Monday, April 28, 2008

The Nettles

The other morning at the market, I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera
, but at the same time, feeling like maybe it was the right thing to do. The market, my market, on the quai St. Antoine, was simply clogged with people. Rightfully so. The more I cover all of the markets of Lyon, the more I come to adore my home base.

What was new at the market this weekend? Well, the herbs are coming out, and beginning to look absolutely gorgeous. New potatoes from the region were hot and moving, the fresh young green garlic shoots as well as the huge juicy odorous stacks of ail rose were stacked in fresh formations, making me look forward to our time down south with Loic's parents.

Since we have entered France's spring vacation season, it's a special time too because there are a whole lot of replacement vendors with interesting novelties to sell. Unfortunately many of them set their stands too close, not understanding Sunday, causing human traffic jams. But we can forgive them.

We look up to the wind blowing in the plane trees, the pollen wafting about. We enjoy the sun on our faces, and remember not long ago when it was positively cold along the riverside. We cherish a word with our regular vendors and producers as we wait patiently for a family with a stroller to rearrange their purchases and say hello to their neighbors. My volailler has been recently featured in the local paper, nearly 60 years on the quai St. Antoine. City strangers push through, pretending to be locals and exasperated by the crowd. Excuse me sir, to you have somewhere to be, a pressing appointment? What are you doing here? All in good time, we move along. Life is good.

The man who grows oregano (the only one in town, I think), sells very good eggs, and supplies me with verveine has a basket of nettles. Loic says "are you sure?" when I tell him I want some. Quick to bond with Loic, he ominously dons a suede glove and measures my portion. I ask if he has any fresh oregano yet, which goes very nicely with nettles, and he says: 'eleven days from now, madame. And how will you prepare the nettles? A soup?' I tell him I haven't decided.

oven crisped pork trotter with nettle sauce
nettle seasoned meat balls
red mullet with puréed nettles
a caramelized lamb pastilla with pine nuts and nettle infused jus,
little flans with nettle seasoned cream
creamy chestnut and wild nettle soup

I wash and remove the leaves and tender young ends, wearing gloves, of course. A bunch of fresh young green garlic is sliced and slowly sizzling in a mixture of olive oil and butter. I still haven't decided what to do with them, even as I begin to toss them with the hot garlic. That's the wonderful thing about nettles, you don't have to decide until late in the game. You can eat them simply sautéed, you can turn them into soup, a sauce, anything. One thing's for sure, you have to cook them or you'll get stung.

I ended up turning them wilted and richly scented with spring garlic into a pastry shell, adding fresh sausage, herbs, drizzling them with a couple of eggs, topping the lot with some grated Comté and baking it like that. Spring in a shell.



Sunday, April 27, 2008

Surprisingly Sophisticated...

I had a strong suspicion that this would still be simply elegant as an adult dessert

This month, the Daring Bakers were challenged
with a recipe called Chocolate Covered Cheesecake Pops, using lollipop sticks. The principle is that the cheesecake be presented like a lollipop, to eat with child-like nostalgia from the end of the stick. Combined with the great cheesecake I remember from home, the whole concept packs a double whammy of memories and kiddie fun. I loved the idea.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to find any lollipop sticks anywhere in the city of Lyon, but I still wanted to try this recipe and join the challenge. I had a strong suspicion that without the actual sticks, this recipe would still be simply elegant as an adult dessert, to be drizzled with chocolate caramel syrup and eaten with a dessert fork. Well, the verdict is in, my friends. This recipe is excellent. The cheesecake has a rich soft sophisticated New York personality, wrapped in a dark chocolate covering that is like the perfect little black dress.

Even without the chocolate finish, this recipe is a great one for cheesecake. I've noted it carefully in my notebook. I used my regular white cheese coming from the farm that I pick up at the market on Sunday mornings. It worked perfectly. It's a keeper, and I imagine I will be preparing these chocolate covered cheesecake bites again and again through the years. I'd love to get my hands on some lollipop sticks one of these days and have a blast with the sprinkles and ribbons. Maybe after we have some kids to join in the fun! For the moment, we're cherishing the quiet dinners (this time with Anne and Greg), with the window open looking out over the square, and appreciating the sophistication that these chocolate covered New York style cheesecake bites deliver.

