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Gastronomy is king in Lyon


July 13, 2008 - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A cutting board with some charcuterie awaits clients who come in for the shop’s wine tastings. Photo by Joe Ray

Lyon, France — The design on the door to Jojo’s wine shop says it all: It’s a line drawing of owner Georges “Jojo” Dos Santos locked in a very passionate embrace with a bottle of wine.

With a flipped-up haircut and a spunkiness reminiscent of the cartoon reporter Tintin, Dos Santos, and his shop, Antic Wine, are two of the most recognizable icons in Lyon. Only two minutes after my arrival, he exclaims, “Let’s go!”

Apparently, the “Lyon by Jojo” tour does not begin with wine.

Something of a walking Rolodex, Dos Santos, 37, leads me in and around the city’s historic Vieux Lyon neighborhood. Doing so, he not only shares some of Lyon’s best addresses, but also shows me a hidden path to the city’s notoriously hard-to-reach inhabitants.

Luckily, Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, and if there’s a secret passage to the soul of a Lyonnais, it goes through the esophagus.
We start by walking into Boulangerie St. Vincent, and the bakery’s tiny size seems to amplify the smell of yeast in rising dough and the buttery odor of croissants still in the oven. It gets me so worked up that I’m willing to go on the record as calling it the best-smelling bakery in France.

Dos Santos walks across the tiny floor, grabs a baguette a mais - something like a multigrain baguette made with fresh corn kernels - breaks it open and stuffs his face inside.

imageSeveral fresher-than-fresh kinds of bread await customers at Lyon’s postage-stamp-size Boulangerie St. Vincent. Photo by Joe Ray

“Ahh, smell this!” he exclaims, emerging from the torn loaf with a huge smile and flour on the end of his nose. If you could get drunk on the smell of bread, this would be the baguette.

We scoot around the corner to the Halle de la Martiniere market and Dos Santos makes a beeline for his favorite cheese shop, Le Jardin de la Martiniere. Owner Virginie Messad gives us a taste of some seriously good Morbier, with a perfect creamy texture and raw-milk flavor, as she and Dos Santos discuss the market as one of the neighborhood’s pillars, far from the hubbub of the city’s ritzy and touristy Les Halles de Lyon market.

Dos Santos’ tour has already brought us past a beautiful butcher shop, his favorite place for ice cream, a furniture-restoration workshop that looks like it’s been pulled from the early 1900s and a pristine bakery, but when Messad asks me what I think of the city and its people, I realize we have been moving so fast, nothing has sunk in.

We hit the brakes when Dos Santos introduces his photographer friend Frederic Sonier, who goes by the nom de plume of Frederic Jean.

“We’re bad at making people feel welcome, and we’re closed,” says Sonier, describing the typical Lyonnais. “But that mentality is changing. People are becoming more open and sympathetic.

“It takes a while to discover their richesse - they’re like the traboules,” he says, referring to Lyon’s easy-to-miss pedestrian passageways that link one street to another, often hiding a beautiful courtyard.

“I can’t speak for everybody,” concludes Sonier, “but I share what I love.”

imageA nighttime view of the Notre-Dame de Fourvire basilica seen from the riverbanks in downtown Lyon. Photo by Joe Ray

Challenge to authenticity

The soul-baring - and a state of the union for Lyon’s cuisine - comes from a pair of unlikely sources. Dos Santos stops for lunch at Les Adrets, a few doors up from Antic Wine on the Rue du Boeuf, and introduces chef Jean-Luc Wesolowski, 57, and cheese-maker Francois Maire, 42. Dos Santos immediately gets a “Cheers”-esque welcome as he makes the rounds through the restaurant, saying warm hellos to everyone in the kitchen and half the customers.

Wesolowski sits down after the busy lunch service to describe the slow change that’s happening to Lyon’s revered cuisine.

“Bouchons are like museums,” he says, referring to the bouchon Lyonnais, Lyon’s version of the bistro that focuses on hearty food like coq au vin, straying often into offal dishes like tripe, and serving it all up with plenty of wine. Today, the authentic bouchon Lyonnais is wildly outnumbered by knockoffs, and finding a real one in Lyon isn’t easy.

Wesolowski modestly describes his own cuisine with a nonchalance that makes it sound like the simple dinner he prepares in the restaurant’s kitchen almost every night for his wife, but others might say his cooking is the perfect evolution of a bouchon.

” ‘Bouchon’ is exploited,” says Maire, who is slowly orbiting toward our table after citing a mistrust of journalists. “People want to sell authenticity where there is none. It’s a great idea, but it’s too clean. Food is made to make you dream.”

Wesolowski would probably be a bit more upset by the slow death of one of Lyon’s icons if he didn’t understand why it was fading away.

“Before, people here were manual laborers who worked very hard - they needed heavy food,” he says. “Now, road workers have machines to dig their holes - it’s logical.”

