Picture courtesy of Eater
Normally, in terms of reviewing things, I don’t write about anything on this blog unless it’s going to be a good review. I’m not an actual food or restaurant/bar critic, nor am I a chef, so I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to wax poetic about how a restaurant failed to deliver. If I don’t like it I won’t go back, plain and simple. No internet bashing necessary. That being said, if something does fall into my realm of knowledge and it’s claiming to be something that it clearly is not, I’m more inclined to say something – like now.
This brings me to my trip to Lyon, the fairly new restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village claiming to be an authentic Lyonnais bouchon. This would mean as little to me as any New Yorker if I hadn’t actually lived in Lyon, and when there, based my entire social existence at a real Lyonnais bouchon. It became my happy place and I tried everything on the menu. TWICE. Probably more. I met an eclectic mix of French locals, the kind that only a bouchon could attract, and developed friendships of true value, specifically with the owner himself, whom I try and go back to visit as much as humanly possible.
Needless to say, I’ve seen the Lyonnais bouchon wrapped in its beautiful blanket of authenticity and my standards for the cuisine and the “bouchon” experience are impossibly high. The bar has been set. So, as far as I am concerned, if you say your restaurant is a Lyonnais bouchon in Manhattan, you better mean it, and it better be true.
Knowing I had impossible standards to meet, I put off going to Lyon. I remember it opening, I read the reviews, I followed the restaurant page on Twitter. I wanted to try it, but I was scared to. I knew it could never be what I wanted it to be unless the people I love from Lyon magically showed up, but I still held out faith that the food and the ambience could maybe hold a candle to the energy of Lyon, as they claimed it would. So when summer Restaurant Week came up, I went. $35 for three courses – what better way to sample the menu and make a real determination of how good it was – non?
So I went, and I tried it – with a native French person in tow for the extra critical eye. And the best way to sum up my feelings on this restaurant is by way of a standard and always understood French facial expression. Words just will not suffice. You need the face, specifically the French frustrated face:
this is how I felt about my meal a la francaise
Part annoyance and part frustration – this is the face I made all throughout dinner – with poutier lips if you can believe it.
To be fair the food was not bad. In fact, our appetizers suggested we’d be in for a real treat, but then it just went downhill.
First the appetizers. My lovely friend Mathilde had the Lyonnaise salad, which I sampled and can attest that they did an exquisite job. The signature Lyonnaise salad was in fact perfect. Wonderful way to start the meal and I remained exceedingly hopeful. For my appetizer I chose the duck wings with orange and red chili glaze. Now while the duck wings were delicious – truly delicious – there was nothing French about them, and more specifically nothing Lyonnais about them. If anything, the flavors this dish offered would be better suited to a Chinese restaurant menu – a high end Chinese restaurant – but definitely not a French restaurant, let alone a Lyon bouchon. To be fair, I should have ordered the onion soup and had it not been so hot, I would have. But instead I ordered the duck and it was the first sign that based on that even being on the menu at all, we were nowhere near being in Lyon.
Then came our mains. Mathilde ordered the coq au vin and I took a leap of faith and ordered the moules frites. Now, this was a big order for me. I haven’t actually had moules frites since I left the city of Lyon because the last moules frites I had there were so stupidly delicious. The restaurant that I frequented for mussels was a fish only restaurant and their moules provencals was the best tasting thing on the menu. The sauce was nothing but cream, herbs, tomatoes, more herbs, cream, and more cream. It was basically melted fat, in a bowl. And it was a thing of beauty that I ate whenever the opportunity arose. So much so that I’m convinced that particular dish is the reason that upon returning to the States I had to have my gallbladder removed within six months. No joke. The Lyonnais don’t mess around. The food is RICH, and it is amazing.
So – that being said – I was taking a real chance with the mussels, but I thought – what better place to test mussels again than a restaurant named after Lyon? Well, sadly, they did not live up to their city’s reputation. The sauce, while cream based (trust me, I asked), was bland, so much so that at first I thought I just didn’t have enough so I asked for more. Only to realize that no, it’s not that there wasn’t enough, it just had no real flavor. It was supposed to be a mustard cream sauce but all I tasted was a watered down cream like sauce. It tasted more like half and half than real cream. And again, to be fair, it’s hard to find real cream here like you can find in France, but if anyone can do it, you would think it would be the chef and or owner of a French restaurant in Manhattan. A disappointment to say the least and a sure sign I will not be having mussels again until I go back to the actual city of Lyon. All that being said, the fries were excellent and as French as they come. Small triumph.
Mathilde’s coq au vin looked good, but I didn’t taste it so I can’t be the judge. But her French face said enough and was reminiscent of the one above,with more indifference. Never a good sign. You never want a French person to be indifferent to their food. It never ends well.
For dessert we had the chocolate fondant cake – or by Lyonnais terms the moelleux au chocolat. This was also a serious test as the moelleux au chocolat at my favorite bouchon in Lyon was literally a food orgasm. It was the type of dish that if you’re eating it you cannot focus on anything else. The rest of the world goes silent while you eat it and when it’s gone, you want more, and you’re almost ashamed at your unabashed appetite for more of what can only be described as sex on a plate.
And, of course, that’s not what we got. Instead we got dull tasting chocolate cake that sort of resembled a moelleux au chocolat. I don’t believe either of us even finished it.
All this, combined with severely low level lighting (hence no pictures of the food), mediocre service, and a main dining room that felt too big to really capture the energy of a bouchon, left me aching for the real thing and wishing I could hop on a plane for the actual Lyonnaise experience.
So there you have it – my two cents. I am sure if you are not French, and more specifically not Lyonnais or someone who has lived there – you would have a perfectly pleasant meal here. It’s much like a lot of other New York establishments that aren’t necessarily amazing, but they’re not bad either, so if you are in the neighborhood and don’t have impossible standards for Lyonnaise cuisine like myself, then you should definitely stop in and try it. Perhaps you will enjoy it more than me. I however will likely not be back, for no other reason except that it will just hurt my heart and make me want to fly home to my little studio, in my little town, where all things taste as they should.