Lyon: Café Thomas and Les Culottes Longues

The French metropolis is a happy hunting ground for food on the wild and hearty side

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.

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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.

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