Saturday, 5 June 2010

A culinary experience in Lyon, France's gastronomic capital

Lyon is not only France's second-largest metropolis and a thriving business city with a beautiful old quarter, it's also frequently hailed as the country's culinary capital. At the head of the Lyonnais gastro table sits multi Michelin starred chef Paul Bocuse, one of the pioneers of the daintily proportioned nouvelle cuisine. His main restaurant, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, is close to Lyon, and Bocuse also runs a chain of four brasseries in the city itself (if only I'd known this before my visit). Those seeking a more substantial meal might prefer to sample some of the earthy, meaty local dishes, including andouillette, a tripe sausage made from pork and chitterlings, and quennelles, another sausage-type concoction of creamed fish, chicken or meat. These dishes often feature alongside steak, black pudding and other carnivorous delights at traditional bouchons; restaurants offering a convivial atmosphere and hearty fare as opposed to a fine dining experience. And if neither of these phenomena appeal; visitors needn't despair: as Lyon's old town has more restaurants per square metre than anywhere else on the planet, you're bound to find something to tempt your tastebuds.

As I was in town for just three nights, my quest for an outstanding and memorable meal was something of a challenge. When you throw in the fact that Lyon's cuisine revolves around meat and I am what is apparently known as a pescatarian, things became even more complicated. 

My first Lyonnais dining experience was admittedly more about refuelling than seeking a culinary epiphany. After spending an afternoon trekking around Vieux Lyon on a tour of its traboules ('secret' covered passages running from one street to the next, designed to prevent silk being carried through the city from being rained on), I was a little bewildered by the bouchons' meaty offerings and chose the vegetarian-friendly escape route offered by Le Panier a Salade on Place Neuve St Jean. Although the menu also featured andouillette and the like, the restaurant's main dish was, you've guessed it, salad. I opted for the Middle Eastern inspired creation, which combined lettuce with houmous (well, a lumpy attempt at it), tzatziki, stuffed vine leaves and a slice of cheese and spinach pie. As gastronomy goes, salad is never going to set the world on fire, but enjoyed at a prime spot on the terrace and accompanied by my first glass of local wine, it was a good choice. Place Neuve St Jean is admittedly something of  a holidaymakers' haven, but it's a bustling, scenic one full of reasonable-value eateries, so tourist-trap dodgers can't complain too much.

After my first night success, I returned to Vieux Lyon for Sunday lunch, but the less said about Cafe Sol the better. Trying to change my fortunes (and taking advantage of my parents' arrival just a little), I went upmarket for the evening at Cafe Epicerie, a chic restaurant run by the equally smart Cour des Loges hotel. The shaded terrace on a quiet street was unfortunately fully booked, so we took a seat inside, where stone walls and sleek black furniture reign. In addition to some tapas-style sharing plates, Cafe Epicerie offers modern meat and fish dishes, including my choice of seared tuna steak with sesame seeds, served with a potato puree. At the not-so-wallet-friendly price of €22, the fish turned out to be a triumph of style over substance: although reasonably tasty, it was only lukewarm and certainly didn't warrant the steep price tag.

The following day, after traipsing past numerous closed restaurants and reeling away from menus in horror when we saw the financial outlay required to dine within, we began to despair of the Lyonnais restaurant scene (and my parents no doubt inwardly cursed my 'pescatarianism'). Wandering through the streets of the Presqu'ile (the area of Lyon that lies between its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone), we stumbled across L'Interlude, a cute cafe with an outdoor terrace and a minimalist interior. Situated close to the Saone at 8 Rue de la Platiere, L'Interlude offers a dish of the day for just €8.50, in addition to steaks and a selection of salads. My tuna, feta, sundried tomato, lettuce and crispy onion number was perfect on a hot day, washed down by some cool wine, served by the carafe. Friendly service and affordable prices (the salad was also €8.50) made this little spot a winner in my book.

But as nice as L'Interlude was, it wasn't an extraordinary culinary experience. That evening, in an attempt to avoid andouillette-heavy menus and bankruptcy, we set out in search of an Afghan restaurant I had seen advertised. As we circled Vieux Lyon metro station, we saw no sign of it; instead, we stmbled upon what appeared, at first glance, to be an antiques shop. A few rickety tables in the street and an abundance of flowering plants outside the door tempted us to take a closer look. Peeping in through the huge windows, we saw tables laid for dinner, and a lone diner conversing with a man we correctly assumed to be the owner. Far from being an antiques emporium, it was in fact an Algerian restaurant. Drawn in by the inviting scene, we asked for a table for three. The other customer promptly paid and departed, leaving us alone - the owner had disappeared into the kitchen. We nervously awaited the arrival of the menu, wondering if we had made the wrong decision.

After we had spent a few minutes surveying the rustic interior and the contrasting elegant place settings, our friendly host reappeared and presented us with a plate of cumin-spiced olives and an aperitif of rose wine served with creme de peche; a sweet and refreshing combination. He asked if we had seen the menu; chalked up on a small blackboard by the door. With just one set menu every evening, Le Palestro offers its diners a three-course introduction to Algerian cooking. After revealing that night's dishes to us, Mohammed padded barefoot into the kitchen to prepare our starter, making the seamless transition from host to chef.

First up that night was a tuna, salmon and egg brik, a triangle of pastry-encased pescatarian heaven. Mohammed chatted to us as we ate, giving me the opportunity to practise my schoolgirl French and to find out more about him, his family and the restaurant, which has been pleasing Lyonnais palates for the past seven years. Once the last scraps of the tasty starter had vanished, it was time for Mohammed to get to work on course number 2: an Algerian salad.

Despite my reservations about the culinary worth of salad, I was far from disappointed. In addition to the standard lettuce, my plate was filled with cucumber, tomato, beetroot, egg, a bean salad, peppers and salmon, all delicately and deliciously spiced. Instead of the salmon, my meat-eating parents were delighted with their generous serving of merguez sausages, which would easily have fed an entire family at a barbecue. After this feast, we were apprehensive about tackling an equally substantial dessert, so the fruit salad garnished with mint that was placed before us was a welcome sight. Finally, we were served with a pot of fresh mint tea; the perfect conclusion to the evening. After a further chat, it was time to settle the hand-written bill of €30 per head, shake hands and say our goodbyes, before wandering home through the cobbled street, our stomachs contentedly full of good food. My mission to enjoy an outstanding meal in France's gastronomic capital was officially accomplished, and came with the bonus of feeling I had discovered both a restaurant off the beaten track and another country's cuisine. OK so it wasn't French, but let's not split hairs.

  • Le Palestro is located at 10 Rue Mourguet in Lyon and is open daily. Reservations can be made on +33 (0)478928091 .
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