This provincial city is the gastronomic capital of France, situated within boarding-house reach of some of the finest produce in the country. To the north are the wines of Burgundy, from inexpensive, thirst-quenching Beaujolais to astronomically-priced Romanée-Conti.
On either side of the vineyards are the Charollais with its great white cattle and Bresse, with its famous poultry. To the east is the lake country full of trout, pike, perch, lavaret, omble chevalier and crayfish. To the west are the cheeses, hams and sausages (also a specialty of Lyons itself) of Auvergne, and to the south are the great wines of the Rhône valley, the fruits and vegetables of Provence and the fish of the Mediterranean.
With all this at hand it is no wonder that the nearest Michelin three-star restaurant, Paul Bocuse, just outside of Lyons, should specialize in regional produce and cooking. There are, for instance, plenty of Bordeaux wines, should anyone insist on them, but Mr. Bocuse remains partial to Burgundies.
Such regional chauvinism might seem incompatible with a restaurant rated as one of the best in the world, but it would be difficult to fault the cuisine in either execution or originality.
A meal Chez Bocuse inevitably begins with a Burgundian apéritif, a Kir, which he has transformed completely. He uses white wine, but champagne instead of the usual Mâcon or Aligoté and a crème de cassis (black currant liqueur) specially made for him, and he also adds a few drops of raspberry liqueur. The result has become so popular that Mr. Bocuse has to make it by the pitcherful. To go with it, he serves a slice of hot sausage baked in a brioche (much like a coffee cake but less sweet) that is a marvel of lightness, for none of the sausage fat leaks into the brioche.
The soupe aux moules is really an ultra-fine bouillabaisse with all the taste and none of the heaviness, but with no fish, only mussels, swimming in it. And yet this delightful soup is a mere taste-tickler to prepare the way for one of Mr. Bocuse's solid fish preparations.
Certainly the most beautiful dish – and it would be hard to find anything more deliciously perfect in taste as well – is the loup en croûte. A raw sea bass, on a bed of tarragon and other herbs, is stuffed with a lobster mousse and baked in a pastry shell decorated to represent the fish inside, down to the last scale.
Served with a sauce Choron (béarnaise with an addition of tomato purée) and a Pouilly-Fuissé, this dish slows down the most rapid trencherman just to make the pleasure last.
The season being what it is, game is an equal temptation. While rich affairs such as lièvre à la royale can be ordered in advance, other preparations are regularly on hand. Perdreau aux choux consists of tender roast young partridge served with deliciously light cabbage hearts, toast spread with the giblets and an incredibly light version of scalloped potatoes. To match the tenderness of the partridge, Mr. Bocuse suggests an equally tender 1961 Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Some of the desserts are not at all complicated but the quality and combination of ingredients makes the dish – such as a large egg of vanilla ice cream, surrounded by peeled orange segments and topped with slivers of candied orange peel macerated in pomegranate syrup.
After a meal here it isn't a bit surprising to learn that Mr. Bocuse has four American customers who twice a year fly all the way over just to eat at his restaurant, and then fly back.