Soupe aux Truffes Noirs “V.G.E.”
Paul Bocuse, Pont de Collonges, France
Swap the mouse ears for a toque, trade the turreted castle for an auberge, and convert the Potemkin “Main Street U.S.A.” into yards of colorful murals of chefs and tablescapes and you have Disney on the Saône.
Monsieur Paul Bocuse, the longest-reigning 3-star Michelin chef in the world, has branded his home office – the l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges on the banks of the Saône River – from head to toe.
His name is etched onto every piece of service ware and spelled out in billboard-sized enthusiasm atop the restaurant; surely an advertisement to all trains, planes, and automobiles happening by.
His figure – a much slimmer and younger one – is embossed, stamped, molded, and inscribed onto every fixture, sconce, stemware, and table-top accessory. Life-sized images of him appear throughout and around the restaurant. Photos of him – dating back decades – hang from every interior eve and above every urinal. And in every photo, he strikes the same, rigid pose in the same kitchen whites costume: ram-rod straight with arms folded like an Indian chief and a toque towering atop his head. I could name that silhouette in a heartbeat.
Paul Bocuse is an institution. He is an enterprise and a franchise. He is an international trademark. His name is stamped on over a dozen restaurants – including the Chefs de France restaurant in the French Pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot Center (run by his son Jerome). His influence can be felt everywhere.
It’s a small world after all.
He is père to three Bocuse d’Ors (Europe, Asia, and Latin America), a prestigious culinary title coveted by and competed for by the world’s best chefs every year.
Revered by all, he is the doyen of the French culinary elite. When asked by Chef le Squer whilst dining at Ledoyen two days earlier where else I’d be eating in France, I ran through my list, ending with “Paul Bocuse.” “Tut tut,” he corrected with his finger wagging: “Monsier Paul Bocuse.”
And above all, he is the grandfather of “nouvelle” cuisine.
A visit to l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges isn’t so much a culinary adventure as it is a culinary pilgrimage and rite. The restaurant’s website touts it as an “obligatory stopping point for gourmets from every corner of the globe.”
* * *
It was a bit wet and overcast, but nonetheless, it was Christmas day in Paris. Houston and I dragged ourselves up early to catch the bullet to Lyon.
I had not been to Lyon since 1999, when I was still a college student on a bistro budget. It was much prettier and more pleasant in the summer. Quiet and toe-curlingly frigid, Lyon wasn’t exactly exciting at 11 a.m. when I arrived this time.
A rather uneventful walk along the Rhône found us quickly in a cab on the way to the restaurant.*
It might be hard to believe now that Monsieur Paul Bocuse is an innovator (e.g. underfooting the sauce). By today’s standards, his food seems classic and traditional – stodgy, even. Portions are large – there’s a reason why Bocuse is a big boy. Plating is rudimentary – symmetrical and simple, Bocuse has no need for extraneous garnishes, dashes, or dots. And sauces are applied with a heavy, but not a sloppy, hand. You won’t find anything here that you couldn’t have found in 1970. Or in 1959 when the restaurant first opened.
Monsieur Bocuse’s cooking is the founthead to so much of modern French cuisine. A meal at l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges is like Art History 101 for the culinarily curious: it helps one place familiar and iconic masterpieces within context of each other, their artists, and history. The world makes more sense after you’ve experienced it.
We eschewed the carte and bypassed the fantastically priced Christmas Day menu and ordered the “Menu Grand Tradition Classique” (210€), a six-course progression featuring Monsieur Bocuse’s most well-known dishes.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal or on each dish for the individual photos.
Soupe de Potirron
Crème á la truffe
Soupe aux Truffes Noirs “V.G.E.”
Plat crée en 1975 pour l’Elysee.
Filet de Sole (Houston)
Aux nouilles Fernand Point
Selection de Fromages Frais et Affines
“Délices et Gourmandises”
Of all of the French 3-starred chefs, Paul Bocuse probably has the best attendance record. He’s fastidious about being in the house, as he was on this Christmas day.
Madame Bocuse made the rounds first, wishing each table a “Happy Christmas” with robotic charm.
Monsieur Bocuse – an 83 year-old, pear-shaped relic – followed, ambling and mumbling a merry note. He saw my camera resting on the table and, with Pavlovian reflexes, immediately moved into position for a shot with Houston. A by-standing server quickly dropped his chore and hurried over to get all of us in one shot.
