When I headed off to Lyon, France, this summer, my Orlando food pals made it clear that I must visit “that Paul Bocuse restaurant.” We have a local bit of Bocuse here – the late chef’s still-thriving enterprise at Disney World’s Epcot, which makes us feel a little closer to the culinary legend. And yes, we know the Epcot spin-off isn’t PAUL BOCUSE. Even Paul Bocuse’s other Lyon enterprises aren’t PAUL BOCUSE. These wouldn’t dare call themselves “a temple to haute cuisine,” as the original does on its website.
I’m getting defensive. I’ll move on.
So after consulting with my three co-travelers, who like me felt ill at the thought of spending hundreds of dollars on a single dinner, and, who like me could not resist the magnetism of a dining room reputed to dish out such intense delight, I booked at table. We were all set to visit Auberge du Pont des Colonges at 8 p.m. This is the legendary restaurant, the one that’s so notably indulgent it has earned three Michelin stars yearly for five decades, its website says. We’re talking food, and also presentation, decor, service and thoughtful extras; it takes a whole lot to earn those three twinkly stars in the maroon-colored Michelin guide. Added to the financial ugh: The Auberge du Pont des Colonges is actually located in Collonges au Mont d'Or, not Lyon. It’s about a $20 Uber ride away.
I won’t argue with the rating. I have dabbled in the Michelin-star world over the years, and have dined in exceptional non-Michelin restaurants as a restaurant critic, hospitality writer and aggressively food-centered world traveler over the past many years. Still, I found the service a tad too snooty, and not quite as polished as I’ve seen elsewhere. Here are my niggles.
That Paul Bocuse Restaurant: Water
We sat down and were asked about water. In the past, I have only ordered bottled water in Europe, still or sparkling. This trip, though, in Annecy and then Lyon, restaurants were offering no-problem tap water at every meal, generally presented chilled in decanters set on the table. If regular joints have safe and fine-tasting water, I reasoned, surely the Paul Bocuse restaurant does too. No doubt this kitchen would have an exceptional filtered product. So I asked for tap. The others asked for tap. Our server – one of the hive of mostly doting professionals – pretended not to understand. “Are you requesting arsenic instead of artesian manna?” his look communicated. He finally had the aha! response: He essentially curled his upper lip like a disgruntled 12-year-old and queried with mild disgust if we really meant to have the house H20. Yup, we did.
That Paul Bocuse Restaurant: Wine
Time for food. The four of us looked at the various splendors listed and just had to choose the seven-course €280 menu (that’s more than $300 per person). I mean, we showed up, so why not go all out? Once we placed our orders, we decided to select a wine. Now, I’m sure many Auberge du Pont des Colonges guests devour the wine list with their eyes and hearts, consult with the sommelier about just the right white, followed by just the right red, ending with a spot-on digestif. We are not those people. Three of us are enthusiastic wine drinkers. We’ll buy fine wines for shared dinners in our homes. We also need to retire before we’re 95. So we agreed on the rule, “Nothing we can buy at Publix,” then split one of the lower-priced wines listed on the food menu and proceeded to sip slowly. Let’s just say it wasn’t a $10 bottle.
That did not go well. Apparently we were meant to look at the real wine list, a far heftier list of juices. We dismissed the offer. The sommelier came anyway. We told him the same thing. His response: ice.
Come on. I know this is a bastion of the finest gourmet fare, or whatever fancy words you want to put on it. We were willing to fork out whatever it took to get the most tempting food offered. It is no crime to cut back on the water and the wine. Surely other eager Auberge du Pont eaters have made those sacrifices over the years too. To me, if you have excellent service, you don’t give guests attitude for frugality.
