A Beaune surprise

Epicerie goods at Tonton restaurant in Beaune

Nick reports from last week in Burgundy.

I volunteered for the task, but then who wouldn’t?

The task itself was straightforward. I would drive HRH Jancis around her tastings in Burgundy for the week and in return I would be recompensed with meals in restaurants. Not a bad deal, in anybody’s books, particularly as the week in question was to be the first week of October rather than the more traditional week in November when this region can be cold, damp and slightly depressing.

Our timing, it transpired, was not that auspicious. We arrived in Geneva in the rain and this continued until early Wednesday morning. This, combined with low cloud and wind, meant that the most accurate descriptor of the weather for this time in Burgundy was ‘dreich’, an onomatopoeic Scottish word for foul. Our walks were to be severely limited.

As were our meals in restaurants, although here I have much less to complain about as we ate and drank extremely well thanks to the generosity of Anthony and Rosi Hanson, our hosts for the first three nights. Rosi, the author of Recipes from the French Wine Harvest and a protégée of the late Elizabeth David, is an excellent cook while Anthony, MW, of Haynes Hanson & Clark fame, who ran the Hospices de Beaune auction for Christie’s and wrote Burgundy, is a most generous and knowledgeable wine-minded host. Their home, close to Beaune, resounds with the latest news of what Burgundy producers are up to.

So our first two dinners were chez eux. A simply cooked guinea fowl on the first night was the perfect foil for a fine selection of wines: a 2016 Pernand-Vergelesses from Domaine Pavelot, a Puligny-Montrachet, Les Pucelles 2016 from Domaine du Cellier Aux Moines and a 2015 Morey-St-Denis from Domaine Arlaud. On the second night a wonderfully rich Raveneau Chablis Grand Cru, Les Clos 2001, the wine of the night, was perfect with Rosi’s leeks vinaigrette, while a 2015 Nuits-St-Georges, Les Hauts Pruliers from Bertrand and Axelle Marchand de Gramont, full of energy and vivacity, was far more delightful than the 2002 Clos de Tart with a classic blanquette de veau.

Then there was the fact that all this happened on a Sunday and a Monday night, leaving only Monday lunch free. And there was only one place that we wanted to revisit and that was Le Soufflot.

A page from the wine list at Le Soufflor restaurant, Meursault

This restaurant on the main road that grazes Meursault figured in last week’s column because of its distinctive wine-pricing policy: they price their wines by the bottle so attractively that no-one can refuse them (see above). On a wet Monday lunchtime, the restaurant was pretty full, with multiple bottles on every table, including three bottles of Raveneau Chablis and, more to the point, an unusual collection of happy customers. Their three-course menu is good value too, at 32 per person, and their still-scrappy bill below shows quite clearly how the front of house notified the kitchen that one of our party was gluten intolerant.

Bill at Le Soufflot restaurant in Meursault

As during the second half of the week we moved on to Morey-St-Denis and Dijon, this left only one night in Beaune for us to entertain our hosts. After having rejected a few places because the tables were not deemed sufficiently far apart in these times of COVID-19, they chose the extremely friendly Comptoir des Tontons in the rue du Faubourg Madeleine in the heart of this atmospheric city.

The restaurant’s layout and approach – far from the standard three-course meal – came as a surprise even to the Hansons. Having to deal with lockdown earlier in the year, the chef Pepita and her husband Richard Grocat had ‘pivoted’ to encompass an epicerie and an extended wine shop on the premises. This has come to dictate what is offered on their four-page menu, which opens with the phrases ‘marchand de vins’, ‘salle à manger’ and ‘epicerie’ on the outside. Beneath this is the carefully worded phrase, ‘All our produce emanates from small farms and producers who are respectful and in love with their terroir’ (this phrase sounds so much better in French).

A lot of these products are on show on several shelves and counters in the restaurant (see the main image), along with numerous bottles of wine, whisky and eaux de vie. The left-hand page of the menu lists their tinned offerings for which, for once, the description ‘curated’ may be appropriate. There were chipirones in squid ink, tuna Santa Catarina, mussels, and a wonderfully evocative dish described as ‘petites sardines’ from Portugal. What was served was literally an opened tin of 20 to 25 small sardines, with toast, that took me straight away from the rain of France to the sunnier Atlantic coast.

The right-hand page of the menu lists dishes, under the heading ‘la cuisine biovivante de Pepita’, which ranged much more widely. There were two distinctly meaty dishes. The first, a terrine made from Gascon black pigs, was thick, pungent and full of flavour, an extremely well-made terrine. Then pork cooked another way as two medallions and served with mashed potato and sage, which Anthony seemed to enjoy as he finished it in record time.

Coco dish at Tontons restaurant in Beaune

This emphasis on meat was nicely balanced by two distinctive dishes that concentrated principally on vegetables. The first, described as in the style of pizza, was a galette of sesame, topped with confit tomatoes, ewe’s milk cheese and Cantabrian anchovies and seemed to taste as good as it looked. The second was perfect for a cold autumn night: a vegetable broth, enhanced with harissa, and filled with perfectly cooked fresh coco beans and a slice of monkfish liver.

Richard, host of Tontons restaurant in Beaune

Such excellent cooking came with several other distinctions. The first is the warmth of the welcome from Robert who, with his distinctly snazzy shirts, bald head, visor and enormous smile, pulls off an ensemble the likes of which I have not seen any restaurateur manage before. Then there was the sight of the glamorous Pepita in the kitchen, clearly visible as the kitchen is open, talking to her one assistant as he finalises the dishes. The warmth that they generate is genuine and obvious.

Finally, there is their wine list, which may not be the best organised but is extremely wide ranging, with DRC (from 13,000 for the Romanée-Conti 2014) to many less-expensive bottles such as a Monthelie Premier Cru Les Duresses 2014 from Domaine des Comtes Lafon. I spent 48 on a bottle of 2015 Bourgogne Pinot Noir from Cecile Tremblay, out of a total bill of 184 for four, a bottle that was absolutely delicious.

Le Comptoir des Tontons 22 rue du Faubourg Madeleine, 21200 Beaune; tel +33 (0)3 80 24 19 64