As a tender morsel of sauteed chicken liver melted in my mouth, creamy as a mousse, I was tempted to rush to the bistro's kitchen and cover the chef's hand with kisses. However, that would have been unseemly, so I just sent her my compliments.
The occasion of this dramatic response was lunchtime in Lyon, the charming, laid-back city that's renowned as the Gastronomic Capital of France. It wasn't the only time during my recent three-day visit that I sent congratulations to the chef.
Lyon's culinary fame is based on two main styles of cooking: hearty home cooking that uses seasonal vegetables and organ meats (offal, tripe, chicken gizzards, liver and hearts), and the loftier traditional cuisine of famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse. During our visit, my husband and I sampled both styles in earthy bouchons, as Lyon's bistros are known, and in one of its finest traditional brasseries. Our mealtime conversations were mostly murmurs of delight and cries of surprise as we savored some of the most memorable food we've had in many years of travel.
Lyon has a high standard of living and fine restaurants abound. We did most of our dining in the bouchons of Vieux-Lyon, a charming neighborhood of handsomely restored medieval and Renaissance buildings where dim passageways lead to tiny courtyards. Narrow pedestrian-only streets are jammed with outdoor cafes, artisan and wine shops, bakeries and scores of quaint, crowded bouchons, many of whose closely packed tables and chairs spill out into the bustling byway, along with mouth-watering aromas of sizzling meats.
To even think of calories, much less count them, is forbidden.
And so we didn't. At the rustic bouchon Les Lyonnais (1 Rue Tramassac), where chewy bread comes in a tin bucket, we tucked into pre-dinner snacks of crisp fried tripe, followed by green salads studded with lardons (large bacon cubes) and topped with poached eggs and giant croutons heaped with warm goat cheese. For the main course, my husband had the andouillettes (grilled chitterling sausages) and thick, buttery potato pancakes, while I dined on quenelle (pike fish cakes or dumplings) blanketed with Nantua sauce, a crayfish-butter bechamel.
There was barely room for creme brulee and crumble pomme (apple pastry with sour cream), though we found it. And it wouldn't have been an authentic bouchon meal without a "pot" -- an uncorked half-liter bottle of house wine, usually costing about $7 or $8. Including wine and tip, our meal was about $60.
We became addicted to salads, eager to discover what surprises Lyon's creative chefs had nestled amid the bright field greens, drizzled with the lightest, sweetest olive oil that has ever slipped between our lips. In intimate Chez Mimi/Cafe Comptoir (68 Rue Saint-Jean), a bouchon where antique signs and yellowing posters cover the walls and the resident cat suns in the doorway, Mimi herself burst from the kitchen bearing our plates aloft and presenting them grandly, as if in tribute. And what a tribute -- those mousse-like chicken livers liberally scattered through a large luncheon salad. Lunch for two, including a pot of wine and bread, was about $30.
At Machonnerie (36 Rue Tramassac), a larger bouchon with such elegant touches as soft lighting and white tablecloths, the chef tossed tiny meat-stuffed ravioli into the salad, transformed chicken livers into a velvety terrine, and performed culinary magic with veal kidneys in wine sauce and leeks baked in a creamy cheese souffle. Including the tip and a pot of wine, the cost was $70.
On our last night, at Brasserie Le Sud (11 Place Antonin-Poncet) -- a restaurant Bocuse established featuring Mediterranean cuisine -- we nibbled garlicky olives while sipping licorice-y pastis. We felt very Peter Mayle.
What Le Sud does to a terrine of sweet red peppers, eggplant and tomatoes should be memorialized in poetry, and fork-tender lamb slices fanned out under a light wine sauce and crisp, matchstick potatoes are worthy of hymns of praise. We continued our culinary celebration with babas au rhum (small cakes soaked in rum-flavored syrup) with extra rum and whipped cream, and cappuccino granite with -- what else? -- whipped cream. The meal came to a groaning finish with intensely creamy, nutty Saint-Marcellin cheese and fromage blanc, one of France's most popular cheeses, a slightly tart, pure white cheese the texture of yogurt. At $90, including wine and tip, it was an outstanding value.
Once again I was greatly tempted -- would it really be so terrible to storm the kitchen and kiss the chef?
-- Barbara Bradlyn Morris
For general info on travel to Lyon, contact its tourism board at 011-33-4- 7277-6969, www.lyon-france.com/pages/en.