For my birthday trip a year ago, my wife Jan and I chose the exotic — a vacation in Marrakech. This February, we went for the gastronomic — travelling by train from our village of Daglan to France’s culinary capital, Lyon.
In case you’re not aware of the connection, Lyon is the home base of the worldwide food and hospitality empire that was established by one of France’s greatest and best known chefs, Paul Bocuse. During our short stay, Jan and I were exposed to, and thoroughly enjoyed, beaucoup de M. Bocuse.
The idea for our trip began with a desire to eat in the Chef’s premier restaurant (one of his many establishments), just outside Lyon. For years, it has held three Michelin stars, probably the highest prize in the world of fine dining.
Once we’d made that decision, we looked for a hotel in the heart of Lyon and found Le Royal. As it happens,Le Royal is the Fleuron de l’Institut Paul Bocuse — the flagship of M. Bocuse’s institute, which “trains students in every aspect of the culinary arts, hotel and restaurant management.”
Please understand that Jan and I have stayed in some fairly plush and well known resorts and hotels over the years, like the Savoy in London, but this stay at Le Royal was without question our best overall hotel experience. No kidding. Really.
I honestly don’t mean to sound like a commercial, but Le Royal has a great location (in the heart of Lyon), elegant décor, a brilliant breakfast room, and an excellent staff — young, eager to please, but highly polished. The amenities in our room were perfect, the bed was comfortable and huge, there was decent lighting (not always the case in French hotels), and the television worked.
Sadly, the weather was not great during our stay — gray and drizzly most of the time — so the following photo from our 5th floor room towards the huge Place Bellecour isn’t brilliant. But as you might imagine, we loved seeing the huge ferris wheel rotating at night, with hundreds of lights blinking on and off. Here it is:
And guess what? As part of l’Institut Paul Bocuse, Le Royal also houses the Côté Cuisine, a modern dining room where young chefs are trained in the culinary arts. To reach it, you simply open a black door off the lobby of the hotel, and enter into a modern, buzzing environment of relaxed but fine dining. As you approach the dining room, you are greeted by this display, with a large photo of M. Bocuse at its centre:
When we were seated, it happened that Jan was facing into the dining room, while I looked directly through a plate glass window into a kitchen just a few feet away, where a team of young chefs were hard at work putting together the meals. Here’s my view:
And here’s a view across the dining room, towards another preparation area, where the desserts were being made and plated. This was late into our lunch, as the dining room started to empty and the chefs turned from cooking and assembling to scrubbing and wiping. As you can see, the décor is modern but comfortable:
What about the meal itself? Well, it was first class. You may be a bit shocked to learn that we did not begin our lunch in the dining room with the traditional coupe de Champagne, but that’s only because we had had the traditional coupe de Champagne in the hotel bar, before lunch.
Jan began with a foie gras plate, while my entrée was a poached egg in a rich white sauce with fresh spinach, and a generous smothering of black truffle slices. Here it is:
And here’s the same dish with the truffles moved aside and the egg broken open:
I loved the egg, the truffle, and the spinach — but the real star of the dish was the incredibly delicious, rich sauce. Three cheers for whichever young chef was responsible!
For my plat principal, I rather overdid it, moving from such a rich entrée to an even richer (and heavier) dish. This was a plate of slow-cooked pork and grilled chunks of boudin noir (blood pudding), sitting atop a layer of white beans in (guess what?) a rich broth. Delicious, but I couldn’t quite finish it all. Here’s my dish before I attacked:
Gasping slightly, I bravely went ahead and ordered dessert, a somewhat deconstructed or re-imagined lemon tart. There was a sharp, palate-cleansing lemon sorbet to the side, and a delicious lemon-covered cream concoction, sitting on a sable biscuit, as the main event. A wonderful finish to our meal, as you’ll see:
Our total? Including a good bottle of red wine and a bottle of fizzy water, our bill came to 140 euros, which we both considered good value. Besides, we didn’t need to eat dinner — feeling quite content with the nibblies that were served with our drinks, much later in the evening, in the hotel bar.
Coming attraction: In Part II, I’ll describe our visit to the three-starred Bocuse restaurant, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. (Guess what? We liked it. We really, really liked it.)