If reviving any classic restaurant runs the risk of cliché and pastiche, the challenge was magnified when it came to Lyon’s La Mere Brazier, one of the most famous restaurants in France. “I knew it was going to be a challenge,” says Lyonnais Matthieu Viannay, 42, the restaurant’s new chef-owner. “Lots of people wanted the restaurant to remain exactly the way that it had always been, and so they weren’t going to like even small changes, while younger people who’d never known the original could find the menu too old-fashioned. What I had to do was find a personal balance between the classical French cooking that La Mere Brazier originally served and my own style.”
When Viannay, one of the most accomplished of Lyon’s new generation of chefs, decided to revive La Mere Brazier, closed since 2004, he first immersed himself in the history of the restaurant, which was founded by one of Lyon’s famous “Meres” (female chefs) in 1921, and then sought the consul of a cook who’d been an apprentice to Eugenie Brazier in 1945—Paul Bocuse.
“Keep your cooking simple and be sure to master the sauces,” was Bocuse’s advice to Viannay, and so he did, with winning results—La Mere Brazier just won two stars. Viannay’s take on la volaille de Bresse en demi-deuil (poached Bresse chicken with black truffles under its skin) offers a perfect example of how he’s shrewdly reworked the classics. Tradition obligee, he serves the chicken with baby vegetables, a garnish of pickled sour cherries, and a voluptuous velouté de volaille monté à la crème, one of the ultimate French sauces. Where Viannay goes his own way, is that the bird is served as two courses—first, the breasts, succulent and white as alabaster, and then the legs and thighs, which are grilled and garnished with a small salad of herbs.
Ultimately, many of Viannay’s subtle revisions of Eugenie Brazier’s famous dishes come off as surprisingly modern. “I think traditional French cooking, the cooking of Escoffier and the religion of sauces, has actually become modern again,” says Viannay. “After the aberrancies of molecular cooking, we’re craving food that’s delicious, wholesome and reassuring.”
Not everything on the menu is an heirloom recipe. Two dishes that Viannay considers to be signatures of his own cooking include a starter fricassee of escargots garnished with grilled calves’ ears and a main course of very thinly sliced ormeaux (a rare conch like crustacean fished of the Channel Islands) served with wild mushrooms and grilled pine nuts. Offering a subtle but delectable contrast between oceanic and earthy tastes and a brilliant combination of textures (ormeaux is pleasantly chewy, the mushrooms fleshy), the latter is a great dish.
To be sure, simplicity alone isn’t always a perfect compass; scallops in their shells garnished with slivers of candied lime peel and green peppercorns were pleasant, but the only way this dish would have been really memorable is if the scallops were best quality and cooked just to that moment when they become pellucid.
Aside from Viannay’s terrific cooking, including the grand finale of a perfectly made Grand Marnier soufflé, the well-drilled young service, an excellent and fairly priced list of Cote du Rhone valley wines, and a choice of two differently decorated dining rooms—the ones upstairs are done up in art-deco vintage Sarreguemines tiles, while downstairs is gunmetal gray, mean La Mere Brazier is once again pulling le tout Lyon, so reservations are essential.
La Mère Brazier, 12 rue Royale, 69001 Lyon. Tél. : 04-78-23-17-20.