Lyon: capital of gastronomy

Euro 2016 kicks off in France a month from today, on 10 June. Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, is one of 10 French cities preparing to play host.

France’s second biggest city is less than 2 hours by train south of Paris. It is surrounded by regions producing some of the world’s best food, from the slopes of the river Rhône to the foothills of the Alps & the vineyards of Beaujolais & Mâcon, with Burgundy not too far away.

Lyon is also home to Olympic Lyonnais, currently No 2 in the French men’s football league & No 1 in the women’s. That’s where my knowledge of French football ends.

I spent two gastronomy-packed days in Lyon last week. Not enough time to do the city justice, but the sun shone & the lilac blossoms were out, the swallows flew high in the sky, & the church bells rang… a perfect short break.

The city was founded by the Romans where the river Rhône meets the Saône. The banks of these two might rivers offer paths to cycle, run or walk, as well as being home to barge dwellers, wildlife & nature, and works of art.

The sculptures include what was proving to be a real show-stopper with the tourists last week: a giant marble nude in front of the Palais de Justice of a man carrying another man… himself. The work is by Elmgreen & Dragset, the Scandinavian duo behind the rocking horse in London’s Trafalgar Square & the replica Prada store in the middle of a Texan desert.

Tako Takano

Enough about landscapes, and more about restaurants. My top gastronomic experience during my short visit was lunch at 1 Michelin-starred Tako Takano.

“Why would I want to eat at a Japanese restaurant?” I asked myself when I was told it was a favourite among local foodies. The way to see it is that Tako Takano is not a Japanese restaurant, but a French restaurant with a Japanese born and French-trained chef at the helm.

Read more about my experience at Tako Takano in my next blog.

Where the Saône meets the Rhône

I like to divide Lyon into 3 main central areas.

From west to east, these are:

  • The old city, Vieux Lyon, on the left bank of the Saône, rising up the hill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière.
  • The city centre between the Saône and the Rhône.
  • The districts east of the Rhône, stretching to Part-Dieu train station.

So here are my food experiences during my 2 days in Lyon …

Vieux Lyon

The old city is a painter’s delight, with orange & russet pink buildings, narrow, windy, stone-flagged streets, with lots of little shops, ideal for buying presents, and cafés & restaurants with terraces overlooking picturesque squares.

Tourism, in my experience, does not equal good eating places, so beware.

If you do want to eat in the old city, I was recommended Restaurant Jérémy Galvan. The chef, not much over 30 years old, does a special 5-course, €45 ‘perfume’ menu with each dish representing a particular smell. Looking at his list of suppliers – Mme Richard bien sûr supplying the cheese – this is a place I’m putting on my list for when I return to Lyon.

Terre Adélice’s ice cream

The most amazing ice cream experience can be found at Terre Adélice, which offers around 100 varieties of mostly organic ice cream and sorbet.

I went for the ‘Fruits from our Regions’ selection, choosing a mix of Bergeron Apricots and Ardèche Gooseberries. For the more adventurous there are the likes of Red Onion Confit, Yoghurt with Timut pepper (from Nepal), Pine with Pine Nuts. Be prepared to queue. It’s worth it.

Têtedoie’s view over the city

Half way up the hill to the Fourvière is 1 Michelin-starred Têtedoie. The terrace offers a stunning view overlooking the city. You can either eat at the restaurant or in the bar. We didn’t eat there, but I popped in on the way down from the Basilica to buy a jar of black cherry & verbena jam, made in the kitchens. Some of the best jam I’ve ever tasted.

Têtedoie is where to go when you want to be flash.  It’s big in prestige & space… most restaurants in Lyon are small.

The restaurant is currently undergoing some exterior works, hence the scaffolding is in my photo.

Saône to Rhône

Place Sathonay

Place Sathonay is little square shaded by chestnut trees & on the slopes of the Croix Rousse hill. It is one of my favourite areas of the city, & still part of Vieux Lyon’s World Heritage UNESCO site even though it’s away from the tourists. The area is edgy & creative, alive & gastronomically interesting… Lyon’s version of Paris’ Le Marais before the tourists and international money invaded.

One of France’s most sought-after restaurants

Just off the square, in Rue Hippolyte Flandrin is one of the most sought-after restaurants in Lyon & in France: La Bijouterie. You need to book months in advance. “Not even a little chair at the bar?” I pleaded to no avail. Last-minute cancellations in this small restaurant sometimes appear on their Facebook page, but none came up when I was there.

La Bijouterie is the dream of Arnaud Laverdin – a Lyonnais hipster if there were one, with a beard and tattoos. He has worked at Têtedoie, where he met Australian Ryan Dolan and Noé Saillard, both now at La Bijouterie. During his previous travels round the world, he spent time in London at 1 Lombard Street and at Michelin-starred Club Gascon as sous-chef.

La Bijouterie’s speciality is steamed dough, with all sorts of stuffings and sauces. The ‘discovery’ menu with 7 courses is €42 and the lunchtime Tuesday till Saturday menu, with 2 Dim Sum, rice and a bowl of vegetables or homemade sorbet a reasonable €15.

