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Beaune, in Burgundy, eastern France, is a magnet for tourists. The couple behind Bistro de L’Hôtel, Johan Björklund and Margie Thybulle, provide both culinary pleasure and a lesson for French restaurateurs…

Beaune, in Burgundy, eastern France, is a magnet for tourists. It is easy to see why: there are ramparts, cobbled streets and many of its buildings have magnificently tiled roofs. You can almost believe it is still a medieval dukedom.

Yet unchanging Beaune is home to two fresh and surprising new restaurants that have emerged from improbable settings. The first, Bistro de L’Hôtel, just off the main Place Carnot, was a clothes shop until three years ago, and the elegant terrace between the bistro and its associated Hôtel de Beaune was a dumping ground.

The couple behind Bistro de L’Hôtel, Johan Björklund and Margie Thybulle, provide both culinary pleasure and a lesson for French restaurateurs whose approach remains too formal. Björklund trained as a chef in his hometown of Stockholm and went to Paris in 1980 to cook for the Swedish ambassador. A visit to Burgundy convinced him to postpone his dream of opening a restaurant there, and instead he became a wine merchant travelling between Burgundy, London and New York, where he eventually opened a wine store.

This wine store was next to a gourmet shop run by Thybulle. They fell in love and later moved to Beaune where, years earlier, Björklund had bought the former offices of a wine company and converted them into the boutique Hôtel de Beaune. The couple added the bistro, which became the symbol of their new life together.

Its long menu incorporates local specialities such as a whole Bresse chicken, ribs of Charolais beef and a whole sea bass cooked with olive oil, lemon and sea salt. We enjoyed deep-fried artichoke and squid; Vietnamese langoustine spring rolls; a plump fillet of veal with girolle mushrooms; and veal kidneys with a green peppercorn sauce. There was also the spectacle of three different trays of desserts.

Björklund told me: “When we opened here in May 2007, I wanted a relaxed place, where, naturally, I would be the chef. Hence the open kitchen with stools for customers to sit and look, the music, the photos on the walls of chefs I admire around the world, and the relatively simple food based on the best ingredients.

“And although I was almost 50, it felt good finally to be a chef in my own restaurant. I realised that if I had done this when I was younger I would have tried too hard, putting too many ingredients on the plate.

“But after a year the kitchen started to attract young French chefs I could rely on, while it was increasingly difficult to recruit young managers who had the relaxed approach to customers that I wanted. So I started to work in the restaurant and so far it seems to work.” He says he works harder today but feels less tired and has fewer headaches than in the past.

The town’s second surprise is Bissoh, a Japanese restaurant 10 minutes’ walk away, built into the former warehouse of a wine and spirit merchant. The old, dark timber interior, as well as the authentic cooking, imbue it with a sense of downtown Kyoto. Beaune’s attraction as a centre of fine wine was a factor in the decision of chef Mikihito Sawahata and his partner Sachiko to settle here.

Bissoh roughly translates as “to thank people who work hard and support us”. And, as the restaurant celebrates its fifth birthday, its charms are obvious. Sawahata produces food that strikes just the right balance between comfort and excitement, while Sachiko has produced a sake and wine list so reasonably priced that Bissoh has become a favourite haunt of many younger winemakers.

nicholas.lander@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.