Tuesday, 31 May 2011: Paris to Lyon

Written 2 June 2011

duoTuesday morning, alas, it was time for a fond but reluctant good-by to CJ and Margaret, who were out of leave time and had to go home.

After another (and much better) breakfast at the Café Centrale, we all packed up and chatted in the hotel lobby until our taxis came—theirs to take them to De Gaulle airport, ours to take us to the Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV.

Note to my young male readers: both are single, straight, and (mirabile dictu!) currently unattached. They live (at separate addresses) in the greater Washington, DC, area. No stalking, but if you're interested, send me your resumé, and I'll consider putting you in touch.

As usual, the taxi didn't fail to show up or have a flat tire or collide with anything, as we always tend to foresee, so as usual, we were at the station way early for our train. We took turns guarding the luggage while the other walked around and explored, then read our respective books amid the continuous din of construction—the station is being renovated yet again. Unlike the airport, though, it doesn't entirely reconfigure itself every time, because the tracks and platforms tend to stay put. I was accosted frequently by panhandlers and even more frequently by people peddling stuff on behalf of the homeless. One was so persistent, igoring my dismissive waves, trying different languages, etc., that I finally took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, looked him in the eye, and snarled, "Allez vous en!" (Get lost!), but notice that I used the more respectful, formal form of address.

I didn't find a Paul bakery or anybody else who would sell me plain butter-and-raw-ham sandwiches, but from the various items on offer, I assembled a fine lunch—"Italian" sandwich (prosciutto, lettuce, tomato, cheese), "rosette" sandwich (Lyonnais salami, butter, and pickles), bottled water, chocolate cream pastries, and a little paper barquette of cherries bought that morning in the rue Cler for the purpose.

Once the TGV's platform was finally announced, we piled aboard, located our reserved first-class seats (in car 3), and settled in for the swift, smooth, 2-hour run through verdant countryside to Lyon. The long-promised rain and cold front finally arrived during the trip.

The taxi ride to our residential hotel went smoothly, once I showed the driver my little Google map. The rue Tony Tollet, which he had never heard of, even though it's right in the middle of town (and is named, the street sign says, for a Lyonnais painter who died at age 96 in 1953), is just wide enough for one row of parked cars and a single one-way lane. The Résidéal seems to be the only thing with an address on it. Immediately after we checked in and were shown upstairs to our studio apartment, the private combined junior high-high school across the street had a fire drill. Their back door is on Tony Tollet, but rather than just opening the usual, person-sized door, on these occasions, they raise a much larger section of wall, like a large garage door. Students and their wranglers (pardon me, their teachers) poured out, filling the little street wall to wall and elbow to elbow, opening umbrellas making the most unbelievable din! Good thing we arrived when we did, or neither we nor our taxi could have gotten within a block of the place! From our second-floor windows, we can see right through the school's gym (which is two floors high and has high windows on both sides, to the paved courtyard in the center of the building. We can't see the players, but we see the basketballs and the baskets they're aimed at.

Our studio has twin beds, a dresser, TV, round table and chairs, desk, kitchenette (two burners, sink, fridge, microwave with grill, coffee maker, dishes, pots, cutlery, and whatnot), full bath with shower, and a good-sized closet. Plus a floor mop and a tall, skinny, cylindrical oscillating floor fan. For once, we have plenty of storage space—eight deep drawers, plus a hanging closet with a bank of shelves, plus shelves under the bathroom sink and cabinets in the kitchen. The fridge is empty but has an ice-cube tray for making five half-golf-ball-sized hemispherical ice cubes. The keys are featureless gray plastic objects in the shape of money (or pocket) clips. To open the door, you press the button by the door knob to get its attention, then wave the key near it. It whirs, unlocks itself briefly, then whirs again and relocks. Slick.

David took a nap while I took an exploratory walk in the rain and visited the Office de Tourisme in the Place Bellecour to collect brochures about interesting stuff to do and see—conclusion: Lyon has way too much interesting stuff to do and see in just six days.

Of course, the rain chose the day of our most distant restaurant meal (the taxi driver assured us it hasn't rained here for five months before today), so we took a taxi. The restaurant (a GM 15/20) is called l'Arc en Ciel (the Rainbow, literally the arc in the sky), because it's on the 32nd floor of the "crayon" (the pencil, a building so nicknamed because of its tall, slender, cylindrical shape and pointed conical roof) and is curved in shape to fit around the outside wall of the building (though it doesn't revolve). We took its special direct elevator, which stops only at the restaurant.

We chose the "Arc en Ciel" menu.

amuse boucheamuse boucheFirst amuse-bouche: With David's usual introductory glass of champagne came three munchies, all based on fluffy and flavorful parsley/chive/garlic butter. Little sandwiches of it topped with poppy seed, small cream puffs filled with it, and half radishes topped with it on a bed of sesame seeds. All very tasty.

