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Toni, Brenda, Mike & Maralyn - photo by Maralyn D Hill

Rarely do we have a guest blogger where I’ve done the photos and Brenda and I were both at the function. Toni Sottak is so talented with her writing and enthusiasm, that we asked her to write the review for us to share with our readers.

Lyon Lunch at Nicolas Le Bec by Toni Sottak

How far would you go for a good lunch?  For me, the answer is 314 miles!   I’ve been known to go to great lengths for a good meal.  I can mark some of the most memorable moments in my life by the restaurant or meal I had and who I shared it with and now I have a new memory to add to my bank!

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My husband and I recently cleared our schedules and caught a high-speed train from Aix-en-Provence to Lyon – France’s culinary capital – to have lunch with two people we’d never met before in one of Lyon’s legendary restaurants!

I have to admit I was intimated about picking a restaurant in Lyon – not only trying to narrow it down out of so many great options – but also because I had to select something good enough for two well-travelled food writers that I had never met!  The pressure was on – but fortunately I have a knack for selecting good restaurants and it didn’t let me down.

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When I mentioned to our lunch guests that I wanted to go to Nicolas Le Bec – the namesake restaurant of a superstar chef with two Michelin stars before the age of 32 – they were thrilled with my choice (even though they had been to one of his other restaurants already this week!).

We arrived at the empty restaurant just after noon and were asked if we had reservations!  Of course we didn’t but we managed to talk our way to a fabulous round table in the corner.  Right away, I loved the feel of the place – a modern, clean look but with warm undertones.  The table was set with charcoal gray linens, white plates and tall wine glasses that cast a sophisticated yet welcoming glow around the room.  After taking our coats, the servers asked was if we wanted champagne to start.  They said this in French.   Normally this is an issue for me – speaking French  – but somehow in restaurant settings and when champagne is involved, I suddenly become bi-lingual.  What a great welcome and perfect way to start our meal.

This was the first time Mike and I met Maralyn and Brenda in person.  Mike had been in touch with them via email but none of us had ever met.  However, you would never know this from listening to us.   From the moment they heartily agreed to my restaurant suggestion, I felt an immediate bond.  We were talking at such a frantic pace we had to delay ordering two times.  This is part of the reason our lunch lasted four hours.  I felt like we were with  old friends in the making.  We learned about their lives, their families, their passions. We talked about the things we have in common –our love of travel, food, wines and writing.  We talked about our families, the Turks and Caicos and living in France.  I enjoyed hearing about their encounters with Julia Child, Clint Eastwood and Doris Day.   When we finally got around to ordering, we broke one of my cardinal rules – two of us ordered the same main dish.

While sipping our bubble, we were served a plate of appetizers:  delicately fried balls of avocado and spicy herbs in a bright green creamy foam and homemade crackers with a parmesan mousse.  We  sampled these as we attempted to translate the menu.   Just as described in the guidebooks, the options presented were varied and creative.  Choosing was difficult.

As a starter, I selected the scallops in a lemon/crème emulsion, which was served in beautiful scallop shells.   The portion was generous, so I was able to share.  Maralyn had the risotto with truffles and Mike opted for the foie gras de canard.   Brenda  refrained from ordering a starter but the chef sent a scallop appetizer out for her anyway.  A nice touch we all agreed.

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Risotto with truffles - photo by Maralyn D. Hill

As the starters were finished, we moved from champagne to the other quintessential French beverage:  Vin.  Since we had seafood, duck and veal to come, we ordered two separate half-bottles:   a light, crisp Pouilly-Fuisse for Mike and a bolder, fruity Gigondas for the girls.   Both were excellent choices and a testament to the friendly wine list.

The timing and pace of the meal were impeccable.  Wine was served, bread was passed and the entrees arrived – all exactly when needed.  For lunch, Mike had a tender lobster tail served in a bouillon of Thai curry with hints of lemon and cream.  It sounded dreamy to me and unfortunately that is what I have to do – just dream about it.   Mike didn’t share.   That must be a good sign.  Maralyn was a bit more polite and shared her duck.  Her duck was described on the menu as a Challans duckling cooked on the bone and served with a turnip confit and flavored with honey and tumeric.

Brenda and I had the “Ris de Veau” – which we expected to be rice with veal.   The way we interpreted the description, was that the dish would be pieces of veal with winter vegetables on top of a bed of creamy rice.   We were wrong.   Ris de Veau is sweetbread – or more exactly – the throat of the calf – as the waiter told us but we were convinced he was wrong.  Fortunately, I didn’t know this until Mike looked up “ris de veau” on his IPhone later.   The presentation was beautiful and the meal was delicious.   The veal was caramelized so it was slightly crispy on the outside and soft and moist inside.  Instead of  winter vegetables and rice there were soft roasted chestnuts on a stream of thick, creamy sauce that added a rich, nutty flavor to the subtle, tender taste of the sweetbread.   I never had sweetbread before (that I know of) and I would have probably not ordered it if I knew what it was at the time.   When I read more about what I ordered I learned that ris de veau is very rich in protein, niacin, vitamin C (rare in the animal world), phosphorus and zinc.   So that made me feel even better about eating a gland.

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Veal cooked on stone - photo by Maralyn D Hill

The final stages of our marathon meal included the cheese course and dessert.   Mike prefers savory so cheeses are hard for him to resist – especially when presented as eloquently as they were on the cart.  I said I didn’t want any but then proceeded to request a few samples.  I was accused of being a backseat driver of the cheese cart!  We chose a small sampling of the local cheeses and found their creamy texture a perfect accompaniment to our final half-bottle of wine that needed to be emptied.

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Now it was time for my favorite part of the meal.   No one else wanted dessert but I couldn’t resist.  I went with what the server recommended:   the chocolate mousse.   And, just as everything else, when the dish arrived it delighted and surprised us.  The mousse was rich and creamy but instead of a smooth texture, tiny pieces of pear were buried inside.  The flavors merged wonderfully and made what could have felt like a totally decadent indulgence seem a little more healthy and nutritious.

Our meal and entire experience at Nicolas Le Bec was everything I expected and more.   Sometimes  hailed restaurants can be a let down, but that was definitely not the case for us.   Everything about our meal –the décor, the servers, the wine list, the creative menu choices and the flavors on our plates – reinforced the power of the Michelin star for me.   This restaurant and chef truly deserve to be distinguished and that the fact he has attained three stars without making the experience pretentious or inaccessible is probably one of his biggest accomplishments.   For me, I get to add another unforgettable meal to my list of magical moments and leave Lyon fortified.

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Nicolas Le Bec

14 Rue Grolee

69002 Lyon, France

33(0)4 78 42 15 35

We hope you enjoyed Toni’s review as much as Brenda and I did.

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We certainly enjoyed the company and dining experience. We met via the Internet and now have an ongoing friendship.

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Toni, Brenda, Mike & Maralyn - photo by Maralyn D Hill

Thanks Toni, we hope you will contribute another review soon.

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Pig statue in entrance - photo by Maralyn D. Hill