I just saw Thomas Keller (of French Laundry and Per Se fame) tweet a photo of himself with the legendary chef Paul Bocuse, taken when Bocuse was awarded an Augie award for “Chef of the Century” by the Culinary Institute of America. It immediately took my mind back to when Simone and I had the opportunity to dine at Bocuse’s restaurant several years ago in France. We were staying in Paris, and being that it was my dream to eat at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges ever since I watched Bocuse’s cooking show on television in the 80′s we set out on a day trip to Lyon to make it come true.
The train trip to Lyon was about two hours long, a good chance to see some of the countryside. As we left Paris and made our way further south you could see the huge wine regions, with “wine vines” (as my mother would call them) as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t a whole lot of wine being produced though, the entire countryside was covered in snow.
Paul Bocuse’s restaurant is very gaudy French from the outside, and the inside isn’t much more subdued. The outside has huge murals of legendary chefs and their stories, all in French of course. I think we would have benefitted from an actual dictionary rather than the phrasebook – it was pretty useless.
We were met at the taxi by a porter in a red suit and a hat, who took our coats and led us to the Maître’D. We were then introduced to our waiter, Geffery. Geffery looked like… think Johnny Knoxville if he was French and playing the role of James Bond.
We were some of the first to be seated for the lunchtime session, and it was all very formal and intimidating. You straddle the line between not wanting to look like a Neanderthal and not wanting to look like a robot either. The menu was presented, and it was all in French. I assumed that because the staff all spoke English so well that the menu would have a bilingual explanation for each dish. WRONG. So we sat there going through each dish and although I could pick out the main ingredient in each one pretty easily, there were subtleties that made the actual dish VERY different. We ordered the entrees easily enough; S had a seasonal vegetable soup, I had the escargot in traditional parsley butter. I went for a pretty safe option in the Filet of Beef with Perigueux Sauce for mains, S went for what we assumed was a safe option: Veau (Veal). The waiter was kind enough to repeat our order back to us in English, and when he said “veal sweetbreads” an immediate change of plans was required – Fricassee of Bresse chicken in cream sauce with morel mushrooms it was!
The entrees came out, my escargot were plated on a hot silver tray, a dozen of them, served in their shells. They were the biggest I had ever had, almost the size of prawns, but very tasty in a garlic and parsley butter. S got the best service for all her dishes. Her soup came out in a large, silver serving bowl, and was then ladled into her bowl. She then had the option of some grated Gruyere and croutons. She accepted both, but not realised she had to say “when” – she got a few more croutons than she had bargained on. First mouthful down and she proclaimed it to be the best vegetable soup she had ever had.
The wine kept going down well, and it was soon time for the mains. My beef came out with a rich jus and sep mushrooms, with a slice of foie gras on top that was as big as the steak and almost as thick. Some poor old goose gave his whole liver the me in that meal, bless his soul. Once again S got the deluxe silver service, her chicken being served from a terrine, then the vegetables added by two waiters before the whole plate was presented to her. The mains were very very good. Amazingly this was the first time I had ever eaten seps, and for Simone, the first time she had eaten morels.
Following mains we were offered cheese, and when I say “cheese” I don’t mean the “cheese platter with 3 cheeses and some crackers”. While we declined the offer (to preserve the little remaining space in our stomachs for dessert!), the table next to us elected to have some cheese, and immediately 2 side tables were pulled up to their main table, and two huge platters of cheese were arranged. Johnny Knoxville then asked them one at a time what they would like, and whatever they wanted from the array of over 20 different cheeses (S counted 24, and about 15 we had never seen before) was theirs. The service of the cheese was an omen of things to come.
We asked for the dessert menu, and Johnny informed us that there wasn’t one – they’d bring the desserts out and we could take what we wanted. I figured this would be a “dessert trolley” (or something similar), but no. Firstly we were presented with a small chocolate mousse that was just unbelievably good, thick, and rich. At the same time they placed a small two-tiered serving dish on our table with an assortment of petit fours that included chocolate truffles, chocolates filled with liqueur, and some unbelievable macaroons – the first we’d ever eaten. We had a chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and pistachio flavoured macaron between us, I may have ate them all to be perfectly honest! That was a delightful and perfect end to a meal… but this was PAUL f**king BOCUSE, and that was but a prelude to the main dessert event!
FOUR side tables were pulled up to surround our main table, and waiters busied themselves at the task of filling them with an amazing array of desserts for our perusal. Being dessert lovers, our photographic brains took careful note what was on offer, and it was as follows (from right to left, front to back): Chocolate cake (with about an inch of mousse), Tarte Tatin, A pastry-type thing, Crème Brule, “Floating Islands” (made to Bocuse’s grandmother’s recipe), small berry tarts, “Rum cakes” filled with custard, an array of fruits; lychee, pineapple and more, “Presidentiale” chocolate cake by Maurice Bernachon, a chocolate cake with cherries and a hedgehog-looking chocolate arrangement on top that stood about 4 inches high, a serving bowl with fresh fruit salad, vanilla ice cream, mandarin sorbet, red fruits sauce, and cream. Phew, I think that was all.
We then had the opportunity to select as many of those things as we wanted. I went with a tarte tatin. Geffery asked if I would like some cream, I said “a little”. He piled it on, then offered some “red fruits sauce”, which I accepted. He spooned that onto the cream and made a gorgeous little pattern with the red sauce mixed through the cream with a knife. I also got had mandarin sorbet on the side (it sounded too good to pass up) and it really was amazing. S chose a crème Brule, she was a little full from her other courses so she didn’t go as hard as she would have wanted!
It was over. We arranged a cab, and I walked around outside and took some photos. Mrs Bocuse was constantly checking in on diners, and it was unfortunate that we didn’t have the French language skills to converse with her outside of standard pleasantries.
We got back to the hotel at about 10.30pm after a long day, and as it was our last night in Paris we collected the tripod and went to the Eiffel Tower one more time to set up some night shots and some night video. What an unforgettable lunch!