Second amuse-bouche: Foie gras crême brulée (all the rage these days) topped with fresh currants and a few kernels of popcorn. French chefs seem intrigued by popcorn—we've encountered it in high-end restaurants before—but they haven't got a clue. It's invariably served cold, stale, and chewy, as was this. The foie gras was great, though, as were the currants (quite sweet).

foieFirst course, both: "Bermuda" of foie gras with pain d'epices (gingerbread) and rhubarb stewed in grenadine, with a quenelle of fresh chutney of Granny Smith apples. Needless to say, we wondered what a "Bermuda" of foie gras would be, until we saw that it was, duh, a triangle. Groanworthy. The apple chutney was delicious, as was the rhubarb-grenadine filling, but the foie gras was strangely tasteless.

pigeonSecond course, David: Filet of pigeon cooked slowly in salted butter, romaine (or perhaps Swiss chard) au gratin, a reduction of the pigeon's cooking juices, and special "ratte" potatoes. Hard to photograph on its slate slab, but you can see the two halves of the cylinder of pigeon with foie gras in the center. The legs of the pigeon had been boned, shredded, and baked into the little pastry cylinder, behind which the potatoes are partly hidden. The plate was garnished with a roasted cherry tomato and roasted clove of garlic. David said the grain of greens was the best part and the pigeon pastry the next. The pigeon-breast cylinder was good, but again the foie gras was tasteless.

barSecond course, me: Filet of bar (sea bass) stuffed with Spanish mussels, small glass of seafood/saffron foam, a little round tart of peas and baby broad beans with a little pesto and pistachio oil, and a roasted cherry tomato on a saffron seafood sauce. The fish was just good fish, and the saffron foam was delicious, but the best was the bean and pea tart—that was great! Notice that both David's and my plate were decorated with tiny bouquets of five different species of fresh herbs held together with minute, 1-inch clothespins. Very cute, and they let you keep the clothespins afterward.

cheeseCheese, David: a "faiselle" of fromage blanc (i.e., fromage blanc moulded and drained just enough to hold its shape) with cream thick enough to be served with an ice-cream scoop.

Cheese, me: From the trolley, I chose (clockwise from the bottom): A dry, ashed chevre; liquid Époisse; and liquifying Saint Marcellin (a local specialty). All superb.

Predessert, both: A golf-ball-sized hemispherical mound of chocolate-coated salted caramel mousse, topped with whipped cream and half a raspberry. On the side, finely diced pistachios and a stripe of what the waitress called mango coulis but turned out to be passionfruit coulis.

chocolatecitrusDessert, David: A timbale of chocolate cream topped with "cereal rocks" (just what it sounds like, a sort of crunchy granola of way-too-hard-and-tough seeds and nuts), then ice milk, then a "speculoos" (i.e., spice cookie) sail.

Dessert, me: "Citrus sensation." The green spiral is made of sugar (I think I know the very website where the chef ordered it). The two sheets of chocolate are thickly studded with ground-up almond brittle. The cherry is just a cherry. Now, atop the lower chocolate sheet is lime mousse (pinkish for some reason). That's topped with a layer of blood-orange jelly, in turn topped with the second chocolate sheet. The domes on top of that are frozen lemon mousse coated with a shiny red glaze of some sort. The white sphere at the upper left is a rather alcoholic sorbet of grapefruit and pink champagne, resting on diced pistachios, which keep it from rolling. Most of it was very good, but the lemon mousse was too sharp for me. I left the third dome on the plate.

The (or at least a) website where you can order things like the sugar springs is "Meilleur du Chef" (http://www.meilleurduchef.com/chef/), which also sells the silicone molds the chef used to make the lemon domes, predessert, and "Bermuda." I discovered it when it was just the young scion of a restaurant family from St. Jean de Luz, posting photo- and video-illustrated recipes on the web. I liked it for the "forum," where readers could exchange recipes, ask if anyone knew how to make some obscure regional specialty from Grandma's day, post culinary help-wanted ads, etc. Since then, it has grown into a large and slick mail-order operation, headquartered near Biarritz. To post on the forum, you have to be a "member" (I'm not), but anyone can read the forum, view the huge library of copiously illustrated recipes, check out the half-dozen featured recipes of the month, consult the dietician's column, or browse the enormous mail-order catalog of food, cooking equipment (for both home and professional use), books, etc. Especially prominent on the site these days is silicone bakeware—the demonstration videos are amazing and demonstrate how chefs can easily produce dome-shaped desserts with pyramidal fillings inside, long triangular loaves of things like the foie gras with rhubarb, etc. They probably also sell miniature clothespins. Fun.

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