How do you say ‘to go’ in French?
REVERING la bonne cuisine as they do, many French are still fighting the good fight to hold the line against le fast food.
But long gone are the days when the mention of a cheeseburger could earn you a Gallic sneer and protesters drove tractors into a McDonald’s; these days, burgers are being served in upscale Paris restaurants. And now, fast food from a Michelin three-star chef?
Yes, while classic French restaurants are making a comeback in Los Angeles (Thomas Keller’s highly anticipated Bouchon in Beverly Hills, Anisette in Santa Monica, West Hollywood’s Comme Ca), the most legendary chef in France -- and probably the world -- turns around and opens a fast food joint in the country’s culinary capital.
Paul Bocuse, whose “back-to-basics” nouvelle cuisine tilted at the culinary establishment of the 1970s and who is a towering pillar of the establishment today, says he “saw the opportunity to feed thousands of people going to the cinema.”
Bocuse is based in Lyon, France’s elegant second city, two hours southeast of Paris by high-speed train. His “mother ship” remains the high-end, Michelin three-star L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges just outside Lyon, but he’s also spent the last decade and a half opening a slew of bistros around town. Well beyond too: Japan, soon Switzerland, and in the U.S., Les Chefs de France, which plays French cuisine’s greatest hits at Disney’s Epcot theme park in Orlando, Fla.
He also oversees a highly respected culinary academy, and since 1987 his annual Bocuse d’Or competition has been the culinary world’s Formula One, Oscars and World Series rolled into one. (By the way, for the next one, in January, the Yanks are coming: For the first time a U.S. team will be competing, headed by Daniel Boulud and Keller, consulting with the likes of Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Allez, U.S.A.!).
Yet at age 82, spry Monsieur Paul is far from stuck in the past. Some of his newer bistros are sleek and buzzy, with menus boasting trendy world-cuisine touches. And in January he launched this latest venture, right around the corner from his hippest restaurant, 5-year-old L’Ouest. Attached to a new Pathe movie multiplex in a gentrifying industrial district in the northwest part of town called Vaise, Ouest Express serves up fast food, Bocuse-style -- his boldest step yet into the mass market. As they say, if you can’t beat ‘em . . . .
And certainly since Wolfgang Puck, the idea of high-end chefs going down-market is hardly a shocker. Tom Colicchio of Craft and Gramercy Tavern fame has even coined the term “fine fast.” Even here in more tradition-bound Lyon, “fine casual” is gaining steam: Besides his creative Michelin two-star restaurant, enfant terrible Nicolas Le Bec just opened a laid-back spot called Espace Le Bec -- at the airport.
The new “McBocuse” brings to mind what you might call “Jetsons chic”: a large, rounded, fluorescent-lighted space with a high-tech look in white with red accents and a large glowing clock, presumably to underscore the “fast” concept. Red, padded booths and banquettes line a circular dining area, with additional white plastic tables and chairs along the outside and higher chairs along counters facing the floor-to-ceiling windows accented with long, low planters of wheat grass.
The service counters curve around one end of the room, including not only the expected menus above but display cases below, showing off a cavalcade of fresh sandwiches, salads, pastas, quiches, desserts and libations. As with his midrange bistros and “gastronomic” restaurant, Bocuse says, “we insist on good, fresh ingredients. The pasta is cooked in front of the clients, and what really makes the difference for the sandwiches is the bread -- they bake it every two hours.”
On the menu
There’s not a burger or Happy Meal in sight. Instead, rigatoni with boletus mushroom sauce, a fresh chevre sandwich on sun-dried-tomato ciabatta with olive-tomato tapenade, and a nicely balanced strawberry tart. Other sandwich offerings, all about $6.75, included sweet and prosciutto-style cured ham on pain de campagne (country bread), sliced roast chicken, and smoked Norwegian salmon (both on ciabatta). Crudites are served with tapenade and lemon tartar sauce (about $8.65); the daily entree special on a recent visit was sliced chicken in a French Basque-style sauce of tomatoes, onion and sweet red Espelette pepper, with rice and salad (about $15).
For that same price there are also formules (combo menus) -- sandwich, salad, quiche (such as onions, mushrooms and lardons, or bacon) or pasta (such as farfalle with a seafood sauce made with squid and mussels), plus frites, a drink and dessert. Gaufres, anyone? The waffles are served plain, or with powdered sugar, chocolate sauce or Chantilly cream. Wines include a Guyot Cotes du Rhone and Georges Duboeuf Macon Villages. Service is fairly friendly and the clientele varied -- a recent drizzly weeknight drew a large group of twentysomethings and various twosomes and threesomes ages 16 to 60.
Bocuse says he’s been asked by Hilton Hotels Corp. to open branches at a number of its properties. Because he impishly promises, “I will last another 20 years,” that still leaves the “Lion of Lyon” plenty of time to keep spreading his gastronomic gospel to the masses.