The French word “bouchon” is most commonly used to describe a bottle cork, but in Lyon, the word takes on a different meaning, referring to humble eating places that serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine centered on offal and other noble meat parts. Traversing through Vieux Lyon reading restaurant signs, one might be mistaken to think that every other restaurant in the city is a bouchon when in fact there is only a dozen or two of those deemed “authentic” by L’association de Défense des Bouchons Lyonnais, a local group militantly preserving the city’s culinary history and culture.
We didn’t stop to check whether La Mere Jean was awarded the association’s sticker of authenticity, but one thing’s for sure: the restaurant, open since 1923, is a purveyor of ultra-traditional specialities, and a very popular restaurant for both locals and guidebook toting tourists to boot. By 8 pm the 32-seater restaurant was packed to the rafters with our neighbors sitting uncomfortably close, and the mood celebratory and raucous.
At dinner, there are 4 different menus to choose from, each promising meat, above all pork, in different preparations. From the 25e menu comes two plates of cold cuts as the appetizer, loaded with lentils, sausages, cooked bacon as well as the more exotic – jellied veal feet and something called museau de boeuf, or what the dictionary calls beef snout. Chewy and just slightly funky smelling, it wasn’t bad at all with an assertive vinaigrette.
For those a little less adventurous, a salade lyonnaise offers both the greasy pleasure of thick fried bacon cubes and the suggestion of a healthy entrée with a quarter of tomato and some lettuce leaves, though the protein-greens proportion left us wondering whether the dish should in fact qualify as a salad.
After the promising start, it was disappointing to sink into a doughy and leaden quenelle de brochet. The consistency of the fish mousse more akin to bread pudding than omelette, but I guess it wasn’t fair to compare it to the perfect rendition at Paul Bocuse (the quenelle there being 5 times more expensive).
P’s piping hot casserole of tripe maison, only one of several preparations of this noble cut available in the house, was fortunately more successful. The tripes were rendered soft and chewy in a umami-packed brown sauce, the piggy smell pungent and undisguised.
A half-round of the bloomy and fruity local St Marcellin cheese provided by one of Lyon’s most famous fromager Mere Richard was wonderful. We were not fans however of the extremely garlicky cervelle de canut, a local specialty it may be. P took a mouthful, scrunched up his face and declined to take another bite, while I, never an eater of raw garlic in any case politely set my spoon on the table until the server cleared it.
The dessert options were not too inspiring, mainly plates of prepared pies and tarts, as well as some traditional offerings such as ile flottante and creme caramel. Our choices were nothing to write home to, in fact P’s apple tart tasted rather stale. But if I could choose again, I might have gone for the florescent pink tarte aux pralines for a taste of the pink sweet, another Lyonnaise specialty.
With great atmosphere, competitive pricing and surefooted savory dishes, La Mere Jean is a pretty decent place to get a taste of the famed Lyonnaise meat-heavy cuisine. But I realized that, as much as I pride myself for eating a lot of offal back in Singapore (I love kway chap!), I am really not up for finishing a whole cauldron of tripes, or liver, or kidneys like the husband did. I wonder when I’ll be French enough for that.
La Mere Jean: 5 Rue Marronniers, 69002, Lyon