Aux Lyonnais is not in one of the more well-travelled Paris neighborhoods, and it’s down a rather nondescript side street. You really have to be looking for it to find it. And yet many of the tables were occupied by Americans. If you couldn’t overhear their non-French conversation, you could spot them by the bottled water on their tables. (More about that in a moment.)
Aux Lyonnais is an Alain Ducasse restaurant, so perhaps it’s the famous chef’s name that draws them in, although his name appears only in very tiny print at the bottom of the menu (Frederic Thevenet is the chef de cuisine). This is certainly not the typical celebrity chef-driven vehicle.
It’s also not the sort of sensational dining experience one would expect from someone of Ducasse’s caliber. Good, yes; transformational, no. Which is fine, and, when considering the prices -- main courses from 19-25 euro and a prix fixe menu du jour of three courses for 34 euro, or about $44 usd -- it seems quite reasonable. Actually, with the price taken into account, the food is a bargain.
I started with the planche de charcuterie Lyonnaise appetizer. (In France, appetizer, or starter, dishes are called entrees while what Americans call entrees are listed as plats; go figure.) It featured two types of salami folded into flowers, a terrine and a small bowl of mustardy potato salad with warm egg. The salami was garnished with crumbles of crackling, which I thought was the best part.
My companion had the oeuf cocotte, a coddled egg served in a small Mason-like jar with girolles, or chanterelle mushrooms, and truffe d’ete, or summer truffles. The barely cooked egg blended into a seductive syrup with the chewy mushrooms and the truffles, which, unlike the winter variety, have a milder (read: less dominating flavor).
My my entree, or plat, if you will, I chose the quenelles a la Lyonnaise, a specialty of the region. The quenelles are sort of like large, egg-shaped dumplings, made with pureed fish -- pike is the usual catch -- and poached. The texture was light, almost ethereal, and the flavor was rich and creamy, decidedly non-fishy. They were accompanied by a sauce Nantua, with a slight tomato tinge and tiny in-the-shell crawfish.
My friend had the troncon de colin de ligne roti, which the waiter told us was a white fish. (White fish is the standard answer any waiter in France will give you if you ask for a translation.) This was most likely pollock, which Europeans are currently rebranding as colin because it sounds better, though probably not to people named Colin. It was a simple fillet, roasted, moist and firm. It was served with delicious pickled artichoke hearts.
I was not impressed with our server, who was unnecessarily haughty. Despite the prejudiced opinion most Americans have about the French being rude, my experience has always been the opposite. In fact, the sommelier here couldn’t have been more accommodating and charming. But the waiter served everything with a sneer, including the small dish of fleur de sel that had the finger tracks of a previous patron.
He also pulled a now classic trick. He asked if we would prefer sparkling or still water, then delivered a bottle of Evian. That’s right: we were Ruth’s Chris’d in Paris. We were upsold using the tactic that those were our only choices. I noticed that most of the Americans’ tables had bottles of Evian, while the tables of Parisians had bottles of tap water (and by the way, Paris tap water is fine, if not downright tasty).
Aux Lyonnais is housed in an 1890 building that was originally a storehouse for coal and wood before opening as a wine shop in 1914. The decor has a classic old feel, with tile floor, florid plaster molding and typical bistro mirrors on the wall, plus colorful tiling at the wainscot level. Ornate light fixtures, each only slightly different from the next, lit the two dining areas on the ground level. The tables are simple wood and are set with dishcloth-like placemats. Like most Paris bistros, seating is cramped -- we had to scoot over a bit while the couple next to us were being seated. Their two small dogs scurried under the banquette as though they were regulars there.
Aux Lyonnais will fit the bill for those looking for a French bistro experience, and it will definitely suffice for those who want good food at a good price.
Aux Lyonnais is at 22 Rue St. Marc, Paris 2d. It is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The phone number is 01 42 96 65 04. Here’s a link to the Web site.