“Here, the menu changes every day,” counters Wesolowski. “I go to the market in the morning, and if the fish is beautiful and the fishmonger gives me a good price, I’ll buy it.” He passes these prices on to his customers, particularly at lunch, when a prix fixe menu is all he offers and the three-course meal with wine and coffee is a bargain at 14 euros ($22).

“Now, with [today’s] lunch over, there’s nothing left,” says the chef. “This is the principle characteristic of a neighborhood restaurant.”

That said, it’s not over for the bouchon. Wesolowski enjoys winking at Lyon’s historic cuisine, occasionally making bouchon standards like pork with lentils, fish dumplings known as quenelles and a salad made with pigs’ feet.

“He’s unique,” says Maire, “he still works with his heart.”

After lunch, at the Cafe de la Cathedral, I get Dos Santos talking about wine while he sips on a San Pellegrino mineral water served in a Perrier glass, but even that becomes something of an indirect ode to the character of the Lyonnais. He begins by talking about the semi-regular wine tastings he runs at Antic Wine, where anything from reasonably priced wine to an expensive magnum might be served with some wonderful charcuterie, all for a ridiculously cheap 10 euros ($15.75).

“The tastings are a lot of fun, but we certainly don’t do it for the money,” he says.

Case in point, he’s got two empty bottles from previous tastings left on a shelf at the shop - one from Chateau Haut-Brion and the other from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti - each worth a couple of c-notes.

“I’m generous - I don’t do this for free, but I love working with food and with people. Wine has got to be accessible to everybody,” he says. “There’s always money, but you’ve got to have magic, too.”
Later in the evening, Dos Santos plays waiter at Les Adrets for a private wine-tasting dinner he has organized with chef Wesolowski. The consummate host, here Dos Santos is clearly in his element. He skates around the floor, making jokes in the kitchen and with the clients who try several wines over the course of the evening. He’s all smiles, simultaneously running the show, charming everyone in his path and, at the end of the night, sharing a drink with them.

imageLyon wineseller Georges Dos Santos, standing, talks wine with a group of diners during a wine-centered private dinner at restaurant Les Adrets. Photo by Joe Ray

At one point he stops at a waiter’s station to test a burgundy he’s just opened, pokes his nose in a glass, inhales deeply, then takes a sip. Then, like an aside to the camera, he turns to me, tingling with enthusiasm, and finally talks about the wine.

“Ca,” he says, flicking the glass with his finger and making it sound with a sharp, satisfying ding! “C’est magnifique!”

A former cook, Joe Ray is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Paris. He can be reached through his Web site, joe-ray.com.

 

IF YOU GO

Getting there

Expect to pay about $1,500 round-trip airfare for one-stop service from Atlanta to Lyon, France .

Where to stay

Artelit, 16 rue du Boeuf. Frederic Jean runs this beautiful, cozy bed-and-breakfast. More central, you cannot be . . . and for a reasonable price (90-120 euros - $142-$189 - per night). 011-33-4-78-42-84-83, 011-33-6-81-08-33-30; http://www.dormiralyon.com, http://www.likhom.com; e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Cour des Loges (2,4,6,8 rue du Boeuf. Go high-class, Lyon style, with beautiful decor, lush rooms, stunning atrium courtyard. 240-600 euros ($377-$944) per night. 011-33-4-72-77-44-44; http://www.courdesloges.com; e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Gourmet stops

Antic Wine, 18 rue du Boeuf. The wine shop is a veritable Lyon landmark. 011-33-4-78-37-08-96; http://www.anticwine.com; e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Boulangerie St. Vincent, 49 quai St. Vincent. The pain de mais - bread made with corn (but not corn bread) is to die for. 6:15 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, Mondays-Tuesdays; 6:15 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sundays. 011-33-4-78-29-34-23.

Jardin de la Martiniere, Halle de la Martiniere, Rue de la Martiniere. 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; closed Mondays. Killer Morbier and goat cheeses, but ask owner Virginie Messad what’s best at any given time. 011-33-4-78-29-56-24.

Where to eat

Les Adrets, 30 rue du Boeuf. Dos Santos’ favorite place to dine in Lyon and a prix fixe lunch at an unbeatable 14 euros. Noon-1:30 p.m. and 7:45-9:30 p.m. daily; closed Saturdays- Sundays; closed in August. 011-33-4-78-38-24-30.

Le P’Tit Bouffon, 73 rue de Seze. Stop feeling like a tourist and go to this friendly, no-frills restaurant with a Basque influence. Dinner, with wine, around $40 per person. Open for lunch Mondays-Saturdays, dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays. 011-33-4-78-24-00-16; e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Information

Official site for the city of Lyon: http://www.lyon.fr/vdl/sections/en.

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