Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lyon: the so-called capital of gastronomy

In the last few years, I had heard rumors about a city that some claim to be the gastronomy capital of the world: Lyon, France. This is the type of rumor that calls for some on-the-ground fact checking.

So last May, Laure and I met up with our good friends Andy and Sarah to check out the food scene. We also sprinkled in with some sight seeing. At that point, Laure was pretty far into her pregnancy, and this trip worked out really well for us.
Lyon's old town, a.k.a. "Vieux-Lyon"

Our apartment in the Old Town ("Vieux-Lyon")

As usual, we tried to stay as centrally located as possible. After some research, I found the two promising areas:
  • the old town Vieux-Lyon that has cute historic buildings and narrow cobblestone streets but is a bit touristy, and
  • the newer downtown Presqui'Ile, which many argue is the real heart the city where many of the locals hang out nowadays
We finally decided to stay at the old town so we could immerse ourselves in the fantasy of living in a snapshot of the past.
Our awesome little apartment in the old town.
Getting some R&R before we head out.

In hindsight, we found ourselves coming back often to the up-and-coming restaurants of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, which is located up on a hill with some nice views and less crowds. On our next visit, I would be tempted to make that our home base.

Bouchons

A bouchon is the title of certified traditional restaurants in Lyon where you can find traditional local dishes for a decent price. I've read that many of these bouchons have become tourist traps, but with some research, I believe (or hope) we were able to avoid those.

We had our first lunch at a bouchon named Le Bistrot de Saint Jean. It was a super casual place with friendly service.
Le Bistrot de Saint Jean
Quenelle is a fish dumpling in a Béchamel based sauce.
I thought it was a bit heavy for lunch!

My overall favorite traditional dish from Lyon was the Lyonnaise Salad. At first, I didn't bother paying much attention to it because it's "just" a salad. For that reason, I didn't even bother taking a photo. But as we realized how heavy most other traditional dishes are during our trip, the salad became a staple for many of our meals. I haven't been able to find it outside of Lyon, but it should be fairly easy to make it at home.
The Lyonnaise Salad became my favorite traditional dish from Lyon.
Photo credit: recipe by Sara Kate Gillingham

Miniature and Cinema Museum (Musée Miniature et Cinéma)

Although we didn't want to make our trip about museums, there was one that piqued my interest: Musée Miniature et Cinéma. It turned out to be a worthwhile visit. The museum contains many boxes of miniature sets with amazing detail. I recommend checking it out when you are in the old town.
These half-meter long miniature sets contained amazing details.
Even the lighting is done very well.
Miniature set of the museum in Jurassic Park.
There were several of these restaurant sets. Even the tiny guitar looks real.
Here is another miniature restaurant.
Just kidding, that was actually a photo of...

Le Comptoir du Vin

For our first dinner, we decided to go to Le Comptoir du Vin, which is a small down-to-earth restaurant run by a chef named Daniel Perrier in a tiny kitchen with the help of a single waiter. We were surprised at the gigantic portion sizes, which we struggled to finish considering that traditional Lyonnaise food was not so light.
The massive beef tartar at Le Comptoir du Vin.

After dinner, we walked around Lyon and watched the crowds on the bustling Friday night. We came across a cool fountain statue named Fontaine Bartholdi by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the statue of liberty.
The horses of Fontaine Bartholdi look like they are snorting steam out of their noses.

Farmer's market and cappuccino at Presqu'île

We started our second day by checking out the farmer's market at Presqu'île, which is the heart of the new town area.
Farmer's market at Presqu'île
This was the first time I found macarons at a "farmer's" market!

If you've travelled with me and Laure, then you know that we like to start our day with a good cappuccino. We typically read a few blog posts written by coffee fanatics in order to find the best spots for coffee. In Lyon, the choices are much more limited than other metropolitan cities like Paris that have more quickly embraced the espresso coffee trend. But one place that stood above all others was Mokxa cafe.
Mokxa cafe provided a decent cappuccino.

Traboules du Vieux Lyon

Another cool touristy thing to do in the old town are the Traboules du Vieux Lyon. The traboules are labyrinthine paths through the old town that residents used to access the river and silk workers used to transport their silk without getting wet. During World War 2, some members of the Resistance against the Nazis used traboules to escape the Gestapo.

Traboules du Vieux Lyon

We found most traboules using our guidebook, but you can probably find a full map of them somewhere online.



Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

Now is as good of a time as any to talk about the legendary local chef Paul Bocuse, who is no doubt part of the reason some regard Lyon as the capital of gastronomy. Bocuse played a significant role in a then-new style of cooking named nouvelle cuisine back in the 60's. He has also taught many other very influential chefs that made their own marks in culinary history. Nowadays, many things in Lyon are named after Bocuse including...
Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

Les Halles is an indoor market place in the center of town with many high quality food stalls. We took this opportunity to buy picnic ingredients including cured meats and cheeses.
We got good recommendations for our picnic cheeses.

Les Halles also has a few small restaurants serving prepared food. We took this opportunity to indulge in escargot and wine.
Buttery escargot.

La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

After a quick nap, we took a funicular up to a popular basilica on the hill overlooking the old town.
Andy and Sarah...
and Laure and I at Place de Fourvière.
The basilica is ridiculously over the top flaunting the wealth of the Catholic church.

After snapping a few photos and checking out the basilica, we found a park bench where we could enjoy the goodies we bought at Les Halles market.
Picnic at the park.
Good food with great friends.

Murals

Lyon has some pretty cool murals throughout the city that are worth visiting. Going "mural hunting" also gives you an excuse to explore different the city. And if you're not paying attention, you may overlook them for being real architecture -- especially at night!
La Fresque des Lyonnais is the most famous mural. Unsurprisingly, it features Paul Bocuse.
Laure outside a nearby bistro.

My favorite mural is the Mur des Canuts, which celebrates the silk workers (or "canuts") in the neighborhood of Croix Rousse. This mural is especially realistic at night because they use real lights to highlight the corresponding lights in the painting. The mural is updated periodically to match the surrounding changes made to the neighborhood.
Mur des Canuts is especially realistic at night.

Le Canut et Les Gones

On our second night, we dined at Le Canut et Les Gones, which turned out to provide our overall favorite meal in Lyon. This cozy and thoughtfully decorated restaurant offers deliciously tasting and beautifully presented dishes.
Salmon as a perfect cuboid.
Juicy duck.

What I liked about Le Canut et Les Gones is how its dishes highlighted each individual flavor of the ingredients. In contrast, other restaurants with more traditional dishes usually merged a lot of flavors into a powerful combination, which is less interesting in large quantities.
I think this was an Ile Flottante, but I don't see the custard underneath.

So, is Lyon really the capital of gastronomy?

I don't believe any single city can really hold the title as the capital of gastronomy. Different cities have different specialties, and different people have different tastes.

That being said, Lyon offers hearty traditional dishes as well as more sophisticated modern dining at a nice budget. If you want to get fancy, there is also Paul Bocuse's legendary restaurant that has consistently received three Michelin stars for over 50 years. But you're more likely to find us at Le Canut et Les Gones instead.