Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Paris Journal 2006: Aux Lyonnais
I've always been interested in eating at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, and tonight I got my chance.
Ducasse, so decorated by the Michelin guides for his worldwide network of restaurants, isn't exactly thought of as a hero in New York. When his NYC joint opened at the Essex House in 2000, the reviews were not great ("a wow that wavers," the New York Times has said). If you weighed the so-so feedback against the astronomical prices, let's just say no one I know was beating a path to the door.
But when I began hunting for Paris picks before last year's trip, Aux Lyonnais started popping up everywhere. Ducasse has a bunch of restaurants in Paris, including an eponymous one that's supposedly incredibly opulent and hugely expensive, and Aux Lyonnais is regarded as more down-to-earth than many of the others but just as memorable. This was the place we booked way back on Friday afternoon.
Now, I've never eaten dinner in Lyon in the 1850s, but if I had, I'd imagine it would have been something like the meal Margy and I ate tonight. We weren't getting a "Ducasse" dinner (he was probably not even in the country), but that's to his credit -- he and his kitchen are clearly more interested in preserving the weighty charms of true Lyonnaise cooking than in advancing any modern, world-domination-through-excessive-amounts-of-truffles-and-foie-gras-type agenda.
After we had a lovely amuse of fresh cheese with herbs and shallots, Margy started with pumpkin soup with andouille sausage. A tangle of porky bits sat in the middle of the bowl, and a waiter poured the creamy orange potion over it. It was delicious, and I don't even like pumpkin soup (too sweet). As we started to dig in, another waiter swung over and placed a small plate next to Margy's spoon: "This is a cake that goes with the soup," he said. "Try it, and then after I'll tell you what it is."
What it was was awesome.
It was dense and contained little bits of meat. It reminded me of my mom's pizza rustica, or pizzagaina (ahem, "pizza keen"), but there was no cheese in it. Long after it was gone I had to beckon the waiter over to make good on his promise.
"It is a cake made with a pig's ear," he said. "If I tell you before, you would not eat it."
"Oh yes we would!" I said. I'm not quite interested in, say, gnawing on the whole ear of a pig, but I'm happy to enjoy the meat that comes from it. Especially now.
I began with a marinated-eel salad. It had been a goal of mine to try eel outside of a Japanese restaurant, and this was my first opportunity (sadly, my mom has never prepared it on Christmas Eve). I even recognized the word on the menu -- anguille -- from a mile away. The eel was snow white and chewy, but pleasantly so. It wasn't far from the strong flavor of sardines or mackerel, and I look forward to eating it again in a non-Japanese context. Of course, I look forward to eating it again in a Japanese context too!
Margy had chicken with vegetables and crawfish tails (pictured) for her main dish. It came in a red enamel vessel, straight out of the oven, and the bird was bursting with pure chicken flavor, which just underscores how flavorless chickens tend to be back home. The skin wasn't crisped, or even browned, and the crawfish didn't add much, but it was a homey, satisfying entree.
Meanwhile, I had crawfish quenelles (clearly crawfish are big in Lyon). These were essentially two giant white dumplings, just right in texture, neither too firm nor too soft, and they also arrived in a red enamel dish, still bubbling away. The quenelles sat in a deep-brown shellfish stock that was richly flavored, with crawfish tails scattered around the plate. I'd never had anything like this, and I liked it more as I went along. But Paris eating was taking its toll -- had I eaten this on our first night in town, I'd have cleaned my plate, but as it was I couldn't quite finish it.
Dessert was a large sablé cookie, spread with a layer of sweet cream and topped with stewed pears and plums. A great cap to a fun meal.
Ultimately, Aux Lyonnais did not provide our favorite Paris dinner, but its sheer timelessness, or should I say old-timeyness, made it an integral piece of the French-food puzzle that we're slowly assembling. I love the idea of traditional yet somewhat offbeat dishes surviving intact through the ages, shepherded by caring history-minded cooks from one century to another, and another.