Thursday, December 22, 2011

Daniel et Denise

After rushing across the planet to escape two screaming infants and the Messiah, we sat down to our first meal in the modern section of Lyon, which is fairly charmless and utilitarian. Think downtown Sacramento but with French people, and not the hot Parisian kind. The dumpy-we- love-butter-and-don’t-walk-much kind. (So basically, Americans who speak French.) Modern Lyon is not a tourist destination, unlike the picturesque Vieux Lyon, the Renaissance district, or the Presqu'île, the slender peninsula between the Rhone and Saone Rivers. (Blah, blah, blah. Steve loves history. He read the guide book. Blah, blah. Blah, blah. Look at the train station. It’s soooo super ‘70s.) A few blocks away from the train station, you’ll find Lyon’s primary food market, Les Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse. The name almost seems invoked as a defense, as if to say: We, the Lyonnias, may be so paralyzed by our inferiority to the capital that we actually built a miniature Eiffel Tower, but when it comes to matters gastronomique, our fair city reigns supreme. Supporting evidence is available in this very building.[1]

Three blocks from Halles de Lyon is Daniel et Denise, a restaurant that may or may not be a genuine bouchon—its business card claims the status even if that douche tiger Bill Buford demurs. Owned since 2004 by Joseph Viola, a chef with a stellar pedigree and the narrowly defined ambition to refine and interpret – without deconstructing or otherwise destroying – the Lyonnais classics, Daniel et Denise would be the perfect place to test Bill Buford’s incendiary claim that Lyon is, in fact, the food capital of the world.[2]

After 18 hours of travel and grappling with the Wife’s concomitant jet lag, I was afraid disaster had quickly struck. (What he means to say is that I was fucking pissed because I wanted a cute, dark, romantical ristorante, and instead the lighting was positively FLUORESCENT, so, upon entry, I wanted to punch Steve in the face. But that could have been because I thought he could have been more polite. But, yes, the rest of the stuff bugged me, too.) My nonexistent “bonsoir” to the maître d' provoked her irritability (See what I mean? Say “bonsoir.” It won’t kill you.), which quickly became acute when we were seated in the restaurant’s incandescent back dining room. (Did you not hear what I said? Fluorescent, NOT INCANDESCENT. DON’T YOU READ THE NEW YORK TIMES?) For all its traditional décor, the room was as bewitching as an operating room. On a Friday evening, the restaurant’s final service of the week, the restaurant was filled with ordinary people dressed ordinarily, in sweatshirts and the like. It dawned on me that Lyon was not Paris. (Thanks, Genius.)

The Wife’s lingering displeasure proved fleeting once she was served a salad of greens on which the kitchen overlaid haricot verts, then a few creamy pieces of crayfish, and finally a thin wedge of foie gras terrine, all in a row. (I’m easy like that.) This salad and, let’s be honest, this preparation of foie gras still haunts Marisa’s dreams. (Does it? Does it now? Like I fucking sleep long enough to dream? STOP BLOGGING ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK MY DREAMS ARE, STEVE, AND GO CHANGE A DIAPER.) I stayed out of the way, but for a single, ethereal bite of foie gras that was unmatched the entire trip. At our waitress’s recommendation, I ordered the house terrine of God-knows-what; it was one of those sallow, jellied concoctions of different layers of animal parts, artisanal Mystery Meat for all intents and purposes, forced into the shape of a slice of Wonder Bread. I’ll confess that I enjoyed it, but there is no need to order it again. (It was fucking gross. And I say that as someone who walked around covered in my younger daughter’s vomit for an hour today before realizing the smell that was bothering me was coming from my own damn shirt.)

Marisa then struck gold with a Lyonnais classic, quenelles au brochet, sauce Nantua. The sauce is a béchamel plus crayfish, a local staple which provided the requisite fluvial nuance – a grand, seemingly weightless soufflé of pike, molecular cuisine if there ever was one, in which Monsieur Viola tossed in a few mushrooms and yet more crayfish for good measure. [3] (Oh my god, you’re verbose.)

I ordered a personal favorite, Le Boudin noir fait Maison aux Pommes, that is, black pudding with sautéed apples, a perfect autumn dish and accordingly a rara avis in the City of Angels. (Accordingly, this non-chef just had to master Bryan Miller’s straightforward recipe.) Daniel et Denise’s rendition uniquely served the pudding in two small casseroles, dispensing with the formality of encasing the meats. The sweet apples were of course the hoary, necessary counterpoint to the rich boudin noir, its globules of pork held together with delicious blood and fat. Ultimately, Viola’s goal was to prepare a Gallic standard to the best of his considerable abilities and with all due intelligence. I loved it. (Not for me, says the wifely mouse.)

The kitchen brought out two side dishes. The first was a platter of fried discs of potatoes, seasoned just right with salt and torn little shards of basil – just perfect for sopping up the remainder of the Wife’s sauce Nantua. But the heavenly gratin of what amounted to macaroni and cheese stole our hearts. Think the best macaroni and cheese hails from some venerable Memphis soul food house in spitting distance of an old-timey juke joint? Guess again. Crazy Joe Viola is responsible for the best. Creamy and rich and made with cheese from, yes, France, this dish is the very reason that comfort food is so comforting.

Dessert, a “floating island of pink pralines” (Ile flottante aux Pralines de Saint Genix) was in actuality a giant cone of iridescent, pink sugar, the color provided by Lyon’s ubiquitous pink pralines. I remain bewildered by the dessert and frustrated that I didn’t have the presence of mind to order the poached pears au vin rouge. Oh well.

As for the matter of Lyon’s status as the world’s gastronomic capital, why not? Lyonnais allez lyonnais allez lyonnais allez. Even the Wife liked it.

Restaurant Daniel et Denise
156 rue de Créqui
Tél. 04 78 60 66 53

[1] Les Halles is the home of the fantastic centenarian, Maison Rousseau, a lunch counter beloved for bringing the best of the Atlantic coast and Mediterranean to the Rhône-Alpes region, including impeccable Belon and Papin-Poget oysters, subtle sea urchins which were much smaller than their Santa Barbara cousins, an absolutely epic fish soup—burgundy in color, smelling of the sea that, depending on one’s perspective and power of persuasion over the spouse, either moots or necessitates a visit to Marseilles—and plenty of personality and personalities, naturally.

[2] Paul Bocuse may be a deity, but his eponymous restaurant, located nine kilometers north of Lyon in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, like any house of worship, involves too much entertainment and kitsch, and is prohibitively expensive. Seven years ago, we found Paul Bocuse to be a theme park of itself: Bocuse's image was emblazoned on every wall, plate, and mug. The preparations felt more like the nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth. One example, a plate of Bresse chicken in loads of cream epitomized blandness. Toward the end of that meal, Bocuse found his way to our table to greet us and receive our plaudits. For the Vegas-level mediocrity and showmanship, we had to oblige.

[3]As a matter of course, we’ll order the labor-intensive quenelles when appropriate, which is to say, whenever a restaurant will make them with pike. I ordered quenelles the following night at Café Comptoir Abel, whose chef, Alain Vigneron, is the only practitioner (and holder) of Eugenie Brazier’s original crayfish-less recipe. Ms. Brazier was the first French woman to earn three Michelin stars, over 70 years ago. With such a noble provenance, quenelles would seem the very essence of fancy, fusty French food as stereotyped in both the States and increasingly in France itself. For example, La Grenouille, the New York dinosaur that insists that its patrons wear jackets, sells quenelles to septuagenarians for $36.oo per serving. But in Lyon, the dish is standard fare for regular people. For all of his troubles and for such amazing quality, Joseph Viola charges a mere 15€.