Restaurant review: Bissoh Saturday, Jul 14 2012 

Every place has their own ethnic communities and concentrations, and France is no exception: from the town where I live, which boasts a high population of Brits and Americans and sports several English and Irish pubs, to Paris’ Italian and Chinese districts, there is without doubt a good mix of nationalities to be found.

Although good Chinese food and Indian food can be tricky to find in France despite this, Asian cuisine is still widely appreciated, with Japanese food being the most popular. It shouldn’t have been of any surprise to us, then, to find the gem that is Bissoh just five minutes’ walk from the main city centre of Beaune in Burgundy. More famous for its wine and annual baroque music festival (the latter is why we were there), the town has more to offer than this – and you, like us, will find it’s worth it to go off the beaten track away from the usual hordes of tourists.

We dined quite early for France (7pm) due to the concert we were attending, and so as a result the place was completely empty, with us having the restaurant to ourselves for most of the meal. Consequently, service was extremely efficient throughout, while remaining discreet (arguably an even more impressive feat given the restaurant’s emptiness, which could have led staff to be overattentive or overbearing). Diners can choose from the traditionally-decorated interior seating or the equally serene outdoor terrace, which has optional roofing and is replete with greenery. We chose the latter thanks to the balmy July evening (the likes of which we were not to see again for quite some time thanks to the torrential rain we would go on to experience in England).

Bear in mind that this is not a cheap option: the menus at Bissoh start at €37 each and there are no à la carte choices. Nonetheless, we found it to be worth every penny – not just due to the competent service and tranquil surroundings, but also thanks to the food’s intense flavours and innovative way in which the dishes were served. I opted for the pork menu, while my husband chose the tempura version. In spite of the different names, our meals were virtually the same up until almost the final moments.

To begin, we were served an aubergine amuse-bouche which totally changed my perception of this vegetable, which can often be grey and stringy. Instead, in the context of a tiny Japanese bowl, it was brown, soft, and full of multidimensional flavours of salt and ginger. We then had another aubergine course, which was the first item on our official menus. The end pieces of a whole aubergine had been cut off and roasted in the oven, leaving a crispy ‘bowl’ made of the aubergine skin. The skin could be eaten with chopsticks (warning to amateur chopstick users: it’s chopsticks most of the way here), while a small wooden teaspoon was provided to scoop out the flesh. Stimulating all five senses, it was a creative pleasure from sight to consumption.

After this, we had the second course of the main meal: veal, which had been seared first and finished to French standards (read: if you like your meat “well done”, you can forget it). Again, this came in chopstick-ready pieces and was a real feast. Then came the divergence of our meals: the pork menu featured a pork fillet that had been breaded and then cut into elegant slices, and again did not disappoint in terms of texture or flavour. The tempura course on the other side of the table retained the flavours of the ingredients used (vegetables and seafood mainly) brilliantly, even if the tempura batter itself tasted a bit bland. Both went excellently with a bottle of St Aubin 2010, whose lemongrass, wood, buttery and slightly sharp flavours proved a highly complementary choice from a superb wine list.

However, the pièce de résistance was yet to come: dessert continued to deliver in terms of both innovation and taste thanks to a green tea and sesame panna cotta, and ginger ice cream served with a red fruit sorbet – both remarkably intense yet cleansing at the end of an already excellent meal. And even after all that, there was still time for us to put away some Japanese green tea before our concert, proving once again just how professional the staff were given our early arrival and our time constraints (we had an hour and a half to dine, which could have proved tricky for any restaurant on a Saturday night, especially in a location as touristy as Beaune in the height of summer).

We were left with a bill of €118 for two after this culinary extravaganza, but it was worth it thanks to the memories of a truly extraordinary meal left behind, as well as our renewed desire to visit the country of this marvellous cuisine forthwith.

www.bissoh.com

1 rue du Faubourg St Jacques

21200 Beaune

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Restaurant reviews: the good, the bad and the surly Sunday, Jan 22 2012 

The good

Recently, on the way back home, we stopped at a very unassuming Mercure, on the outskirts of Chalon-sur-Saône in the French region of Burgundy.As is the case with the Mercure chain (more of which below), we did not really know what to expect. We were certainly pleased by the modern, if a little bit obvious, decoration of the restaurant. Unusually, this one even had a name “Millezim”, as if to emphasize its individuality. We were greeted with a smile and led to a small table next to the illuminated cellar. For, as the name of the restaurant might suggest, wine was a central focus there. I perused the extensive wine list and could not help noticing a 2007 bottle of Delas’s mighty Hermitage priced at 37 euros (I did not check if this was a typo, but finding this wine at this price in a shop would already be a bargain of sorts). We eventually settled for a glass of 2007 St Joseph from les Vins de Vienne which did not disappoint, with fruit, body and freshness. The food was equally good: capon and chestnuts for both followed by a chocolate cake and a nice millefeuille. With tea, the total bill came to a reasonable 49 euros.

The bad

This experience was preceded by an entirely different one, in a restaurant of the same chain, in the nearby Burgundy town of Beaune. Escaping the dreary motorway restaurants, we showed up for lunch hoping to enjoy the Mercure mix of reliability and individuality: I must have dined at about ten different Mercure restaurants and have rarely been disappointed with the food or the service.

That day in Beaune the dining room was almost empty (with the existing patrons all being dotty French pensioners, which we maybe should have taken as a bad sign) and I actually had to ask the receptionist to call a waiter, who was probably chatting in the kitchen. My course of beef bourguignon was dry and chewy, we cancelled dessert as a result of the poor quality of the main courses, and coffee was bad as well: what a let-down in a hotel that claims to be a 4-star one!

The surly

Looking for a place to lunch on a sunny day in the southern town of Nimes, we ended up in a local brasserie, the Café de la Bourse, which boasted a sun-drenched terrace. We were shown to a table by one of the numerous waiters and handed menus, which offered a selection of usual French brasserie staples.

When were allowed to order, my sister-in-law asked for her salad to be served with her meat. Because of the noise coming from the nearby road, where poorly maintained local vehicles circled round Nîmes at something close to the speed of sound, he probably could not hear the request at first, but we then made sure he did. To our amazement, the disinterested salad turned up a moment later, on its own. Would it not have been more simple, instead of acknowledging our request with a nod to say that it might actually not be possible? And that is even before I start mentioning the food, which was poor, and the prices, which were not.

Four Ferret Food and Wines fixes for French restaurants:

1. Employ enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who care about what they do, even if this means paying them a decent wage.

2. Cook with fresh and, when possible, local produce. They don’t need to be that expensive.

3. Accept your limitations. Don’t offer fancy and expensive dishes if you have not got the muscle.

4. Assemble a wine list which looks it has been made by someone who actually likes wine, and does not expect to make a 200% profit on each bottle.

Addresses

Millezim, AVENUE DE L’EUROPE – 71100 CHALON SUR SAONE – RESERVATION : 03 85 46 51 89

Mercure BEAUNE CENTRE, Avenue Charles de Gaulle
21200 – BEAUNE – RESERVATION 03 80 22 22 00

La Grande Bourse, 2 boulevard des Arènes,

30000 NIMES – RESERVATION 04 66 67 68 69