August 24 2010
There is much sport to be had in comparing the restaurants of London and Paris. London has the edge on Indian cuisine; Paris still does big brasseries better than anywhere; London’s waiters are often less skilled, but also less rude... and so on. Compare our countries’ second cities, however, and even the most fervent Anglophile might be forced to admit that Lyons holds considerably more interest for the gastronome than Birmingham. Founded on a tradition that stretches back to Rabelais, Lyons has a culinary history that draws even the Parisians to its bistros and bouchons. The only time I ever ate well in Birmingham, I took my own picnic.
But in Lyons, things aren’t what they used to be. Léon de Lyon, for so long the standard-bearer for Lyonnaise haute cuisine, is now an unremarkable bistro; Les Halles, the covered food market in which fierce housewives once swarmed, elbows sharpened, now has all the charm of an airport terminal, its rough-and-ready charms supplanted by winsome traîteurs. Les mères de Lyon, the long line of formidable female chefs who built the city’s culinary reputation, would be appalled.
However, there is good news. One of the aforementioned mères’ old haunts is on splendid form, thanks to the very talented Mathieu Viannay, head chef at La Mère Brazier. It is a discreet, unpretentious sort of place, and the food is top-notch: the pâté en croûte made with Bresse chicken and foie gras – a superb interpretation of a Lyonnais classic – encapsulates everything that is good about terrines, pâtés and pork pies, especially its sublime jelly. It is also a place for saccharophiles: a lightly set pannacotta is served with coffee granita; perfect coffee ice cream comes with cream and fresh, hot espresso. The service is charming, too.
The other great rising star of Lyons is Nicolas Le Bec, who has taken an enormous old warehouse in southern Lyons’ rejuvenated Confluence district and turned it into a busy, buzzy gastrodrome (pictured). Le Bec refuses to be hidebound by the city’s traditions – here you will find wagyu beef, Asian spices, burrata from southern Italy, Spanish hams and even foreign wines – and his cosmopolitan approach is evidently much appreciated by a new generation of gourmets. Rue Le Bec’s vast premises house not just bars, cafés and restaurants, but a florist, a fumoir, a cook shop, a bakery, a wine shop... there is even one stunning hotel suite.
Les mères might not have grasped everything that Le Bec is trying to do, but his attempts to wrest cuisine lyonnaise away from touristy bouchons and stuffy, multi-starred dining rooms and to return it to the people, would, I think, have met with much sympathy. If only somebody would do something similar in Birmingham.