MAXINE GORDON finds a little corner of France in the heart of York

IF you close your eyes and imagine a typical French bistro what do you picture? Soft lighting and a shabby chic eclectic mix of wooden tables and chairs? Art prints on the wall and staff with accents as strong as the most pungent garlic?

Well that about sums up York's Rustique restaurant. The original eatery is in Castlegate (there is another in Lendal), in a handsome red stone building with ornate stained glass windows.

There are steps up to the entrance, so not ideal for anyone with mobility problems, but once inside, you can't help but feel an inner warmth from the sheer bonhomie of the place.

It literally glows from the soft lighting – even during the daytime. You are immediately transported to another time and place and feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern day York outside.

The food contributes to that feeling – many traditional French favourites are here, with the emphasis on indulgence and feeling warm and full inside. This is not the place if you are on a diet. To count calories would mean missing out on the likes of the heavenly starter of breaded Brie with berry compote – a dish so naughty it should come with a health warning and a rap across the knuckles. Rustique unashamedly invites you to enjoy a gut-busting blow-out, where you have to become a culinary Yes man (or woman) and surrender to the simple sins of melt-in-the-mouth dauphinoise potatoes, tender boeuf bourguignon and ramekins of thick chocolate pudding.

The cooking is more homely than honed – Rustique won't win any awards for fancy, fine dining. Instead, it serves up very tasty plates of food, that invariably hit the spot.

I came for lunch with an old friend, M. Rustique is one of her favourites and we had been many times before. We had a table downstairs, which we prefer. Upstairs has a deceptively large dining room – great for large parties, but if you want something that feels more like an intimate French bistro, ask for a table on the ground floor.

The restaurant has an a la carte menu, but also a very popular set menu, offering two courses for £14.95, three for £17.95 (available Monday-Thursday from noon til 10pm; Friday and Saturday noon til 7pm and Sunday from noon 12-10pm. At Lendal, the set menu is available daily from noon til 10pm).

There should be more than enough tempting dishes on the set menu to allow you to benefit from what is a thoroughly good deal.

There are eight starters, varying from soup (a choice between vegetable or French onion), chicken liver pate, and melted goats cheese croutons on salad to crab cake, crayfish and prawn cocktail, and lamb koftka.

M picked her favourite: Champignons à l'ail, pan fried mushrooms cooked in garlic with lots of cream and served with warm French bread. It is quite a filling starter, and very moreish (as well as garlicky). M had no complaints.

After a month of dieting, I was ready to really savour three courses of guilt-free gorgeousness. In that mood, there was only one starter that would suffice: Fritot de Brie – a breaded triangle of cheese, cooked just perfectly, so there is a satisfying crunch on the outside, giving way to a stream of soft, sticky, mellow cheese. Divine.

Making our choice from the mains selection – Les Plats Principaux – was much more tricky, with some 13 choices (of which I could happily have eaten each one). There is something for all tastes and appetites, from classics such as steak frites, confit duck and boeuf bourguignon to pork cooked in cider, seabass on sweet potato purée, and moules marinière, to lighter options such as salmon fishcakes and a salad of chicken and smoked bacon.

The confit duck comes with dauphinoise potatoes (probably my favourite type) and is my usual go-to dish. In a spirit of variation, I picked Poulet façon Bretonne, a butterfly of Britanny-style chicken breast, served in a soup of thick cream sauce, sweetened by leek, onions and white wine. Happily, it came with a small portion of dauphinoise, so soft I cut through it like butter. It was a good dish, and everything I could have hoped for in a rustic, French meal. If I had one observation, the chicken was on the well-done side, but the adequate sauce prevented it from being dry. M enjoyed the beef stroganoff, saying the strips of fillet were tender and the cream and paprika sauce added to the flavour. The rice was fluffy and ample.

We shared a side portion of green beans for an additional £2.95.

For dessert, M was lost for words as she devoured the crepe filled with banana and smothered in a gooey caramel sauce. Her only criticism was that the accompanying ice-cream was a bit on the stingy side.

My pot au chocolat was a dish too far: a ramekin filled with a thick-set chocolate ganache. Each spoonful melted in the mouth like a little piece of heaven – but it was very rich and one perhaps for sharing. The accompanying shortbread was delicious.

Service was keen – we had to send the staff away several times before we placed our order because we were catching up with news. However, once the meal was finished, we had to attract their attention to pay the bill.

But that was a small matter and after a long, leisurely lunch, we left feeling very content and thought our food bill of £38.95 was very good value indeed.

Rustique, Castlegate, York

T: 01904 612744


Food: Tasty 3.5/5

Ambience: Warm 4/5

Service: Mostly great 4/5

Value: Very good 4/5

All reviews are independent, conducted anonymously and paid for by The Press