This has been a long-awaited trip. I’ve been dreaming of visiting Lyon since I started this blog. I started it July 2009, but even before the blog I was writing with pen on paper in a notebook, which seems like an ancient method nowadays. I spent 2007-2008 traveling throughout Europe while I was finishing my last semester of university in The Netherlands. I had made a few trips to France, but always to Paris, and then once to Marseille, Nice and Monaco. I haven’t been back to France since then.
The last time I was in France (about 10 years ago) I was researching navettes and bouillabaisse in Marseille, croissants and beef bourguignon in Paris, and Nicoise Salad in Nice. I still have the same passion, but it’s translated differently. Mind you, I’d still go back to Paris and research the same things, but on this occasion I shifted my focus away from Paris. Paris, was only where I landed, and Lyon was where I was going.
The whole trip started when I was in Alba, Italy last year with “the world’s most extreme foodies“. We were discussing plans for 2017 and where our next reunion food trip would be. We were throwing out exotic locations and obscure restaurants, until we finally came to the conclusion of not messing around and doing things traditionally. By “traditionally” I mean forgetting about the fads, trends, fashions, and “hot” restaurants, but to go back to basics and visit those who started it all. So France, in particularly Lyon, was the answer.
Gastronomy is part of France’s identity, especially in Lyon, and they have a reputation to uphold. French cooking is arguably the backbone to all cooking, and it is in France where we find many culinary godfathers inspiring generations.
These culinary masters and “fathers” of the cooking world are getting older, and have either passed their restaurants onto their sons or apprentices, so I wanted to prioritize the trip and visit sooner than later.
I’ve always associated Lyon with Paul Bocuse because I’ve been following the Bocuse d’Or competition for the last 5-6 years. It’s perhaps the most prestigious cooking competition for an individual and considered the “Olympics” of the culinary world. I said I would go to Lyon one day in support of the chef representing Canada. The competition only happens every two years though, and “why wait?” and “life is short” were messages running through my head. I was craving more than the food, it’s the education, history and culture behind food that actually drives me, so it had to be done.
Paul Bocuse’s Restaurant – L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges
I don’t have a list of “50 Things to do before I die”, but this is something to live for. A visit in Lyon is simply incomplete without a visit to the (culinary) pope of French cuisine, chef Paul Bocuse. This is a reason to come to Lyon, France alone, and not necessary for his restaurant, but to understand the impact this legend has made on French cuisine.
His Three Michelin Star restaurant just outside of Lyon, in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, is an institution. Signature dishes include: Scallop of Foie Gras, Pan-Seared with Verjus Sauce, Soup with Black Truffles and Foie Gras, Turbot in Champagne Sauce, Pigeon in Puff Pastry with Young Cabbage, Poultry of Bresse in bladder “Mother Fillioux”, Sea Bass in Pastry with Sauce Choron, and “President” Chocolate Cake by Maurice Bernachon. The experience in itself is respectfully a “Culinary Disneyland” – playful, comical, and over-the-top. Take it for what it is.
Also make a visit to Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, the upscale covered artisanal market named in honour of Paul Bocuse. First class producers include Trolliet for meat, Mme Sibilia for sausage, and La Fromagerie Mons and Mother Richard for cheese. These are favourite suppliers for Lyon’s top restaurants, including Paul Bocuse.
The stereotypes of traditional French and Lyonnaise cuisine is heavy and indulgent with lots of sauce, cream and butter. I’m not necessarily disputing it, but there is more to it. The food is absolutely rich, but they don’t eat like that every day. It’s a little bit here and there and modern restaurants are turning towards a lighter approach.
Lyon has over 3882 restaurants in the metropolis, about 94 Michelin-starred chefs, and around 21 Michelin starred restaurants. Paul Bocuse‘s restaurant has received Three Michelin Stars for over 50 years (it’s more or less “grandfathered in”), and missing it would be like missing the Mona Lisa in Paris – you don’t. However I wouldn’t spend my time exclusively chasing stars, because missing out on Bouchons Lyonnaise, restaurants serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, would be a crime.