Thank you Daring Bakers! And to Elle & Deborah who hosted this challenge (you can get the recipe by visiting Deborah's blog).

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lyon 2ème: Marché Fermier at Place Carnot

On Wednesday evenings starting at four o'clock
and going until 7:30 PM, there's a market that sets up at Place Carnot, in front of the Perrache train station, quite special in two ways. Being a night market where people can go after work gives it a special draw, and stands run strictly by producers makes the level of quality of the Marché Fermier at Place Carnot one of the best in town.

The mean freshness quotient of the products offered at the Wednesday night market is far above any of the others, which makes it very hard to keep from buying more than you can carry. It's one of those markets where you can trust everything there and you want to buy a little of everything.

Local things are found cheaply that are only offered at much higher prices elsewhere. Even though the quality here is excellent and the prices low, it's like a little secret, discreetly setting up and taking down at the end of the day in the middle of the week, without fanfare or crowds.

There are only a few stands, but the quality at each one makes this market definitely worth penciling in on your agenda. In fact, meeting friends and turning your errand into a pleasant apéro is a great idea, since the northern end of Place Carnot is surrounded by outdoor cafés with lots of seating, people to watch, and evening sun.

At the Marché Fermier, we very rarely ever hear anyone calling out to sell their wares. In fact it might be called a silent market. Every single stand is run by farmers, who don't have a habit of raising their voices. Their selling point is the terroir, and with this as your product, there is no song and dance necessary. We are content to listen to the evening birds singing in the trees above the square. If you speak French, you'll also be rewarded with a special kind of friendly chit chat from the farmers, who are proud of their product, know everything about it, and are happy to answer a hundred questions shot off at them city style in rat tat tat fashion. Ahem.

In addition to ultra fresh produce, I come here for poultry, with not only an AOC Bresse Chicken producer on site, but also a steady supply of small flock farm raised birds - one taste of the soup from an old hen from one of the little stands that sells baked goods and preserves and you'll dream about the next time you can make it to this market. Some interesting charcuterie can be found here as well. Very much steeped in local tradition, there is a man who does a very nice couenne, a sausage made from ground pork skin, that you can spread along the bottom of a baking dish below any kind of bean or lentil before putting it in the oven, rendering wonderful flavor to a leguminous slow braise.

Bresse also hands us her delicious galette, a kind of thin sweet creamy cheese tart, a specialty to the region, and from south of the city we're offered a good selection of Coteaux des Lyonnais. Lamb from the Bugey, cheese from Mont d'Or, and a steady supply of herbs and vegetables from all directions make this market a treasure trove.

Marché Fermier
Location: North end of Place Carnot, Metro A or Navette 91, stop Perrache or Victor Hugo
Days: Wednesday evenings until 19h30
No. of Vendors: 20

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Diving for Pearls

An apple tarte came from my kitchen the other night not only without using a recipe
, but also without any measuring whatsoever. This includes the crust. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Too lazy to even break out the kitchen notebook, I threw some flour in the bowl, cut an approximate lump of butter, worked it, added an egg yolk, a dollop of creme fraiche, and there it was. Turning the chilled rolled dough into my lovely new old pie tin which I rescued from a wet crumbling cardboard box at the fleamarket, which I cleaned and polished and adore and maintain no matter how little it cost me, I then just put in the fruit and sugar, and voila - an apple pie was in the oven, filling the house with something bigger than the sum of its parts.

I wonder if a resonating kind of magic had anything to do with it. I have this pair of earrings, a necklace, a pie tin, these things I know were cherished and adored once by women with luck who lived full lives through hard times. With costume jewelry that they meticulously maintained, a multitude kitchen table tartes and pies that they prepared for their families, they worked through to achieve something beautiful. You pick up these objects and you know. Meaning. Then maybe they died quite old, they told their stories. Their estates liquidated, their kitchen implements and their jewelry boxes emptied into cardboard boxes, and certain objects come into my hands. When I clip on the pearly earrings, I feel protected, looked after. When I cook with the tin, it just turns out. Everything. I don't even have to measure my ingredients. Good things happen. A haze of opportunity surrounds them. I willingly make use of this magic, open myself to it. Shamelessly.

