Having now visited a couple of the capitals of French gastronomy, Georges Blanc is striking in that they basically own a town. The first thing you'll notice upon entering the village of Vonnas is that the entire thing is either directly under Blanc ownership or paid homage to the Blanc family.
The hotel and restaurant abut a small river flowing past, and the whole town is lit up with a mid-temperature yellowish light that showcases the half-timber architecture. It gives the place a vaguely German feel, but definitely don't tell them that.
The main restaurant pictured above won its third star in 1981 and has held it since; the village has been built up around the original building in the intervening decades under the guidance of the current Blanc patriarch, Georges. The Blanc family themselves were generations of innkeepers who set up shop near the Bresse chicken market fairgrounds and made a name for their exceptional preparations of poultry. Over time and several generations, they refined their art to the point of three Michelin stars. Similar to Les Prés d'Eugénie, the entire campus is about as French as things could possibly get. Based on these examples, I've created an easy playbook for becoming a famous French chef:
- Inherit your family's restaurant
- Open a ton of stores, shops, and bistros in the home town; simultaneously move the restaurant upmarket
- Build a brand out of the restaurant, keep going more luxurious
- Pass on to your kids
VONNAS, FRANCE (NEAR LYONS)
PRICE PAID: $375PP (INCL. WATER, WINE, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL RATING: 6.0/10
As soon as we enter, we are immediately walked back to the anteroom just outside the large dining room. With its great stone fireplace, high timbered ceilings, and tasteful colors and decoration, this room screams "cozy," and also, "you are in a castle," and also, "you are definitely in France." I love it.
We are invited to review the menus and are offered champagne; a really delicious non-vintage Billecart-Salmon. The glass exudes that distinctive salmon-pink color with a hint of gold, a nose of bright fresh strawberries and currants, and lots of fresh tree fruit (pears, apples, peaches) on the palate. A refreshing choice for a greeting beverage. The menu consists of several interesting à la carte options and three tasting menus;
- A 7-course with pigeon main course for €290
- Another 7-course with their famous AOC Bresse chicken main course (meaning the chickens come from a controlled appellation, like wine) for €210
- A 6-course without the lobster precursor for €170. Given how famous that chicken is, we went for the middle-of-the-road €210 menu.
The first bites, from left to right:
- Lightly smoked salmon, fresh and neither firm nor soft on the palate; a perfectly prepared bite. 10/10.
- Ravioli with finely chopped vegetables (zucchini foremost among them) and that wonderfully doughy handmade-pasta texture. 9/10.
- A "bonbon" of foie gras, balsamic, and nuts. The balsamic is a wise choice as it cuts right through the rich, rich, rich foie gras without sweetening the bite. Delicious, but a touch heavy as a starter; it's too early to start feeling full! 8/10.
In fine dining, the head chef's tradition of walking out and greeting the guests can be charming. Never in the 80+ 3-stars that I have visited, though, was a chef more vaguely mailing it in than this dude. Chef Georges Blanc walked up to our aperitifs table, very begrudgingly allowed the photo above, and then went through the motions of signing a menu. He asked us where we were from, and before I had even finished saying the three syllables in, "Chicago," he was like, "YUP, FASCINATING, ANYWAY MUST GO," and availed himself to a more interesting table, where he spent the next twenty minutes. The level of perfunctoriness was beyond comical. Ah, France.
Our menu selections made and first bites consumed, we are asked to stand and led into the main dining room. Large, red-monogrammed napkins await as we are brought to our table near the center of the room. I dig the matching water glasses.
A very large server stand breaks up the space, once again offset nicely with bold colors and a lovely polished stone floor. Aggressive lighting that matches the building's exterior. This place is nothing if not stylish!
An insanely rich and delicious croissant made with fleur de sel landed almost as soon as we hit the chairs. Two tubs of salted butter also arrived, announcing themselves as "Grand Beurres de Bresse," for which no equally fancy words exist in English but approximately: "The Incredibly Fancy Butter from the Bresse Region Can You Even Believe You Are Eating This Probably Not." Enormous crystals of salt crowd the top of the near-melting butter; it's totally delicious, but contact your cardiologist beforehand.
This gorgeous presentation titled "Earth & Sea" includes a Gillardeau oyster and Royal Ossetra Caviar. This is a really big-guns combination of exquisitely branded seafood, and it works together like a power couple crushing the dance floor. The bite itself is large but comfortable in one go. There are hints of mushrooms inside the shell, a thoughtful touch. 9/10, strong start.
Continuing the theme of unbelievably traditional French cuisine, some Frog's legs, served hot and cold. The cool-looking triangles are lemon butter. The legs themselves are from are from the region of Dombes where they originate, and they are bestowed color by some lovely Safran grown in France. Frog's legs remind me almost precisely of Chicken McNuggets in both flavor and texture, and these do not fail to meet that standard. 8/10.
Next up, some Coquilles de St. Jacques with candied chestnut and butternut squash, beetroot sauce, red onion, and nuts at 6'o'clock. Straight up: the Coquilles are overcooked, so much so that it's tough to get a knife through. On top of that, the whole thing is pretty plain and could use a dash of salt. There's an interesting hint of curry in the red onion, but bad preparation is bad preparation. I almost sent it back; probably should've. 5/10.
Another dish so French it can hardly contain itself: blue lobster with mushroom cannelloni and black truffle raviolis. The lobster is well-cooked; maybe a little dry in the claw. The raviolis and black truffles nicely draw out the sweetness of the lobster meat, but I must say that the mushroom pasta cylinder felt unnecessary. Keeping it super French, the butter sauce is made with a vin jaune and is very, very butter. Yes, butter. 7/10.
And finally, on to the famous Bresse chicken served by the restaurant since their inception many years ago. Interestingly, there is apparently a protected classification system for French chicken similar to the one that exists in wine. Similar to how it is illegal to label sparkling white wine from anywhere but Champagne as Champagne, Bresse chicken enjoys a similarly protected status. With the meaningful difference, of course, that while there are many protected classes of wine, there is only one protected class of chicken... Another name for this dish would be Chicken Supreme with champagne sauce, veggies, and pancakes, and I kind of prefer that title. The protein itself is silky smooth, incredibly moist, and delicious, and it's accompanied by some "foie blond" with butter to the right. Even in the Nouvelle style, French castle cooking is just so goddamn rich I simply cannot believe it, but this is an excellent example of where it can still appeal to a skeptic like me. 8/10.
After that broadside of salt and fat, it is time to give sugar its turn. The first desserts are brought out on several small plates, and include caramel and chocolate followed by this enormous construction of coconut directly above. It's beautiful to look at, and the coconut and chocolate go together pretty well, but it winds up being an absolute shitload of a serving. Way, way too much, but that's the only real issue. 8/10.
Next, a slice of Vanilla and chocolate pastry doing their best impression of Frank Gehry's architecture with a large triangle of baked cracker suspended impossibly by some vanilla frosting as adhesive. It's satisfying to break open and consume, and the flavors of bright Tahitian vanilla punch through the deep rich chocolate and pair perfectly. A real high point, and I'm glad to see that at least the pastry chef is willing to take some risks. 9/10.
Absolutey last, some pretty excellent handmade chocolates. Marzipan, orange, and caramel round the event out. 8/10.