I wasn’t expecting the food to impress me as much as it did. It wasn’t the most stimulating or exciting dining experience I’ve ever had, but dishes, like my “Rouget Barbet” (a swap-out for the Filet de Sole, which came with the tasting menu), were done with such soul-satisfying precision and technical proficiency that I couldn’t help but pause and marvel.
That mullet – clean as a whistle – was moist and soft while its armor of potato scales were crisp and light. The underlying lake of creamy sauce, laced with a rich, slightly sweet demi glace worked wonderfully with the fish , and especially well with the flaky and briny feuilletée d’anchois (puff pastry with anchovy) served on the side.
Houston’s “Filet de Sole” was also very good. A tribute to his father’s mentor, Ferdinand Point, this dish celebrated simple flavors with an elegant strip of delicate, moist sole laid across a tangle of broad noodles surrounded by an expanse of gently brulee cream sauce. This being a more lightly flavored dish – just shy of being dull – I preferred my mullet.
From the first bite – an amuse bouche featuring a comforting demitasse of warm, velvety pumpkin soup capped with truffled whip cream and an airy Comte gougere the size of a plum – to the last – a yeasty, spoon-soft baba drenched with sweet St. James rum – everything had a quintessential quality to it, as if that version was the first and only version that mattered.
The “Granité de Vignerons de Beaujolais,” served as the break between fish and meat, for example, had such an intense, singularly Beaujolais flavor that it made the wine seemed like water in comparison.
Nothing here will excite you, but it will please you immensely with its honesty. The “Escalope de Foie Gras de Canard Poelee au Verjus,” for example, was a simple masterpiece and pleasure. The plump filet of foie gras sported a judicious sear, coupled with nothing more than sweet, roasted apples and a crisp potato gaufrette. There was not a nit to pick.
A few dishes on the menu are truly sui generis. If Bocuse has one signature dish, it’s the “Soupe aux Truffes Noirs ‘V.G.E.,'” a soup, as the tailor-made terrines fashioned just for this course proudly boasts, the chef created in 1977 for then-President of France Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. This is more than just a soup. It’s luxury pot pie: the terrine is sealed with a golden and flaky puff pastry dome under which batons of bursting, custardy foie gras luxuriate in a rich beef broth chock-a-block with diced root vegetables and shaved black truffles.
Bocuse is also known for his “Volaille de Bresse en Vessie ‘Mere Fillioux,'” which combines showmanship and tradition. Like the “Pintade Pochee en Vessie” that I had at Guy Savoy, this Bresse chicken was presented encased in an inflated pig’s bladder. The chicken is birthed from the bladder and carved table-side. The breast is plated simply with buttered vegetables – snap peas, carrots, haricots verts, and (oddly) daikon radish – a spoonful of sticky rice (shorter grain than I would have expected), and generously sauced with a creamy vin jaune sauce and an avalanche of morels.
The thigh and leg meat followed as a second course, served simply on a tuft of crispy frisee lettuce dressed with bracingly tart vinegar that provided a needed lift and refresher from the otherwise heavy fare.
As classic and iconic as this chicken is, I can’t say I was enthralled. The chicken meat was rather tasteless, despite having been stuffed with truffles. And it was a bit dry, despite having been cooked in a air-tight bladder and being drenched in cream sauce. The accompanying vegetables were also a bit lifeless – snap peas in December?
And that’s what is a bit anomalous about a lot of French chefs. As much as French culinary culture collectively focuses on seasonality and ingredient integrity, it’s surprising how many top toques color way outside the garden’s natural boundaries.
Guy Savoy, for example, serves his famous “Soupe d’Artichaut” in the dead of winter, as does Briffard the “Premier Asperges Vert du Luberon” – “first of the season asparagus,” which I found vapid and lifeless in mid-December.
For all they contribute to the culinary world, the French put up with some frumpy, if not tasteless, vegetables.
And Monsieur Bocuse is no different. He seemed untroubled by the loamy, watery, and tasteless tomato that crowned an otherwise lovely “Salade de Homard du Maine á la Parisienne,” which I asked for in lieu of the foie gras course that came with the tasting menu. The reddish round was served chilled, garishly glazed with clear sheen of gelatin. It was awful.
The lobster salad, however, was quite good, reminding me why I prefer Maine lobsters to those that crawl around European waters. It was sweet, silky, with just a wee bounce.
