Deciding where to dine in Vézelay was an easy decision. We cased restaurant's lining the town's one road and lumped for Le Bougainville, the only restaurant where Michel Tolmer's "Epaule Jété" poster in the window indicated the presence of natural wines.
The poster these days is a reliable, if by no means infallible, indicator of a restaurant that prizes good wine. This in turn is a reliable indicator of a good restaurant. Dining on hunches : it's what you do in the countryside. Like oil prospecting, only less nefarious or profitable.
Anyway, my friends and I hit the motherlode in Vézelay that day. Le Bougainville is the realised idyll of a country bistrot: quaint, welcoming, with a wine list to die for and a superlative cheese plate. And chef-owner Philippe Guillemard and his wife Sylvie are like the angels who admit you to heaven after a lifetime of suffering Parisian hospitality. They're quiet enthusiasts who, from their restaurant perched in the shadow of Vézelay's famous basilica, offer the town's visitors a dining experience to rival the transcendental view up top.
Menu prices are modest. Sweetbreads, tête de veau, soupe à l'oignon, saucisse de Lyon...
The menu at Le Bougainville is Burgundian comfort food with just a barely perceptible tilt towards offal. It is simple and unoriginal and it wins my heart, because I prefer unoriginality in cuisine as a general principle, and because such menus take about two seconds' decision time, after which one can return to the wine list...
So what if, like seemingly every other restaurant in the French countryside, dishware at Le Bougainville appears to have been sourced from bargain shops in the 1980's? What Philippe Guillemard's plating lacks in overall contemporary finesse it recovers in ingedient quality: everything is impeccable.
Particular mention must be made of the restaurant's cheese cart, upon which the various wheels and beveled bricks sit in a beautiful mess, a surrealist moonscape of disheveled and unruly fromage. Cheeses on a cheese cart should look this way. It suggests the cheeses have been properly ripened and that they're being served at the correct temperature. On my first visit to Le Bougainville I tasted a Chablis-rinsed Epoisses whose rusty tang just blew my mind.
Speaking of Chablis, the Guillemards have an absolute trove of Raveneau and Dauvissat.
August names like these appear on the list beside a successive generation of natural-wine pioneers like Dominique Derain and the local Domaine de la Cadette, separated by perhaps a 20€ price difference in some cases. It's a generous and undogmatic approach, although one susceptible to the predations of enthusiasts like myself.
The 2004 Raveneau Chablie 1ér Cru "Fôret" we had on our first visit was fairly unforgettable. A haunting brown-butter / mushroom / white floral accord on the nose, followed by baked peach and more pristine champignon on the palate... It possessed a ghostly, almost gothic amplitude, like the prettier songs of slightly goofy Goth-folkie Chelsea Wolfe.
As with local Vézelay bar Le Vézelien, I had the opportunity to visit Le Bougainville twice this summer, first on the bike trip through the Yonne in June, then again in July on a trip we made starting in Sancerre. The latter ride, which I'll post about at greater length at some point, was marked by a hellishly unpleasant stretch of road between Clammecy and Vézelay. As my cohorts and I slogged through car exhaust up interminable hills, I found myself trying to raise our morale by hyping up, to unreasonable proportions, our reservation that evening at Le Bougainville.
Even after such an introduction, restaurant didn't disappoint. The Guillemards recognised my friend E and I from our visit visit, when I'd plied Philippe with questions about some rare Irancy wines. And once again they took pity on our car-lessness and offered, at the end of the meal when the restaurant closed, to give us a lift back down the hill to our chambre d'hôte in Saint-Pere. (Otherwise it's kind of a hike - feasible and even enjoyable during daylight, but rather forbidding at night in the rain with a belly full of eaux de vie.)
26, rue Saint-Etienne
Tel: 03 86 33 27 57
Yonne Bike Trip: Le Vézelien, Vézelay
Yonne Bike Trip: Le Pot d'Etain, Isle-sur-Serein
Yonne Bike Trip: Alice et Olivier de Moor, Courgis
Yonne Bike Trip: Le Bistrot des Grands Crus, Chablis
Yonne Bike Trip: Vincent Dauvissat, Chablis
Yonne Bike Trip: Domaine Colinot, Irancy
Yonne Bike Trip: Atélier à Jean, Vincelottes
A Vézelay mini-guide at Globalista that briefly mentions Le Bougainville.