It is no secret to anyone I know that, when it comes to my idea of the ideal food, bacon tops the list. I am, in general, a huge fan of most things porky and delicious. In fact, my love for the pig has become a source of comedy and inspiration amongst my friends, two of whom planned my ‘Goodbye, Boston’ party with a bacon theme. Seriously. Just a side note – chocolate covered bacon? Strangely compelling and delicious.
Despite the fact that I was traveling to Lyon for a teaching gig and to shore up collaborations, as in most of my destinations, I was most excited about what I would be eating. This enthusiasm was further stoked by the fact that I had heard it said more than once that Lyon (not Paris!) was the true capital of gastronomy in France (some sources dare say the world). In particular, I was looking forward to experiencing a traditional bouchon, known for serving local specialties – most often pork-derived and complimented by Beaujolais.
Rather than the sleek, modern, ‘next big thing’ feel I have gotten from many restaurants in Paris, Lyon takes great pride in the tradition of their food and the picturesque atmosphere of the bouchons. Historically, it was a group of ‘mothers’ who are given the credit for creating the character of Lyonnaise cuisine and, as we stepped into La Machonnerie, it certainly felt like we were being seated in the cluttered dining room of your favorite, eccentric aunt. The walls were crammed with a haphazard mix of gilt-framed paintings, photos and maps, most which hung precarious and crooked above the tables, which (harkening back to my CA roots) made me wonder about the potential catastrophe if Lyon was ever hit by an earthquake.
The tables themselves were set with red and white linens (it was Valentine’s Day, after all) and each was prepared to receive guests with an amuse bouche of fried pork fat, croutons and ‘Cervelle de Canuts’ a soft piquant cheese studded with herbs and shallots. Yes, you read that correctly, the meal did indeed begin with chunks of deep fried pork fat. Literally, fried slab bacon, but minus all the meaty bits. Imagine, if you can, the crispy outside of fried chicken, wrapped around the smoky flavor of bacon, while your teeth easily cut through something the consistency of butter. That was it. Utterly decadent, quite delicious and something of which I could only eat a very small bite (or two).
My colleague and I ordered from the prix fixe menu (28€ for 3 hefty courses, quite a bargain I thought), and both choose to start with the salade lyonnaise, accompanied by a glass of Beaujolais. The traditional salad was tossed with garlicky croutons, crispy chunks of lardon, thinly sliced shallot, mustard vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. Served family-style in a large earthenware crock, there was more than enough salad to make an entire meal. The eggs were perfectly done, the white just set and the warm yolk breaking upon service to coat the greens. I did think that the vinaigrette could have used a bit more kick to better cut through the heady mix of yolk and bacon, but such a minor adjustment was only a fleeting thought in the moment.
For the main course, I chose the petit sale, which included a chunk of smoked ham, a saucisson lyonnaise, and a boiled potato all on a bed of lentils. The ham had been glazed with something sweet (almost brown sugar-like) and was extremely rich. The sausage was at least as big as the potato and thinly sliced for easier serving. In my only previous exposure to saucisson lyonnaise, that sausage had come studded with pistachios. This was not the case here and the meat was subtly spiced and quite flavorful. The lentils were, however, the star of the dish. They clearly had been stewed with some smoked pork but also had an underlying sweetness (maybe similar to the glaze from the ham) that was a perfect compliment to the salty meats and not at all cloying. I couldn’t finish the sausage and I didn’t even touch the bland potato, but I was sure to eat every last lentil in that crock.
By the time we contemplated dessert, every table was full of Valentines and the lone two servers were running to and fro, yet never dropping their smiles or missing a chance to say a kind word to each table. After Paris service (which I think is often demonized, but is, at best, impersonal) this friendly, open atmosphere was extremely refreshing. We finished our meal with the tarte tatin praline pictured above. Not excessively sweet, the apples were complimented by the candied nuts and, in all, it was an apt choice to round out our traditional fare.
After a shocking four types of pork in one meal and starting to feel the nerves kick in about the next day’s teaching debut, I was looking forward to a walk through the streets of Lyon before heading back to the hotel to review my slides one last time. Our check finally arrived in its very own treasure chest, which strangely made paying them for dinner feel like an adventure.
Although my stay in Lyon was quite short, I was able to taste just enough of the city (literally and figuratively) to know that I will need to return. Definitely soon. Who’s in to join me?
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