It makes me think that this might be some scene in a fantasy story, the magic pie tin in which the woman finds out that no matter what she haphazardly slaps together into the tin, it transforms into a lovely tart that enchants anyone sitting at her table.

One by one, pearls like these are found and strung together, a lucky necklace spanning a lifetime. Sometimes they aren't easy to spot but once you've found them, you'll never lose them, you know. It is this string of pearls I want to hold on to when I'm looking back, to help me remember and be remembered by.



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lyon 4ème, Marché de la Croix Rousse

Years ago, when I did my initial exploring of the neighborhoods, I found myself particularly in love with the lore of La Croix Rousse. The area was not urbanized until rather late in Lyon's history, during the first half of the 1800s. Originating as private church property, after the Revolution, green rolling orchards, vineyards and walled monestary vegetable gardens were transformed into a concentrated public urban center for the newly industrialized burgeoning silk production in Lyon. Over a period of 50 years the construction of homes and workshops for 28,000 master craftsmen, workers, and their families was completed. The silk working industry, which had been segmented and dispersed throughout the city for centuries, centralized to form a community.

This enclave of master surface pattern artists, thread workers, technicians specializing in loom maintenance, the weavers themselves, came to live and work together in a rather contained community. With new technology invented by a Lyonnais named Jacquard, Lyon produced silk was the official supplier to Napoleon's public palace works and to the courts. This dense community of interdependent like-minded craftsmen and their eventual organization to look out for each other, fight for their rights, ability to unionize under difficult conditions and live a co-op centered lifestyle, not only gave birth to one of the most progressive social movements in Europe at the time, but would also institutionalize a unique style of cuisine - one that made an important statement - and leave a lasting mark on Lyon's gastronomic identity.

In a genre of dishes unique to Lyon, ones that had their own histories with the people but came to be staples in the workers canteens, the cuisine embodied an allegiance to the working class by remaining simple, rustic and firmly based in the local economy. This style of charcuterie production and cooking would eventually co-exist and intermingle with La Cuisine Bourgeois, which had its own parallel establishment in Lyon. The dense new urban working class community and their tastes made it easy for the establishment to embrace a conduit, a special environment where the upper crust could enjoy, even if precariously, the earthly delights of the best of both worlds. This marriage would eventually be served forth pat and parcel by Les Mères Lyonnaises; their offering added a layer of dimension to the gastronomic landscape quite unique to this city. One that would open doors, if only in principle, for a flowering of ideas that was destined, through events here in Lyon, to change the face of French cuisine forever.

View on the way up the hill to the Marché de la Croix Rousse.

The first time I went up to La Croix Rousse on the bus number 18, as we climbed the hill to reach the plateau that is the center of activity there, I glanced over to the left, and was astounded. I saw the most beautiful, mysterious, sublime cityscape unfold south of Croix Rousse Hill. Its panoramic splendor unfolded with each turn of the bus along the line of the towering cliff side road above the Saone. I glanced around the bus, grandmothers minding their business, people facing forward, waiting for their stop. I wondered - does anyone else see what I see?! Having made the climb now on foot and by bus many times, I can tell you that it is especially gorgeous in the morning when humidity makes the silhouettes of the black cathedrals pop out and it's all a gauzy curtain of sublime historical mystique. It is really impossible to take it in in one glance, you have walk down to the little park at the end of the boulevard after going to the market at La Croix Rousse. If you can find the time, find yourself a park bench, and try and wrap your mind around it.

The Marché de la Croix Rousse is the largest market in Lyon on its heavy traffic days. Although the market does set up every day except Monday, Tuesdays and Saturdays are really the best day to visit this market. It is positively enormous, with 122 official food vendors and many more setting up in the periphery. The market has a distinct flavor, one that represents Lyon's proud working class heritage with a vivacious zest for life.

The vendors cry louder at la Croix Rousse. The merchandise moves faster, quickly moving pre-weighed pans of fruits and vegetables, enough to serve large families. Butchers, charcutiers, bakers, producers, dry goods sellers, international products, and re-sellers galore. They line up for nearly half a mile along the avenue, spanning a good three quarters of the Croix Rousse plateau. I have witnessed some pretty striking things at this market. One vendor brings one whole pig on weekends and carves it, offering the cuts for sale as the come off the animal. On Tuesdays, the opposite side of the street sells manufactured items: mostly imported clothing, sundries, sewing supplies, some crafts, etc.

