Recently I came across a slightly dated item about master chef Paul Bocuse; seems this past spring, the Culinary Institute of America declared the Lion of Lyon "Chef of the Century" as part of its annual Augie Awards. No argument from me -- and it got me to reminiscing fondly about my visit three years ago to Monsieur Paul's flagship outside Lyon, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges.
It was a sunny spring day, and after a lovely, leafy taxi ride up the Saône River, my lyonnaise companion Guillemette and I approached the holy of holies, to find the two-story building and its courtyard somewhat gaudily plastered with murals depicting the master and his most illustrious forebears, colleagues, and acolytes (below left; not bad likenesses of Julia Child and James Beard, I must say).
We were greeted affably by a distinguished-looking maître d' and escorted to a table at end of the western dining room -- pale yellow walls, dusky pink ceiling, brass chandeliers, beige marble floor, windows all around, three white roses on each table -- then poured a house apéritif of sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne with a touch of crême de cassis; served a silky amuse-bouche of cream of peas with clotted cream; and presented us with a "Grande Tradition Classique" menu, specially printed with our names and essentially loaded with Bocuse's greatest hits.
Bocuse on the Menu
Escalope de foie gras de canard poêlée au verjus, pomme gaufrette.
(Scallop of foie gras, pan-cooked and served with verjus sauce and lightly browned potatoes)
Soupe aux truffes noires V.G.E. (plat crée pour l'Elysée en 1975)
(Truffle soup V.G.E.; dish created for the French president in 1975)
Rouget barbet en écailles de pommes de terre croustillantes
(Red mullet dressed in crusty potato scales - [ed. note: yes, maybe not the best choice of words on that translation])
Granité des Vignerons du Beaujolais
(Beaujolais winemaker's sherbet)
Fricassée de volaille de Bresses à la crême et aux morilles
(Fricassee of Bresse chicken in cream sauce, morel mushrooms)
Sélection de fromages fraises et affinés "Mère Richard"
(Selection of fresh and matured cheeses from Mother Richard)
Délices et Gourmandises
(Delicacies and Temptations)
Petits Fours & Chocolats
(Fantasies & Chocolates)
'Twas all to be washed down with a floral, fruity Viognier du Pays d'Oc white from Laurent Miquel, followed by a nice, light-tannined red Côtes du Rhône from Les Vins de Vienne, in the upper Rhône Valley northwest of Lyon.
Bocuse on the Palate
So you're wondering, what'd I think? Maybe you aren't? Telling ya anyway.
When critiquing an experience like this, one must come at it from all angles. First off, the atmosphere, the service, and the quality of the food were as or more impeccable than I'd expected. Also, for all the formality of the setting, service, and presentation, it didn't feel stuffy (unlike, say, other Michelin-starred spots like Paris two-star Michel Rostaing, where during my dinner a few years earlier one celebrating table felt obliged to sing "Happy Birthday" in a whisper.)
Here I was the only diner wearing a tie, and someone at the next table actually ordered a Coke -- nay, a Diet Coke (I flashed back to another fancy-schmacy Euro repast in which a companion was brusquely commanded, "water or wine!"). People were taking photos and video right and left, and at one point Monsieur Paul emerged from the kitchen in his mile-high toque to schmooze a bit with each table and get his picture snapped with virtually every guest (and even sit with a little interview with me, as you can see above -- sure gave my French a workout, parbleu!).
Anyway, enough with the ambience -- on to the grub.
Let me start off by admitting I'm not much of a foie gras fan (so sue me, foodies). Here, though, I downed every silky bite (my apologies to PETA; I'll try not to let it happen again).
The famous V.G.E. truffle soup (V.G.E. because it was concocted for Bocuse regular Valéry Giscard D'Estaing) that followed was surprisingly light once I punched through the puff pastry covering it; it was a nicely perfumed beef broth with cubed meat, veggies, and black truffle slices.
Personally, I think my fave was the red mullet with crusty potato "scales," in a lemon-cream sauce adorned with a "rosemary sprig" gracefully rendered in brown beef gravy -- truly a masterpiece combining lightness of flavor with a pleasing interplay of smooth and crunchy.
Not that I could fault the Bresse chicken, whose cream sauce with morels managed to be sinfully creamy without being at all heavy -- not always an easy trick to pull off, I've found.
Next up: Call me a wimp, but by the time the cheese trolleys rolled up, I was really starting to get a good feeling for why the ancient Romans invented the vomitorium. I gamely pressed on, sampling a spot of fresh fromage blanc, a couple of typical soft cowsmilk cheeses from the region, and a chèvre (soft goat cheese).
Finally, as my eyes were literally starting to roll up in my head, here come da desserts. Oh, all right -- a nicely subtle rum baba somehow found its way onto my plate, along with a small, perfect crême brûlée; a pot de chocolat (good, but not the best of the desserts I tried); and a slice of smooth chocolate cake made in the exquisite Lyon shop of Bocuse's nephew Phillippe Bernachon (which I later got to visit, too).
After then staggering back to my hotel, I spent two hours immobile in the room. The damage for all this at the time was a cool 200 euros (US$309) per person, even without wine; now it's up to 225€ (though at the moment this translates to about the same in greenbacks, at least -- US$308 -- due to the changing exchange rate).
Une Occasion Espéciale
Right, so -- worth it? After all, I (and probably you) have enjoyed memorable meals for a tenth that amount. "People save up half their lives for something like this," Guillemette told me (our return cabdriver, it turned out, had done just that, for a recent visit to Troisgros).
Therein lies the likely answer. More than a few cognoscenti agree that Bocuse has long since morphed into the ossified establishment he once tilted against, and both restaurant and cuisine are museum pieces essentially unchanged for 30 years -- yet somehow his reputation and three-star rating remain Teflon-coated.
Those with more attuned palates than mine can be left to argue whether or not three stars are still merited. I will agree that $80 is a ridiculous chunk of change for chicken in cream sauce, no matter how yummy, and from what I've heard Bocuse may spend more time schmoozing in the dining room or away from the restaurant altogether than overseeing what his people are sending out.
But what keeps 'em coming is the Bocuse mystique as well as the overall dining experience, which is top-drawer. It's just that I find it a little too old-fashioned, especially if I'm facing this level of outlay; I'll take the more exciting and diverse output of young Turks like Lyon's Nicolas Le Bec. And to be fair, it's also true that Bocuse has been branching out and keeping up with the quite a bit of late in other ways, including a string mod, buzzy Lyon brasseries and even a handful of marvelous "fast food" shops (I mean, all fast food should be this good, and this healthy). But as for the mother ship here, for a special-occasion meal of haute comfort food, the now 85-year-old lion of Lyon's still definitely une force to be reckoned with.
photos: David Paul Appell