Bistro du Vin, within Hotel du Vin, offers some dishes you can’t get anywhere else in the city
When you’re choosing somewhere to eat out, it’s easy to forget about hotels, unless you’re staying there. But most restaurants in hotels are happy to welcome non-residents and you may find they offer something that you can’t get anywhere else in the area.
Such was the case when we were invited to visit Bistro du Vin, within Hotel du Vin in Exeter, this week. If you enjoy French cuisine, this is a place that you really must visit.
While Exeter is a great destination for foodies, you’ll struggle to name anywhere in the city that serves predominantly French dishes besides Côte, now that Cafe Rouge has closed down. (If you can think of anywhere, let me know!)
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Hotel du Vin is the former eye hospital on Magdalen Street which became Hotel du Vin’s 17th property six years ago. The grand, 19th-century building was formerly the Magdalen Chapter and prior to that, Hotel Barcelona.
Although it’s on a busy road, as soon as you walk through the doors, you’re in a peaceful bubble and you could be anywhere. You get a literal warm welcome as you’re greeted by a cosy log burner in the elegant foyer.
We had a couple of drinks on a comfy sofa in front of another log burner in the homely library before going through to the restaurant – a strong and fruity raspberry daiquiri (£11.95) from the bistro’s list of signature cocktails, and a classic kir royale (£12.95).
As you might expect of a place named Hotel du Vin (vin meaning wine in French), the drinks menu – particularly the wine list – is extensive. So much so, in fact, it highlights the limits of the food offering, although there is both the autumn menu (until the end of this month) and classics menu from which to choose. There isn’t a huge number of options – especially for vegetarians.
The bistro itself is very distinctive, with barely a straight line in sight – everything from the lighting to the furniture is very curvy. It was too dark to enjoy any view of the garden through the large windows – but just a little bit of greenery from a plant or two in the room would have enhanced the atmosphere, perhaps under the mirrors which cleverly made it seem there were more lights in the room than there actually were. The smooth jazz in the background added to the relaxed and classy ambience.
We shared some fougasse (£6.50) from the “nibbles” – light and fluffy Provençal style focaccia served with black garlic aioli, which we were unfamiliar with but thought made a nice change from the more typical buttery or oily accompaniments.
Unsurprisingly, the menu included the popular French onion soup and chicken liver parfait among the starters, but we wanted to try something different. My friend chose the tiger prawns (£11.95) from the classics menu, which were well presented and tasty.
I picked the escargots bourguignon en croute (£7.50) from the seasonal menu – I’d never tried snails before and it’s something you very rarely see on menus in this neck of the woods. Though the idea repulsed me, I thought if I’m ever going to try snails, this would be the place to do it, where, no doubt, the dish would be of the highest quality.
I had no idea how they were going to be served but was massively relieved they weren’t in their shells. In fact, I didn’t even have to look at them as they were covered with puff pastry croutes. I wondered how I’d cope with the taste and texture, but to be honest, I didn’t taste much except the garlic and herb butter, and I barely noticed the texture thanks to the puff pastry croutes and generous garnish which meant there was plenty else on which to focus. Now I can be proud of myself for doing my own Bushtucker Trial, though it really was beginner level.
Both of our mains came from the classics menu. My friend had the cassoulet (£15.95) – confit duck, roast pork belly and grilled Toulouse sausage with a rich bean stew. It seemed an unusual combination of ingredients but worked well and was both hearty and comforting, like most stews.
I had the 250g sirloin steak (£32.95) – 50 day aged grain fed beef – with Béarnaise sauce (£2.50), not because it was the most expensive thing on the menu, but because I love a good steak. It was served with pommes frites which were made slightly more luxurious by still having some skin on.
The steak was well cooked and rested – I had it medium-rare, but not a drop of blood oozed out when it was cut, which was appreciated. However, though the steak wasn’t particularly tough, it took some effort to cut – the steak knife I was given was about as sharp as a spoon, and it wasn’t a one-off, as I saw another diner also making a meal of cutting his steak. Although it was a good dish, the last steak I ate out was just as good, but significantly cheaper. I was a little disappointed as I’d expected the higher price to mean a noticeably better quality steak. But the Bordeaux Supérieur wine (£9.50 for a 175ml glass) I had with it was the nicest wine I’ve had in months.
We shared a bowl of glazed carrots and a bowl of haricots verts (£4.25 each) for our sides. The portions were very generous and I don’t think we even managed half of each, even between us. We were saving room for dessert.
My friend chose the pistachio craquelin choux bun (£9.95) though the pistachio ice cream it was meant to be served with was unavailable so she had chocolate instead. Coloured a lurid green, it looked like a leftover Halloween decoration, and I wasn’t won over by the taste either, but my friend assured me that it was a pistachio lover’s dream dessert.
I went for the pot au chocolat (£7.50) which is apparently the bistro’s most popular dessert. It was like a Gü dessert that you can get in the supermarket, in that it seemed small and was served in a small glass pot, but was very rich and, in fact, perfectly large enough. It was very dense for a mousse – more like a ganache – topped with crème Chantilly, and was a great note on which to end the meal.
The website describes the waiting staff as “attentive and exceptionally knowledgeable” and although we never noticed them hovering, they appeared as if by magic to clear our plates as soon as we had finished each course (though they dropped cutlery a couple of times and didn’t remove our empty glasses or side plates, which would have given us a little more room). They were also very friendly and polite.
However, out of several questions we asked, only one or two were answered on the spot, and sometimes we were under the impression the member of staff would find out and get back to us, but they never did. Perhaps some of the questions were more appropriate for Google, but even if new (and none of them seemed to be), members of staff should be able to answer simple questions about the menu, such as “What is Rum Baba (which is on the dessert menu)?”
Overall, we were very satisfied with our experience at Hotel du Vin, but couldn’t quite give it 10 out of 10 due to a number of minor factors which didn’t quite match up to the “impeccable” standards promised.
For more about the bistro, visit the website or call 01392 790120. Dinner is served 6pm to 9pm (9.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays).
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