The clientèle of this market is diverse as its offerings. You're likely as not to see the Pinder circus trucks circulate through the area, adding to the spectacle with their canned music coming from a loudspeaker and trailers of sculptured circus animals, stylized to catch the attention of the children. Thursdays, an area near the Metro end of the market is devoted solely to organic vendors. The town crier is present on Saturdays, reading spicy proclamations from the people, something you don't want to miss, especially if you speak French.

A friend of ours who lives nearby tells me he likes to hit the market on Saturday mornings, and then sidle up to one of the seafood places over along near the east end to enjoy a dozen oysters when they are in season, with a pot of local wine. Indeed by the time you've worked your way through this market, it can be nearly lunchtime.

Marché de la Croix Rousse
Location: Boulevard de la Croix Rousse, 69004
Days: Every day except Monday (manufactured items on Tuesdays)
No. of Vendors: 122

(a note: I will be updating this post with more photos of this market in the next few days so please stop back again! - L)

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Finding La Vraie Quenelle Lyonnaise

Prepared with pike, a freshwater fish traditionally plentiful in the lakes just north of Lyon
with quality butter, milk, and eggs, quenelles are a rich and succulent offering on Lyon's regional list of specialties. A triumphant quenelle Lyonnaise is going to have a firm consistency, but a certain lightness in its quality. It won’t taste heavy or floury, instead it should have an ethereal melt in your mouth deliciousness mingled with a hint of sustenance, consistency and richness. A successful quenelle will not resemble a soufflé or taste eggy. The quenelle is classified as charcuterie; those who are in the business of the quenelle indeed do sausage too. The ingredients found in the quenelle de brochet of Lyon are all traditionally local, although today you may see the use of pike offered at market, commonly imported these days. The key word has always been and always will be 'fresh'.

The historical origins of the quenelle come from La Grande Cuisine, with differing theories as to its origins, one being that the name comes from German word knodel, meaning dumpling, while other sources cite the Anglo-Saxon knyll, which means to pound or grind, attributing it to the process applied to meats and fish used in this dish.

As to their really being Lyonnais, we can conclude from literature that quenelles in general didn't necessarily originate in Lyon. Poultry quenelles are mentioned in a 1750 edition of the Dictionaire des alimens, but no identification as a regional specialty is given. In the early 19th century Cours Gastronomique, recipes for fish and various meat quenelles are quite similar in method to the modern dish, but again, they aren't specified as Lyonnais. There is no mention of Lyon in the work by Dubois and Bernard from the mid 1800s, which offers a series of recipes for quenelles.

The quenelle Lyonnaise seems to have made its distinction at the end of the 19th century, when in the 1890 edition of the Dictionaire universel de cuisine, a recipe for Quenelles de poisson à la Lyonnaise incorporates fish, beef fat and bone marrow, specifying that what makes them Lyonnais is the particular juxtaposition of maigre et graisse, or both lean and fat. Marrow seems popular for quenelles during that time. In edition no. 25 of the Parisian weekly Le Gourmet dated February 1894, there's a recipe for quenelles de poisson (no mention of Lyon) that does not include pike in the list of suitable fish but does include the bone marrow.

In Mathieu Varille's Cuisine Lyonnaise, first published in 1928, a descriptive recipe for "la vraie quenelle Lyonnaise" is offered, meaning that perhaps there was some question about whether there was a real one or not. The proportions match exactly those of Escoffier's published recipe for "godiveau lyonnais ou farce de brochet à la graisse" using equal parts pike fish and a mixture of the fat from veal kidneys and beef bone marrow. He does not cite the source of his recipe.

In Lyon we are particularly attached to the use of pike fish in our quenelles, wherein the rest of France seems not much to care. La Mere Brazier, who opened her restaurant well before Varille wrote his history, quite sternly insisted that the only quenelle prepared in her kitchen would be made with pike, a tradition that has been strictly followed over time. It seems that pike, in essence, remains elemental in the soul of the Lyonnais quenelle.

