Bouchons, brassieres et bistro

by Jeanne


This past Saturday was quite a food and wine lover’s frolic.  W. and I wandered up to the annual Napa Valley Mustard Festival hosted at Copia.  After a few hours of wine tasting, nibbling and mingling with other like-minded people we rolled down the road to an early dinner at Bouchon.

I’ve been long confused about these type of French dining establishments called bouchons, brassieres and bistros. For most of us they do appear to be somewhat similar; what I discovered was that there are differences from size, to type of served.

Patricia Wells, an Ex-Pat now living in Paris for over 25 years, food journalist, and French culture and cooking educator, in a 1999 CNN interview, stated, "A brasserie is a large establishment, originally a brewery from Alsace, so in Paris it is a large place selling beer and sauerkraut, and open all hours. A bistro is traditionally a small family place, small menu, just a few tables with limited menu." 

Today, the term ‘bistro’ has become so blurred these days that I wonder if we know if we are actually sitting in a traditional bistro.  In the States, as in France, a bistro signifies a neighborhood place often small in size with a bit of style and thoughtful, often times, comfort cuisine (cuisine grand-mere) in a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere that is often independently owned and operated.  Many bistros can be identified by the chalkboard menu offering daily specials. Mark Bittman recently went in search of affordable bistros in Paris.  His list includes Chez Michel, Cafe Modern and Alain Ducasse’s Lyon-style bistro Aux Lynonnais.

Bistros began as…

cafe-charbons, a place to buy coal or wood and as a stop for a snack or a glass of wine. The dishes are uncomplicated and traditional, such as pommes frites, coq au vin, cassoulet, tarte tatin and creme caramel. Today’s modern bistro fare is similar but has often been lightened for those of us who worry about the effects of butter and cream. 

Brasseries, the louder cousin to the bistro, were originally places where you could drink beer and also specialized in the food of the Alsace-Lorraine region. One could, and still can, find something to eat late at night. Bofinger’s choucroute is quite an Alsatian statement of the region on a plate, sauerkraut laden with cured and boiled meats including, smoked sausage, ham knuckles, and belly pork. Brassieres are open late and tend to be found in larger cities where there’s a clientele to serve during the longer hours. The service is typically quick and the food offered ranges from the simple composed salad to steak frites or today, pizza or pasta.  There is usually a raw seafood offering and a full bar including beer.  In Paris this would include establishments such as Au Pied du Cochon in Les Halles whose steak frites offering is perfect every time A. orders it. 

So what exactly then is a bouchon?  Because there we were looking at the menus and it seemed like quality bistro fare.  Peter Hertzmann’s A La Carte, offers a thorough definition of a bouchon:

"…restaurants using the term in their description seem to date only to the nineteenth century. Bouchons are the informal keepers of workers’ cooking, specifically the silk workers — canuts — of the Croix-Rousse district in Lyon — that perhaps may be why bouchons only exist in Lyon. The world of the canuts was essentially snuffed out by bureaucratic regulations in the mid-nineteenth century, but their food traditions is maintained by modern bouchons.

Bouchons are not fancy restaurants. They don’t serve fancy food, but their output is nonetheless tasty (and hearty)."

Well, the Northern California based Bouchon isn’t French Laundry fancy but the food is quite simply wonderful.  I began my meal with a Salade Maraichere au Chevere Chaud, Gnocchi a L’Alsacienne, (sauteed gnocchi with crisped sage, wild mushrooms in a brown butter) and W. had the steamed mussells and frites with saffron and mustard. For dessert we shared a cinnamon pots de creme and a creme caramel both were the smoothest, most elegant kiss on the lips.

So not to add confusion to the discussion but throughout Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook the dishes are  to as classic bistro cooking.  So a bouchon is a Lyon-based bistro excpet when it’s located in Yountville.  I give up. Tout va bien. Mangeons!