Lyon may be France’s third city (by population) but its food scene has long eclipsed the capital. “La mère Brazier”, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros family… where do you even begin? With such a rich pedigree expectations can be high, especially with Lyon’s ‘neo-bistros.’
Prairial (written as “PRaiRiaL” perhaps to differentiate it from the ninth month of the defunct French Republic Calendar) is located in the first arrondissement, not far from the Saône. The restaurant is on an uninspiring street but inside it’s like eating in a garden: the ambience is calm, table spacing allows for plenty of espace personnelle, chairs have upholstery the colour of Dijon mustard and greenery grows up the walls.
Gaëtan Gentil’s menu changes daily and vegetables are given primacy over meat. Perhaps following in the footsteps of that “tarragon of virtue” Alain Passard, Gentil is not the first French chef to have had a vegetal epiphany. The website proudly states that they are “breaking from tradition with no-nonsense gastronomy” but what does this really mean other than a PR soundbite? Putting vegetables centre-stage is certainly popular at the moment – Simon Rogan and Bryn Williams are riding this wave in London with their new ventures; Tredwells’ plant-based off-shoot Vegwells is a huge success – and it is fundamentally a good thing. Until relatively recently French vegetarians and vegans were (wrongly) regarded as some kind of pariah, lucky to be proffered a bowl of lettuce as the only alternative.
Prairial is so understated but exudes a quiet confidence
Gentil, like his name suggests, has a subtle and delicate approach to his cookery, making the most of Lyon’s wonderful location between Provence, the Alps and the Rhône, and avoiding the usual French predilection for butter and cream. Going for the five course mystery lunch (priced reasonably at 59 Euros for a Michelin resto), proceedings began with white asparagus, served al dente, with a soupçon of (optional) caviar. Seemingly simple, it had the whole shooting match of texture, colour and flavour. It was beautifully balanced with a lightness of touch I’ve enjoyed at Lorne in Victoria, or indeed Passard’s Arpège.
And then a carrot, broad bean and samphire dish in a very delicately spiced jus, like a pimped-up minestrone, all matched with a 2016 natural Chardonnay from Burgundy.
A word about the wine matching. As a general rule I’m not really a fan of wine matching flights, partly due to my own control-freakery, but also because these flights can often represent poor value. Sometimes, with careful thought, you are better off choosing just one or two glasses that will cut across each course. However, at Prairial the selection was done with care and attention – small measures that were decently priced and really did complement the food perfectly. Furthermore, the explanation of each wine came after its consumption, so you don’t have any preconceptions regarding appellation, vintage or terroir. It’s all about your senses doing the work and the ‘reveal’ coming afterwards.
Little could be faulted apart from the main course of mushrooms with a small walk-on part for beef which had been water bathed beyond all beefy recognition. In an otherwise excellent dish, the one and only appearance of meat in the entire meal was a grey and insipid affair. At least a light Austrian red accompanied it well.
Finally, a “textures of strawberry” dessert, was delicate, pleasant and very well presented, matched with a sparkling rosé from the underrated Savoie region.
That’s the thing about Prairial: a lot of is so understated but exudes a quiet confidence. It’s not glitzy or showy. It doesn’t need to shout.
And the icing on the cake: the service was notably friendly for France. Staff engaged in conversation in both French and English and this made the whole experience all the more pleasurable. A couple of people without reservations arrived near the end of lunch service and they were happily accommodated. A delightful and memorable meal. Prairial comes in high on my Lyon recommendation list.
11 Rue Chavanne
by J A Smith