A fine example of Bocuse’s largesse, this salad was quite substantial, featuring nearly an entire lobster’s worth of meat, drizzled with creamy dressing (I’m guessing a mayonnaise-base of some sort). The chunks of meat bedded on a cold potato salad that contained, among other things, peas.
The cheese selection here won’t elicit a riveting review (“Selection de Fromages Frais et Affines“). The usual suspects line up: buttery Reblochon, fleshy Comte, and tiny lollipops of the locally produced “la Petite Chevre Lyonnaise.” But, like everything else, the cheese selection was quite solid.
The dessert selection, however, was absolutely unforgettable (“Délices et Gourmandises“). Instead of a dessert menu, they bring out the entire pastry selection – a veritable buffet of sugar – to you. The desserts – spread out over four stands – are parked around your table until its audience is required at another, at which point, two or three servers begin the process of moving the desserts, stand by stand, plate by plate, to its next destination.
While I’ve oft been tempted to exhaust a dessert cart (I’ve done it once, with the help of friends at Le Bec Fin), that feat proved impossible here. Notwithstanding the prodigious amount of food we had already consumed, the number and sizes of the desserts were overwhelming. There was ice cream, at least three chocolate confections, tiramisu, small cakes, large cakes, ile flottantes, and an array of macerated fruits.
Houston pointed to the famous Bernachon President cake (“Gateau President Maurice Bernachon“) A tribute to a fellow Frenchman and chocolate impresario, this domed round featured hazelnut genoise layered with chocolate ganache. Bound in a thick shell of chocolate frosting, the cake was crowned with a frilly, anemone-like hat of shaved chocolate and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Rich and thick, Houston loved it. So did I.
Noticing that every table around us had selected the “Baba au Rhum ‘Traditional,'” I felt the need to try Bocuse’s version.
Instead of the traditionally tall and slender cylindrical shape, Bocuse’s bun looked more like a squat, glazed donut. The bun was fluffy, soft, and incredibly light. Thoroughly saturated and drunk with sweet, dark rum, it was an excellent baba. It was potent.
On the lighter side, the “Salade de Fruits,” assembled on the spot from a number of bowls containing various fruits soaked in vanilla syrup, was equally gratifying.
My salad included strawberries, pineapple, orange suprêmes, grapefruit suprêmes, litchis, plum, candied kumquat, and candied orange rind. Like most of Bocuses food, it bypassed fuss and landed squarely on delicious.
It being Christmas Day, our server also brought us a slice of the restaurant’s “Bouche de Nöel.” Topped with a mushroom meringue, this “log” of genoise was filled with a dense, marzipan-like custard. I’ve never cared for Bouche de Nöel, and this one didn’t convince me to like them either.
Is l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges a worthy destination? Sure it is, in the same way that any great museum gift shop is a destination for history and art lovers. Though most of the dishes exhibited timeless appeal, for the most part, they elicited very little emotional. Like the poster prints in museum gift shops, these masterpieces, having been stripped of their historical and cultural personalities, were now – much like Monsieur Bocuse himself – simply uncanny reproductions of relics to be framed and revered from afar.
Perhaps it was because we were there on a holiday. Or, perhaps, the restaurant has simply turned into a tourist destination. But there was a factory feel to the operation. Like the chocolate petits fours that looked like they had been passed through an enrobing machine, the food and service, precise as it was, was a little too uniform for the human heart. It’s clear that Monsieur Bocuse is no longer in the kitchen. And it’s clear that he has a fleet of very well-trained cooks assembling the food.
I don’t know what a meal at l’Auberge du Pont du Collonges might have been like thirty or forty years ago. I suspect it was something great. Something that felt revolutionary. Something caught up in momentum.
There’s no dispute that Monsieur Bocuse and his food have attained legendary status. But in so achieving, they’ve simply become something of weight – inert institutions that move little and create little.
L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges is still an important place. Go once, and you’ll never forget it. Go twice, and you’ll wonder what other great meal you’re missing instead.
Pont de Collonges
* A round trip taxi ride from the train station (or center of town) to the restaurant cost us around 50€.
** There are multiple “rooms” in Bocuse’s auberge. When making the reservation, I had requested a window table in “la Rotonde” – the room least plagued by floral prints and other clutter. They could not have accommodated us with more enthusiasm.