Food escapades in modernist cuisine

Paul Bocuse, L'Auberge du Pont De Collonges

After about a week in Paris, my wife and I headed south by train to Lyon to spend a few days in what is considered France's food capital. Lyon isn't a large city but there is enough to see and do for about a day or two but not more than that. The highlights were probably visiting the La Parc de Tet D'or, Fourviere Basilica, and the old city. To be honest, the part I enjoyed most about Lyon was the food. Lyon is most known for its bouchons, which are these small restaurants that serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, but I'll write a separate post about them. This post is dedicated to our meal at Paul Bocuse, the three star Michelin restaurant named after and owned by the legend himself.

If you've never heard of Paul Bocuse, he's one of the most prominent chefs in French gastronomy and is most often associated with the nouvelle cuisine movement. Modernist Cuisine actually has a good overview of the history of French gastronomy, which talks about the era of Careme and Escoffier and then the rise of the nouvelle cuisine movement in the 50's and 60's. Nouvelle cuisine emphasized fresher ingredients, lighter preparations, and vegetable purees instead of lots of fats and heavy roux-based sauces that were hallmarks of Escoffier's age. Followers of nouvelle cuisine also plated dishes in the kitchen as opposed to at the dinner table by the waiter. I found this particularly interesting since everyone nowadays assumes dishes are plated by the chef in the kitchen, but this wasn't always the case.

Bocuse has won many awards over the course of his career, and since 1987, the Bocuse d'Or has been regarded as the most prestigious award for chefs in the world. It is sometimes seen as the unofficial world championship for chefs. In the recent 2013 Bocuse d'Or, France took gold while the USA team, coached and mentored by Achatz, Keller, and Boulud, placed seventh. USA has never placed higher than sixth.

There's even a huge marketplace in the center of the city named after him with all kinds of artisan cheese makers, oyster stands, butcher shops, pastry makers - you name it. Given the man's place in history, to say that we were looking forward to the meal at Bocuse would be an understatement. We didn't end up booking reservations until a few weeks before our trip since we were so busy from wedding planning, so I was worried we wouldn't be able to get in. As luck would have it though, my wife found us a spot.

Paul Bocuse, also known as L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, is located in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, which is just outside of Lyon. It was roughly a 15-20 minute cab ride from our hotel in Lyon and getting there, while for the most part uneventful, had a few interesting memories. The streets were incredibly narrow, and there was one point where the road was so narrow that two cars going in the opposite direction could not pass. Our taxi driver had to back up and let a few cars go before proceeding.

Once you arrive, the actual building looks like a small inn but has a very colorful exterior with ornate decoration in tones of green, red, and gold. On the top of the building illuminated in bright white lights stands a sign with Paul Bocuse's name on it.

When we sat down, we were presented with a menu with two different options. We decided to go with the menu bourgeois, featuring roughly 6 different courses. It was the cheaper of the two tasting menus. Even so, it was 190 euros per person! We decided to go with this menu since we could choose the items for each course while the other menu was pre-set. We figured we could try more dishes this way.

To start the meal, we were presented with the amuse bouche, which was a squash soup with a buttery cheese puff.


Next up, I ordered the scallop of foie gras, pan cooked and served with verjus sauce. Really rich, luxurious foie - need I say more?

 

My wife ordered the Maine lobster salad "a la francaise" for her first course. It's a bit absurd to think that they fly in Maine lobsters to Lyon every day, but this is apparently what they do and part of the reason why this meal is so damn expensive. It was served cold with a lobstery mayo and a fresh herb oil. 
 

Next up was the red mullet dressed in crusty potato scales, served with a butter sauce. Again, really rich. Where are all the light, fresh preparations that I was told nouvelle cuisine was all about? ha!


For her course, my wife got the pan-seared scallops with beurre blanc, soufleed potatoes, and black truffle sauce. This was another really delicious, albeit rich and over-the-top dish.


To freshen up the palette, we got this sherbet made from Beaujolais wine. After eating all the butter-laden, rich dishes, this was welcomed.


For our third course, my wife got the rack of lamb served with vegetables and a puff pastry filled with caramelized fennel. This was carved and plated tableside. This was not on the menu and something the waiter offered up to her. Score!

 

For my third course, I got the pigeon in puff pastry with young cabbage. The pigeon was cooked perfectly and a real treat since it's not something I normally get to order. The puff pastry was delicious as well, filled with....foie gras!


By this point, my wife and I were starting to get pretty damn full but we kept plugging away. Next up was the cheese course and just as they did at Taillevant, the staff brought up over a huge board of cheeses. Unlike Taillevant though, the staff at Bocuse left us try as many as we wanted. A good tip coming up here: some of the cheeses Bocuse serves are from Richard Mere who also has a stall in Bocuse's marketplace - grab some cheese there and enjoy with a bottle of wine for an affordable picnic.


With cheese out of the way, finally came the wave of desserts. First up was this decadent chocolate mousse - fantasticly smooth, rich and creamy. Wonderful texture.

 

The waiter also dropped off this collection of petit fours, candies, chocolates, and truffles.
 


The staff then proceeded to wheel over two carts filled with all kinds of desserts and pastries. They encourage you to have as many as you want.


We were already really full at this point, and my wife was down for the count after having a few madeleines, but I pressed on. I was determined to try at least a few bites of most of these desserts. After all, we came all this way and paid all this money!


Above was the Ile Flotante, or "floating island" - a very traditional French dessert that features a mound of baked meringue covered with fruits, nuts and caramel and sitting on top a pool of creme anglaise. This was probably my least favorite of the desserts.


I also tried this chocolate cake with a raspberry filling. It was served with some fresh berries and a scoop of both vanilla and strawbeery ice cream because I asked for it.


Below was the last dessert I tried - the very classic and traditional tarte tatin. This is still one of my favorite desserts of all time. The apples were caramelized perfectly, nearly all the way through from edge to edge. Really impressive.

 
After the meal, Paul Bocuse came out of the kitchen and greeted us at our table. The man is so old now and he doesn't do any of the cooking, but he's still in great shape. He still proudly wears his chef's coat and high top hat. We asked for a picture with him, and he gladly obliged.
 
Not everyone has the opportunity to travel and eat at a restaurant of this caliber, so for that I'm truly appreciative. Meeting Bocuse and having a picture taken was another great treat, as was the staff offering up a copy of the menu to us to take home as a keepsake. The food was the definition of classical French cuisine. While absolutely delicious, it wasn't overly inventive...but it wasn't trying to be. Sometimes tradition is wonderful too.

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