My first trip to Paris, in 2008, coincided with a sort of food awakening that I was going through. This trip was the first time I had foie gras, something doused in black squid ink, frog legs and good wine that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sure, the city and its inhabitants are beautiful; walking along the Seine at night is an unforgettable experience and riding the quick and efficient Metro is a sure key to this public transportation nerd’s heart. But I always wanted to return for the food.

The longer I was away, the more I came to admire France, and the desire to return grew stronger and stronger. Meanwhile, I attempted (poorly) to learn French, I read all about the traditions and evolution of French food and I delved into their literature and films. I decided a vacation to France had to happen. A friend and I planned a four city, two week trip with stops in Nice, Avignon, Lyon, and Paris. The focus, of course, was food.

Nice

Nice was the first destination. A short, jet-lagged 20 hours was all we had time to spare. Typically shown as a gorgeous, sunny city along the Mediterranean on the south coast of France, you get the impression that everyone spends their days on the beach or the Promenade des Anglais. That is, if they’re not taking day trips to Monaco or Italy. When we arrived, it was overcast with some heavy rain. The beaches are also made of rock. This was not the Nice we were sold. That’s what we get for travelling in April.

As I was doing research before departure on places to eat, barely anything affordable was recommended. This is the price you pay for going to the French Riviera. The two dishes that were always mentioned were socca (a type of pancake made from chickpea flour) and salade niçoise. Of course, I had neither, thus rendering all my painstaking hours of research void.

Our first meal in France was prompted by the jetlag getting the best of us. We needed to sit and rest, so picked a place on the Cours Saleya called Cafe Nexxus. It met the basic criteria in that it was open and we could sit outside. We weren’t all that hungry, so we split an order of moules frites with café crêmes. Easily the worst meal of the trip. The frites were ok, but the mussels were awful. Small and funky tasting, we kept trying to pass off the last couple mollusks to the other person. Not a good start, but things could only get better.

Dinner proved that we had great things to look forward to. One restaurant that kept popping up in my research that was affordable was La Safari. Also located on the Cours Saleya, it was hailed as a place that both tourists and locals frequented, which always a good sign. My female companion got penne in a spicy tomato sauce. The Italian influences on the cuisine shone through here, as the sauce had one of the most delightfully complex and deep layers of taste I’ve ever had. I got the porchetta niçoise: roast pork stuffed a la niçoise. This is pork stuffed with more pork, mostly offal. Sounds amazing! It was good, but lukewarm, almost like they couldn’t decide if they should serve it hot or cold.

Breakfast the next morning was my first taste of the classic French breakfast I was to have countless times throughout the trip: an espresso, orange juice, a croissant, a couple cigarettes and exquisite people watching. This routine is one of the things I miss most. Sitting outside of a cafe with an espresso, a pack of cigarettes and endless entertainment walking by is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

Avignon

After a beautiful three-hour TGV train ride from Nice along the French Riviera, we arrived in the spectacularly preserved medieval town of Avignon. Since we hadn’t ventured to the dining car of the train, we immediately set out to get some food. We found a cafe open just off the pedestrian area and we each grabbed a trois fromages panini. Thrown into a paper sleeve for easy on-the-go eating, this was our first bite of something that epitomized the importance of fresh, well-made ingredients. The bread and the cheeses were just astounding. For three euros, we had a sandwich that in its simplicity and taste proved to be unrivaled by any comparably priced sandwich in New York.

For our first upscale dinner, we found a restaurant called Newground nestled amongst the maze of the pedestrian area. The cuisine was classic French techniques with a heavy Asian influence. I ordered the menu Provençal, with the expectation that my friend and I would split the starter and the dessert. The starter was a sesame oil seasoned tomato filled with a ricotta mixture. The tomato was a bit tough and the dish overall was a bit on the chilled side; I think it would’ve benefited from sitting at room temperature for a minute or two before service. That being said, the ricotta mixture inside made up for the substandard tomato. My companion ordered a main dish of seared scallops which sat on risotto wrapped in seaweed, like sushi. With a bit of lemon squeezed over it, the dish was fantastic. My main dish was a candied lamb chop with olive oil, honey and thyme with a side of curried chickpea cake. The lamb chop was decent; the candied texture made it very tough, which was exacerbated by the fact that I was only provided with a butter knife. The chickpea cake was very good; it was like a coarse hummus. For dessert we had a strawberry basil crème brûlée. Made perfectly, but I don’t think the flavor combination worked that well.

The next morning we had the best breakfast of the trip. On a little side street we found a tiny, tiny cafe called Encas de Plaisir. For €5 we were served espresso, orange juice, a croissant and a big piece of baguette toasted and smothered in gobs of butter and strawberry preserves. The croissant was everything a croissant should be. Light, flakey and incredibly delicious – the perfect French croissant. The butter and the preserves on the toast were incredible. Yet another example of how the best ingredients make all the difference.