A favourite coffee shop

Walking from the Place Sathonay down to the Rhône, I stumbled across La Boîte à Café, a gem of a coffee shop, with great music & vibe, & run by local coffee roaster Café Mokxa. This became my favourite place to stop off & chill. The homemade iced tea was among the best I’ve tasted. And the coffee was good.

More eating places…

Tako Takano is not the only Asian making waves in Lyon. Fellow Japanese chef Akira Nishigaki of L’Ourson qui Boit, a few windy streets away from La Boite a Café is a name that pops up a lot for more informal, good food dining. Here coffee costs €2 compared with €3.50 in a 1 Michelin-starred restaurant.

Along the street from L’Ourson qui Boit is the 2 Michelin-starred Mère Brazier, where a meal could set you back a couple of hundred euros each. This is well out of my price range, at least, if I spend that amount of money, I want to be sure of a life-changing experience rather than just a good meal.

The marvels of meringue 

Walking further towards the centre, I was delighted to stumble across Aux Merveilleux de Fred. Fred is from the north of France, but his Merveilleux, or meringues with cream, made in the background, are too good to miss, and much lighter & more exquisite than cupcakes.

I went for the strawberry (Excentrique), white chocolate (Incroyable) and praline (Magnifique) Merveilleux, which we ate along with a punnet of the first French strawberries of the season, Gariguettes from Carpentras, bought at the Thursday food market by the river Rhone.

Aux Merveilleux de Fred, Lyon
East of the Rh

Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

There are two high-rise towers in Lyon. The glass-fronted one is next to the city’s main food market, Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. If that’s too long to say, most locals call it ‘Bocuse’. It might look a bit modern from the outside, but once inside it’s a foodies’ paradise – both to eat & buy.

The market is named after one of France’s food greats, Bocuse, who, at 90 years old, still oversees his 3 Michelin-starred L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, 4km north of Lyon. The menu is said to have changed little since he took over from his father in 1958. Bocuse shares a birthday with my father, 11 February, & my father was an easy-going bon viveur.

If you can’t dine at L’Auberge, at least at the market you can find Bocuse’s cheese supplierMme Richard. I like to buy some St Marcelin and St Félicien, two popular local cheeses, which Mme Richard shrink wraps for you. You’re still meant to keep them chilled for any journey, but I just shrug my shoulders & realise the taste may not be the same as if they had not spent an hour on a plane (that’s all it is from London).

While at the market, oyster lovers should stop off at Merle for a dozen Fine de Claires (cheapest on the menu) No 2 (bigger than No 3) with a glass of house Mâcon, all for €15.95. A perfect combination.

I then finished off with a coffee & an apricot tart at the Boulanger de l’Ile Barbe, named after an island in the Saône. I should have had the traditional Sablé aux Pralines –  the pink tarts that you see all around Lyon – but I’m not fond of the colour.

Le Passe Temps

Another gastronomic highlight was lunch at Le Passe Temps, up near the Tête d’Or Park. The chef behind this 1 Michelin-starred restaurant is  South Korean Younghoon Lee, a graduate of the Institut Paul Bocuse, & who has worked at Bocuse’s L’Auberge de Collonges and at Lasserre in Paris.

The restaurant has room for 26 diners, & Younghoon’s wife is on hand to give a warm welcome.

I was there for lunch, with a menu for €24 & a choice of 2 dishes for each of the 3 courses. In the evening, there’s a 5-course signature menu.

I chose:

An egg poached at 63oC, to produce the perfect near-runniness, with a green asparagus sauce, a sabayon of foie gras and chopped hazlenuts:

Line-caught hake with seasonal green vegetables and mussels:

I went for the €1.50 cheese supplement rather than the rhubarb sorbet… it was not a ‘sugar-yearning’ day for me, although I ate the madeleine served with the coffee:

Wine: a glass of 2014 Montlouis sur Loire Remus, Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups, coming from a 12.5-hectare domaine devoted to Chenin Blanc.

Bouchon Lyonnais

Talk about Lyon & food, & most people will mention the bouchon Lyonnais. These were the taverns that fed the workers, the canuts, who worked in the silk factories for which Lyon was so famous. Now there are hardly any silk factories & a large number of bouchon. They are about local, hearty food, & offal… which I tend to avoid, being slightly squeamish about such things.

My favourite is Le Café du Peintre, with Florence Perier in the kitchen and her son Maxime in charge of the wine. Florence buys the produce fresh every morning in the market.

Have I done gastronomic Lyon justice? Hardly. But these were the impressions, the emotions & the addresses that I came across during my two days.

A WORD OF ADVICE: most eating and drinking places in Lyon are owned by individuals, so do not expect all-day opening hours. Le Cafe de Peintre, for example, is only open in the evening on Thursday-Saturday. Check on their websites first. For most restaurants, booking is advised. 

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