It’s not very often that a wine merchant exchanges his corkscrew for kitchen tongs, but that’s exactly what Johan Björklund did a few months ago. He opened his refined Bistro de l’Hotel in Beaune in May and fulfilled his dream of getting back in front of the burners after two decades of selling fine wine around the world through his company Caves Crus Classe in London as well as Grapes in Rye, N.Y.
The 40-seat restaurant is bright and airy with clean, elegant decor done in a modern way. It seems almost out of place in the sometimes rustic, old-fashioned ambiance of the Burgundian wine capital. In fact, it reminds me of a chic, hip local restaurant in New York’s Soho or London’s Chelsea. There’s also a terrace with seating to enjoy a warm summer’s dinner al fresco.
The food is equally original for Beaune, where cuisine remains mostly on the hearty and heavy side. There are no snails dripping in butter or huge slices of pressed ham. Björklund has a very light and precise hand with his food. « My food is a mixture of different cultures, » he said. « The majority is France, but I like Italian and even dishes from my birthplace, Sweden. It’s fun. »
For example, a simple starter of sautéed girolle mushrooms was delicate and earthy with a light meaty, almost creamy character. A small portion of hand-chopped raw tuna tossed with Soya vinegar was equally flavorful and refined, emphasizing the high quality of the fish.
I saw Björklund before dinner in his small, classy hotel – L’Hotel – next door to the restaurant, and he wanted to know if I was interested in a roasted Poulet de Bresse for dinner. What a question. I love the famous chicken from the area about an hour-and-a-half drive from Beaune. So he threw one in the oven about a half-hour before I arrived, with my colleague Bruce Sanderson. My 12-year-old Jack also joined us for dinner.
The bird was delicious. It was carved at our table and served with creamy mashed potatoes. The white meat was firm yet tender with juicy, meaty flavors. It makes my mouth water just writing these words. The legs were even more flavorful. It went perfect with the 2001 Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St.-Jacques, which was out of this world. The subtle strawberry, cedar, vanilla and milk chocolate aromas and flavors of the wine combined with ultrafine tannins and fresh acidity were a perfect accompaniment to the opulent fowl. 95 points, nonblind.
We also tried the Cote de Boeuf, just to see how the slab of steak compared to my hometown Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The steak had been briefly grilled and then finished in the oven, giving it a roast beef sort of consistency. It was tender and flavorful, almost gamey in character. It came with crispy French fries that were devoured before the meat was finished.
There are plenty of wines to choose from the well-focused restaurant’s list. About 500 to 600 labels are available, and Björklund makes use of his close contacts in the area with some of the best names including such trophy wine names as Coche-Dury, Ponsot and Comte de Vogüé.
About 90 percent come direct from the properties. No problem here finding a great Burgundy for $60 to $80 a bottle, but at double that you can find some real jewels, whether it’s a Lafon premier cru Meursault or Clos de Tart.
« The wine list reflects what I like, » he said. « I don’t buy anything that I don’t like. It’s simple. »
Björklund also offers some wines that he buys by the barrel and bottles under his label, Domaine & Selection. « I use the same sources as the big-name négociants in the year, but I buy what I like, » he said. « For example in 2005 I bought a barrel of Bonnes Mares, Chambertin and Corton-Charlemagne. »
The night I was at Bistro de l’Hotel I ran into a couple of wine producers as well as New York-based wine merchants. By the end of the night we were exchanging glasses of different wines and gossiping about vintages and producers.
Bistro de l’Hotel is the new cool place to hang in Beaune. Granted it isn’t cheap, with a meal costing about $75 a head without wine, but nothing of high quality is inexpensive these days in restaurants in Europe. And I for one am more than happy Björklund has taken up cooking professionally again.