The Gannet’s earliest memories of French food involve smearing La Vache Qui Rit soft cheese (I had yet to discover Epoisses) on a crusty baguette and washing it down with a ribaldly named bottle of Pschitt lemonade (ditto Côtes du Rhône).
From time to time, however, family camping holidays included a proper meal in a restaurant. I dimly recall such an occasion in Lyon, when I tried snails for the first time. I loved them – actually, I loved the garlic butter in which they were drowned and how well it soaked into yet more crusty baguette. My penchant for cuisine lyonnaise has persisted ever since I was in short trousers, which makes the name of the bistro I tried on a recent visit strangely apt.
Les Culottes Longues – there are framed pairs of bloomers on the walls – is a stone’s throw from Place Bellecour in Presqu’Ile, between the Rhône and the Saône rivers, perhaps Lyon’s happiest hunting ground for bars and restaurants. The ground floor has an open kitchen and a few tables; there is another dining room at the top of a spiral staircase.
I sat by the kitchen and had a splendid version of the classic lièvre à la royale: hare boned, rolled and stuffed with foie gras, braised in a red- wine sauce thickened with its liver and blood. If it sounds like a hugely rich and meaty dish, that’s because it is. Portions at Les Culottes Longues, as in any Lyon bistro or bouchon worthy of the name, are huge.
Chef/proprietor David Cano is at home with wild food – partridge, mallard and venison featured on the menu, as did various kinds of mushroom – but he has a sure hand with fish, too, baking a sea bass in salt, for example, so that it is impeccably fresh and well-seasoned. And – always a good sign – le patron mange ici, as he proved later in the evening, generously sending over a glass of marc while he tucked into his dinner.
Those with less hefty appetites might instead walk around the corner to Rue Laurencin, a street colonised by chef Thomas Ponson: there is Thomas, his gastronomic restaurant, Comptoir Thomas, a buzzy modern bistro, and Cantinetta Thomas, his trattoria (with, unusually for Lyon, an excellent Italian wine list).
On the corner of the street, Café Thomas (pictured) is a delightful and lively wine bar, where a young crowd feasts on excellent tapas: pinchos of salt cod brandade, perhaps, brochettes with juicy, garlic-marinated prawns, or smoky chorizo cooked in red wine.
I had the assiette of eight tapas, for a very reasonable €15: no snails, sadly, but mussels instead, drenched in garlic butter. And a terrific bottle of Côtes du Rhône, JL Chave’s Mon Coeur 2011: these days, I would rather be full of wine than full of Pschitt.