Bistronomy is making its mark on Lyon, France's dining capital

Bistronomy is a contraction of bistro and gastronomy: Dessert at La Bijouterie, Lyon.
Bistronomy is a contraction of bistro and gastronomy: Dessert at La Bijouterie, Lyon. Photo: Nicolas Villion

Chaos. That's how talented young Australian chef Ryan Dolan remembers the night in La Bijouterie, the restaurant he and two other chefs had launched just a few weeks earlier in Lyon, France's capital of gastronomy. Albeit, good chaos.

It was the summer of 2016 and influential food critic and World's 50 Best Restaurants French jury president Andrea Petrini – dubbed Paris' culinary star maker by Time magazine – had walked in with his family for dinner. There, too, that night was a reviewer from the Nordic dining-out bible White Guide, as well as a leading Lyon food writer. "We had just changed the menu and were doing something on the grill," Dolan recalls. "We ended up smoking out the whole restaurant."

Disorder aside, the restaurant, in a city that worships its food and is a must on any gastronome's Euro food itinerary, had been generating favourable word of mouth – buzz likely to have drawn the food industry luminaries in the first place.

Chef Ryan Dolan. 
Chef Ryan Dolan.   Photo: Jake Roden

La Bijouterie, though, was more than just a new restaurant serving up good tucker. It was building on what, Dolan says, was then still a fledgling form of dining in Lyon, known as bistronomy.

A contraction of bistro and gastronomy, bistronomy is a more casual style of eating out that embraces the haute cuisine of a Michelin-starred restaurant without the through-the-roof prices and old-world stuffiness. And it's one savoured especially by the hipster end of the food chain.

Needless to say, Dolan is a big fan of the neo-bistro. "There was only a handful of them in Lyon at the time," he says. "They were very underground, not really looked on in the same light that bistronomy is now."

Green beans with samphire, apricot, poppy seed and spring onion at Le Kitchen Cafe.
Green beans with samphire, apricot, poppy seed and spring onion at Le Kitchen Cafe. Photo: Paul Best

La Bijouterie, meaning the Jeweller, was the brainchild of chef Arnaud Laverdin, with whom Dolan and third chef Noe Saillard had both worked at Tetedoie, a renowned Michelin-starred restaurant perched on a hillside boasting a spectacular view of Lyon.

In keeping with the principles of bistronomy, the three chefs did everything to keep a lid on costs (both waiting and wine service, as well as cleaning up) while creating an edgy menu. The restaurant became recognised for its various dim sum, still on the lunch menu today.

Before La Bijouterie, though, Dolan received his first taste of bistronomy when the owners of Tetedoie let him loose on new venture Arsenic. "I wanted to try everything," he acknowledges. "As an ambitious young chef, I wanted to flex as much as I could."

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After several years in Lyon, Dolan brought bistronomy back to Australia, introducing it to the inaugural Broadsheet Kitchen pop-up last summer. Of course, La Bijouterie isn't the only neo-bistro to which Dolan directs visitors to Lyon, a place he confesses he still misses.

Sapna, Hindi for dream, is another Dolan happily recommends. Laverdin's second restaurant – set up last November, a minute's walk around the corner from La Bijouterie – is also bistronomic in its ambitions.

More than that, Laverdin has swapped across to his new establishment, which he has made more freewheeling and less conventional than his first. "The food we do is what I cooked for staff when I was at La Bijouterie," says Laverdin, when I take Dolan's advice and drop in to see what's cooking. "I want to have fun with my cooking."

Coquillages at Le Kitchen Cafe, Lyon
Coquillages at Le Kitchen Cafe, Lyon Photo: Emmanuel Auger

Dishes on my night there included bok choy with cima di rapa, mackerel, sesame and pea wasabi in soy and mirin; white cabbage with sea urchin, pink berry and cream cheese; and freekeh with nettle, smoked mascarpone and parmesan. Something else different – desserts are prepared, sushiya-like, at the counter.

There's also an emphasis on minimising waste, using trimmings and leftovers, such as scallop beard and ovaries for the XO sauce. "We're not wasting anything to try and get costs lower," Laverdin says.

