Bar Bouchon, Madison
There’s no shortage of Michelin-starred restaurants in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, but when Michelin-starred chefs and local gourmets want to kick back and relax with a glass of wine and some home-style cooking, they head for one of the city’s unique bouchons, small neighborhood bars where the food and wine are fabulous and the ambience is as restorative as soupe à l’oignon.
Bar Bouchon in Madison could have been picked up whole and entire from a street in Lyon and set down a stone’s throw from our own Post Road. It looks as if it’s been around forever but it’s less than a year old. The realization of a four-star chef’s dream, Bar Bouchon was carefully planned and meticulously crafted by Jean Pierre Vuillermet, chef-owner of the famed Union League Café in New Haven.
Opening without hype or hoopla, Bar Bouchon (the name changes to Bar Bouchée March 1) has been hotter than a firecracker since day one. Even on a Tuesday night, we can’t get a reservation before 8:15.
I love the look of this place. Black-and-white tile floor, walls and ceiling emulating pressed tin, a zinc bar—the real thing, shipped in one piece from France. Surprisingly comfortable high tables seat about 20; the bar seats 10 more. The noise level’s high by design. It’s a neighborhood bar where neighbors act neighborly, friends encounter old friends and make new ones, talk flows freely, and uptight gives way in the warmth of Gallic bonhomie. Like chef-owned bars in France, Bar Bouchon’s decor reflects the taste and interests of its owner. Framed photographs of men playing boules invite closer inspection. There’s Jean Pierre Vuillermet, there’s Claude Martin (who’s playing host tonight) and there’s celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, all whiz-bang boules players who compete as a team in national and international tournaments.
Eschewing purple prose, Bar Bouchon’s menu is not designed to elicit gasps of delight. The food does that—not with outré ingredients but by simply being unequivocally the best of its kind.
The first appetizer we taste, “pike quen-elles, lobster bisque Nantua,” is a case in point. Quenelles, tasty mixtures of minced fish, vegetables and sometimes bread crumbs delicately poached in fish stock (purportedly a favorite of Jackie Kennedy), are tricky to make. These are heaven on a plate. They’re served in an earthenware casserole to keep them hot, and there’s enough sauce to suggest sopping it up with bread. Warm, yeasty, fresh-baked dinner rolls turn that exercise into a mini-orgy of pleasure.
An appetizer of duck leg confit, a Union League recipe, pairs the rich, tender meat with apples, walnuts, watercress and a potato galette. The French do great things with potatoes and Bar Bouchon’s crispy, pale gold pommes frites are so thin they’re almost transparent. To prove it, we hold one up to the light. In a brisk wind they’d take flight.
An order of charcuterie is a pretty sight—pale pink petals of ham curled into a rosette, a spicy slice of sausage, chunky, house-made country-style pâté and a pistachio-studded saucisson on a bed of lentils, plus a dab of whole-grain mustard—a“Déjeuner Sur L’herbe” on a white plate.
Specials are listed on a blackboard. Tonight Fisher Island oysters are on offer. Oh, that brisk, briny blue-water taste!
Entrées are familiar but so carefully rendered and thoughtfully presented they seem almost new. Beef Bourguignon exemplifies Bar Bouchon’s cuisine as a whole. It’s classic bistro food redesigned for the way we eat today. The beef is lean, slow-braised and served in a clear dark sauce with pearl onions and a few lardons for flavor. House-made torsade pasta is served separately in case you’re counting carbs.
Seared cod is a dieter’s dream. Snowy fillets of cod, lightly seared, sweet, moist and tender, perch atop potatoes prepared Lyonnaise style, with roasted onions and fresh parsley jus. An entrée of pan-roasted brook trout adorned with only a shimmer of brown butter pales a bit by comparison. But plain is in these days and Bar Bouchon is a with-it place.
I astonish my companions by ordering a burger, but how could I not when Bouchon’s signature burger is by reputation the ne plus ultra and then some? It snaps my senses to attention at first sight and wins my abiding allegiance by third bite. Eight ounces of juicy natural beef prop open a “bun” of house-baked brioche. Under the beef there’s a layer of tangy tomato confit, then a layer of sautéed mushrooms and then—the crowning glory—a voluptuous portion of heaven, aka foie gras, lightly seared and still warm from the pan. The burger of my dreams for 15 bucks.
Desserts are all about taste, intense and precise: profiteroles with warm chocolate sauce, crème caramel, chestnut-flour crêpes with chestnut cream, chocolate cake with a crunchy nut topping. Coupes glacées—glorified ice cream sundaes—are the coup de grace.
Artists sometimes limit their palettes to intensify their focus. Bar Bouchon turns the exigencies of space to similar advantage. The menu is short but every dish listed has been honed to perfection. Chef David Borselle, a Connecticut treasure in his own right, runs the kitchen on a nightly basis, and Jean Pierre Vuillermet, who lives nearby, finds it hard to stay away. After all, there’s that boules court outside.
Bar Bouchon does what it does flawlessly. But can a small, crowded, noisy restaurant with limited, albeit exquisite, fare qualify as four-star? Years ago the answer would be an unequivocal no.
But we live more casually today. Cell phones ring, are you listening? No, I’m text-ing. Noise is our element. White tablecloths are not required. High-energy environments are. Sometimes we settle for mediocre food to be where the action is. When fabulous French cuisine is on offer in a hip new neighborhood bar, what joy, what bliss. Attention should be paid. Four stars?
In this instance, I vote yes.
8 Scotland Ave., Madison (203/318-8004)
Dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 10, Sunday till 9:30. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6 to $13, entrées $19.50 to $24.50, desserts $9 to $9.50.