What it's like to eat in one of the world's most famous French restaurants, 50 years apart

The dining room at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Photo: Franz Scheurer.

Paul Bocuse one of the fathers of modern French gastronomy, turned 90 on February 11. His profound influence on the restaurant world is recognised in the Bocuse d’Or, a biennial world chef championship held in Lyon. He’s been described Bocuse as the most important chef in history.

Swiss-born Australian Franz Scheurer grew up around hotels and restaurants in his birthplace and was lucky enough to eat at Bocuse’s famed Lyon restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in the 1960s.

Five decades later, he returned to dine there again. This is how it felt:

I grew up in the restaurant business and my father was a personal friend of many of the top chefs and restaurateurs in Europe in the 1950s and 60s.

Paul Bocuse, hailed as “chef of the century”, is one of them.

We used to regularly eat at his restaurant in Lyon when I was a small boy and I still vividly remember the year Bocuse got his third Michelin star and the subsequent visit to congratulate him. It was one of the best meals I had eaten at the time and it has stayed in my mind for more than 50 years.

In the meantime, I grew up, pursued a career as a photo journalist and have spent a lot of time eating out and writing about restaurants.

There have been many highlights in the ensuing decades: Neil Perry’s Rockpool, putting fine dining on the map in Australia; Frédy Girardet’s incredible Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland; and the easy conviviality at Al Gatto Nero on the island of Burano in the Venetian lagoon.

People travel miles to Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace where the Haeberlin family has proven to be a real stayer among the top of the culinary tree. The lasting impression from several dinners at Ristorante Cracco in Milan, where Carlo Cracco lifts the known into the unknown; and a tip of the hat to the unassuming Tetsuya Wakuda whose artistry we can sampled in Singapore and Sydney.

Meanwhile Paul Bocuse kept his three Michelin stars for over 50 years.

The Paul Bocuse Institute in Ecully is one of France’s most highly regarded cooking schools.

Bocuse is famous for his quick wit and one of his best-known quotes: “It takes the same amount of time to do a job well or badly; so you might as well do it right!”, which sums up the common sense of the man.

Bocuse has travelled the world, cooking and preaching the virtues of French cuisine and now, turned 90 this week, the “man in the tall chef’s hat” still works hard to pass as much of his knowledge on as he can.

Recently, my wife and I decided to go back, knowing that I might destroy a life-long childhood memory.

Lyon is a beautiful city, especially at night, and Le Royal Hotel, which houses one of the hospitality training schools, Institut Paul Bocuse, is a superbly comfortable – surprisingly affordable – hotel in the middle of the city with impressive 240º views from their corner rooms.

Paul Bocuse’s famous restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, is a 30-minute taxi ride from the centre of Lyon travelling along the river all the way. If you’ve never been, nothing will prepare you for the experience and if you have, then you will likely have forgotten just how impressive it is.

Inside a brightly coloured building, with a number of separate dining rooms, it literally draws you in. Paul Bocuse has a reputation for absolutely nothing escaping his attention – and I can attest to that.

From the second you step through the door you are in the capable hands of a myriad of staff whose calling seems to be to treat you as if you were the only guest in existence.

The bread and butter at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Photo: Franz Scheurer.

Everything is exactly in place – and branded with the Bocuse insignia … there is no mistaking where you are.

Once seated drinks appear along with a rather large menu, and here is the first real difference to anywhere else I’ve been: I can easily read the print without glasses!

Too often menus and wine lists use impossibly small fonts and unless you have 20/20 vision you either need glasses or a strong light or both. Not here.

We chose the ‘Grand Tradition Classique’, at €255 ($AU385) per person.

Here’s what it was like.

The ‘Escalope de foie gras de canard poélé’ is the best piece of duck foie gras I have ever tasted.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

The ‘Soup aux truffes noires V.G.E.’, created in 1975, is simply amazing in its earthiness and richness.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

The real surprise was the ‘Escargots de Bourgogne en coquilles au beurre persillé’. After eating around the world for over half a century I frankly had no idea a simple dish of snails could be that good. The attention to detail, freshness, quality of produce and an innovative way of serving them (in terracotta snail shells) made them the stand out dish of the night.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

The ‘Fillet de sole au nouilles Fernand Point’ was as impossibly delicious. The sole was served in ultra smooth mousseline and gratiné.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

‘Volaille de Bresse en vessie Mère Filloux’. The chicken was served in a huge bladder that looked like a football.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

It was dissected at the table, Guéridon-style.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

It had truffles under the skin and was served with a superb morel sauce. Delicious too.

Photo: Franz Scheurer

Trolleys of unpasteurised cheeses…

Photo: Franz Scheurer

…followed by trolleys of desserts, anything from fresh berries to cakes to jellies to ice cream…

Photo: Franz Scheurer

made it impossible to focus on an individual one (this is the sorbet).

Photo: Franz Scheurer

As would be expected, the wine list is extensive, perhaps less predictable is that it offers something for every budget, with bottles starting at under €50 ($AU75).

The whole evening was as much magical theatre as it was superb service and delicious food and we finally strolled back out into the night with all our senses sated, feeling we had just had the best dining experience of our lives.

* Franz Scheurer runs Franz Scheurer Photography and FSP Advertising Agency. He also writes about food, wine and travel at Australian Gourmet Pages, the website and e-newsletter he founded in 1998.

You’ll find Franz on Twitter as @blues_junkie.

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