A Fine-Dining Surprise in Lyon
From its popular Bouchons to internationally revered local chef Paul Bocuse, Lyon is a city that takes its cuisine seriously. Nowhere is it more obvious than at the little known Restaurant Vatel.
A Legendary Namesake
What first piques my interest in this teaching restaurant of the Groupe Vatel, a worldwide education group specialized in the various aspect of the hospitality industry, is its choice of patronym.
Granted, Francois Vatel (1631-1671) rose from pastry cook apprentice to becoming the most famous event planner at the court of French King Louis XIV (the monarch who left us Versailles). Yet history remembers him only as the man who skewered himself with his own sword because the fish delivery for a royal banquet was late. Hardly a motivating role model for aspiring hospitality business professionals! However, my musings about this long-ago case of professional burnout end at the door of Restaurant Vatel. It’s clear at first sight that its namesake would approve.
A Timeless Temple of Gastronomy
The dining room has the understated elegance of a space dedicated to the appreciation of Haute Cuisine. The pale amber walls are enhanced with burled walnut wainscoting and paneling. Spotlights discretely recessed into the white plaster coffered ceilings softly light the tabletops. Dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting muffles any service noise. The generously sized, white linen-clad tables are spaced far enough apart for privacy, and the medallion-back chairs upholstered in goldenrod velvet ensure seating comfort through a multi-course meal. Add gleaming silver and stemware, monogrammed china and delicate centerpieces of fresh flowers, and you have a relaxed setting staged to fade from awareness, so guests can focus their attention on the works of culinary art on their plate.
A Memorable Dining Experience
After a day spent tracking down the famous frescoed walls throughout the city, a cocktail is in order. We start out with a Kir Royal à la Framboise (Champagne with raspberry liqueur). A generous amuse-bouche materializes along with it. It includes a verrine (miniature glass tumbler) of chilled cucumber cream, a tiny savory pound cake with an herbed crumble topping and a pair of fresh anchovy filets in a tangy marinade on a mound of cold quinoa risotto.
For our first course, both my dining companion and I opt for a refreshing salad of al dente spring vegetables. It is served on a bed of baby arugula, with dollops of light tapenade and this traditional Lyon specialty, the cervelle de canut (silk-worker’s brain; a creamy fresh cheese blended with herbs, shallots and a touch of garlic). Just the right start for an early summer’s meal.
My main course is a roasted breast of guinea fowl with tiny potatoes and whole garlic cloves, served on a creamy glaze of Gorgonzola sauce and garnished with a marinated sundried tomato. The simple dish is flawlessly executed, with the cheese glaze adding an interesting, delicately tangy note.
My friend declares her squid stuffed with haddock mousse also a success. It is served with wilted baby spinach and saffron rice, on a coulis of shellfish. I have a discrete taste of the coulis. Ambrosia! Whoever is teaching the sauces class to these soon-to-be chefs deserves a medal.
The wine list offers a comprehensive sampling of the main wine growing areas of France, with a concentration on Burgundy and Côtes du Rhone. These are, after all, considered local wines here. When asked for suggestions, our student sommelier points us to a little known Mâcon vintage, a 2013 Saint Véran Chardonnay from Pierre Ferraud et Fils. The dry, pale golden wine with a faint fruity aroma is a perfect foil for the seafood, but has enough clout to hold up to my roasted fowl as well.
A Dessert Nirvana
A look at the dessert cart convinces us to pass on the cheese course. Three trolleys are wheeled to our table, laden with most of sumptuous classics ever bequeathed to the world by French pastry chefs. There are multi-layered chocolate cakes, showing off several intriguing textures under their veil of lustrous ganache. I spot a Saint Honoré, its high peaks of whipped cream contained within a ring of creampuffs glossy with brittle caramel. Then there is a perfect strawberry cream cake, a Baba au Rhum, and a crunchy Dacquoise with its thick praline butter cream filling sandwiched between two layers of hazelnut meringue. And several varieties of fruit and chocolate tarts, and bowls filled with various flavors of mousses.
Lest this dessert Nirvana failed to satisfy, our post-dinner espresso arrives with an extravagant tray of petits fours: macaroons, pistachio and chocolate tarts, various miniature cookies, and even a cube of homemade marshmallow.
We are attended by a veritable chorus line of black-suited, eager young servers and sommeliers, about twice the number that would be customary in a luxury restaurant. Yet, the service is unobtrusive and rigorously synchronized. Many of the students are already quite poised; a few are still a bit tense. Understandably so since the entire evening unfolds under the eagle eye of a majordomo who, from a discrete vantage point at the back of the room, clearly doesn’t miss even the smallest detail. But neither does the dining room staff. Everybody is gracious and attentive. The courses are precisely timed and the dishes served with just the right touch of flourish. Glasses are refilled promptly and not a single crumb is ever allowed to linger on the crisp tablecloth as soon as plates are removed.
If you ever yearn to feel like visiting royalty, this is a great place to dine in Lyon. But do plan ahead. Advanced reservations are a must.
Good to Know
- Restaurant Vatel, 8, Rue Duhamel, Lyon, 69002, is open Tuesday through Saturday, Noon to 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Contact: e-mail email@example.com, tel. +33 (0) 4 78 38 21 92.
- Getting there – Located in the heart of the Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is easy to reach on foot from anywhere in central Lyon, or via Métro: station Perrache (line A) or Tram: also station Perrache (lines T1 and T2).
- Amazing value – Restaurant Vatel is a training facility where students get hands-on experience in their chosen field. The prices, therefore, are considerably lower those of a conventional restaurant of comparable standing. There are two three-course menus at the very friendly fixed prices of 29 and 34 Euros respectively, excluding beverages. Both offer two choices per course, plus a com[limentary amuse-bouche that is a course in itself, as well as an optional cheese course. The wines and bar beverages are equally well priced.