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March 1, 2003

With the Lyonnais: My Big Fancy French Dinner


The following is a report to family and friends form a lecture tour to Lyon in southern France.

In celebration of surviving another conference venue from hell I treated myself to a fancy dinner at the hotel. I had tried the night before but had been rebuffed. "Avez vous reservez?," said the trim waiter in his waistcoat. The place was empty (We yanks eat earlier than anyone else on the planet), so I replied as bold as I could, "No, I'd like a table for one." He grimaces, "je suis desolé. . ." When you hear that you know you're in trouble. Full up he said. The way he said it indicated there was no further discussion. Matter closed. I went downstairs to another omelette.

So, this time I reserved a table by telephone one-half hour in advance. There was a small hesitation when I asked for "non fumeur" but he quickly assented. After I spelled my name he replied "3415, oui?" I guess we Americans, or at least I, stand out. It wasn't hard to tell I wasn't with the Japanese tour group.

Then I went downstairs and had a Pellforth Brune, a fine Alsatian ale, from the bar. At the appointed time I sucked up my courage and strode purposefully to the restaurant with its panoramic view of Lyon. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I was on my own without Nancy there to hold my hand.

It pays to reserve. After being seated I later overhead the waiter telling two couples the same thing he told me the night before. I was the only one in the restaurant at the time. Then around 9.00 pm it filled up fast. By then I was finishing my meal and I had left my table in the smoking section before anyone had lit up. The system works, just not the way we expect it to work.

French fancy meals are always a bit dicey. First, the menu is in French naturally. Second, they eat stuff we wouldn't feed the dog. So, you have to be careful, unless, of course, you like to live on the edge.

You can easily spend fifteen to twenty minutes discussing the menu. You're expected to discuss the menu. Those officious waiters are there to guide you through the evening and if they can't think of the word in English they whip out their culinary dictionary. And you need it.

I didn't want to spend the whole night there, nor drink a different wine with each course, so I opted for the basic fixed menu with the wine suggested for my main course. One decision down. Several to go.

Now each course has several choices and of course among the choices are words and descriptions I've never heard of or if I think I've heard of I want nothing to do with.

There was one dish that sounded like "little nuts of marinated squirrel". Hmmmm, sounded like one to avoid. Later it dawned on me that it wasn't squirrel. I'd confused the word for squirrel with deer or venison. Either way I didn't want it. A little French can get you into as much trouble as out of it.

For my entrée (first course) I chose a thinly sliced something and a cigarette stuffed with strong herbs. Yep, sounds a lot better in French. My waiter said the thinly slide something was "pumpkin". It wasn't. I didn't think the word meant pumpkin, but what do I know. Turns out it was "gourd". Close enough.

And for my main course pork filet mignon on some kind of bed of potatoes. That sounded safe. Hell, even Denny would eat that. You order everything at one time so I rounded it off with a dessert of white chocolate stuffed into red fruit. You just have to see it in French to believe me.

Phew, I am through ordering. Now I know what to expect. Not quite.

While bringing the bread they sit this silver contraption on the table and take off the lid. Beneath the lid is a little clear plastic cover with the name of the restaurant. It looks like butter. It should be butter. But in a French restaurant . . . I had to ask. No problem. They expect you to ask questions. They expect you to be engaged. It was butter. Another crisis averted.

Then they sit this large plate with this small little baked meat dish in front of me and said something in French. Whoa. This doesn't look like the pumpkin and stuffed cigarette I was expecting. The waiter was still beaming at me when I asked him to repeat himself. It was on the house, compliments of the chef.

I didn't like the sound--or the look--of this. Indeed, it looked like something I would deliberately avoid if I'd seen it in that minefield of a menu they gave me. He repeated the name in French. It didn't sound good a second time either. What popped into my mind was something I wouldn't eat. I asked him to explain it to me. That was when the culinary dictionary came out. I guess he was as unsure of himself then as I was. He couldn't find the word. That's a very bad sign. I took the bull, or in this case the cow, by the horns and asked if it was inside the bone. "S'est ca," Yes, that's it, he said. Marrow.

Great. Now what? The menu had stressed that all meat was from France. The not so subtle hint being that the meat was definitely not from Britain, land of the mad cows. If it had been brains I'd have revolted, but, hey, Nancy wasn't around. I smiled and took up my fork. It was quite good, a little stringy, baked in a light and flaky pastry. No odd, off-putting smell. Savory.

Then came the entree and I was back on familiar turf. The "pumpkin" didn't have much flavor but was skillfully sliced into the petals of a floral pattern. The waiter came by to "rectify" his description of the cigarette. It wasn't stuffed with herbs but a mixture of cheese and herbs. After the moelle episode, something stuffed with cheese sounded like salvation. It was exquisite. Again, a tasty pastry shell, in this case shaped like a cigar. A subtle mix of herbs in the cheese and an unusual assortment of spices in the pastry.

I was fearing that the main course would be over the top with a big slab of pork and I'd have to wade through it to clean my plate. No need for such fears in a French restaurant. The portions are small, manageable, or as they would say, digestible. Two modest pieces of the tenderest pork I've eaten anywhere. The meat sat on a round bed of pureed potatoes that had been fried or baked (roesti?) like a potato pancake. I made quick work of the meat and the potatoes, just like back home in Indiana.

Next is dessert. Well, not quite. They brought out a little tray with assorted candies and a small plate of paper thin slices of apple. This time I was on my toes and heard him explain that this wasn't the dessert, just the "before dessert".

The white chocolate stuffed into red fruit was worth the wait. You have to take the descriptions in French menuese with a grain of salt. What fruit there was was hard to find. It was red, looked like a kind of cranberry, but there wasn't a lot of it. There were two balls on the plate. One had angel-like wings of white chocolate sprouting from it. The other just sat there all alone with a spray of raspberry juice or something similar dripped across it in one of those modern-art patterns you see in just such a fancy restaurant. Delicious.

Finished. No embarrassing faux pauxs. They smiled. I smiled. I got out of there for only 44 Euros and the pleasant feeling that I hadn't over eaten. Just enough. A modest price for a culinary adventure. I felt even better knowing that my client will pay the bill.

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