You ate what?! A fearless foodie’s foray into the bouchons of Lyon
By WILL HAWKES | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 26, 2018
Andrew picks up his beer and leans back against the red banquette seating at Le Romarin, a tiny bistro-bar in the heart of Lyon. Over the next 48 hours, we’re planning to eat our way across this famously gastronomic city, but something is worrying him. “I’m looking forward to the wine,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the cheese. I’m just not sure about the innards.”
Most people would see his point. Not me. I love offal.
Many of the top meals I’ve eaten have revolved around these unglamorous cuts, from haggis in Scotland to pigs’ organ soup in Singapore.
I’ve eaten roasted pigs’ trotters in Paris, tripe sandwiches in Florence and steak and kidney pudding all over England. The best of all was in Buenos Aires, at a restaurant called La Cabrera, where I gobbled fat little blood puddings, tender grilled sweetbreads and kidneys cooked with garlic and parsley.
If anywhere can beat that, though, it’s Lyon. France’s second city is known for the dizzying variety of offal dishes served in its bouchons, its atmospheric answers to the Parisian bistros. So when I discovered that Andrew, his wife, Charlie, and their two kids were off to Lyon to learn French at the start of this year, I cajoled him into letting me visit.
I arrive on a cold Monday afternoon in mid-February. My first stop is at one of the city’s finest bouchons, Daniel et Denise on Rue de Crequi, but I’m not eating. I’ve arranged to meet Joseph Viola, the 52-year-old owner and head chef. Resplendent in his whites — which bear the tricolor collar of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, an award that recognizes France’s best craftspeople — he is the president of Les Bouchons Lyonnais, an organization set up in 2012 to protect these historic eating places.
What makes a typical bouchon?
“Many things! A relaxed ambiance, quality regional ingredients, simple Lyonnaise cuisine, and down-to-earth decor,” Viola says. There are about 70 bouchons in Lyon, he adds, but only 24 are accredited by Les Bouchons Lyonnais. Many of the most famous bouchon dishes are made with offal (les abats in French).
“Here at Daniel et Denise we have tete de veau [veal’s head], foie de veau [calf’s liver], rognons [kidneys], gras double [tripe], but it’s not all offal,” he says. “The quenelles de brochet [a mousse-cake made with pike] is probably the most famous Lyonnaise dish.
“The key thing is that [bouchon] food is made with a certain delicacy and with real professionalism. It’s wonderful food served without fuss.”
It’s a cuisine, he says, handed down from Les Meres Lyonnaises, a group of female chefs who, from the mid-18th century onward, built the city’s culinary reputation.
As it turns out, Andrew has the perfect pedigree to tackle this gutsy grub: His great-great grandfather was a tripe dresser in Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England, he tells me as we step out of a blustery snowstorm into Le Romarin. Tripe dressing is the dirty job of making tripe fit for human consumption; perhaps some of that intestinal fortitude has been passed down?
The first test comes at Cafe des Federations, Lyon’s most famous bouchon, that evening. From the rustic, wood-paneled exterior to the sausages hanging above the bar (a sign warns patrons not to touch them), this is a place calculated to leave Francophiles purring.
It’s a set menu, with five courses. First comes oeuf en meurette — poached eggs in a rich, red-wine sauce — and then a selection of charcuterie, wild boar terrine, lentil salad and salade lyonnaise, with its fat hunks of smoked bacon.
Next I have tablier de sapeur - fried, breaded tripe - while Andrew chooses black pudding with steamed apples. The tablier de sapeur (sapper’s apron) is not unlike a Wiener schnitzel, and like a schnitzel it makes up in texture what it lacks in flavor. A side dish of tartar sauce adds much-needed piquancy. The black pudding is rich, soft and unctuous: “I chose best,” my companion says, rather childishly, but I can’t argue.
A huge platter of seven cheeses features the local classic St. Marcellin, plus cervelle de canut, or silk-worker’s brain: In Lyon, even the cheese is named after body parts. There’s nothing challenging, though, about eating this mixture of fromage blanc, herbs, olive oil and vinegar. Afterward, we waddle back to the apartment.
The next morning, we take his two small children to Lyon’s famous Roman theater on Fourviere, the hill above the old town.
