January 15, 2004
Last Friday, on the eve of my darling Maxence's 25th birthday, I took him out to dinner. Usually, I know exactly where I want to take him, and like to make the location a surprise. Last year was easy : I had heard great reviews about a restaurant called "Le Maxence", where the chef was the talented David Van Laer. It fit the bill perfectly and we had a lovely evening with wonderful food.
But this year, for some reason, I was very irresolute about it. There were about twelve different restaurants I wanted to try, but couldn't decide which one I liked the most or, more importantly, which one Maxence would like the most. I spent a week agonizing over this, researching reviews, changing my mind every few hours, and actually making four (yes, four!) different reservations, three of which I ended up canceling, with apologies and as much notice as my indecisiveness allowed. The good thing is that I now have a fully qualified list of the top-twelve Parisian restaurants I want to go to!
When the whirlwind of doubt ended and the dust settled, the winner turned out to be Aux Lyonnais. This is a restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement, close to the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange). It is over a century old : first opened in 1892, it has been operating non-stop ever since, serving dishes typical to the French city of Lyon. Even more interesting is that this place was bought out, renovated and revamped just two years ago by no other than national hero Alain Ducasse. His brilliant idea was to take this somewhat declining old-fashioned restaurant and turn it into a sophisticated version of itself, lightening and sprucing up the traditional menu.
I set my heart on it because I know Maxence is partial to authentic historical settings, and has a weekness for charcuterie and down-to-earth popular dishes : he is known to eat pied de porc, oreille de cochon or croustillant de tête de veau without batting an eyelash, so I thought Aux Lyonnais would cater to this penchant. I gamingly kept the exact address a secret until the very last moment, narrowing it down only when absolutely necessary, to the general area, then to the street, and even then I arranged to meet him at another street corner. You would think I was trying to cover my tracks from mafia thugs or something.
The décor really kept its promise : the façade is bright red and antique, with engraved plaques, statues and frescoes. Inside, behind the heavy velvet drapes, they have also kept the original decoration, with black and white tiling on the floor, majestic mirrors on the walls, intricate moldings on the high ceiling, and a quite dramatic dark mahogany staircase with brass railings, leading upstairs to the petit salon, where customers can wait for their table in large club armchairs, sipping on a drink.
Our table, set on a red and white dish towel in place of the table cloth, was close to the window, and I switched places with Maxence so he would be the one with the view on the beautiful room - I mean, who's birthday was it? We ordered champagne, and our waiter brought us a plate of cervelle de canut. Literally "silkweaver's brain" (the weaving of silk was the traditional industry of Lyon) this is a delicious specialty of herbed garlic fromage blanc, served with fingers of toasted rustic bread. A waitress also brought a little cloth tote filled with excellent bread, which she attached to the special hook at the side of our table. A very creative tabletop-space saver!
We toasted to the happy occasion, and studied the daily menu. Our waiter came to describe the dishes that needed clarification, and we placed our order. Then came a young and friendly sommelier. Of course we wanted to drink a Côte-du-Rhône, from the region of Lyon, and Maxence had spotted two Crozes-Hermitage that looked good. We asked the sommelier for advice, and he suggested the 2001 Yann Chave Tête de cuvée with so much sparkly-eyed enthusiasm that we were happy to go along with his choice. He brought it, uncorked it, had us taste it, and it was indeed delicious, complex and full-bodied. Interestingly enough, the smell reminded me immediately of kefir, the yogurt-like fermented milk I love so much. If the sommelier found this a little odd, he was too well-trained to show it!
As a first course, Maxence had ordered the Pot de la Cuisinière Lyonnaise (the Lyonnaise Cook's Jar). Described on the menu as a "charpie de jarret de porcelet, mêlé de foie gras", this was pig's shin meat, defatted, shredded and mixed with foie gras. It was beautifully served in a verrine (one of those small ball jars with the rubber banded lid), along with toasted slices of bread and a small ramekin of creamed lentils. A true delight. I went for the Sabodet, Poireaux à la Vigneronne : two slices of a pig's head sausage, served in a cast iron gratin dish with "ears", and accompanied by four pieces of tender leeks, cooked in a red wine reduction (hence the naming : "vigneron" means winemaker), and sprinkled with herbs and miniature croutons. The sausage and the leeks, slightly sweet, were both delicious and responded well to each other.
Breaking the Golden Restaurant Rule, we had ordered the same main dish, the Quenelle de Brochet et Ecrevisses (Pike Quenelle Dumplings and Crayfish), following the original recipe elaborated in 1892 by Lucien Tendret, a famous French lawyer and gastronome. This was first brought to us somewhat too soon, we felt as if we had just barely swallowed the last bite of our first courses. We asked if they could keep it warm for us, and they were perfect about it, taking the dishes away with no comment and bringing them back in a seemingly identical condition a little while later, when we were ready to appreciate them fully. And we did. My adoration for quenelles is not unlike the one I have for boudin blanc, and I have them whenever I see them on a menu, but these were really something. Served in the same light brown gratin dishes as my sabodet, each of us got two plump and tender quenelles, surrounded with peeled crayfish and cooked in a luscious creamy crayfish sauce, which lent itself beautifully to shameless bread-dipping.
At this point, obviously, we were both pretty sated, and I almost lost Maxence to the cause of dessert. But I was not going to give up that easily, and I managed to convince the birthday boy to follow me right along. Breaking the Platinum Restaurant Rule, we also ordered the same dessert (but if you can't break a couple of rules on your 25th birthday, I don't know when's a good time), the Ile Flottante aux Pralines Roses et Tarte aux Pralines. How can you resist a dessert where you actually get two? An île flottante is (literally) an island of egg whites, sweetened, beaten stiff and baked, floating in crème anglaise (custard). Pralines roses (pink pralines) are sugar coated almonds with a pink coloring, which can be eaten as candy on their own, or used to flavor other confections, like brioches (Brioche aux Pralines Roses). This was a memorable dessert : a puffy and aerial île flottante in a glass dessert cup, studded with delightful crunchy bits of crushed pralines and floating, swanlike, in the fresh vanilla custard. Next to it on the plate lay a small slice of tarte, reminiscent of American pecan pie, sweet and sticky with a pleasant hint of praline bitterness. We slowly worked our way through this perfectly matched duo, alternating spoonfuls of one and the other.
This was a great birthday dinner and I can't recommend Aux Lyonnais enough : it draws a feeling of comfortable familiarity from the brasserie setting, the service is professional without being stuffy, and the food, based on hearty unpretentious dishes, is high-quality and elaborate.
32 rue St Marc
01 42 96 65 04
(also recommended :
9bis bd du Montparnasse
01 45 67 24 88)
Dinner at El Bulli