Charles T. Clark
Published June 16. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 12:56PM
Jean-Pierre Vuillermet of New Haven's stately Union League Café presumably saw the absence of great cooking along the mid-coast and last year opened Bar Bouchée on a quiet side street in Madison. And to my mind, at least, he has given us (pardon the pun) one of the very few restaurants we can sink our teeth into in this part of Connecticut.
Bar Bouchée got off to a rocky start; christened Bar Bouchon, it was forced to change its name by Thomas Keller, chef of Napa Valley's famed Bouchon, who claimed to have ownership rights to the name. A "bouchon" is a Lyonnaise bistro, whereas "bouchee" refers to a bite of food.
You could call the place 8 Scotland Avenue and it wouldn't make any difference. The food is terrific and, from all reports, it is usually jammed.
Once indoors, the cozy spaces evokes a French bistro of the Art Deco era: tile floors, high tables and stools, pendant light fixtures, and lots of glass. Diners can watch meals being prepared, thanks to a service counter along the translucent kitchen wall. Bar Bouchée looks and feels as though it's been around for aeons.
Connecticut's francophiles - a sadly neglected tribe of gastronomes - have so much to celebrate. Chef Vuillermet and his team have created a menu offering dozens of bistro favorites.
Our server won our undying loyalty for arranging to split an order of Quenelles de Brochet (featherweight Pike dumplings) served in cast iron casseroles and bathed in a heavenly, beautifully seasoned Sauce Nantua, a cousin to Lobster bisque flecked with morsels of crayfish. What a joy to rediscover something I hadn't seen on a Connecticut menu since Gerald Ford sat in the White House.
My guest and I also shared a plate of springtime asparagus cooked just until its rawness vanished, then bound in a mustardy vinaigrette and topped with a perfectly poached egg.
These exemplary starters were joined on the menu by other French classics, including a plate of charcuterie, mussels steamed in white wine, escargot with parsley butter, steak tartare, and a cheese plate. They all cost $13 or less; the steak can be ordered as a main course for $19.
The brief list of full plates was supplemented by a selection of three sandwiches: a foie gras burger ($15.50), croque monsieur ($12.75) and croque madame ($13.75). I'll sample these in the future, but on our visit, we were more compelled by a hanger steak, a flavorful and cheap cut that, when it arrived, had been cooked "à point" (medium-rare) as we ordered and was served with a small crock of warm Béarnaise sauce and a pile of crispy French Fries.
Those who find cod boring will be converted by Bar Bouchée's superb cod Lyonnaise, a plump cod filet seared crisp, served atop of bed of caramelized onions and sautéed new potatoes, and surrounded by a savory parsley jus. All of our plates were beautifully seasoned.
There are other old favorites on the menu, including veal stew, roast chicken (served with morel mushrooms), and trout meunière. Arctic char is served "Grenobloise" with puréed cauliflower and caper vinaigrette. For vegetarians, the kitchen offered asparagus and artichoke risotto. Main courses ranged from $19.50 to $24.50.
Imagination reigned with the dessert selection. Two ice cream coupes caught our attention: one, a variant of Peach Melba, with vanilla ice cream, strawberry sorbet, and raspberry sauce. The other featured fresh pineapple, guava-passion fruit sorbet, and meringue.
We opted instead for a buttery pair of crêpes stuffed with a jammy blueberry compote sharpened with a lemony tang, and a "Pavé chocolat-noisettes," silky chocolate mousse perched on a crisp meringue and suffused with hazelnut - Gianduja writ large.
Good if not great rolls accompany dinner, along with sweet butter. There's a well-considered, short wine list and full bar, which was very much the social focus when we arrived just before six.
Service is exemplary from start to finish. My only hesitation is the noise level, which approached a din after the seven o'clock revelers arrive. Unless you like to shout (or indeed, plan on joining the conversation at the next table), I suggest arriving early, when relative calm prevails.
And yet despite straining to hear, on the night of our visit, at least, Bar Bouchée was frankly more fun that the sometimes stuffy Union League Café. And the food is just as good.
Vuillermet has hatched a worthy scion.