Wintertime Warm-Up

Hearty and satisfying, the traditional French fare at Le Bouchon in Cold Spring is just the thing to chase away the January chills

I think I might have been a French peasant in a previous life. Even though I enjoy fine dining in posh surroundings as much as anybody, I’m truly comfortable and content in slightly scruffy bistros, taking my time over hearty, rustic fare and washing it down with vin ordinaire. So a place like Le Bouchon in Cold Spring is right up my allée. The chef and owner, Pascal Graff, is from Alsace, and evidently has sufficient Gallic joie de vivre to have imbued his brasserie with some of it. It’s just like the little family-run places you find in obscure villages all over the French countryside, where the welcome is warm and the simple food is well made and fairly priced.

With its wine-red walls, ceiling, and banquettes, the made-over townhouse feels welcoming indeed. Red-and-white check cloths with white paper toppers cover tables that are a tad close, but even that adds to the café spirit. There’s a fireplace in one of the two small dining rooms, a tiny bar, and a little garden in back as well as a front porch where you can eat when the weather’s warm.

Since Graff opened Le Bouchon in 2002, I’ve had many leisurely lunches there, one made memorable by a wonderful spicy lamb merguez sausage sandwich that often appears on the menu. (On that day, I recall my friend being wowed by the foie gras, which comes from the same Hudson Valley farm as the ducks that Graff serves.)

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Recently, my husband and I arrived early for dinner, but the place soon filled up with other diners — many of them regulars, judging by the greetings they received. A jolly, casual crew presides, with accents all very American until dishes are presented with a “bon appetit!”

mussels steak frites

Bistro basics
(clockwise from top left):
Steak frites; a serving of mussels; and Le Bouchon chef/owner Pascal Graff

chef pascal graff

The traditional French menu includes all the favorites: escargots, goat cheese tart, bouillabaisse, steak frites, and such. Our server delivered a basket of crusty, chewy bread to sustain us while we checked out the menu and the moderately priced wine list. Upbeat, jazzy background music drifted at a pleasing volume (and no corny Edith Piaf, either).

My spouse, who makes a pretty mean onion soup himself, decided to try Le Bouchon’s. There’s a tendency to make onion soup way too salty, but this was a mild version with broth just rich enough, and nicely cheesy on top. A chunk of well-browned prosciutto on the bottom of the bowl was a nice surprise.

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On my lunchtime visits, I’d tried four of the five preparations of mussels (all very tasty, though the Normandy, with Calvados and bits of bacon, remains my favorite). So I decided to try the fifth: moules au curry. Mussels are listed as entrées, but you can have a half portion as an appetizer — a generous serving of about 20 small but plump, juicy mollusks. The curried broth, sweetened with a dash of cream and lovely little bites of just-softened apple, was assertive but didn’t overpower the mussels — although it did win out over the flecks of basil that I could see but not taste.

Half portions of mussels don’t come with frites, our server warned. Once the idea of frites has been introduced, it takes a stronger will than mine to pass ’em up, so I ordered a side. Crispy and worthy of the name, they were served in a paper cone in a little galvanized pail with garlic mayonnaise to dip them in. (You can have mustard or even ketchup, if you must.)

My spouse tried the St. Jacques Provencale — three big diver scallops served on a pool of warm tomato sauce, and topped with a pyramid of crispy, shredded leeks. The scallops were well browned and perhaps a little more cooked through than some might like, but the delicious crispy leeks made a nice contrast in taste and texture. The tomato sauce added color more than anything else; the spinach risotto accompaniment tasted good, but was a little sticky. Overall, this dish didn’t quite cohere — a lighter touch would have improved it.

le bouchon atmosphereCafé curtains and checkered tablecloths accentuate the bistro’s casual atmosphere

I was tempted by the boudin noir, a delectable sausage that you don’t often find, partly perhaps because its unfortunate name in English — blood sausage — puts many people off. (Don’t say yuck if you haven’t tried it.) Graff says he searched for two years for the best supplier (you need a license to make it); he orders from the well-known charcuterie Les Trois Petit Cochons. “I guarantee you it’s the best on the market,” he declares.

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But the cassoulet beckoned — the white bean stew that’s quintessential French country cooking. There are many variations, but all involve duck or goose confit, sausage, and two or three other meats, slow-simmered in broth with tomatoes and herbs. It’s one of my favorite cool weather dishes, and such a production to assemble, I very rarely cook it at home. (Julia Child’s recipe, for example, covers six pages, and shortcut versions just aren’t the same.)

Graff makes his cassoulet Toulouse style, with two kinds of sausage, chunks of lamb and pork belly, and a leg of duck confit. It’s a heaping portion, served in a super hot cast-iron skillet. There wasn’t much of a crumby crust, but the beans were perfectly moist and not mushy, and came studded with slices of robust, smoky pork sausage and a smaller, spicier sausage (maybe merguez, but flavors meld) as well as the other chunks of meat. It was a treat, but so filling, I had to take half of it home, where it served as lunch twice, and seemed to taste even better on days two and three. That’s a good cassoulet for you.

The classic bistro desserts are all made in-house. We had a silky vanilla crème brûlée and a trio of profiteroles, which came with a little pitcher of rich chocolate sauce that allows you to get as chocolaty as you like. A cup of coffee, and we were braced to leave this cozy little pocket of France and emerge onto Main Street America again.

» Read more reviews of Le Bouchon here

Le Bouchon
76 Main St., Cold Spring
Open daily 12-10 p.m. Reservations suggested
Appetizers $6-$11, entrées $14-$28, desserts $8

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