After the previous night's dinner at Georges Blanc, it was a relief to visit another French gastronomic centerpoint that takes itself just a touch less seriously than the chef in Vonnas. With its distinctive candy-colored exterior and whimsical touches, Bocuse's restaurant seems far more comfortable in its own skin, and was a much better time.
This is it, for many: the capital of French gastronomy, and the home of the long-lived King of Michelin 3-star cooking, Paul Bocuse. Over 90 years old and the only person alive to keep his 3-star ranking for 50+ years, Paul is famous for his leadership in cuisine as well as his eponymous global cooking competition Bocuse d'Or.
It's hard to overstate Bocuse's influence over the fine dining world; his own menu takes great pains to emphasize his long-running success. Check out Paul standing next to every Michelin book he's received 3 stars from, above and left.
Run by his trusted executive chef Olivier Couvin, who could not possibly be looking more French than he is in the photo to the right, Auberge focuses on classic dishes refined over many years into the highest expression of French cooking. They accomplish this while remaining adherents of the nouvelle style (which tends to be less calorie-dense than the older style of high French cooking that relied almost exclusively on fat and salt in cardiac arrest-inducing quantities). While I will stop short of saying that they absolutely fucking nailed it, this was an excellent, fun, way-more-laid-back experience that I had thought it would be, and a local high point of the trip.
COLLONGES-AU-MONT-D'OR, FRANCE (NEAR LYONS)
PRICE PAID: $212PP (INCL. WATER, TWO GLASSES OF WINE, TAX, TIP)
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
As soon as we enter the restaurant we are offered our places at the table and the restaurant's lunch menu. There are four choices:
- The 7-course Menu Grand Tradition Classique, €270, that includes Bocuse's famous soupe aux truffles V. G. E. dish that was created in 1975. Cool trivia: "V.G.E." stands for Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the French President he invented the dish for.
- A 6-course Menu Bourgeois, €230, with a focus on veal, lobster, and heavier dishes.
- A 4-course Menu Tradition, €170, with some of the dishes that made Paul famous back in the day. After getting shelled with extremely heavy French cuisine the night before, we opted for this one, the lightest set menu. It turned out to be more than sufficient to carry us for the rest of the day.
- An à la carte offering with appetizers in the €30-€85 range, mains €66-€250, cheese service for €35, and dessert for €40; so an expected total price of €172-€260. Though the spread of pricing is large, this is a poorer-than-average deal compared to the set menus across 3-star restaurants globally. If you visit, opt for one of the fixed menus.
Slightly more stylish and less insane-looking than the exterior, the dining room exudes a certain Old World charm that lands somewhere between fancy railcar, palace drawing room, and countryside inn. I especially love the hulking armoire in the corner.
As a greeting appetizer, we are brought a mushroom, leek, and potato vichyssoise with white cream complete with a tiny black truffle hat. The soup is rich and buttery, with an extremely full mouthfeel that resembled clam chowder in texture, and paired perfectly with the black truffle on top. The puff pastry was a nice, crunchy touch. 8/10.
If you came to Paul Bocuse's expecting them to knock french bread out of the park, then you wouldn't be disappointed. An extremely traditional, aesthetically pleasing loaf of pain traditionel is dropped off along with a half-cylinder of salty, rich, delicious butter from Brittany. The butter is perfectly creamy and luxurious; it's a real struggle not to take down the entire plate in between courses. 10/10 overall.
Next, we get into the first course of the menu; lobster prepared in a style called L'Armoricaine that would best be described as a casserole. The dish is served nuclear-hot; once it's given a solid 5-7 minutes to cool I found it incredibly fresh and flavorful, with lots of vegetable chunks and a rich buttery sauce. The green foam on top is tarragon, and the earthiness balances the sweetness of the lobster meat and the basic flavors of the potato and celery perfectly (basic meaning not-acid, not a preference for Starbucks). 9/10, but only because it was served so scaldingly hot—the flavors were perfect.
A few thoughts on this Bresse chicken:
- It's basically a perfect chicken breast, a perfect pile of rice, and a perfect scoop of steamed spinach with morel mushrooms on top. Simple as hell and totally balanced.
- Not to be mean, but it's way, way better than the one made by Georges Blanc, which is interesting because he basically built his whole brand around making awesome Bresse chicken.
Next, up rolled this densely populated cheese tray cart. I selected some classics—a very mild Brie, an extraordinarily pungent washed-rind Pont-l'Évêque, and some Camembert. 9/10.
So completely French it almost hurts... Crêpes a l'Orange, AKA Crêpes Suzette were served as a precursor to dessert itself. The name of the dish originates from the name of King Edward VII's dining companion when he would venture to Paris for dinner; the dish was invented specifically for her.
Unfortunately a touch soggy and quite alcoholic-tasting, the crêpes are overshadowed by the super-sugary beignet and the delicious tower of petit fours served alongside. The petit fours included some almond-y madeleines that were particularly awesome, and an assortment of chocolates and baked goods. The tower was a touch confusing, because they normally signal the very end of the meal and the bringing of the final bill.
However! Reaching this point in the meal triggered what could only be described as a towering, massive, seemingly endless parade of dessert carts. It felt a little unbalanced to only get a handful of savory courses followed by an almost-equal portion of dessert (the set menus vary in size, but they likely do the same dessert service for everyone for simplicity), but I shan't complain.
An effectively endless lineup of mobile trays wound their way towards our table, with what appeared to be the entire dining room staff involved in the moving, plating, presenting, and serving of dessert to our table alone. The tradition repeated as each table reached the end of their menus. A Seussian display of color, texture, and quantity.
I very responsibility limited myself to three of what I felt were the most attractive options on offer—a ramequin of crème brûlée (9/10), a plate of fresh fruit (10/10), and ice cream (10/10).
The incredibly bright, fresh plate of fruit (like just-landed-from-Spain fresh) was refreshing and light, and the scoop of Madagascar Vanilla ice cream was assembled into the fan-shaped presentation tableside; the server hand-drizzled into the gorgeous plating you see in the image. 10/10 overall.
Particularly rich, floral, and fresh coffee from Indonesia. A fittingly satisfying conclusion to one of the best lunches in the project.