Pike is a bony freshwater fish that was plentiful in ponds and lakes just north of Lyon at the beginning of the last century, and quite popular in Lyon at the time that recipes using this particular fish began to be identified with Lyon. In order to enjoy it fully, the Lyonnais traditionally pounded it and ran the meat through a fine sieve in order to remove the bones. The process of making a Lyonnais quenelle involved incorporating a panade, a simple stiff chilled paste prepared with milk or water, butter, and flour into the pounded sieved fish.

Warm panade, having been cooked down two hours, ready for chilling

Some general French recipes may cite a choux paste as base, but the recipes specific to Lyon do not incorporate eggs into their initial panade, nor do they build on the dough. In Lyon it begins with the fish. The incorporation of eggs and butter for the quenelle à la Lyonnaise comes at the end, before forming them and poaching them until firm. Some producers, notably in Bresse, use semolina instead of flour, and produce a stiffer paste that they allow to rest before poaching. In Lyon, plain wheat flour and an immediate poaching are the norm. Once poached, quenelles can be kept cold until their final last blast of heat by a number of means, in a typical French heavy covered dish on the stove top or in the oven, to be served plain, with a whole list of suitable sauces, butter, topped with cheese, however you like them.

The folks at the charcutier Au Petit Vatel prepare quenelles from a recipe developed in the early 1900s, with the original owner. One particular charcutier named Jules Légroz perfected his recipe for quenelles at a traiteur called Sauret in Lyon. The reputation for his quality product grew, and he formed relationships with local chefs, for example, the legendary Fernand Point, of the restaurant La Pyramide, in Vienne, 15 miles south of Lyon. He eventually opened Au Petit Vatel and sent his son Louis for his initial kitchen training (a 2 year stage) in the kitchen with the legendary chef. The young man returned to run Au Petit Vatel, which still exists on the corner of rue Corneille and rue de Sèze in the 6th arrondissement of Lyon. Louis Légroz was clear in his claim that his father invented the quenelle Lyonnaise. Apparently chef Point was complicit in this bit of family lore. The business changed hands in the 1960s to M. Vaivrand, who continued using the original recipe and method, but invested in mixing equipment to allow the production of larger batches of quenelles. I spoke to Vaivrand's son, Michel, who owns the shop with his brother, Frank. Michel grew up making the quenelles, having learned the precise method from his father. Today he proudly counts himself as the producer of the original quenelle Lyonnaise, but does not discount the authenticity of the others being produced at different establishments throughout the city. His production is perhaps 1500 quenelles a week, an artisan's work. In any case, the quenelle Lyonnaise entered the public domain a long time ago.

Michel Vaivrand, the man who does the quenelles at Au Petit Vatel

Mr. Vaivrand invited me into his kitchen and he talked about quenelles from the perspective of a person that has lived and breathed them all of his life. First and foremost, he feels strongly about the quality of ingredients used. His main concern is that the ingredients are fresh: the fish, the eggs, the butter, everything must be completely fresh. He also stresses method, with a strong emphasis on keeping everything cold and timing just right.

I watched his daily ritual as he begins with around 14 pounds of chilled pounded and sieved fish, followed by the incorporation of a pre-chilled panade, something like a dozen bricks of cold hardened dough. This is a rather violent process, one that splattered me with bits of fish. He then added 90 cold eggs to the mix. His recipe is quite specific down to the callibration of his eggs. The butter is incorporated in the blink of an eye, it seems. No longer than 30 seconds, leaving little chunks of cold butter throughout. He points these out and emphasizes that this is one of the little secrets to a good quenelle (hmm, can we see the maigre et graisse coming through here?). The incorporation of more eggs is done by feel, taking into consideration variables like the day’s weather, the quality of the fish, the consistency of the mix, little by little but rapid and concise at the same time, arriving at a final result that he deems correct within a minute or two. Timing and cadence is clear in his method. It is of the utmost importance.

A large mixer indeed. Note the dots of butter.

The final quenelles are formed and put directly into a salted water bath. It simmers at a carefully controlled 90 degrees celcius, where the quenelles initially sink, then float to the top and continue poaching, carefully turned and tended to until M. Vaivrand decides, by a touch test, that they are adequately firm. He then transfers them to a cold water bath that softly agitates and cools them. Once they are cool, they are ready to go into cold storage and to be placed in the display cases, to be sold within the next day or two.

