review: toque of toques… (paul bocuse)
I went back to l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (a.k.a. Restaurant Paul Bocuse) because it was convenient.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t have gone back for other reasons. But I was literally down the street from the restaurant at l’Abbaye de Collonges for the day with Team U.S.A. in late January. So, I decided to pop in for a last-minute lunch.
I’m glad I did.
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After my last meal at Paul Bocuse, I said of the place: “Go once, and you’ll never forget it. Go twice, and you’ll wonder what other great meal you’re missing instead.”
Now that I’ve been twice, I can affirm that statement.
But, if you happen to be nearby, with no other plans (I can’t think of a reason why you’d be near this restaurant with no other plans), or you’re in the mood for classic French cuisine, you’d have no excuse for passing it by.
One of the managers at l’Abbaye – an adorably impish old man – called the restaurant to make a reservation for me.
I ate alone, happily, in a section of the restaurant that I didn’t even know existed – far in the back – with a window of my own.
I wasn’t there to dawdle or dally. I knew exactly what I wanted and made quick work of ordering. I took the “Menu Classique,” a four-course meal with four choices for both the first and second courses, followed by a cheese course, and ending with the restaurant’s unforgettable table-side buffet of desserts (140€).
I wanted hyper-classic dishes, and that is exactly what I got.
Black truffle whipped cream and Comté gougère.
Quenelle de Brochet
Sauce Nantua aux Écrivisses
Lièvre à la Royale
Poêlée de châtaignes, purée de pommes de terre.
Sélection de fromages fraise et affinés “Mere Richard”
Delices et Gourmandises
Glace de vanille.
To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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In Time Magazine’s “60 Years of Heroes” edition, Alain Ducasse said of Bocuse, “He’s the grumpy pope of French cuisine, traditionalist and innovator, the one and only Monsieur Paul. A sprightly 80-year-old, Bocuse has shaken and shaped France’s great culinary heritage more than anyone else before him.”
But there’s very little, if any, innovation and shaping going on at his 3 Michelin-starred restaurant (the longest-reigning 3-starred in the world) these days. His work was finished long ago. The same dishes have probably been offered now for over three decades, if not longer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means the restaurant has had three decades (or more) to perfect each plate.
And it shows.
Nearly everything on the menu is a monolith in today’s culinary textbooks.
If you go to one of the many bouchons around Lyon, you’ll find quenelle de brochet on the menu. A most Lyonnaise dish, it often arrives a pale, misshapen white log of pike mousseline, the top darkened under a broiler, lapping up a creamy sauce. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s delicious.
Monsieur Paul’s version is more elegant, comely in every way. It was perfectly shaped – a beautiful egg, turned by a slight of hand – coated with a rich sauce Nantua; a creamy reduction so intense with crayfish that I knew its taste precisely by nose alone. And it was perfectly made – fluffy and light, slightly firmer than the ideal omelet, this quenelle sat on a bed of diced mushrooms and crayfish.
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With a menu of iconic dishes, there are no seasons. (You’ll find lobster salad with tomatoes in December, for example, as I did last time.)
I missed having lièvre à la royale (hare with its own blood sauce) in the fall, when it usually appears briefly along with other wild game. So, I ordered it as my main course.
This slice of terrine was finely made.** The hare meat was incredibly soft and clean in flavor, though far from bland. The civet sauce, having the color and texture of hot chocolate, was also surprisingly clean; a touch flinty. Lodged in the middle was a square of foie gras, marked by a dot of white cream dripped on top. Beside the hair was a round of mashed potatoes, more butter than starch, studded with roasted chestnuts. You couldn’t fault a single thing on the plate.
Nothing about Paul Bocuse or his restaurant is small or stingy. Sometimes, the largesse seems grand and generous. At other times, it can have a factory feel. The cheese course is a good example. Whereas most restaurants present one of each different cheese on the cart, at Pont du Collonges, they bring out the equivalent of a cheese vending machine – a whole row devoted to each kind; the fear of running out banished.
They slice them thick. I had enough cheese for two or three. Comté, St. Marcellin, Puligny-St. Pierre, and Charolais: without exception, they were all too young for me. The fresh cheeses were chalky, the St. Marcellin far from creamy, and the Comté still a bit grassy. And they were a bit stiff, served a little on the cool side. They weren’t bad, but they’re were the ideal.
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The dessert course at Paul Bocuse overwhelms in the best of ways. It is one of the most extraordinary parade of sweets I’ve ever seen. There must have been at least two dozen different ones from which to choose; all of them brought to your table on a succession of trays.
As much as I wanted to revisit that fantastic baba from my last meal, they looked unusually dark this time (not burnt, but definitely more tan than they ought to have been). So I took the tarte tatin, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and, for good measure, a side of fruit salad.
Bocuse’s tarte tatin was a wonderful reinvention that redressed this traditional French dessert’s most common problem: soggy, gummy puff pastry. The thinly sliced apples had been caramelized in a mold until spoon-soft and then set on a sablee biscuit that was so crisp I nearly sent it flying off my plate trying to cut it. The vanilla ice cream was ultra thick, ultra creamy, full of vanilla. Together, it was a variety of texture, flavor, and temperatures. I can’t imagine a better version of this dessert.
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Why my petits fours – including a rich, chocolate pot de crème – arrived before dessert is up for debate. But overall, service was efficient and nice enough. I rather like the no-nonsense way about the staff. And I especially liked seeing the young in training – kids, no older than 16, running food and learning the trade of a profession, whose dignity is sadly slipping away in other regions of our world.
It’s easy to dismiss this restaurant as dated and irrelevant, especially since it can be so absurdly theme parkish in parts (the comically dressed doorman comes to mind). As I described it before, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges is Disney on the Saône.
But it is one of the last, remaining bridges to our culinary past. Once an epicenter of revolution and change, the restaurant is now suspended in time for us to behold and revere. If there’s any doubt over the immense impact that Paul Bocuse has made from his kitchen at Collonges de Mont d’Or, one need only walk into the Paul Bocuse Hall at the Eurexpo on the other side of the city, where, even as I was eating his quenelle and hare, Monsieur Paul held court over a dazzling assembly of chefs from around the world, all there to pay homage to the toque of toques.
Go once, and you’ll never forget it. Go twice, and you’ll wonder what other great meal you’re missing instead. Go thrice, this time, with checked expectations, and you might just realize that you weren’t missing much.
L’Auberge du Ponte de Collonges
Pont de Collonges
* The same, warm pumpkin soup with the truffled whipped cream I had last time as an amuse bouche came again, just as creamy, just as good. Beside it, the same Comté gougère I had last time too; a large puff with a beautiful, golden crust.
** I’ve had lièvre à la royale in many forms. While terrines usually seem like a less-fancy way to present meat, I find hare terrines more elegant, partly because you don’t have to worry about the game shot (presumably, it has been picked out).