The contemporary new look at Bouchon is a fine setting for its classic food, discovers Dean Bailey
The word ‘neighbourhood’, as attached to restaurants, is suddenly all the rage. A bit of a fad, rather like that silly craze for slates instead of plates and ‘deconstructed’ desserts instead of proper puddings.
A proper neighbourhood restaurant isn’t new, showy, or a fad; it’s the place every local knows and relies upon for its consistent quality and welcoming familiarity. Bouchon, Hexham’s much-loved French bistro, is one of these places. It’s never followed fashion or fad, and for 14 years has been consistently among Northumberland’s best-loved restaurants; a corner of France where we can all re-live the tastes of holidays gone by.
Its loyal regulars value its familiarity, the fact that they know the French onion soup will be superb; the charcuterie plate of saucisson, rillons, rillettes and Bayonne ham served just as it was in owner Greg Bureau’s parents’ country restaurant back home; and the crème brûlée is, well, crème brûlée, as it is served from the smartest places in Paris to the humblest corner cafés in Provence.
Like them, and particularly after the last 18 months, I crave this reliable familiarity; a comfort blanket of fine produce well executed, and nothing on the menu to make me go, ‘eh?’.
But while Bouchon’s French country menu assuredly remains as it should, it has had an extensive makeover over the lockdown months, presenting a refreshing face to the world with new outdoor terraces and a fresh look inside. The ground and first floor dining rooms are brighter and lighter; a glazed first floor extension bringing light flooding in. New south-facing outdoor spaces on the first and second floors catch the sun and create a stunning setting for al fresco dining and drinks.
No expense has been spared and the new look is a big hit with the regulars; every table taken when we drop by to reacquaint ourselves with the classic dishes from head chef Nicolas Kleist. As the conversation flows around us, I sense many of the diners are old friends of Bouchon, and while the space has changed, all is pleasingly familiar. The friendly yet expert service is just so, dishes ushered from the kitchen quietly, no fanfare required. Crusty mini loaves with French butter whet the appetite, while the sublime French onion soup with garlic croutons and Gruyère recalls happy memories. Seared scallops are partnered by punchy tomato gazpacho and lightly curried crème fraîche. Crispy duck confit with Lyonnaise potatoes, fine beans and red wine sauce recalls long lunches on French holidays. Chicken breast with rosti potato, Tenderstem broccoli, lemon and thyme embodies the best of French country cooking, served beautifully yet simply, assured in its quality.
Served on the terrace as the sun begins to set, the crème brûlée is superb, while a richly dark fondant au chocolat is complemented by bright red pearls of Griottines and a wonderful pistachio ice cream.
Replacing a traditional restaurant space, loved by its loyal regulars, with a modern, bright look was a risk. But it works beautifully; a fine setting for the food. Bien fait!
Bouchon Bistrot Gilesgate, Hexham, NE46 3NJ, tel 01434 609 943, www.bouchonbistrot.co.uk