I visit Lyon and Wolfsburg

Sunday, June 14th , 2009

 Lyon 1024 Bresse chickens-crop-v2.JPG
In one of my rare visits outside the tube network I sampled The Tilbury, a pub in a little village in Hertfordshire near Welwyn Garden City. This is certainly cooking well above the standard of the local area, where anything above the basic food is hard to find. The menu is appealing, though I found the kitchen trying just a bit too hard at times: piri piri prawns were odd with an unnecessary herb crust, and lobster thermidor is a classic dish that needs considerable care, but suffered from slightly overcooked lobster. Better was haddock and chips with home-made accompaniments, while desserts also had some issues: it is good to make the cherry ice cream from scratch, but then it should really taste of cherries. Still, overall a very decent place in a culinary tundra.
I like the simplicity of Hereford Road, where dishes are reduced to their most basic elements, with hardly a garnish in sight. Guinea fowl with superb new potatoes was a fine example, the bird cooked very carefully, the potatoes just right, with firm (but not too hard) texture. Similarly, John Dory was timed really well and had excellent taste. With such simple treatment everything is down to high quality ingredients and exact technical execution, and with just the odd exception (some overcooked cabbage) Hereford Road ably demonstrates these characteristics. 
The Notting Hill Brasserie has settled down in the kitchen since my last visit, but prices have moved up significantly. I have always liked the atmosphere of the place, with its cosy dining room (if you ignore the odd wall decorations) the live jazz piano music (now at a £2 surcharge) and subdued lighting. I also found this week some very good cooking of savoury courses, such as a pair of fat scallops with carefully cooked peas and beans (though the morel pieces were so tiny as to be lost). Similarly chicken breast was succulent and well-seasoned, and wild mushrooms with this were well selected. However I found desserts were not to the same level of the rest of the meal, and service was amateurish (how hard is it to put dishes in front of the right people at a table for two on a quiet night, let alone deliver things to the correct table?). The issue here now is price, with main courses around £26 or so and side dishes an absurd £6 on top, with starters around £13 or so and desserts £7. For the food alone you are only just below £60, which is the price of a meal at the nearby Ledbury, and there are no amuse-bouches or pre-desserts here. Petit fours were in fact singular: one little chocolate to share between two of us: how mean is that? While I found the savoury courses very good indeed, this is just too costly for an uneven meal with careless service.  
Aqua is the latest three Michelin starred restaurant in Germany, being promoted in the 2009 guide.  It is in the shadow of the VW factory’s brick power station (a monument to German engineering that dominates the town) but fortunately the dining room is cunningly placed to look out over a grassy knoll and an artificial lake. The cooking was modern but not extremely so, utilising the very finest ingredients. Technique was flawless, and service superb. This is a tricky place to get to, but is yet further evidence of the quality of high end German restaurants.
Auberge de l’Ile in Lyon is sister to Ambassade del’Ile in London. It is in a very unusual location on a little island called Ile de Barbe, just a few minutes from the centre of Lyon and accessible via a turn-off from one of the river bridges.  It has a series of listed buildings dating back hundreds of years, including the restaurant, which has a lovely courtyard area where you can have a drink before dinner. You could imagine yourself somewhere in the French countryside on a peaceful summer’s night, yet it is just on the outskirts of the city. 
Troisgros is in the distinctly sleepy town of Roanne, about one hour from Lyon by train. I first visited it in 1996 and was dazzled by the meal then, and was keen to return. It has retained its three stars throughout this period, as indeed it has for decades, and many of France’s most famous chefs started out there.   Michel Troisgros is the current head chef, and has modernised the menu since I last visited. The food has gone rather modern for my tastes in the intervening years, which I found a bit of a shame as Michel Trisgros has nothing to prove to his fellow chefs. Technique was superb, ingredients top rate, and I can find very little to criticise, yet somehow I enjoyed it a little less than last time, which may just be an effect of memory but I think is more about my personal style preference
I love the kind of food that Mere Brazier serves. It is a restaurant with an illustrious history, now revitalised under a dynamic chef, who has sensibly chosen to respect the traditions of the place while greatly improving the food. It was a meal that really surprised me, with some terrific cooking.
Nicolas Le Bec is the up and coming Lyonnais star chef, and his flagship restaurant in the centre of Lyon cooked a very impressive meal for us. No silly modern flourishes, but clean flavours derived from taking fine ingredients and not trying to mess about with them too much. This is clearly a talented kitchen team.
Lyon is not somewhere that springs to mind as a tourist destination but in fact it has a lot to offer. It has two rivers (the Rhone and the Saone), there is an extensive and well preserved mediaeval old town (a World Heritage Site), some nice parks and museums, and a subway system to get about, quite apart from its culinary attractions. I was impressed with the produce at Les Halles, a covered (air conditioned) market where assorted food suppliers gather (see pictures). I have noticed from other markets in France that there is so much greater emphasis on product quality than in the UK, and here the vegetables, meat and fish looked superb. It was also striking that the very best bread we had all week was from a little baker in the old town (Boulangerie de Palais on Rue St Jean) which we stumbled into by accident. This bread was literally better than that at three-starred Troisgros, and on another day we went back and had a magnificent sliceof cherry klafoutis from the same place. Now if only I can persuade them to open up in London...
We stayed at the Cours Des Loge hotel, in the heart of the old town, and I can definitely recommend it. It was originally four mediaeval houses, but in 1986 was converted to a boutique hotel. It still has a lot of original features, with winding stone staircases, an impressive central atrium and a lovely little roof garden. I stayed here when I first visited Lyon in the 1990s, and the same superb concierge, Gérard Ravet, is still there (he has one various awards, including a recent one in Vanity Fair magazine). A unique place.