Paysanne Bistro, Deganwy
Em Marshall-Luck finds French Ambiance in North Wales
Paysanne Bistro is in the rather unlikely situation – for a French restaurant – of being located directly opposite a railway station on the north-west coast of Wales. Even more unlikely, it is on the bottom floor of fairly small Victorian terraced house. The upper floors are used as a two-bedroom apartment, rentable on ownersdirect.co.uk, which boasts views out over the railway station and boat-filled river directly behind to the highly impressive silhouette of Conwy Castle, with black mountains looming beyond. One is therefore a little surprised to enter through the urban door of the restaurant to find a little reception desk and a distinctive air of France.
The ambience and decor feel as if they have been loosely modelled on Cafe Rouge (a yellow version thereof), with posters of French paintings, and a decorative skeleton archway knocked between the small front room and the small back room, creating two cosy but linked eating spaces with lemony coloured walls. Tables are mostly dressed with green tablecloths, although ours was bare oak, and woven runners decorate these. Chairs are mixed – some antique with green velvet seats; others more modern in style; all are wooden in varied tones and shades and types. The wooden mantelpiece, decorated with flower paintings, looks more like something one would find in a quaint restaurant in Quebec; there are quirky elements in an ancient coffee grinder sitting on another ached opening between the two eating spaces; old coffee pots; arts deco lighting and mirrors; and bronze animal and bird sculptures by the speaker. We were seated on the only banquette table, on the large old wooden settle the back of which provides the “corridor” for the entrance area.
A friendly greeting is had from the owner, Cai, who is soft-voiced but theatrical in manner and who clearly greatly enjoys wowing his – mainly local and, one might guess, slightly easily impressed – clientele with French words and manners, overwhelming a couple of giggling girls by holding out then pushing gently in their chairs, and charming elderly ladies with his “Mais oui, Madame”s. His patter comes fluently; flourishes are natural.
One of the most reassuring elements, however, was the music. At long last, a restaurant that plays decent music! Sometimes a light jazz (Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt with the Quintette de Hot Club de France featured prominently), sometimes French chansonnières – played at a refreshingly discreet volume.
Menus were brought as soon as we had been seated, and drinks offered. The menu is good, with around eight starters and mains, fairly fish-orientated, with starters including Soup of the Day; snails and scallops (this is a French restaurant, after all), and mains including Welsh pork and beef, guinea fowl and Gressingham duck. The wine list is a little on the short side, but well-chosen, with almost exclusively French wines such as classic Burgundies, at very reasonable prices. I chose my favourite white grape, an Alsatian Gewürztraminer – this one a Kuhlmann-Platz 2015. With a typical pale straw colour and rather retiring nose of light floral and lychee fragrance, it was a sweeter variety, more honeyed than mineral and I found it just slightly underwhelming. On the palate we have a slight effervescence and flavours of honey and flowers – predominantly rose and honeysuckle. There is a long, lingering and tingling aftertaste of sweetness with a gratifying spicy bite of black pepper at the very end. It worked extremely well with our food choices.
We commenced with a chicken terrine and the goats’ cheese. The latter was a wonderfully thick chunk of impressively strongly-flavoured cheese – rich and crumbly, which had been wrapped in smoked salmon and served on toasted ciabatta – but an extremely soft and fluffy ciabatta –almost foccacia-like. It had actually been my husband’s choice but I must confess that it looked so inviting that I commandeered it as soon as it arrived in front of him; it was one of the best goats’ cheese starters I’ve ever had. My chicken terrine was more chunks of roasted chicken put together in a patchwork to form a prosciutto-wrapped rectangle, than an actual terrine as such; this was, unfortunately, a little on the dry side, and my husband found the chicken slightly lacking in flavour.
For my main course I opted for one of the many fresh catches of the day, which encompass a variety of fish from a fish merchant in nearly Llandudno. My choice was the lemon sole, which was served whole: unfilleted and unboned, in a lemon, butter and parsley sauce (one has a choice of sauces also). It wasn’t as fresh as the fish that one has straight off the boats from certain restaurants in Cornwall, for instance, but was good nevertheless, with a pleasing slightly salty flavour closer to the tail and a delicate texture. It had been well-cooked – not too lightly, but lightly enough to allow the flavour and texture to shine through naturally.
My husband opted for the poulet à l’orange – chicken stuffed with couscous and apricots and wrapped in prosciutto. Two chicken dishes in one meal might seem unbalanced – but, as mentioned above, the starter of which he partook was not his first choice! Disappointingly, though, the chicken suffered the same shortcomings as that which formed the main constituent of the starter – slightly on the dry side, rather shy in flavour – which was a shame, as the balance with the prosciutto and apricots could have been exquisite. One suspects that this is an issue that should be attributed to the supplier rather than to the chef – certainly, it seems too much of a coincidence that the chicken used in two different dishes should display the same characteristics of taste and texture.
To accompany the mains came steaming dishes of vegetables – the carrot / broccoli / red cabbage medley was perhaps a little on the unexciting side, but the mashed potato with parsley was unusually flavoursome for mashed potato and worryingly moreish.
To finish our meal, we had a pot au chocolate and the tarte du jour – a tarte au citron. The latter was pronounced slightly disappointing by my husband as having too reticent a flavour and texture, but my chocolate pot was impressive – beautifully salty and incredibly rich and powerful. It very much needed the whipped cream which accompanied it, to lighten and temper its depth of flavour and succulence.
I was quite astounded by how full the restaurant was on a Wednesday evening – with not a free table in the house, which must show that they are doing something right! From the number of warm greetings going around it appeared that many were locals or regular customers. It might help that Paysanne is only open from Wednesday to Saturday and for Sunday lunch, and that they offer special weekly events, such as Pie Day on Friday lunchtime and post-work sharing platters on Fridays. The latter is an excellent idea that one would imagine would work extremely well in the City; but given how packed the restaurant was on a Wednesday night one imagines that Cai would find workers from many miles around to attract to this appealing proposition.
All in all, an impressive enterprise, especially in such a far-flung location; and one can well imagine how locals and holiday-makers might be drawn back time and again for celebrations or special meals.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic