Wednesday, July 8, 2009

French Flashback

Blogger's Note: Today's post could alternatively be entitled "Things I Would Rather Be Doing Instead of ____." I would fill in the blank with "studying for the Louisiana Bar Exam," while I would guess that most of you would scribble down "sitting in my office/house reading Blackened Out." Regardless, today being Hump Day, I figured we could all use a virtual vacation to a better time and place. Without further ado, welcome to Lyon.

Because Rene's snippet of his summer in France garnered so much praise last week, I decided to tell a tale of my own adventures in Lyon. (If you are wondering, we both were lucky enough to study in Lyon for 6 weeks during law school, only 2 years apart.) I spent close to 8 weeks in Europe in the summer of 2007, visiting such cities as Brussels, Barcelona, and Prague among others. But perhaps my most cherished memory from that summer was a meal at Paul Bocuse's eponymous restaurant in Collonges, just north of Lyon.
My traveling companion that summer, who shall be known as Femme Fairhope (FF), and I spent a lot of time wandering the markets and eating our way through every city we traveled to. But in my opinion the finest foods were found in our home city of Lyon, which is not surprising considering the city's reputation as the French capital of gastronomy. From my first meal in Lyon (pictured above - andouillete with mustard sauce and gratin dauphinoisse) to the last slice of pizza I had before boarding a plane for Prague, the food was just incredible. Sometimes I wake up in the morning still longing for a crusty baguette like the ones I used to eat during my weekday walks to class.

But undoubtedly, the highlight of my European culinary experience that summer was dinner at Restaurant Bocuse. FF and I were the only students that year who dined at the flagship, but many others ate at one of the Bocuse Brasseries. (We made it to 3 of the 5 brasseries. I would have to say that Le Sud was the best, followed closely by Le Nord, with a disappointing performance by L'Est. Funny sidenote, L'Est was the only one to earn a Michelin star that year, so it shows how much I know.... Or does it?)

Our reservation at Bocuse was on a Sunday night after a 5am return flight from a weekend in Barcelona. Not exactly an ideal situation to prepare for such a fine meal, but we were lucky enough to score a reservation at all. After a 30 minute cab ride north, we arrived at perhaps the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen. The dining room was 10x more ornate than Commander's - so much so that I was hesitant to even pick up the silverware.

Bocuse offers three menus. To this day I still regret not going for the gold and ordering the Menu Grande Tradition Classique, which included the famous 80 euro truffle soup and the bresse chicken mele fillioux (i.e., cooked inside a pig's bladder with truffles - just like you saw on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate"). But at 210 euros per person, I decided against the whole shebang and instead ordered the Menu Bourgeois, which was perfectly fine with me as it included both seared foie gras AND sweetbreads.
The meal was flawless from beginning to end. The captain sensed our nervousness and was quick to settle us down with a few jokes. But honestly, after we noticed an Asian tourist in jeans and a polo shirt sitting at a table across from us, we relaxed because we knew that we were no longer the most out of place guests. Courses came went - foie gras, lobster casserole, red mullet crusted with scalloped potatoes, and a palate-cleansing beajolais sherbet.
After each course, our place settings were changed. Once the silverware was set out for out our entrees, FF said, "Peter, they did not give me a steak knife." Thankfully our mild case of hysteria over this perceived error was quickly dismissed as she cut into her filet Rossini. The filet was so tender, you could almost not differentiate when moving the fork between the generous slab of seared foie gras on top and the beef underneath. The greatest steak I have ever eaten, and I did not even order it. I just sat next to her enjoying my sweetbreads while fighting a serious case of entree envy.

I wish I had taken more pictures, but I feel that the one we did take pretty much sums up the meal. After the entrees, the above cheese course arrived, and by "arrived" I mean was wheeled over by two huge rolling tables. No offense to St. James, but this spread was in another league. The waiter rattled off the cheeses from memory ("this one is cow's milk, goat's milk, sheep's milk ..."), but I was too overwhelmed to pay attention. My favorite was the roquefort in the right background which was sliced with what I could only describe as a guillotine de fromage.

After the cheese course, Paul Bocuse himself came out to greet us. It was so bizarre - not only because I was in shock having perhaps the greatest chef in the world greet me at my table, but also because of the man's demeanor. It was like he had been kept cryogenically stored in the freezer, and the front of the house brought him back to life and wheeled him out to give a customary "bonsoir" and "bon appetit" to every diner. He stood for a picture with us, and then made his way to the next table.

We finished with a selection of dessert similar to the cheese course. Two huge rolling tables were presented, and we were free to choose from macaroons, baba au rum, fresh fruits, chocolate cake, creme brulee, fresh ice cream, and much more. When the captain asked FF if she wanted ice cream on her cake and she told him no, his reaction was the same as if she had just ran over his dog. Needless to say, she succumbed to the pressure.

Even though that meal at Bocuse has since been surpassed, it will forever hold a special place in my heart - not only as a memory of that final carefree summer in Europe, but also as a reminder as to why I love to eat and write about food. Plus, whenever I think of Paul Bocuse, I am reminded of this quote: "Next to Parisians, the people of New Orleans have the most refined taste for food of any city in the world...."

I feel that it is our duty to prove him right.


Rene said...

I love that a menu bourgeois had foie gras on it...

Ellewoodsc said...

Yummmmmm.....I miss France

Rémy said...

This just got me even more excited for my trip to Paris this Friday! Any favorite places you want to recommend? I've already accumulated quite the list. Plus, I've duly allotted an evening for sitting along the Canal St. Martin and eating cheese the likes of which you've just featured... ohhh goodness.

Becky said...

Before I even got to the line about no offense to St. James, I was thinking how unfair it is to post photos of real (as opposed to food-stylist-arranged) cheese courses in a blog that I'm reading at my hungriest time of day.

Maybe I'll start a blog of only photos of the world's greatest cheese carts.

Peter said...

Seriously, SJG, you might have died had they wheeled this cheese spread to your table. It was unreal.