Although Au Petit Vatel supplies to a number of restaurants, their main source of business remains the walk-in customer. A faithful local clientèle consists of the bulk of their business. Indeed when I arrived in the morning there was a line 4 ahead of me and two behind before I was graciously ushered behind the counter and back into their maze of kitchens. Mr. Vaivrand notes that his quenelle resides firmly at the heart of Lyon's childhood memories. Au Petit Vatel is a destination for many expatriated Lyonnais, who make the requisite stop to his shop when home just for a supply of quenelles to take with them. He also does some mail order to certain special clients pining for home, although he admits that is quite rare, due to the cost of cold shipping. He has an annual wave of faithful ski vacationers who make a ritual of picking up quenelles at his shop to enjoy while on vacation. But the rest are regular gones from the 'hood who know a good thing when they taste it.

Mr. Vaivrand of Au Petit Vatel sent me home with two quenelles that he formed à la cuillère before my eyes. I cooked them simply at home and served them with a simple garnish of beurre d’écrevisses. That's crayfish infused butter, something also coming from his kitchens. It's prepared by slow cooking whole pounded crayfish, shells and all, in butter for seven hours before clarifying it with a special process, leaving the butter infused with a simple clear note of flavor. At this point, I believe. This is la vraie quenelle Lyonnaise.

Au Petit Vatel
1, rue Pierre Corneille (on the corner with rue de Seze)
69006 Lyon, France
04 78 52 11 45

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Monday, April 07, 2008

The Amazing Story of Lijjat Papad

I tagged along with Lucas to one of his African and Indian cooking supply sources
, one of many in the Guillotière area of Lyon. The Madras Bazar looks from the outside to be as small as a convenience shop but once you get inside the narrow shop just seems to keep going and going. As you work your way back, it expands into something the size of a small supermarket. You move slowly past the pickle and hot sauces, examining everything carefully of course, and through the spices in bulk. The fresh okra and tamarind root is found near the incense aisle, there is a soft drink section, featuring all manner of ginger beer, malt drinks and tropical fruit cocktails. I located a box of what looks to be the real slimming tea. Score! We will see how that works out.

On the way to the checkout, the line for which extends back into one of the first aisles, I was attracted to these bags containing "PAPAPADAM", something I like to crunch with an ice cold Kingfisher at our favorite Indian place. I have always been curious about what's in them, and remarked, upon examining the package, that they don't contain wheat, just urad dal (a kind of lentil), salt, asafoetida, leavening agent, and oil. We both grabbed a pack to try out at home.

I pop a couple of them in a hot oven. They turn a golden brown and blister and crispen up in seconds. We enjoy them plain, then with various dips and toppings. I try rolling them while they are soft and hot, and they harden into any form I make. How perfect they are!

These are Lijjat papads. Oozing with story. In the year 1959, seven women borrowed 80 rupees (that's about $2.00) and made a small batch of papads. They made a pact at that time to never to borrow money again. They began by selling them to a local market vendor. When their first profit came in, they poured it right back into the business. They began to distribute the dough to other women to roll out and dry, and the business grew and grew, keeping with their initial philosophy: Of the women, by the women, for the women. If a woman can work, without distinction of caste creed or color, she can sign on and become a member of the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad organization, otherwise known as Lijjat. A cottage industry was born. Today the company has 69 branches, 35 divisions, employs 42,000 sister members all over India, and annual sales last year exceeded $75M, or 3.1 billion Indian Rupees. Read the story of this amazing company here.

A source in Lyon for these papads:
Madras Bazar
5 rue Sebastien Gryphe
69007 Lyon (France)
open 7 days a week (Sundays until 1:00 PM)


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Léon de Lyon - a Remarkable Transformation

A little over a year ago, they announced with fanfare
that Lyon would be losing two of its stars. Jean-Paul Lacombe had put Léon de Lyon up for sale. A few months went by, and the buzz was that the 40 cover luxury restaurant would undergo a transformation into a 150 cover Brasserie and remain in his hands. He decided not to sell after all.

The last low key luxury service took place on New Years eve, and at the dawn of 2008, they rolled up the red carpet and work began on the new place. They kept the pretty bones, the 18th century parquet floor, the woodwork and stained glass. They installed a revolving glass door at the entry, and completely changed the rest, turning it into a restaurant for the people.

