14 years on from the death of legendary chef Bernard Loiseau, Conor Power finds that his spirit is very much alive and well in the beautiful Burgundy town
Beaune has an almost regal atmosphere with its neatly defined mediaeval walled interior. It isn’t the cheapest town in France but it’s certainly one of the loveliest and where you are no doubt that you are in the heart of what is arguably the best wine region in the world.
On the south side of the old town, the entrance to the city across a bridge onto Rue Maufoux gives you a hint of what it must have felt like in Mediaeval times to arrive into Beaune in a horse-drawn carriage. Today, the dry moat below you is festooned with neatly-maintained lawn and shrubbery while the ring road following its line presents a more dramatic flow. The attractive Belle Epoque Hôtel de la Poste overlooks this busy junction and as you walk across the bridge, the first place that catches the eye is the local Irish pub – The Publican – with the ubiquitous black signage indicating black Irish beer within.A very enticing collection of antique shops, curiosity shops, bars and cafes follow and the entrance to Loiseau des Vignes just a few hundred metres farther on the right marks a typically low-key gateway to one of Beaune’s many special addresses.
There is a curious but vaguely pleasing mixture of traditional and funky about the decor at the Michelin-starred Loiseau des Vignes – now open 10 years. The reception area has enough elements of grandiosity to let you know that you’re entering a high-class establishment. We were shown to our tables in a large dining area with tall ceilings. They don’t insist on formal attire in this place but we dressed up nonetheless. A Canadian couple at the table next to us had kept it casual. It would be nice if they had some kind of policy regarding people who won’t get off their phones when they’re out to dinner because the man was obsessively pecking away on his phone, only occasionally deciding to avert his attention towards his wife/girlfriend and/or his food.
We had gone for the Discovery menu that came with a selected wine with each course. The first amuse-bouche out of the traps was a collection of items on tiny platters that included rice flakes made from black rice along with delicious puff-pastry sticks stuffed with something creamy and delicious. There was also some delicious olive cake with green olives in it.
Next up was some warm cucumber and sweetcorn soup with edible cucumber flower on the side. It was strangely delicious and warming. I followed with my choice of smoked snails with fresh vegetables. I’m not a great fan of snails but when one is in Burgundy… In any case, the smoked variety are to be recommended over the usual kind with the garlic sauce if this particular sitting is anything to go by.The pigeon for the main course followed next. This was the star of the show for both of us – an indescribably wonderful-looking platter with perfectly-cooked meat and accompanying jus.
The cheese course was a selected local soft cheese that was served with sultanas and ginger and sprayed with local liqueur St Marc. By this point, the head was dizzy with the dazzling display of food, all accompanied by people serving with the just the right degree (except one) of efficiency and warmth. The accompanying wines were mostly local and were all spot on.
There was quite a mixture of people in the restaurant at the time. The afore-mentioned Canadian couple were a major source of irritation. To be fair, it was all him acting irritating and his companion seemed really nice. He was about 29, wearing shorts and tee-shirt and looked like he had more money than basic intelligence or empathy for any other human being other than himself. I could hear another obnoxious British couple (in their mid-sixties) behind me, who seemed to love projecting their voices and opinions on the most mundane topics across the entire dining area. Through a gap in the wall in an adjoining dining area where stacks of bottles took up much of the tall wall space, a French family were dining, accompanied by a small child playing with her phone. To my left, was the most endearing couple of all: a French pair who seemed the only ones to take it seriously. They had their dog with them. Our food-and-safety Nazis in Ireland will tell you that they’re following strict orders from Brussels when they won’t allow any dog to even set paw inside the door of a restaurant, so how is it that in France, you can have your best friend sit up right beside you at the dinner table if it’s well behaved? They nodded with approval and mingled their discreet private conversation with talk of the courses and then gasped whenever one of the more theatrical courses were brought to their table.
Overall, it was an enriching experience. The atmosphere was sullied somewhat by some of the more irritating clientele on the night but there was no mistaking the quality on show here. Every course was a stunning success, both in satisfaction of the ocular and gastronomic senses. There was plenty of traditional fare in the menu (such as wood pigeon and snail) but each was presented with a twist of invention and playfulness that worked every time and the acid test – the taste – never failed to impress.
Bernard Loiseau may be gone a long time now but it is a credit to those still running the show that his spirit has been kept alive and kicking in this extraordinary restaurant. If you’re anywhere near Beaune, make that booking, put on your glad rags and leave the phone at home.
Get Yourself There
Aer Lingus have a regular daily service direct from Dublin to Lyon, from where Beaune is a 1.5-hour drive
Located just outside the old city, where the prices are much nicer and the courtyard parking nicer still but within a short walk of the entire old city centre, the Logis Hôtel Belle Epoque (www.logishotels.com) gives you all the Beaune atmosphere in a gorgeous location in off the street. The staff are particularly friendly.