It’s a crisp, sunny winter’s day, and there are icy puddles among the ancient stones. Andrew’s 2-year-old son takes great pleasure in trying to crack the crust on each of them while I fret about him slipping.
After taking in the view of the city at the nearby Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, we split up — French won’t learn itself — and I hurry toward my next meal, at Brasserie Georges.
It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, but the place is virtually full when I arrive. It’s not hard to figure out why: Brasserie Georges is pure theater. This is a huge room decorated in art deco stylings, with large, angular smoked-glass chandeliers, ceiling frescoes and a legend along one wall that reads “Bonne Bi籥 et Bonne Ch籥 depuis 1836”: Good beer and good food since 1836. The restaurant buzzes with happy chatter.
I’m enjoying my starter — a rich, roughly textured chicken liver terrine — when the lights go down and “Happy Birthday” comes on over the sound system. A waiter presents a young girl with a cake with a sparkler on top. Everyone claps.
On the way out, I pass a table of five male friends, faces aglow as a huge baked Alaska flambe is divided and served by a waiter at the end of the table. Brasserie Georges seems to specialize in this kind of everyday magic.
I’m off to Croix-Rousse, a district which was the heart of the silk trade in the 19th century. I’m aiming to find a traboule, a semi-secret passageway through the houses once used by neighborhood silk workers for speed and shelter, and subsequently by the French resistance during World War II. There are dozens, many of them open to the public.
It doesn’t take long. At Place Colbert, I spy a doorway with a blue picture of a stone lion and an arrow to its right. Beyond is a large, two-level square, the Cour des Voraces, with a six-story staircase as its facade. I walk down its last flight into a cobbled lane, where I turn right and head through a series of passageways and courtyards, following the blue lion signs down the hill, until I reach Rue des Capucins, close to the city center.
Next, I hurry across the Rhone river toward Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, the glass-fronted central food market. Inside, my eye is caught by Boucherie Trolliet, where pied de veau cuit (cooked calf’s foot) can be bought for about $5, and a young butcher jabs, scrapes and cuts at a leg of lamb, trimming it into shape.
That evening, Charlie joins us for dinner at the superbly named La Tete de Lard (meaning “fathead” or “pig head”). She forgoes the offal, but I have a tangy, tomato-rich tripe soup followed by lamb’s brains, which are crispy on the outside, having been cooked in butter, but meltingly soft inside. Meanwhile, Andrew is very pleased with his choice of andouillette en croute (tripe sausage in pastry) with mustard sauce. “It’s very good,” he says, his voice betraying only a little surprise.
I need another good walk the next morning, so I leave the flat early and head down to Place Jean Mace, a nearby square where the twice-weekly open-air market is in full swing. Amid numerous fruit and vegetable stalls selling local produce (all proudly marked “RHONE” on the label) are stalls selling meat, fish and cheese, including Chez Jean-Pierre, the market home of an offal and horse butcher.
Our final meal is at Daniel et Denise, at 12 p.m. on the dot. It’s a temple to classic Lyonnaise gastronomy. By the entrance, there’s that definitive proof of a French restaurant’s quality: a picture of the proprietor with Jacques Chirac, former French president and noted gourmand.
When I met him on Monday, I asked Viola what his favorites on the menu were. He mentioned the pate en croute au foie gras de canard et ris de veau (duck’s liver and lamb’s sweetbread pate in pastry) and rognon de veau roti (roast veal’s kidneys).
I follow his advice. The pate is rich, earthy and beautifully seasoned; it’s Michelin-star cooking, really, but presented without affectation. Served in a rich jus, the kidneys, rose-red and soft in the middle, are just as good. Andrew has a salad of lamb’s sweetbreads and then calf’s liver, also pink in the middle: both meet with enthusiastic approval.
As we finish up, I have just one concern: What is the future for this food in a world increasingly attached to sandwiches and salads eaten in front of a screen?
“There is still a beautiful page to be written in the story of bouchons,” Viola insists. “We must be on alert. It’s up to us to preserve and innovate.”
Well, I’ve done my bit — and I’ve found a city that surpasses Buenos Aires when it comes to offal. And Andrew? Put it this way: I think he’ll be an expert in innards long before he masters French.