Saturday, October 18, 2014

Visit to Lyon goes from lovely to tragic

Before I go on, I forgot to mention in my previous post that both Rick Steves and the woman who rented us the apartment said Nardone (in Vieux Lyon) makes the best ice cream in Lyon. All we can say about that is, if that's the best Lyon can do, that city is in big trouble. What's worse is that they charge Berthillon prices for their ice speck-filled unrelenting mediocrity. What nerve!


Our first full day in Lyon was bathed in unseasonably warm weather and bright, blue skies, so we thought we'd check out the part of town known as la Croix-Rousse. The Saone and the Rhone rivers run parallel right through the center of Lyon, creating a long, slender peninsula shaped a bit like Gene Simmons' tongue, which ends in a pointy tip where the two rivers eventually converge. At the northern end of the peninsula, at its base, there is a hill that leads from downtown up to the Croix-Rousse neighborhood.

To get there we crossed the Saone and headed for the lengthy, gently meandering, semi-pedestrianized street called Montée de la Grande Côte, which is made of shallow steps that lead all the way to the top of the hill, ending at a bustling square that hosts an outdoor farmer's market in the morning. Rick Steves describes Croix-Rousse as Soho-esque and attracting the "tie-dye" crowd. We didn't exactly get that vibe, but while we did see numerous funky little bookstores and tattoo parlors, as well as graffiti and a bit of Banksy-esque street/wall art, and hipster types sitting out in front of a couple of cafes, this area is certainly no Telegraph Ave or Haight/Ashbury. It's really just an unpolished, non-touristy neighborhood where locals go about their daily business. But the views over the city are spectacular.

Le Comptoir du Vin

Part of the reason for trekking up to this area was to have lunch at Le Comptoir du Vin, a funky little neighborhood bouchon with a reputation for serving well-prepared, flavorful food cooked single-handedly by an eccentric chef in his tiny one-man kitchen. 

There are no printed menus - whatever the chef feels like cooking that day is scrawled on a chalkboard on the wall. The only other staff was a friendly, older waiter who patiently explained some of the dishes to us in English, but who, when not waiting tables, was busy peeling potatoes behind the bar. Five minutes after the waiter explained the menu, the chef stuck his head out of the little window into the kitchen and shouted across the room to us in French to see if we'd chosen what we wanted.

We both ordered salads for the starter and two different mains. As soon as our salads were placed under our faces, we realized that we'd made a big mistake: these salads were massive; big enough, in fact, to be meals in their own right. Mine came with mixed greens with shrimp and smoked salmon in a kind of thick, eggy dressing, which - very importantly - came with a generous helping of chopped cilantro. This almost had a slight Asian tinge to it. Terezia ordered a salad with chunks of chicken liver, which was quite good and made from super good quality, velvety chicken liver.

Our apparent error in ordering both starters and mains was confirmed when a group of locals sat next to us and only ordered the "plat du jour" and nothing else. Live and learn. 

For the main, I had the "plat du jour", which on that day was braised beef served with potatoes in a "curry" sauce. I put "curry" in quotation marks because it was far too mild to be considered a real curry, but it was still really good, given that it was loaded with garlic and flat-leaf parsley. I have to emphasize here how impressed I was with his use of garlic and parsley. I complained in a previous post about how many dishes we'd had in Paris were bizarrely under seasoned and under-herbed. I had two braised veal dishes in Paris, both of which were offensively bland due to being under seasoned and not being cooked with any herbs or anything to add or elevate the flavor. But this guy clearly understands the importance of things like garlic and herbs in cuisine, and he apparently uses them with gusto. It was cool to see how just those fresh parsley leaves alone really helped tie the dish together. (The cilantro in the above-mentioned salad is another example). Why do so many chefs in Paris seem to fear herbs? And the potatoes were roasted to perfection - nice and crispy on the outside. No, this wasn't a life-altering dish, but it was a good and honest plate of food made by a guy who clearly knows what he's doing

Terezia had the andouillette sausage, which, as it turned out, is a French specialty that's stuffed with pork or veal innards. The waiter simply told her it was a local speciality, so she went for it without realizing that it was full of innards. Fortunately, Terezia and I obviously have no problem eating innards, and she dug the sausage. Still, it was fun to watch her discover that it was made from innards when she was dissecting it, pulling out what looked like bits of tubing and whatnot. I thought the dish tasted rather sweet, which may have been due to the sauce it was served in.