Lyon

After a short train ride, we were in overcast Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France. This claim was espoused in a special exhibit on Lyon’s culinary history at The Gadagne Museum, which houses both the Historical Museum of Lyon as well as the vastly superior International Puppet Museum. The special exhibit was extremely well done with samples of old menus, miniatures and interesting ways of presenting information. Unfortunately, even the overviews weren’t translated into English so we were left to guessing what was actually being shown to us.

Our first meal in Lyon was on a small street in the old city at a North African restaurant called La Tourage. We started with a large plate of baba ghanoush, which was passable. My companion had couscous mixed with vegetables that was absolutely loaded with butter and therefore insanely delicious. I had an interesting mix of ground beef and eggplant over rice with a mint yogurt sauce. Adequately spiced, the beef and eggplant were vastly improved by the addition of the yogurt sauce. (If you have not had the pleasure of a well-done yogurt sauce to add to your food, I recommend making this happen right away.) All this we washed down with bottle of red Moroccan wine. An above average meal, but nothing that left an indelible impression.

One thing that was on our can not miss list for Lyon was world famous chocolatier Bernachon. After a morning trip to the Institut Lumière, we went up to the trendy shopping area centered on Cours Franklin Roosevelt. Before launching into the decadence of Bernachon, we decided that we had to rectify the fact that we had been in France for a week and not had a crêpe. Luckily enough, not a block away from Bernachon was a family run, tiny hallway of a place called Crêperie du Parc. The charming husband and wife team took turns running food and drinks to tables, always with a gracious smile. The “open” kitchen (I say that because they didn’t close the door to the surprisingly residential looking kitchen) provided a nice glimpse into the efficiency of the one-man crew. Fortified with a carafe of red, I had an excellent ham, goat cheese, and creamed spinach crêpe.

Slightly tipsy and full of crêpe, we pushed our way through the roaring winds, fighting a losing battle to keep our cigarettes lit. Having never been to an upscale chocolatier like this, it was a bit of a surreal experience for me. An impeccably done up, gorgeous women greeted us as we walked into the shop. Showroom would actually be a more appropriate term, as hundreds of individual pieces of chocolates and gift boxes were immaculately displayed in the cases. As we started picking out our chocolates, our saleswoman put on elbow length pearly white gloves and proceeded to delicately pick up the pieces we wanted and placed them carefully into a little bag. Absurd prices restricted the amount of chocolate we parted with, but for a one-time experience, it was worth every penny.

Also on the must do itinerary was a trip to a traditional Lyonnais bistro. As I discussed food with the bartender of the bar below our apartment, I learned that all the Bocuse restaurants had become too corporatized and really weren’t worth the trip. He recommended Aux 24 Colonnes, in Vieux Lyon. The restaurant is located in a former stable within a building that dates back to the 14th century. Low light, huge mirrors and exposed wooden support beams are the main features of the dining room which is separated from the bar by a stone archway. Immediately I felt like I was in an authentic representation of a Lyonnais bistro, though the table of drunk, blonde, Australian women all trying to sleep with a Frenchman they had picked up quickly shattered that illusion.

We started with what was to be the best cheese plate of the trip. Four local cheeses presented wonderfully: the Lyonnais speciality St. Marcellin, bleu d’Auvergne, a comté fruité, and cervelle de Canut. Cervelle de Canut is another specialty of Lyon. Literally translated as “silk worker’s brain,” it is a seasoned cheese dip with a fromage blanc base. In this case, it was topped with chives and set in a deep spoon. Every one of the cheeses was incredible. Having sampled a handful of St. Marcellin earlier, this one was by far the best. It was served at the perfect temperature and drizzled with olive oil. The cervelle de Canut was a revelation, whether I used it as a dip or I embraced my inner glutton and slurped it straight from the spoon.

My companion had a loaf of bread that was stuffed with cream and cheese; incredibly rich and indulgent. I think I had a tiny heart attack just from the bite I had. I ordered the beef tartare. I’ve had it as a small plate before, served minced in modern, premixed methods in gastropubs. This was different. This was a lump of cold, raw, coarsely chopped beef nestled in between a salad and some of the best creamy potatoes I’ve ever had. A second plate was brought with the fixins: a raw egg, olive oil, mustard, garlic, onion, capers and parsley flakes. And inexplicably, a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce.

I had absolutely no idea how to eat this. So I asked. After a brief explanation from the thankfully English-speaking waiter, I made an indentation in the middle of the mound of beef and dropped the egg in. Then I mixed the egg up with the beef, added some olive oil and mustard and seasoned it as I saw fit. Perhaps I went too light on the seasonings, as the cold, flavorless beef came through too often. Not my favorite meal, but definitely something I was glad I had served to me in a traditional setting.

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