called Tétou, which has a legendary version, and famously only accepts cash as payment. As is usual with this dish, they serve the soup first, with croutons that you coat with spicy rouille and dunk, before they bring the fish, with the poached potatoes served separately.
The food writer Elizabeth David wrote in her bible French Provincial Cooking: “It is useless attempting to make a bouillabaisse away from the shores of the Mediterranean. All sorts of variations...are devised in other parts of the world, but it would be foolish to pretend that these have more that a remote relationship to the true bouillabaisse.”
That’s largely because the sauce must contain some kind of rascasse, which are hard to find further north. Which is probably why I’ve never seen it on a menu in the Tyne Valley.
|The bouillabaisse that wasn't|
To say I was disappointed by Bouchon’s effort is an understatement. It was a tiny bowl, with a meagre portion of broth, lacking intensity and fragrance. On top were small pieces of fish, a single courgette tourné, some potatoes and two roasted tomatoes. There was red mullet and sea bream, but nothing else reminded me of Provence.
Sorry, Monsieur Bureau, I like your restaurant, and I love your onion soup, but this wasn’t bouillabaisse. I would happily have paid you double the £18.50 price if you’d served the real deal. If you ever do, let me know and I’ll bring a party. And maybe a fifth star.
|Star of the show - tarte tatin|
We left smiling and replete, clutching a bill for £130 for 3.