I was following my own footsteps in Lyons using a printout of an article I had written ten years ago. Some things had changed, like my favorite cheese stall in Les Halles, the best indoor food market in town on the Cours Lafayette, a fifteen minute walk from The Globe and Cecil. Small, oozing rounds of perfectly aged St. Marcellin are still the star at Le Mere Richard, a famous cheese stall owned by women. But another, Marechal, associated with a group of French affineurs whom I admired, had been bought out by a newcomer. Gone were the great local mountain cheeses from the Rhone Alps I slavered over–beaufort, tomes de savoie and comte. Gone were the baskets of warm pork and duck cracklings that the charcuterie stalls used to hand out to lure customers, a sure bet. Maybe my timing was wrong. Maybe we came too late in the morning, or not late enough in the afternoon. But I felt a strong Thomas Wolfe-like wistfulness as I wandered through a now manicured market: you can’t go home again. Or maybe, you can’t follow in your own footsteps ten years later and expect everything to be the same. Either you change or the places change; perhaps some of both.
At least I had the good sense to try a new bouchon, which of course means a different bouchon, because these typical Lyonnaise holes in the wall for decades have been serving cheap, meaty meals that put every bit of the animal to use. (The best ones, in fact, are registered.) These meals are washed down with unpretentious local wines from beaujolais and the northern rhone, which are drawn from barrels into glass bottles with thick glass bottoms, called pots. This gives you less than a full bottle, but somehow permission to drink several. These wines are so compatible with the heavy food, drinking them becomes a digestive necessity and you never feel as if you have had too much to eat or drink.
Chez Hugon (12 rue Pizay; tel: 04 78 28 10 94) is located on a side street near the Musee des Beaux Arts, in the thin sliver of Lyons bounded by two rivers–the Rhone and the Saone. (Most of Lyons’ other bouchons are tucked into cobblestone alleys in St. Jean, Lyons’ old town just across the Saone. One of the pleasures of visiting Lyons is walking across bridges.) Knowing how difficult it is to get into these tiny restaurants, which typically don’t answer their phone and cater to locals, we walked over at 11 a.m. to book in person. The most luscious aromas were wafting from the kitchen behind a glass partition. The patronne came out, red coiffure, nicely rounded body and face, obviously a cook who liked to eat. She checked her thick book on the bar, the pages curled from all the names written in blue ball point, and told us she was “complet” but…if we were willing to come at 19:30 and be out at 21 (7:30 -9 p.m.) she would take us. We agreed to come at this ridiculously early hour for France in May when it stays light until nearly 10 p.m.
We were not the first people to arrive when we squeezed into the only table for two in a corner by a stand up bar in a tiny, austere dining room with tiled floors and a handful of long tables covered with red checked tablecloths and crinkly white paper. We gulped down a sweet house aperitif–half red beaujolais; half cassis–and ordered a bottle of juicy, refreshing, unfiltered Morgon (from nearby beaujolais) which hit the spot on this unseasonably warm evening.
We spooned out portions of meaty starters from deep little bowls: paper thin slices of museau, beef-muzzle, in sharp vinaigrette with threads of white onion[;] and firmly gelatinous cubes of veal foot dolloped with golden house made mayonnaise chunky with cornichons and onion. Rustic bread, with crunchy dark crust and yeasty flesh rife with big fragrant air holes, accompanied. For a main course, I had the dish I come to Lyons for, a big, free form, cloud-like brochette of ground fish–river fish–in an inch of silken, pink, crawfish-infused cream sauce, so well made, so balanced, so quintessentially French that it made me weepy. The delicate fish dumpling, aerated with beaten egg whites, served as loyal handmaiden to the luxurious sauce. Custardy boudin noir, blood sausage, coyly scented with sweet spices, seemed to melt into hunks of bronzed apple, roasted to a soft, buttery turn. This classic combination, too, could not have been better executed.
Glass coups of double scoops of ice cream and the disappointing, pink-topped, cookie-like tarte pralinee, the signature dessert of Lyons, brought the meal to a close. (I should have ordered tart tatin despite the repetition. You can never get too much of a good thing.) But the sole young woman on the floor would not bring our check. She was desperately trying to keep up with the flow of food coming from the kitchen. At 10 p.m. we were drinking more wine and singing La Vie en Rose with the rest of the dining room, led by two guitarists that everyone seemed to know. The guitarists, a man and a woman, played a jazzy duet of Take All of Me for us, the two Americans in the room. Maybe it was all the wine, but I got weepy again. I was having a moment that I thought I was too sophisticated to have. Here we were in the France that our American national hero, Alice Waters, fell in love with fifty years ago.