Daniel et Denise – a traditional Bouchon Lyonnaise
For an authentic bouchon, a typical restaurant found in Lyon, Daniel et Denise is respected. It’s a certified bouchon serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine including a signature pâté en croûte, quenelles (ground fish dumpling in crawfish sauce, reminiscent of Chinese fishballs but no bounce in the bite), bechamel pasta, confit potatoes, and hen’s egg with red wine sauce. For dessert there is an apple tarte tatin with pralines and an Ile Flottant (floating island made of meringue) with pralines.
**Correction: Brasserie Georges is 180 years old, not 280.
I was a bit hesitant with Brasserie Georges and its 500+ dining hall, but it’s one of the most iconic brasseries in Europe (since 1836). They are known for charcut, sauerkraut, beef tartare and their Baked Alaska for Two. The sausages are produced at another facility with their house recipes. It offers comforting brasserie dishes served in generous portions, so I recommend coming with a group and preparing for a feast.
One of my favourite dining experiences in Lyon was at One Michelin Star, Les Loges, a gem inside my historic hotel Cour des Loges. My tasting menu by chef Anthony Bonnet, who earned his one star at the age of 29 in 2012 after leading the kitchen at 25, included a fantastic sous vide Mediterranean shrimp with a shrimp and tomato bisque. My favourite was the Lakefish confit in cacao infused olive oil lacquered in sweet onion cream sauce, and the “duck l’orange” (foie gras baked inside an orange with rhubarb, sweet onion and bread) served tableside. The pigeon with mushrooms is a take on Paul Bocuse’s pigeon, but not a copycat. The Bresse Hen leg confit with pasta would make Italy jealous, and the fresh sheep’s cheese with the hotel’s rooftop honey and fresh cream (Lyonnaise specialty) is truly a treat. Lastly was pine honey and matcha chocolate dessert and Venezuelan chocolate mousse with smoked juniper. This hotel is a win for the restaurant alone.
Where to stay:
I stayed in Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon) at the 5-star historic hotel Cour des Loges which opened in 2000. It’s one of the finest hotels in Old Lyon and discrete from the outside. The inside looks like a restored 16th century renaissance castle in Italy with high ceilings and friendly staff. The check-in desk has housemade madeleines at all hours and it houses an exceptional One Michelin Star restaurant, Les Loges, by Chef Anthony Bonnet. There are only 12 tables and one seating a night, so reservations are highly recommended. Also, what’s more convenient than a stellar restaurant inside your hotel?
If you prefer something ultra luxurious and modern, but still charming with character, I recommend 5-star boutique hotel, Hotel Le Royal Lyon by Sofitel. It is the home of Restaurant-école at l’Institut Paul Bocuse and they offer private cooking classes and a student operated upscale restaurant.
The famous Bresse chicken cooked whole in a pig’s bladder “balloon” is a replicated dish in Lyon, but this is the original. This one at Mere Brazier is served two ways: breast and chicken oysters (my favourite) with tarragon cream sauce (served hot), and crisp leg with salad and white wine vinaigrette (served colder than room temperature, but warmer than chilled).
Most think chef Paul Bocuse made this dish famous, but his version is actually in honour of his mentor, Mere Brazier. Everyone has a teacher, and this was his. Her name isn’t nearly as celebrated or remembered as many culinary “godfathers”, but she is as deserving and a legendary “Mere Lyonnaise” (“Mother of Lyon”).
Mere Lyonnaises were women, typically home cooks, who quit their domestic jobs to open small restaurants.
Eugenie Brazier is an icon in Lyon and arguably the first woman to receive Three Michelin Stars in 1933 after opening her first restaurant in 1921. La Mere Brazier is now a Two Michelin Star run under chef Matthieu Viannay.
Signature dishes include Spider Crabs with Osetra caviar, Artichokes and pan fried foie gras, Wild Mushroom Ravioli with fresh herbs, spring almonds and savory juice, Veal sweetbreads and lobster with green peas and “Racy Juice” or coral juice,
Crispy Pike Mousse with Crayfishes and Nantua sauce (my favourite course here), and Bresse Poultry cooked in a bladder in two services for two people.
France considers this specialty free range chicken from the town of Bresse, near Lyon, the best in the world. The flavour is not as distinct as its firm texture.
For dessert I had the signature Grand-Marnier Souffle, Caramelized Mille-Feuille with pear and Jasmine cream, and Baked Alaska with whisky, apricots and almonds.
To see the rest of my culinary trip in France, see the following videos: