During my last visit to Lyon, I ate at some of the more well known temples of haute cuisine including Restaurant Paul Bocuse and La Mere Braziere. They provided an indelible glimpse into the world of French fine dining of the region. This time I opted to explore some of the less haughty dining possibilities of the area, some of the food and the spirit of dining that helped give Lyon the reputation it has as one of France’s and therefore the world’s best dining destinations. I, along with some friends and my son, sampled some of the bars, brasseries, bistros and bouchons of Lyon.
On the evening of my arrival in Lyon, I joined a group dining at Paul Bocuse’s Brasserie Le Nord. In addition to his famed Michelin three star eponymous restaurant Chef Bocuse also owns and operates 4 more casual dining spots around Lyon. Based on their location, they are conveniently named Nord, Sud, L’Est and L’Ouest with additional description based upon their specific style.
At Brasserie Le Nord, located near the Hotel de Ville in the old center of Presque Ile, the island in the center of Lyon divided by the Rhone River, the fare was decidedly classic. Our dinner consisted of a set menu that started with a tasty terrine of foie gras with fennel and gelee. I was clearly in the heart of France. This was followed by a Supreme de volaille de Bresse over basmati rice with a not-too-rich (yeah, right) mushroom cream sauce. I received a thigh and leg, which was juicy and tasty in the best anachronistically guilt-laden way. As if that was not enough cream and fat, lusciously ripe and decadent St. Marcellin cheese followed. A successful interpretation of a tart tatin finished the meal. This was classic French food in a classic French environment – a perfect reintroduction to the center of classic French cooking.
With a taste of Paul Bocuse from both his haute cuisine restaurant from my previous visit to Lyon and the more casual bistro, I thought it interesting to try the same with the cooking of Matthieu Viannay. On my previous visit I had an unforgettable meal with the Bocuse d’Or USA organization and supporters at La Mere Brazier, the Michelin three star restaurant with humble beginnings now run by him. Viannay has since expanded his reach. At M, a sleek modern bistro located on the east side of the river on Rue Foch, Viannay offers a sleek take on the classic Lyonnaise bistro. Dining with my friend Lucy Vanel who lives in Lyon with her French husband and son and who publishes the wonderful Lyon-centric blog Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook, we arrived for a late lunch. With the kitchen ready to close and prepare for dinner service, we gladly took what they had to offer us. A hearty foie gras and veal sweetbread ballotine with pickled vegetables was followed by beef cheeks topped with a very generous piece of seared foie gras. Having finished the foie gras, the short ribs were just too much for me at the time. Given the time and our remaining itinerary, we did not have dessert there. Instead, we opted to have chocolate, but that is a subject for another post.
Brasserie L’Est, another Bocuse spot is located not far from the Gare du Lyon Part Dieu. A rollicking spot, located in the beautiful old Brotteaux train station, that history is reflected by the model trains running along the walls of this busy place. Some fantastic olives, a little Jamon Iberico de Bellota, local red wine, a salad with crisp green beans and sharp cheese, perfectly cooked steak frites and a saturated baba au rhum made for a totally fun and satisfying evening.
The Bouchon Lyonnais is a legendary beast. Generally small, personal and notoriously with surly waitstaff, these small restaurants serving the classic dishes of Lyon, have been the backbone of that city’s cuisine for years. Located in the oldest part of the city on the west side of the river, Chez Louise evokes an earlier time when the world may have been less or perhaps more complicated, but when the food was simple and hearty. Irresistible lardons arrived on the table along with wonderfully crusty and rustic French bread. The charcuterie platter, though not made in house, was very good as was the Salad Lyonnais. My Quenelle made with local river fish and a sauce flavorful with crayfish was deeply satisfying and the saucisson hearty and warming on a winter’s night. Though more contemporary the desserts were well crafted and tasty. As for the surly and unfriendly waiters, alas, not here. No, the service was warm, friendly and inviting. So much for old times!
Thomas is a contemporary bistro located in the vicinity of Bellecouer on Presque Ile. Part of a mini-empire on the same street, the bistro offers a fine seasonal menu that is well crafted and artfully presented. The tourte de legumes oublies with foie gras and truffles and the scallop carpaccio were particularly attractive and tasty. The scallops were also delicious as part of a main course of scallops, monkfish and langoustine, though unfortunately if there was langoustine on the plate it was exceedingly small and the monkfish was a tad overcooked. Other mains were more uniformly satisfying, especially the Supreme de poulet noir and the rumpsteak of genisse Charollaise. Genisse, the female equivalent of veal, which comes from male calves extraneous to the dairy industry, is rarely seen on menus, at least not in the US. This also happened to be from the famed Charollaise breed. The cheese platter, presented for the table consisted of a selection of local cheeses. The dessert specialty , pain perdu, may be worth a trip to the restaurant in itself.
No visit to Lyon is complete without a visit to the justly famed Les Halles de Paul Bocuse. Unlike the restaurants that bear his name, the market is not owned by Bocuse. It, like many other things in this city is simply named for him. The most famous of chefs in a city that values chefs and great food, it is no wonder that so many honors have been bestowed upon him. No doubt that even without Bocuse, Lyon would have been a city known for its fine local cuisine, but it was Bocuse who made the city world famous as a destination for food and elevated it to become synonymous with fine dining. Les Halles certainly does justice to the legacy of Paul Bocuse and is worthy of his name. Though not a gargantuan market, it offers extremely high quality product both for retail sale and also to be eaten on premises. Amongst the restaurants are a number specializing in oysters and other fruits de mar. Though the city of Lyon is located near the Jura and Alps not far from landlocked Switzerland, it has the luxury of obtaining the freshest seafood from the coasts of France. When it comes to quality product Les Halles de Paul Bocuse is second to none. At Maison Rousseau, a seafood bar in the market, we sampled a variety of large, briny oysters from the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Can anything taste more of the sea than freshly shucked oysters? Perhaps, extremely fresh sea urchin right out from the body competes. The only place I can imagine oysters being better than here would be eating them direct from the ocean.
This visit just scratched the surface of what is available to eat in Lyon. From the most straightforward fresh seafood at Les Halles to the bouchons, brasseries and bistros scattered about the city to the temples of haute cuisine, the food in and of Lyon justifies its reputation as a great place to eat. The definition of a three star Michelin restaurant is one that is worth a special trip. On that basis Lyon is a three star city.