As I walked out of the restaurant Mère Brazier on to the cobbled streets of Lyons, in east-central France, I felt uplifted by the exemplary dinner I had just enjoyed with my wife and three friends. Yet, at the same time, I felt a twinge of sadness.
I had finally eaten at the restaurant that – due to its long and distinguished history – I had wanted to visit more than any other in the world. And although I will unhesitatingly return here, I know the extra excitement – the pleasure of eating in a restaurant for the first time and discovering what makes it so special – is no longer available to me. But I can only hope that many others will now discover it.
I was first introduced to Eugénie Brazier, who opened this restaurant on April 10 1921, via the books of Elizabeth David, the consummate English food writer. She made a point of eating chez Brazier when on her travels researching French cooking. In my copy of David’s anthology An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, the two pages devoted to Brazier are the most thumbed of all.
David describes Brazier’s modesty and the understated manner of her service. The essay is accompanied by a photo of Brazier in immaculate whites, stirring a copper pot from which steam rises to cover her head in a kind of culinary halo.
By the time of her death in 1977, aged 82, Brazier had come to embody the passion so many Lyonnais feel for their food, one reason the street running beside the restaurant is now named after her. Brazier was the first female chef to win three Michelin stars and to do so not only for this restaurant but also for a second one in the countryside nearby. The restaurant passed on to various members of her family before being sold in 2004 to owners who retained the name and some of its traditions.
In October 2008, the Michelin-starred Mathieu Viannay, 43, became its new chef/proprietor with the hope of returning the restaurant to its glory days. This intensified my longstanding desire to eat at the celebrated site, and I thought now would be an ideal time to visit.
The original version of the Brazier photo in David’s book hangs in pride of place just inside the first of the three dining rooms on the ground floor of the restaurant, which has been lovingly restored. The new chef shares her passion for the restaurant she created and which he has done so much to revive.
Viannay’s courage in taking on such an august institution was immediately repaid by the discovery of the original tiles, which had been covered over. They now add an extra dimension of history to the first-floor private rooms while Viannay and his team strive to recreate the best of what this restaurant has stood for over the past 89 years.
His approach is exemplified in the Menu Classique and in the small bowl of soup that was provided as an amuse-bouche. The former opens with a dish of foie gras and globe artichokes, a combination rarely found outside Lyons. The slab of foie gras was about 4cm high, and the head of the artichoke that lay next to it had been hollowed out and stuffed with a substantial mousse of foie gras. The meat main course was also ostensibly traditional, a breast of Bresse chicken stuffed under the skin with slices of truffle, and an extraordinarily luscious sauce whose secret ingredient, I was to learn, was white port.
Then there were some surprises. Viannay, I discovered, was reluctant to put the Lyonnais staple quenelles on his menu until he could create a lighter version of the rich fish mousse usually made from pike. He has achieved this by using scallops instead and it is very, very good.
While Mère Brazier would have recognised these dishes, she would probably have been perplexed by the small bowl of soup that preceded them. This was a fine, clear reduction infused with lemongrass into which had been placed a small slice of shrimp, brushed with wasabi, Japanese horseradish, and topped with thin slices of radish and cucumber. “I like making a soup like this,” Viannay explained, “because it cleans the whole system before we move on to the more serious food.”
The adjective that constantly appears in the notes I took over dinner is “correct”. The dishes are correctly executed and priced. The glassware, cutlery, crockery are all correct, and there is an absence of pomposity in the service. It is because of their humourless pomp that top restaurants in France so often disappoint. The wine list is also “correct”. It draws on the best producers from Beaujolais, the Loire and the northern Rhône nearby and prices them correctly (dinner for five with three bottles of wine came to €609).
Mère Brazier is, I am told, where the Lyonnais go to celebrate. Now, at last, I know why.
Mère Brazier, 12 rue Royale, 69001 Lyons, tel: +33 4-7823 1720; firstname.lastname@example.org
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France’s gastronomic capital
Lyons earns an entry of more than a page and half, considerably more than Paris, in Larousse Gastronomique, the encyclopedia of French cooking.
For centuries, the city has been a hub for the produce of the surrounding countryside: beef from Charolais; Bresse chickens; game from Dombes; and wine from the many surrounding vineyards.
In the same manner as the produce from the valleys north of San Francisco inspires that city’s chefs, Lyons’ natural and commercial wealth has fostered more chefs than perhaps any other city.
These include Paul Bocuse, the world’s first celebrity chef, whose restaurant empire now criss-crosses the city; the late Alain Chapel, who inspired a young Heston Blumenthal; and the hugely influential Troisgros family, whose restaurants are an hour’s drive away in Roanne.