On my recent trip to France, I went to Lyon to visit my friend Guillaume, a fellow doctor, cook and gourmand. It was my first time in Lyon and I was looking forward to the culinary adventures that he would take me on. For our first dinner in Lyon, he chose Café des Fédérations, a most fitting and appropriate introduction to the gastronomic capital of France.
Café des Fédérations is one of, if not the most famous bouchon in Lyon. A bouchon is a type of restaurant in Lyon that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine which is heavy on offals, sausages, pâtés and all things oozing with animal essence. There’s an emphasis on hearty meat dishes, and it’s certainly not a place for vegetarians or the faint hearted (or the cholesterol plaque-hearted).
With sawdust on the floor, red and white checkered tablecloths and sausages hanging from the ceiling, this famous bouchon that has been in business for more than 80 years is casual, lively and festive. Bouchons were born in the 17th and 18th centuries from the traditional inns that silk merchants stayed at while traveling through Lyon. There are around 20 officially certified authentic bouchons in Lyon according to Les Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais. All others are imitations and wanna-bes. Meals in a real bouchon are cheap, the meals are hearty, and the people are loud, obtrusive and garish (but they’ve got a heart of gold and are always wanting to share a laugh with you). Our server’s tie says it all.
The 36 Euro prix fixe menu comes with tons of appetizers, cheese and desserts, as well as bottles of Macon and Côtes du Rhône wine, and about 8 choices of entrées. Along for the ride at the adjacent table was Bill Buford, amateur chef and author of Heat, who was being filmed for a BBC documentary. I was impressed that my travel partner Shirley recognized him right away.
We knew that we were in for a hearty experience when they placed a basket of freshly fried pork skins on our table with a bottle of Macon. Pork cracklins and white wine…the proper way to start a bouchon meal.
A large plate of the most beautiful and succulent saucisson de Lyon with cornichons came with a huge bowl of lentil salad, or caviar de la croix rousse. It’s a lentil salad in a cream sauce that is named after a region in Lyon called La Croix Rousse, a hilltop neighborhood that was once populated by silk workers. As the name suggests, it’s a ‘poor man’s caviar’, although they use high quality French green lentils, or lentilles du Puy.
Oeufs en meurette, a classic Burgundy dish, is poached egg in dark and concentrated red wine sauce. The brown sauce was very rich and had the salty intense flavor of a broth that had been cooking on the stove for days. The egg was perfectly poached, and its thick yellow yolk carefully enveloped the full-bodied sauce.
Frisée aux croûtons et lardons, or salade Lyonnaise, is a classic Lyonnaise salad with frisée, bacon, croutons and eggs in a Dijon vinaigrette. Little did I know that this was the only fresh vegetable dish we were going to get before a full-on meat fest bonanza.
The terrine du chef that day was a terrine de canard, a wonderfully rich duck liver terrine that we lapped up very quickly with our bread.
Poulet au vinaigre, or chicken cooked in vinegar sauce, couldn’t be more Lyonnaise. Farm raised chicken braised in a vinegar, wine and tomato sauce that was really flavorful and nice.
The joues de porc bourguignonnes , or pork jowl with red wine sauce, was a no-nonsense simple dish of meat, potatoes and gravy- nothing less, nothing more. The sauce had a really basic robust pork-y flavor to it that I almost couldn’t handle.
Tête de veau with sauce ravigote was my favorite. The braised calf’s head was extremely tender and luscious, and the tantalizing richness of the soft collagenous exterior was enhanced by the acidity and tartness of the ravigote sauce. Ravigote is made with white wine vinegar, mustard, shallots, capers and herbs. The word ravigoté means ‘reinvigorated’ or ‘freshened up’, and this sauce did just that. In true bouchon style, this calf’s head came with small fine black facial hairs on the skin.
Quenelle de brochet sauce nantua et ses écrevisses, pike quenelle with creamy crawfish sauce, is also a typical Lyonnaise dish. Quenelles are made by combining panade (milk, butter, egg and flour mixture) with diced pike fish fillets, eggs and butter which is then molded into its characteristic torpedo shape and poached to a light fluff.
Andouillette sauce moutarde is perhaps the most unique and intimidating of all Lyonnaise dishes. You will either love it or hate it. I’m not even sure if it’s an acquired taste, something that one can actually learn to love. It’s pig tripe rolled up into a sausage shape, served with a grainy mustard sauce which isn’t powerful enough to mask the shockingly putrid smell of pig shit. I am a huge fan and lover of offals (organ meats), and nicely fried or braised tripe is in my top 10 favorite foods of all time, but even I couldn’t stomach the tripe (ha ha). It tasted and smelled like a dirty urinal, and I couldn’t handle more than a nibble. As somebody who prides herself in being able to eat any part of an animal, this andouillette put me to shame. My friend Gregory, on the other hand, was loving every bite.
Tarte aux pralines roses is a pink praline tart, much different from dark chocolate pralines that we are used to here in the US. You can see pink praline desserts everywhere in Lyon, as I did in a praline stand in Les Halles.
Gateau au chocolat with creamy custard sauce was rich and decadent.
Raisin ice cream with berry sauce was delicious.
We were also presented with a humongous cheese assortment, as if we could eat anymore after our carnivorous banquet. The cheese plate included St. Marcellin, a beautiful creamy soft cheese, and cervelle de canut, a soft cheese paste of sorts with fromage blanc, white wine, garlic and herbs that literally translates to ‘silkworker’s brain’. I think they should also be serving cheese crusted with aspirin and Lipitor.
My Lyonnaise bouchon experience at the lively Café des Fédérations was incredibly fun and memorable. Although a lot of the meat dishes were a bit too heavy and hardcore for me, I loved the concept of no-nonsense country cooking that warms you to the bones. The staff were all so friendly, I almost felt like they were family by the end of the night. It’s not a graceful, dainty or upscale restaurant where you can find white linen tableclothes, let alone even a menu, but they’ll still treat you like royalty and make it an unforgettable evening.
With large full bellies bursting at the seams, we laughed and skipped our way back home along the beautiful Saône river.
10, Rue du Major Martin
69001 Lyon, France
+33 4 78 28 26 00
Closed on Sundays, last seating for dinner at 9:30pm
Random trivia: Did you know that the optical ‘lens’ is named after the food ‘lentil‘ because it has the same shape?