Then we had the bread, and the other bread, debating which was more divine. We were enchanted, as promised. We marveled over lobster chunks in an icy wine-laced broth, topped with a generous dollop of gentle little fish eggs. We swooned like cliché customers over a pastry-topped truffle soup so rich that it was presented to the French president in 1975, before low-fat was the way of the world. We drew out the iPhones when approached with the chicken cooked inside a veal bladder. You absolutely must view the video above. I’ll assume this dish was being served before restaurants worldwide began conjuring up Instagram-worthy specialties; still; it’s as good a show as you’ll find during a meal. What you’ll watch is a server presenting the inflated out-of-a-baby-cow orb at the table, then puncturing it, removing the chicken, quartering the chicken, and plating some for each of us. Peer closely to notice the slivers of truffle between the flesh and the skin. Oh! They offered my female friend a choice of white meat or dark, but not me. The remaining three of us got what the server chose for us. So much for “ladies first.”
This is one place where a server showed a sense of humor. I’d kept my camera away during most of the meal – my photographer-husband took the iPhone photos you see here – but when we were approached with an inflated veal bladder, I just had to start taping. “Are Americans the only ones who take pictures here?” I asked, acknowledging that it’s tacky to tape in a joint like this. “No no,” he replied. “The Swiss do too. And the Japanese.”
Overall the meal flowed splendidly, course after course. We ended first with a cheese course, which involved choosing as many slices as we wanted of as many cheeses as we wanted. After that, we did the same with a trio of dessert carts loaded with sweets. I don’t recall being asked if we wanted coffee after dessert, or a, say, Cognac. We were the last table left in our dining room and the service team was ready to bolt toward their homes.
That Paul Bocuse Restaurant: More Niggles
Along the way – of course; you know me by now – a few other tidbits rubbed me as not-perfect. Not-perfect is OK everywhere – except a three-star Michelin restaurant that may have cost my sons their inheritance.
OOF, THAT LIGHT The dining room was way too bright. At first, we thought it was just the sunlight, as dusk hadn’t arrived. But nope. Even when it was pitch dark outside, our petite space – we were in the Siberia of Auberge dining rooms, with just a few tables (that’s OK) – remained glaringly light. No warm glow. No gentle hue. We practically needed sunglasses.
NO WINE PAIRINGS While we were tight-fisted with the bottled wine we chose, we may have welcomed a wine-pairing option. The restaurant could have chosen small pours for each course, or maybe just three medium pours to carry us through the meal in steps. Is that just an American thing? If so, why?
I’D RATHER NOT SHARE My purse table, that is. I found a small stool next to my seat. It was ideal for holding my purse. The other woman at the table had no such stool, however. She had to hand her handbag across the table to me. The two together were too big for the small surface and kept tumbling off onto the floor. And, may I add, I had to pick them up because no server ever noticed.
WIPE IT UP. In theory, this restaurant folds or replaces your napkin if you get up and leave the table, such as to visit the restroom. I was the first at our table to rise. My napkin fell on the floor. It was still there when I returned. I had to scoop it up myself, then – classy chick that I am – used it, with both food dirt and floor dirt on it. I could have asked for another, but the dirt didn’t bother me. (I raised boys. It takes a lot of schmutz to rattle me.) The lack of attentiveness did, at that price point.
SERVE UP THE SOUVENIR MENU. Once we ordered our dinners, I asked to keep my menu handy. I like to look back at food descriptions while I eat. It helps me understand what I’m enjoying. I was reluctantly allowed, although we were told that we’d all receive sample menus to take home upon our departure. Some sneak snagged the real menu during the meal anyway. Then we forgot all about those take-home print-outs until we got back to our lodging. Shouldn’t handing those out be as routine as rolling over the dessert carts?
So that’s my experience. I’d still encourage you to visit the Paul Bocuse restaurant Auberge du Pont des Colonges. It offers a phenomenal culinary adventure. That lobster alone. That truffle soup alone. That chicken/veal bladder presentation alone. #worthit.
But let’s be honest. The service could have been more accepting while retaining its formality. I’m sure the food-elite snobs will bombard me with lessons of the restaurant’s glory, or, more likely, dismiss me as a Floridian foodie flake. That’s OK. I’ve heard worse. I’ll stick by my premise: The food was sublime, but the service could have been better. It is That Paul Bocuse Restaurant, after all.