Ever since I first went there more than 30 years ago, I’ve loved Aux Lyonnais. It opened in 1890 between the Opéra Comique and La Bourse (the old French stock exchange) in the heart of Paris. Lace veneers lined the front windows and heavy velvet curtains hugged the door; underfoot were polychrome cement tiles, while the walls were decorated with mirrors surrounded by wood mouldings, and white Metro-tile wainscoting was topped with beautiful Art Nouveau floral borders. At noon in those days, it was a sea of grey suits as brokers and bankers who worked nearby gathered to dine in the high-ceilinged space. This is why I liked it better at dinner.
The lovely waitresses in black dresses with white aprons could take their time in the evening, which meant that they babied you as best they could. If you couldn’t decide which dessert to have, they’d bring both. Wine bottle empty? Like mind-readers, they’d move a half-finished one left behind on a neighbouring table to mine without so much as a raised eyebrow. And the food was delicious, too, including frisée aux lardons – a tangled pale green thatch of curly endive dressed with winey shallot vinaigrette, a coddled egg and chunks of bacon; quenelles aux brochets (pike perch dumplings baked in the oven); and a heart-stoppingly good chicken in crayfish sauce. The wine – Coteaux du Lyonnais, if my memory isn’t too dusty – was cheap and easy to throw back, and the place was so resonant of good times and good food that it was the ideal antidote to a very bad day.
This part of Paris suffered a serious jolt, however, with the arrival of electronic share trading, and the last live market left the Palais Brongniart, aka La Bourse, in 2004. The exodus of brokers, and the advent of lunch as a sandwich at your desk, further diminished the clientele of Aux Lyonnais, which was at risk of closing when it was bought by multi-starred chef Alain Ducasse in 2004. Ducasse refurbished it and perpetuated it as one of Paris’s preeminent showcases of traditional Lyonnais cooking, almost as an homage to the late Paul Bocuse, who accurately said of his hometown, “Lyon makes you hungry”.
Now with the arrival of a new chef, the very talented Marie-Victorine Manoa, a native of Lyon, the cooking here is better than ever. Dining with a friend from Leeds on a cold November night, we each found solace in different ways. For her, it was rich, deeply flavoured chicken soup with vermicelles and diced vegetables, and for me, oeufs en meurette, technically a Burgundian classic, but precise geography at the table was less important to me that night than the perfectly coddled egg that arrived in a ruddy, wine-rich pool of chocolate-brown sauce, dense with girolles and chunks of bacon. Next, grand slams of Lyonnais comfort food for both of us – pommes paillasson (crisply fried cake of grated potatoes, a Lyonnais speciality) topped with mixed wild mushrooms and a vin jaune-spiked zabaigone for her, and roast Mangalica pork with white beans, spinach and stewed plums for me.
Though it was decidedly gluttonous, we split a Saint-Marcellin cheese from La Mère Richard, a famous fromagerie in Les Halles Paul Bocuse de Lyon, because when you can eat a perfectly aged example of this cow’s milk from the town in Le Dauphiné from which it takes its name, you do. Similarly, no one in their right mind would pass on plums roasted with eau-de-vie, bugnes (little sugared beignets) and lemon and fennel sorbet. This was a deeply satisfying meal, and with this excellent new chef in the kitchen, it’s gratifying to know that this beautiful Parisian institution is in such good hands.
32 rue Saint Marc, 2nd arrondissement
Tel. (33) 01 42 96 65 04
Prix-fixe menu €28, average à la carte €55.
From France Today magazine