Needless to say, after those huge salads, neither of us could finish our plates. 

The chef seemed to enjoy sticking his head out his window and shouting random things into the dining area, especially when someone he appeared to know came in. When the waiter took our order, he asked us where we were from. When we said California - but living in Slovakia - he told us the chef is currently in love with a girl from New York. As we were leaving, the chef came out and shook our hands and kept shouting things like "Vive la France" and "something something [couldn't make it out, exactly] California!" 

This guy may not be on the cutting edge of current culinary trends, but I think he'll serve you some good, well-prepared, honest food, and the overall vibe will make for a memorable experience. 

After that gut-busting feast, we ambled back down the hill into the flat part of the peninsula and wandered aimlessly for a bit, in part to check out two other restaurants in that area that we'd had on our list to see which one we'd target the next day.

To work off that punishingly heavy lunch, we walked up the super steep hill to the Notre Dame basilica again. We hadn't originally planned on doing that, but decided to do it anyway out of sheer guilt.

This time we took a different way back down into town that led us through an old Roman amphitheater. Like a lot of these Roman amphitheaters, it's still used today for outdoor events. After walking through that a bit, we went back down the hill to admire the cathedral again.

A travel bug

The afternoon was going just swimmingly when things suddenly took a dump: these very mild cold symptoms that I thought I was successfully keeping at bay suddenly came out with guns a-blazing, and within a mere hour I was as sick as a dog.

See, on our last night in Paris I was starting to feel mild irritation in my upper throat/back of my mouth. The next morning the irritation had lessened a bit, but I had a bit of sinus congestion, so I popped some pseudoefedrine and got on with my day. Later that evening and the next morning, I started getting this very mild, occasional but manageable chest cough. But late in the afternoon, that mild chest cough rapidly morphed into a full-blown bronchitis attack, with each cough feeling like shards of broken glass being ground into my lungs and producing the taste of blood in my throat. I bought some cough syrup from a local pharmacy and hoped for the best. The cough got so bad that I even lost my voice later that evening and could hardly talk! Definitely not the kind of thing you want to have happen when you're in the middle of your vacation. 

The next morning my cough was still there and the phlegm was still rattling in my lungs, but it seemed to be more under control. And though my voice was about an octave lower (I could've done a swell rendition of "I Walk the Line"), at least I could talk. The main problem at this point was all the crap clogging up my sinuses.

Terezia seemed to be getting similar symptoms as mine, but with a roughly 24-hour delay. She looked at me with fear as she saw what could be in store for her immediate future.

Exploring Lyon's peninsula

So, we woke up leisurely and late the next morning and took a slow stroll down the peninsula through the grey, drizzly weather. We walked through another farmer's market, this one along the bank of the Saone River, which was pretty big and had an insane amount of cheese vendors, all of whom appeared to be selling top quality product, judging by that beautifully stinky cheese aroma.

We walked on down the peninsula to kind of get the feel of it and to check out a couple of the public squares. It seems the further south you get from the hill and the Place des Terreaux, the swankier things get, particularly the shops. You start seeing those kinds of clothing boutiques with super sleek and modern decor that appear to be selling nothing more than three blouses and a jacket.

A strangely out of place kitschy vintage hotel sign in a neighborhood with an otherwise chi-chi vibe.

Place Bellecour is a massive and sprawling public square that's utterly devoid of any character or soul. It seems only to exist because there's underground parking and a metro station beneath it. Further south is Place Carnot, another sprawling square, but this time done up much more appealingly with lots of shade-giving trees and park benches. The buildings on this part of the peninsula are still old and on the tall side, but many of them seem to have been given neoclassical make-overs, unlike those in Vieux Lyon. There are still pockets of older Renaissance facades, though.

Vieux Lyon as seen from across the Saone.

