If Paris is the heart of France, Lyon is certainly the stomach. The chef and I arrived, prepared to eat! Our first day in the city lead us down the main streets of town in search of the gastronomic glory it had become known for.
Chef Paul Bocuse, based in Lyon, is known as one of the most prominent chefs associated with the nouvelle cuisine – a less opulent and calorific style than the traditional cuisine classique. It was he who began the movement in French cooking to stress the importance of using the highest quality fresh ingredients. His restaurant ‘Auberge du Pont de Collonges’ just north of the Lyon town center has retained their 3 Michelin stars since 1965. He is also the name sake of the Bocuse D’or, also in Lyon and held every two years, a live culinary competition where twenty-four of the most promising chefs in the world experience two days of intense competition – a “Culinary Olympics”.
But back to the city of Lyon! There was a different feel here, one of young modern urban culture. The streets of the main downtown area were filled with 20 and 30 somethings, strolling from one music or rock shop to the next and a tattoo shop every couple of streets. An interesting contrast from the main arrondissements of Paris, and certainly from the other neighborhoods in Lyon where the French classic chefs and their patrons would reside.
We found our way to Le Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse – a gourmet market with stalls selling some of the best French foods in the world – the nicest looking cheese, meat, sweets, wines, amazing bakeries, and fresh seafood. But unlike many of the other markets we had come across in France, this one featured small restaurants bustling with locals on their lunch break. A visit to Le Halles would not be complete without a purchase from Mere Richard, famous for its Saint Marcellin cheese – a specialty of the Rhône-Alpes region – and revered throughout France. A coupe other things to indulge in Lyonnaise cuisine, like some foie gras, and we were set! Again – another trip, we would have left with lighter pockets and a bag full of gourmet products!
After taking in the sights and smells we were starving, having decided not to eat at the market due to the amount of people in each restaurant stall. We wandered over to L’Epicure 8, a laid back casual spot for students with great tartines such as warm pear with chevre and honey. A wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of the city and the market. Leaving completely satisfied, we took the Finacular to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, situated high on the hill on the west bank of the Saone river, to get the best sweeping views of all of Lyon before headed back to the AirBnB to relax before dinner, indulging in some of our market goods.
For dinner we found ourselves at Le Balthaz’art – a small place on the hill with Bib Gourmand Michelin recognition – and kitchen full of women! (The chef does happen to be a man, but I guess he has formed a staff of all women. A nice surprise, especially for France). At 30 Euro per person, their Prix Fix Menu (popular at many French restaurants) included 3 courses of seasonal, delicious, and well thought out menu items. A wild game and foie terrine and a lovely squash soup with mussels started out the meal. For the main courses, an excellent variation on a Shepard’s pie (In France?!) made with confit lamb and dried fruit and Cod ala plancha with sweet potato and crab coconut cromesqui, was just as delectable. To finish off the meal, the Salted Butter Caramel ice cream with a gooey chocolate cake, was not only the best dessert on this trip, but a top contender for best ice cream we’ve ever had. The food was great! Innovative, beautiful and exceptionally well priced. Certainly worth a visit on a trip to Lyon. Not quite ready to turn in for the evening, a visit to Soda Bar offered the perfect nightcap – a small trendy bar with inventive cocktails and a nice atmosphere.
Day 2 was yet again centered around food! Our first stop for the traditional French breakfast of pastries lead us to Boulangerie Saint Vincent for literally the best croissant I have EVER had! You absolutely cannot miss the ‘les brioches pralines ou chocolate’. It was so good, I forgot to take a picture before devouring half. Due to the boulangerie’s location, a stroll through old town which dates back to pre-roman times, was a great way to see the buildings before the tourists begin to fill the streets. But not soon after, it was time for lunch!
La Bijouterie was the first time in the trip where we would break from “local” cuisine. This tiny restaurant with fogged up floor to ceiling windows, only opens for a couple of hours at each service. Wonderful little dim sum bowls featuring homemade sauces just exploded with layers of flavor. Two kinds of rice, natural and mushroom, steamed in a banana leaf and served fresh out of the basket. It was a welcome experience.
Another walk, this time to fully explore the streets of old town of Lyon and take in the sights of such unbelievably old and well-preserved structures. Lyon Old Town (Vieux Lyon) is France’s best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings, built when the city grew rich from trade fairs and banking.
After the positive experience at La Bijouterie, we took the sous chef’s (and many others) recommendation and headed to Café Sellion for our last dinner in Lyon. This restaurant is no different that the transformation happening throughout the culinary world, a young chef moving away from the classics and opening the door for nouvelle cuisine. With a very small prix fix menu of 2 options per course, it was very easy for us to order each item on the menu that evening.
An amuse of cockles, grapefruit and chowder broth was easily the best thing we ate all night. A perfect couple of bites with tremendous flavor. But like many of these new progressive menus, the harmonious flavor combinations took a back seat to odd pairings, ingredients, and techniques. While in winter fresh ingredients are not as abundant as warmer months, the innovative uses like pomelo 4 ways on the fish dish, including huge pieces of the bitter rind, just seemed to miss the mark. Our server was very soft-spoken, forgetting half the components on the dish, and spoke very little English. This paired with the fact that we were unable to distinguish half of items on the plates, left us unsatisfied and a slightly confused, not the what we were hoping for on our way out-of-town. Plating was beautiful and we applaud the creativity, however a few tweaks would have transformed the menu.
No trip to Lyon would be complete without a meal at a certified Bouchon Lyonnais. Before catching the train to Nice, we headed up the hill one last time (Did I forget to mention that Lyon has a MILLION stairs!) to Daniel et Denise. This brassiere was exactly what Drew thought we would find more of in Paris. Small family run, a couple of front of the house staff, and all the French classics on the menu. We were the only ones in the restaurant under the age of 50 and speaking English, a true sign we had found a local spot! Local “Silk Weavers” Stew, a boiling hot pot of pork cheek, pork rind, thick-cut bacon and Lyonnais sausage, and Lyonnais salad were accompanied by sides of crispy potatoes and a pasta dish of the day. A traditional and delicious end to our gastronomic discovery of Lyon.