We were well into our main courses at CafÃ© Comptoir Abel in downtown Lyon when our server appeared with a large, steaming casserole dish in her mitted hands. She asked politely if we would like some quenelles de brochet, a house -- and Lyonnaise -- specialty.
We were momentarily confused; we had all ordered other dishes and were enjoying them immensely.
Then she explained that the quenelles -- a blend of pureed pike, bechamel, and cream baked into a shape resembling a small football -- had not been ordered by anyone else at the 8 p.m. seating. And that by the later seating, they would not be fresh enough to serve. She thought that we, as Canadian visitors, would like to try them, free of charge.
The quenelles were large, a meal in themselves and C$30 on the menu. We obliged by taking two to share among the four of us. The two remaining quenelles were then given to a family a few tables away. They were wonderful.
That's Lyon, the culinary capital of France. If the 8 p.m. quenelles don't sell, then give them away. The idea of serving them after their prime is purely unthinkable.
Situated at the confluence of the RhÃ´ne and SaÃ´ne rivers, Lyon is France's second largest city, with more than four million residents in the metropolitan area and is a busy centre for chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech businesses. But its main tourist draw is its cuisine, thanks to the fertile farms and vineyards around it and the dedication of its legion of fine chefs.
Where To Stay
The most central area of Lyon is the 2nd Arrondisement near Place Bellecour, not far from the Perrache train station. Vieux Lyon, the 5th Arrondisement and the oldest section of the city, is also a good area for visitors.
We stayed at the Globe et Cecil Hotel at 21 Rue Gasparin (011-33-4-7842-5895), a classic, 60-room facility located on a quiet street just a half-block from Place Bellecour. The rooms are cosy and roomy by French standards, and the air conditioning works well.
Breakfast is excellent, and the staff are friendly and accommodating. The hotel is surrounded by seemingly every French clothing and houseware boutique possible, and it's a short walk to the Metro and to both rivers. Fine hotel and great location.
Lyon is the home of world-renowned chef Paul Bocuse and his presence is seen throughout the city. He owns five brasseries in the city and has lent his name to the Bocuse D'Or culinary competition and to Lyon's central food market, Les Halles de Lyon -- Paul Bocuse.
And there is much more to food here. Bouchons -- restaurants like Abel -- serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine of tripe soup, chicken liver salad, lentil salad, the shockingly pink praline dessert, marinated herring, and of course, quenelles. It's filling, worker's fare that is often served at long tables with glasses of red wine from the nearby Beaujolais.
In addition to Abel at 25 Rue Guynemer (011-33-4-7837-4618), we had a fine lunch at Le Meuniere, 11 Rue Neuve (011-33-4-7828-6291).
Moustachioed proprietor Jean-Louis Gelin is worth the visit for his energy and warm welcome.
We also had a fine meal of contemporary French cuisine at Les Loupiotes at 4 Rue du Petit David (011-33-4-7837-4062), excellent brasserie fare at Leon de Lyon at 1 Rue Pleny, (011-33-4-7210-1112), and numerous baguette lunches procured from patisseries and boulangeries and markets throughout the city.
But the place we visited most frequently was Pignol, a restaurant and patisserie at 17 Rue Emile Zola (011-33-4-7837-3961), a few hundred metres from our hotel. Their pastries were among the best we've ever had. (I still dream about the coconut pyramid.)
Aside from the markets, patisseries, and boutiques, Lyon is a pretty city. The riverbanks have long, treed walkways along them and markets of food, art, and antiques pop up frequently.
In Vieux Lyon, historic pageants are held on occasion, and narrow streets take you through a maze of historic squares and buildings.
A visit to the Croix-Rousse district reveals the silk-making history of Lyon. The major supplier of silk to the French court in the days of the Bourbons, Lyon employed hundreds of "canuts" or silk workers. Tours take you through "traboules" (covered walkways) into the workers' homes where their looms were often kept and update you on Lyon's current silk industry.
Check with Lyon Tourism at www.en.lyon-france.com for more information.
Lyon is accessed easily by France's TGV train system.
The trip from Paris is about two hours by TGV and about five hours from London on the Eurostar. There's no real need for a car in Lyon; Metro and walking are the best ways to get around.
"Since the 16th century, Lyon's cuisine has delighted many a customer in its 'bouchon' bistros and in its first restaurants. Lyon's cuisine owes its virtuosity first of all to the quality of local produce. The farms of the Bresse and Charolais regions, the wild game of the Dombes, the fish from the Savoy lakes, the fruits and vegetables of the RhÃ´ne valley and the Forez region are all within easy reach and supply the essential ingredients for Lyon's famed cuisine. The local culinary specialties are plentiful and varied: pork products and 'Cervelle de Canuts' soft cheese with herbs, 'bugnes' beignets, fried pork fat, Lyonnais salad, 'tablier de sapeur' tripes, 'gras double' tripes, 'petit salÃ©' ham with lentils, 'quenelles' dumplings (a mixture of butter, semolina and fish), black pudding, 'andouillette' chitterling sausage, 'paillasson' fried hashed potatoes and more."