In France, you can find at least two pharmacies on every block. I don't know how they all seem to stay in business.

But our exploration of this part of the city came to a premature end. I was seriously feeling like poop: my skin and muscles had this weird kind of sickly, crawling feel to them, and I was blowing my nose every two minutes. Mysteriously, this cold hadn't blown out my tastebuds yet, so we went to this place for lunch that we'd read great things about, called Cafe (and/or Bouchon) de Jura.

A better lunch could be blown out of one's rear end

The place is run by a mother/son duo. The mom cooks, the son works the front (with help from a young woman). 

For the starter I had poêlée de cèpes. I'd seen this dish on a few menus in Paris, but never ordered it. It's basically just a plate of porcini that have been sautéed in garlic, butter, and herbs. Simple as that. But I don't actually think this is the best way to enjoy porcini, even when they are as fresh as these were. They work better with some kind of a base - like pasta, or scrambled eggs, which somehow heightens their earthy flavor. These were nicely sautéed in parsley, thyme, and garlic, and that distinctive porcini flavor was enjoyable, but the overall dish just seemed a bit thrown together and uninspired - and overpriced considering the small portion.

The porcini/cepes - the only decent thing about this lunch.

Terezia had the veal terrine with black trumpet mushrooms, which was just a silly dish. The black trumpets were completely wasted - their wonderful earthy flavor was totally lost. Plus, the terrine tasted like it had just been taken out of the fridge and sliced up (terrines are better if you let them get closer to room temp).  

Some things that we'd wanted from the menu were apparently not available that day. I wanted to order sautéed tripe, which I imagined would be prepared with herbs and garlic and taste rich and flavorful. But I was told they were out of that dish, and the waiter recommended a fried tripe dish instead. The tripe was pounded out and fried like a tripe schnitzel, and I couldn't taste any of that unique tripe-y flavor. The chef could have put veal or pork in there and I wouldn't have known the difference. Pretty much zero thought or heart went into making this dish.

Terezia wound up with another sausage, this time one with bits of pistachio in it. It was good for what it was, but we don't go out to a restaurant to get a fucking sausage that we could just as easily buy from a good butcher shop and eat at home.

We came here expecting a special experience from a reportedly skilled and reputable chef who has made her restaurant a local institution. Instead we got tired, boring, and uninspired dishes from someone who maybe needs to think about hanging up her knives and retiring. This lunch was a  complete waste of time and money and it put us both in a foul mood. Terezia, in particular, was really pissed off. She puts so much effort and passion into her cooking, it pains her to see someone throw such simple, boring stuff like this on a plate and charge insanely high prices for it. How could someone churn out such dull crap and have a full house for lunch? And in the city of Lyon, no less?

And yet, the place was packed. With in 15 minutes of our arrival, people were being turned away at the door. A lot of the clientele seemed to be on a first-name basis with the waiter, and many of them seemed to consist of middle-aged businessmen on lunch break or people in their 60s-70s. 

After lunch I was totally wiped out and needed to go straight back to the apartment, where I spent the rest of the afternoon resting up in bed. Which sucked - I really wanted to explore more of Lyon. But there was just no way I could hack it. I was weak, exhausted, and just plain sick, and I thought it'd be better to try and improve my health for Arles, or at the very least, for the train to Arles, so that fellow passengers wouldn't look at me as some kind of plague-ridden, leperitic germ-bag.

At least we were staying in a cool apartment, which made being stuck in there for our last afternoon in Lyon a bit more pleasant. Here are some photos of the place:

So, Lyon is an attractive and livable city, and there seems to be enough culture and diversity there to keep things interesting. Its center is really compact and extremely walkable (we only took the bus to and from the train station), and in that way it reminds me a bit of Prague. Yet, compared to Paris, Lyon is much less crowded and congested and the vibe is much more laid back. Would we come back to Lyon? Sure. But I don't know if we'd ever be pining for the place the way we would with Paris. We wanted to see what another French city is like, and this gave us a good taste of that. We certainly would like to have seen more of it, but at least we got a decent feel for the place before our colds derailed our stay there. 

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