Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lyon: the Gastronomical Center of the Universe

Lyon is nicknamed the “crossroads of Europe,” and—situated as it is at the foot of the Alps, the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, and the meeting of the Burgundy and Rhône wine regions—the moniker is well-deserved.

afternoon sun along the west bank of the Saône

Originally settled by the Celts, Lyon became a major Roman town, and then managed to survive the collapse of Rome by virtue of its importance as a religious center. It continued to prosper during the Middle Ages, largely because of its location: Anyone traveling between Italy and Paris had to pass through the city.

But it was during the Renaissance that Lyon truly started to flourish, with the coming of the prestigious and profitable silk trade to the city. (According to the Lonely Planet guide here in the apartment we’re renting, by the mid-eighteenth century some 40% of the Lyon workforce was involved in the manufacture of silk.) During this time numerous passageways (traboules) were built between buildings and connecting streets, to enable the transport of the delicate silk without exposure to the elements.

grand stairway in traboule courtyard
in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon

Centuries later during WWII, Lyon became a center of the French résistance, in large part because of the locals’ ability to evade the Germans and Vichy French in the labyrinthine passageways.

These days one can fly from Rome to Paris and the silk trade has mostly left town, but Lyon has maintained its importance as one of the premier cities of Europe due of its wealth of superb food and restaurants. As explained in a Saveur magazine article some years back, Lyon has rightly earned the title of gastronomical capital of France:
Alpine streams to the east supply the city with pike, trout, and crayfish. The Dombes plateau, to the northeast, abounds in game, and the plain of Bresse, beyond that, produces France's finest chickens (which, with their red combs, white plumage, and blue feet, are also its most patriotic).... The unremarkable village of Charolles, to the northwest, gives its name to the best French beef cattle—the white Charolais, raised in the pastures surrounding the town. Superb cheeses are close at hand, too: fourme d'ambert, cantal, and st-nectaire from the Auvergne, southwest of Lyon; st-marcellin, rumored to have been King Louis XI's favorite, from the Isère to the southeast. The Rhône Valley, south of the city, produces great wines (condrieu, côte rôtie, hermitage) and fruit (raspberries, cherries, peaches, pears)...
So if you believe as I do that the French have the best food around, then you’ll understand the title of this post.

Lyon is famous for its bouchons. These small, bistro-style restaurants started popping up in the early 1900s when wealthy families had to cut back and let go of their cooks, who were mostly women. These out-of-work “mères” (mothers), as they were  called, started their own restaurants, catering to the silk workers and serving hearty, meat-centered fare. Soon they were all over the city.

Robin and I ate at Café Comptoir Abel earlier this week, a bouchon that dates from 1928 and is famous for its quenelles, something I particularly wanted to sample while here.

Robin at the bouchon Abel
(can you tell she's speaking French?)

Being in Lyon an’ all, I started my meal with the classic salade lyonaise, made with bacon, croutons, a red-wine based dressing, and a poached egg. 

for the recipe, click here and scroll down

Next, Robin and I ordered one quenelle to share. Good idea, since it was humongous!

here is my half of the pike quenelle in a creamy crayfish sauce
(For a video of the chef making the quenelles, click here)

The bouchon Abel’s chef, Alain Vigneron, is reputed to have stolen his quenelle recipe from one of the original méres of Lyon, Mère Brazier. Paul Bocuse learned his trade at the restaurant Mère Brazier, and it is still in operation (with two Michelin stars)—though now under the toque of Mathieu Viannay, who earned the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best craftsman in France) in 2004.

photo of Mère Brazier hanging in the restaurant

Robin and I lunched at this more modern take on the traditional bouchon yesterday. Quelle expérience!

We both ordered the three-course prix-fixe menu which, with all the “extras,” ended up really being seven courses. It was a steal, at 45 euros ($58). We started with an amuse bouche of a sort of hushpuppy with bits of sausage mixed into the batter, served with a roasted red pepper dipping sauce.

I apologize for the ghastly colors in these photos,
but there were fluorescent lights in the room which—
try as I might—could not be corrected with iPhoto

And then, lo and behold, there was a second amuse bouche: a cube of foie gras (now, alas, illegal in California) seated in a pool of cauliflower cream, with a fruit gel, razor-thin slice of cauli, and preserved cherry on top. Oy.

Finally it was time for our real starters: squid-encased risotto served with the lightest and crispiest calamari rings I’ve ever had,

and foie gras with artichokes and slivers of morel mushrooms, swimming in a sea of foie gras-infused foam. (You can sort of see it in front of Robin in the preceding photo. Check out also the cool 1920s Art Déco tile on the walls behind her.)

For our plats (main courses), we had what’s called a pavé (brick) of sea bass with eensy-weensy diced carrot and sweet potato, and more foam of some sort (not shown because my photo really sucked); and also the fall-off-the-bone tender breast of veal with Jerusalem artichokes and sauce béchamel on a pastry crust:

 (note that Robin and I always share dishes, trading plates
half-way through the course; that way you get double the tastes!)

We thought at this point that all we had left was the dessert. Ha!

Next came another freebie: the best Madeleine I’ve ever had—so tender it pretty much melted in my mouth—with a scoop of tangy, fresh goat cheese ice cream. And then yet another unannounced course: a plate of tiny petit fours: chocolate truffles, macaroons, a stack of mini-crèpes  topped with whipped cream, and checker-board fruit gels. OMG, as they (you know who you are) say.

Finally the real desserts came. Though we were both so full at this point we weren’t sure we even wanted them. But there’s always room for dessert, non? One was a blanc mange with blueberry sorbet and fresh blueberries. The other was a raspberry “boat” (fresh raspberries and chocolate mousse atop halves of raspberry macaroons with a rose petal sail and spun sugar oar), with a quenelle-shaped scoop of raspberry sorbet.

Okay, so now we’re done, right?


Quick, hide! Here comes the guy rolling the cart with the house-made salted caramels, nougats, and mint and lemon-flavored marshmallows:

We stumbled out of there (yes, we did share a bottle of wine: a local Syrah with a Roman-sounding name that our waiter recommended—delicious!) two-and-a-half hours later and walked home, in a futile attempt to work off some of the gargantuan meal.

But I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that by around eight o’clock that evening, we were both ready for dinner.


  1. If you haven't gone to the Museé de Resistance, you must! It was wonderful! My youngest daughter (who now lives in Mont-de-Marsan in the southwest), lived in Lyon as a high school exchange student. We have friends who live in Mornant, close to Lyon.

  2. Super (first) picture of Robin. But I don't need to imagine she is speaking French. She loves to wave her hands in English too!

    Love, Russ

  3. Russ--It's her mouth more than her hands (and oui, she was speaking le français).