One great concept about French living we will miss sorely back home is the ability to “faire le pont”, literally “make the bridge” in English. When a public holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday, schools, the government and many private companies automatically give the workers the Monday or Friday off respectively to make an extended 4 day weekend. This May, we are blessed with not 1, not 2, but 3 ponts and another 3 day weekend, one of which we spent eating in Lyon.
In Lyon, Paul Bocuse is revered like deity, his likeness printed on t-shirts, carved on wooden puppets, his namesake the city’s famous food hall as well as hospitality management school. The Paul Bocuse brand is huge, ranging from prepared foods to cutlery and several mass-market brasseries and fast-food restaurants. But since this was our one and only trip to Lyon, we decided to go all out and visit L’Auberge Pont des Collonges, Chef Bocuse’s restaurant and home to 3 Michelin stars since 1965.
The garish exteriors shocked us as we approached the restaurant, though thankfully the interior design was much more elegant and comfortable. Service was a well-oiled machine, though not mechanical at all but instead warm and hospitable, a perfect match to the ultra-traditional, precisely prepared cuisine.
At the maitre d’s suggestion, we toured the large gleaming kitchen, shook hands with the executive chef Christoph Muller, porting the French colors on his collar as befitting of his “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” status and gawked at the trays of pastries being prepped for lunch service. And during the meal, both Madame and Chef Bocuse made their rounds, saying hello to each table and taking time for pictures.
Besides the carte, one has a choice of 3 menus. For us, the “menu classique” of 4 dishes seemed like a responsible way to lunch. Before that, we were treated to a refreshing cold pea soup that was the essence of spring, beside that, a cheesy gougere.
While we had just eaten a quenelle de brochet at the bouchon La Mere Jean the night before, restaurant Bocuse’s rendition was in many ways vastly superior. Instead of a misshapened oval of fish mousse, this version was symmetrical. Instead of tasting heavy and doughy, it was as light and airy as a French omelette. With the deeply savory sauce Nantua and a few langoustines and chestnuts to provide textural contrast, the dish was a hit, as it has been for the last three decades.
The menu makes no concession to latest dining fads or 21st century health concerns, with each dish heavily buttered and creamed. My bowl of creamed lobster soup was so rich I could not finish it try as I might, but I did manage to eat all the sweet chunks of meat within.
Cream graced my main course, a super flavorful chicken fricassee utilizing the creme de la creme of poultry varietals, the Bresse chicken. A strong fungi perfume permeated throughout the dish, thanks to the morels and slices of truffles tucked beneath the chicken skin.
Our neighbors ordered an even more extravagant preparation of the chicken, cooked whole inside an inflated pig’s bladder.
P went for the lamb as usual, here a generous rack roasted with thyme till the meat was still rosy and tender. Delicious though nothing out of the ordinary.
The cheeses were loaded unceremoniously on a wicker tray. While the presentation was more rustic than some of the fancier cheese trays and carts we’ve encountered, the restaurant is undoubtedly more generous than others, with multiples of the same cheese lining up in a row, as if afraid they would run out.
Interestingly, the mignardises were served with an unctuous pot of chocolate mousse before they wheeled the dessert trays over.
Fortunately they didn’t take up too much space in my stomach as I awaited impatiently for the assortment of desserts that I could pick, however much as I desired.
The glutton in me wanted to try everything but in the end I dug into a rum soaked baba with a custard center, the cake light, spongy and boozy.
But of course I couldn’t stop with one dessert and the servers were happy to oblige, making up a plate of lemon tart paired with fruits and red fruit ice-cream. While the lemon tart was nothing to write home to, the raspberries were among the largest and most pristine that I’ve ever eaten.
The hospitality and generosity of the restaurant did not just stop at the door. Because the husband and I are of the “penny-wise, pound foolish” sort, we had planned to work off our meal by walking 2 kilometers back to the train station when a maitre-d offered to drive us back in his own car on his own accord because, according to him, “the scenery isn’t too agreeable”. Such a nice ending to a fantastic afternoon!
Restaurant Paul Bocuse (L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges)
Address: 40 Quai de la Plage, 69660 Collonges au Mont d’Or, France