Indeed, at a restaurant that used to be booked for months in advance and reserved for those that could afford to drop several hundred on a meal for two, we now we see a entree-plat-dessert for €22, with a nice selection of wines by the glass or bottle, on par with the other cafés and bistros in the neighborhood. The original cave is still in tact, with these wines offered at a 25% discount from original prices, a nice touch.

Local response to this has been calm and collected. Everyone who cares knows that Jean Paul Lacombe has been running a number of smaller bistros throughout town for years, even if he regularly spent 90% of his time in the kitchen at Léon de Lyon meticulously maintaining his Michelin stars. These are quiet bistros along pedestrian streets popular with the tourists, rue Mercier, rue des Marroniers, as well as some out of the way places with steady year round clientèle. One up in Caluire along the Rhone in a working neighborhood, another up on the Croix Rousse hill near Croix Pacquet, one by the Palais de Justice (see Marché Guichard).

In all he claims a total of 15,500 square feet (1400 sq. meters) of restaurant space in town, serving all of the regular bistro food. These places are low key, the kind of place you might have lunch with colleagues, or go to dinner with a mind for good French service, classic fare and local wine. There's something to be said for a good meal with no surprises. Maybe a little whisper and passing of business cards, but certainly not a lot of guests on food pilgrimages. No starry-eyed foodies snapping photos of every course. Lacombe was quite successful at keeping the media din at a minimum. Neighborhood places that feature clean tablecloths, a little bit of the coddling in the style of les Meres Lyonnais for the businessmen, finishing with a demi Saint Marcellin or some cervelle de canuts, approachable and comfortable but not tea-house cozy. Dependable.

Dependable. This is what Lyon was built on, and this is what Jean-Paul Lacombe reasons is what makes Lyon a great place to eat, for everyone. In an interview with Lyon Capitale: "In Lyon, the young chefs here perhaps show less creativity than elsewhere, but it's because the city doesn't expect that. The people of Lyon are not looking to be fed with a syringe. One is never very good when they copy what's going on in the neighbors' kitchens. Here in Lyon, we maintain our own personality." And opening a 150 cover brasserie is something that falls in line with JP Lacombe's personality. The man is a restauranteur, through and through. He knows how to lead. The consummate chef. The people of Lyon appreciate the fact that he is giving back in this way.

So what was for lunch at Léon de Lyon today? Well, in addition to a surprising amount of elbow room and lovely acoustics, there was a gracious welcome. First they brought out an amuse of a little pot of a mixed olive tapenade to enjoy with the bread at the table. There were about 20 dishes you could order a la carte starting at €10.90 for the oeufs en cocotte and main dishes averaging in the low 20s.

I decided on the entree-plat-dessert du jour. A cold Vichycoisse came with an oblong creamy smoked salmon tartine tucked along the side of the bowl. Then came the stuffed rabbit. An entire deboned saddle and haunch. Really, enough for two. It was enormous. The forcemeat was flavored very nicely with rosemary. It was quite beautiful and served over a bed of risotto-style wheat grains, spread over a savory meat jus-infused apricot and citrus coulis. In a word, inspiring. If I wasn't assured otherwise, I would also say creative. I wish I knew how to make this at home. The chilled caramel cream was portioned like a quenelle and drizzled with caramel sauce, topped with a beautifully crisp sweetened feuilleté twist.

The chef/owner's presence was clear at the restaurant during lunch service today. He came through several times, wearing casual attire, draped in a crisp beige apron, looking very much at home and full of smiles. By the time I paid my bill, he was seated three tables down from me, listening attentively to another guest who had latched onto his arm. I honestly didn't expect to see this superstar of Lyonnais cuisine on the floor, and much more surprised when he took my hand in his and warmly asked if my meal was alright. I'd figured that would understandably leave things to his carefully chosen staff of 15, and he'd be out playing a round of golf. Perhaps after 35 years of working full time in the kitchen at Léon de Lyon, Jean-Paul Lacombe can't quite bring himself to take any time away just yet. In any case, lunch today exceeded my expectations. Give this brasserie a try and let me know what you think.

Brasserie Léon de Lyon
(both lunch and dinner menus are €20-22)
1 rue Pleney
69001 LYON
04 72 10 11 12

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