Another neo-bistro instrumental in changing up Lyon's dining scene is Les Apothicaires, run by Ludovic Mey, whom Dolan worked alongside at Tetedoie, and his Brasilian-born wife Tabata. On the menu may be a dish of peas, green strawberries and verbena kombucha, pearly cod, kohlrabi flowers and pollen or pigeon, cherry condiments, satay and quinoa souffle. "They're doing wild things," Dolan says.

Chef Arnaud Laverdin.
Chef Arnaud Laverdin. Photo: Paul Best

The couple also set up a food court in the landmark La Tour Rose, in Lyon's old town, called Food Traboule, named after the passageways silk traders used to transport their wares.

Le Supreme, in the 8th arrondissement, is another of this new guard of dining Dolan says is worth a visit. According to the Michelin Guide, chefs Gregory Stawowy and his Korean wife Yun Young Lee, who worked with native Lyonnais chef Daniel Boulud in New York, serve up "excellent bourgeois cuisine", whether it is their blond liver cake, Bresse chicken, guinea fowl or, to finish, strawberry soup with red wine and peach.

With menus starting from €32, Dolan says the restaurant perfectly illustrates bistronomy's core promise – bang for your buck. "They do very refined food for what you're paying," he affirms.

Street art in the main room at Sapna.
Street art in the main room at Sapna. Photo: Nicolas Villion

Also on Dolan's hit list is En Mets Fais ce Qu'il te Plait. While Japanese chef Katsumi Ishida established his 15-seat restaurant some 20 years ago, his inventive terroir-driven food, bohemian decor, nice prices and general homeyness adhere to the same principles of bistronomy.

Across the road is the rather cosy Le Kitchen Cafe, run by delightful wife-and-husband team Connie Zagora and Laurent Ozan. "It's a small place full of good vibes and really good food," Dolan says.

The focus is on simple bistronomy with weekly changing menus and natural wines. A vivacious Zagora does savoury – light and fresh dishes based on her Polish-Swedish heritage – while Ozan does pastry.

Zagora places a couple of entrees before me, one a trout gravlax with horseradish and granny smith, the other cima di rapa with chermoula, Tomme cheese and fermented citron. "You are the first to try these," she enthuses.

A little different to most Lyonnais restaurants, as is the neo-bistro's way, Le Kitchen Cafe is open all day, transforming exclusively into a dessert bar in the afternoon, which brings the pastry talents of Ozan to the fore. Dolan describes his work as "amazing". He's 100 per cent.

Ozan's citron cremeaux (feuilletage, caramel, orange sorbet and lemon cream with sesame tuile) and chocolate "in different textures" (cacao sorbet, mousse, chocolate and caramel sauces with pear, chocolate tuile and biscuit crumb) make me wish I lived here. Each is only €7. "We consider our restaurant like a home," Zagora says. "We are always here."

As much as Dolan loves bistronomy, though, he makes it clear you don't come to Lyon without sampling its traditional bouchons.

Peculiar to Lyon, bouchons were humble inns for everyday folk, particularly the city's silk workers during the 17th and 18th centuries. The food remains affordable, with offal, tripe, lardon and liver commonly on the menu. "It's pretty hardy fare," Dolan says.

With so many to choose from, Dolan recommends Chez Paul, Le Cafe des Federations, Daniel & Denise ("cracking food but at bouchon prices") and Le Garet.

In a gastronomic city such as Lyon, there are naturally various dining experiences. For instance, there's The New World Smoke for modern barbecue and Mamasan for hipster Vietnamese-inspired cuisine.

But you can't talk about one of the world's great gastronomy cities without paying attention to its fine-dining establishments. After all, Lyon is home to the late, great Paul Bocuse, arguably the world's first celebrity chef, who died in January last year.

Dolan singles out Tetedoie, where he worked for two years, and Le Passe Temps (both with a Michelin star) as well as the legendary two-star La Mere Brazier (Bocuse was a student of its founder, Eugenie Brazier).

And the triple-Michelin-star Paul Bocuse Restaurant? Dolan acknowledges it's a bit of an ineluctable bucket-list thing for tourists and chefs alike. "It's like a museum, a culinary pilgrimage for chefs…a temple of gastronomy," he says. That's a yes, if you can afford it.