You’re on the deck, Lake Champlain at your feet. The waves lap against the steps ascending from the water as yachts lazily float by. It’s too hazy today to see the Green Mountains clearly, but you get the gist of the shadows of sleeping giants behind the clouds.
If it sounds like Burlington’s Splash at the Boathouse — but on the opposite side of the lake — you’re half right. Le Bistro du Lac is indeed the place to dine right on the western shore, about half an hour north of the Champlain Bridge. But, while casual Splash focuses on lobster rolls and burgers, Bistro du Lac offers soupe à l’oignon and pâté de campagne that will seem awfully familiar to customers of Warren’s 50-year-old Chez Henri Restaurant & Bistro.
That’s no coincidence. For Bernard Perillat, co-owner and maître d’ of Chez Henri, Bistro du Lac is the equivalent of summer camp. Every June for 22 years, he and his wife, Rosemary, have left the mountains of Vermont for the New York shore. He initially opened Bistro du Lac in Essex, N.Y., before moving to the defunct Westport Yacht Club. His longtime clientele is just as devoted on the other side of the lake as it is at Chez Henri.
Perillat is similarly devoted to them, and to the farmers and producers who supply him. Meals at Bistro du Lac begin with puffy rosettes of butter and stretchy, ethereally light slices of crusty, sour levain bread from nearby artisan bakery Crown Point Bread Company.
From there, diners may order a salade verte mélangée composed of greens from Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams and topped with Roquefort or goat cheese. Juniper Hill, which offers a popular CSA, will provide Perillat with more and more food as the season advances. This week, he’s expecting the arrival of tomatoes, beets and broccoli. Some will appear on salads; others are likely to make it to entrée plates among the buttery seasonal vegetables each contains. Right now, Perillat is selling rib eyes from Kilcoyne Farms in Brasher Falls; he hopes soon to add the farms’ local, grass-fed filet mignon to his menu.
If Perillat’s devotion to terroir sounds French to its core, that’s because it is. Greeting guests in unwavering français unless steered otherwise, Rosemary Perillat is a cheerful hôtesse par excellence, regularly checking on tables and chatting in whichever language sticks. While the couple clearly makes a conscious effort to transport guests to the shores of the French Riviera, the cultural ambiance comes naturally to them.
More even than the Mediterranean, Bistro du Lac evokes another lake: Lac Annecy. Bernard Perillat started his life and his career in Annecy, a French Alpine city 22 miles south of Geneva.
He recalls that, back in the 1960s, the only way to get a culinary education in his region was to start as a dishwasher and work his way up. His big break came when he was hired to do odd jobs, including cooking, bartending and serving, in the restaurant at the French Pavilion at Montréal’s Expo 67. Perillat met his wife and his eventual business partner in the ultramodern building that’s now part of the Casino de Montréal.
Back in 1970, Henri Borel was looking for seasoned professionals to help out at Chez Henri. The Perillats fit the bill. For more than 20 years, they worked year round at the restaurant, which was then open through the summer. But when Perillat heard of a space opening up on Lake Champlain, he says, he realized it was an opportunity he couldn’t miss. He and Rosemary became bicoastal, as it were.
Perillat says that, save a few additions of his own, his menu at Bistro du Lac is almost identical to that of Chez Henri. What reads as potentially antiquated fare, when it arrives on the plate, is like a time capsule of France’s culinary past.
For this diner, it starts with freshly chopped filet mignon, served in a bowl by our friendy server, Mayumi. The white-T-shirted young woman goes on to complete the task of many a tuxedoed waiter before her, carefully mixing fresh herbs, onion and cornichons with the raw meat before patting it down on fresh greens. Rosemary Perillat comes to the table with small pieces of fresh bread, noting apologetically that the recent spate of humidity has ruined the croutons she normally serves with the dish.
No matter. The sturdy shreds of filet are tender and meaty, with a welcome hint of saline acid arriving via the cornichons and mustard.
With the sun shining on the tented patio packed with diners, a couple can fantasize that they’re having a vacation on the French Riviera. No one is in the dining room inside, though it’s bright and covered with art. The deck below is also empty.
Sadly, the croutons aren’t the only victims of the wet summer. Perillat says he has a tough go of it when the water rises too high for him to serve diners on the deck that touches the lake. “You see, there’s always traffic on the holiday; is nice weather, people come,” he explains. This year is different. Just days after the Fourth of July, Perillat says he would ordinarily be feeding more than twice as many diners as he is tonight.
Of course, no one’s lining up on the rainy nights. But even on a calm evening like this one, only a few boats fill the water around the restaurant. Photos from years past testify to nautical traffic swarming the restaurant like a school of minnows. One image even shows three small planes parked beside Bistro du Lac, suggesting that, when the season is favorable, diners flock there by land, sea or air.
The prices reflect the comfortable lives of the restaurant’s typical customers, but that’s only natural, given this singular view. Call it a natural-beauty tax.
A plate of swordfish feels like a steal at $29, compared to a number of dishes that top $30. The meaty slab of grill-marked fish arrives bathed in a beurre blanc that’s generously flavored with white wine and shallots. On the side, crisp snow peas and carrot slices glisten. Two crispy potatoes soak in the tangy butter sauce, while a mound of red cabbage and apples adds a concentrated tangle of sweet-and-sour flavor. It’s exactly the sort of fare you can imagine, say, Louis Malle or Henri-Georges Clouzot digging into after winning a Palme d’Or.
Despite the bistro’s seasonal orientation, many of its dishes seem designed to ward off a winter chill, perhaps to keep customers warm against the cool lake breezes.
The filet de boeuf is available with sauce au poivre or the Béarnaise that Mayumi recommends. Perillat says the roasted duck, served either with fruit or the same pepper sauce, is among his most popular dishes; another is lobster with drawn butter.
But the pull of veal medallions proves irresistible. The chunky little morsels are dusted in flour for a crisp jacket; inside, the meat is plump and pink. A mix of wild mushrooms, including fat slabs of chanterelles, is bathed in a surprisingly light, mildly peppery cream sauce. The same seasonal sides served with the swordfish accompany the veal.
The lighter-than-expected veal allows room for dessert, and this is where Bistro du Lac truly shines. The creamy chocolate mousse contains tiny pieces of unblended, semisweet chocolate that slowly melt as you savor each bite. Profiteroles come in a miniature mountain; each is smaller than a golf ball but yields big flavor with a filling of rich vanilla ice cream. On top, a warm chocolate sauce is a full-on cacao assault, with just enough sugar to keep the dish from turning savory.
When dinner is over, Rosemary says her thank-yous (en français, bien sûr), while Bernard continues to cook for a large birthday party that’s just arrived. Once the weather clears up, he’s sure to spend the rest of the summer busy in the kitchen. After all, there’s nowhere else in the U.S. to taste Samuel de Champlain’s native cuisine right on his namesake lake.
Le Bistro du Lac, 44 Old Arsenal Road, Westport, N.Y., 518-962-8777. bistrodulac.com