Aux Lyonnais has a traditional bistro ambiance.
The big news on the food front today (there are more important things happening in the world) is that El Bulli, five times rated the world’s best restaurant, will be closed in 2012 and 2013 while Chef Ferran Adrià and his staff go into a huddle for a collective think. And 2010 is already fully booked.
I might have been more miffed at the news had I not enjoyed a very filling week last week, having, by almost pure fluke, eaten at three of Alain Ducasse’s capital restaurants: Benoît, Rech and Aux Lyonnais, in that order. Benoît because I wanted to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday in style; Rech because a food writer friend wanted to see what the new chef, the starred Jacques Maximin, was up to (I didn’t know it belonged to Ducasse before turning up there); and Aux Lyonnais because I wanted to talk shop with Paris Update’s new food writer, Marie Tatin, and, having walked by Aux Lyonnais as I was trying to ward off the catatonia threatened by a head-bangingly boring piece of translation, I thought, why not make it three?
Things get difficult here, because I can’t in all honesty bore readers with an elegiac litany of 21 dishes. To be brief, Benoît wowed us with a dish of scallops in bouillon de parmentier truffé, i.e., truffled leek and potato sauce. The depth of that sauce, and the scallops themselves, which had the texture of raw and the taste of cooked, had us both swooning. Before that, the pan-fried duck foie gras served with baby turnips and a reduction of port wine also knocked our socks off: I have never eaten such a delicious version of the humble turnip before. And the little side dish of macaroni and cheese that accompanied a chunk of perfectly bleu beef fillet was also a revelation in its deceptive simplicity: it too had unsuspected depths of flavor.
At Rech, where the house specialty is all things fishy, it was a starter of smoked haddock that was an eye opener: it had been cut into strips and marinated in lemon juice, no more. Authentically smoked, it wasn’t over-salty, as smoked haddock often is. I was also very taken with the perfect, wafer-thin sections of cauliflower floret that graced my piece of roast barbue (brill), looking for all the world like brain specimens from an episode of House.
Aux Lyonnais, as its name implies, deals with the hearty specialties of Lyon, possibly the most food-conscious place in France. The fritots de poireaux au lard fermier et vieux comté were wicked, and not for the faint of heart: imagine breaded, deep-fried pieces of ham and cheese with a bit of leek to cut the lightness. Two of these, hardly bigger than quail eggs, were quite enough for Marie Tatin!
I was intrigued by the vol au vent du dimanche en famille: perfect puff pastry filled with all sorts of delights – the Chinese might call them “treasures” – such as quenelles and rooster crest and ham and crawfish and whatnot. Good. Very good. As were the quenelles à la Lyonnaise, sauce Nantua – a creamy, “light” concoction of pike, butter, milk, eggs and flour.
Each of the three places is very different from the others, but all have the Ducasse stamp on them: absolutely delightful staff and service. Ducasse even has what the French government quaintly calls “visible minorities” (usually invisible in the kitchen doing the dishes) waiting on tables. In each, the décor is handsome, with Rech being intimately opulent, as befits its 17th arrondissement location. Aux Lyonnais is closer to a traditional café lunch place, small, with some nice Art Nouveau ceramic decoration around the walls. At Benôit you expect to see Zola and Maupassant at the next table – if you can drag your attention away from what you’re eating, that is.
It’s a pity that Benoît is so expensive, but the other two are reasonable, with three-course lunch menus around the €30 mark and attractively priced opportunities in the wine department. Because Ducasse employs trained wine people, you can be sure that even the cheapest options on the list are going to be well made and enjoyable at the very least. A glass of white Limoux at Benoît, something new to me, had me thinking of a premier cru Chablis, no less. Rech serves wine in carafes.
I’ve just heaved a little sigh of satisfaction at the thought of those three meals. Enough said.
Benoît: 20, rue Saint Martin, 75004 Paris. Métro: Châtelet. Nearest Vélib stations: 1, rue Saint Bon; 7, place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Tel.: 01 42 72 25 76. Open daily. Closed one week in August and in February. Fixed-price lunch menu: €34. A la carte: around €80. www.benoit-paris.com
Rech: 62, avenue des Terne, 75017 Paris. Métro: Ternes. Nearest Vélib stations: 2-4, place Tristan Bernard; 224, bd Pereire. Tel: 01 45 72 29 47. Fixed-price lunch menu: €32. A la carte: around €50. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. www.restaurant-rech.fr
Aux Lyonnais: 32, rue Saint Marc, 75002 Paris. Métro: Richelieu-Drouot or Bourse. Nearest Vélib stations: 20, rue Favart; 8, rue Saint Marc. Tel.: 01 42 96 65 04. Fixed-price lunch menu: €32. A la carte: around €50. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Friday, for dinner only on Saturday. www.auxlyonnais.com
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