Despite a long-running love affair with French restaurants, Boston has never had one that focused on Lyon, eastern France’s home of eclectic regional cuisine and many storied chefs. Having opened the Back Bay’s perennially popular, fancy French bistro Mistral more than 20 years ago (and then sleek stunners from other traditions, including Sorellina, Mooo…. and Ostra), the Columbus Hospitality Group knows a thing or two about high-gloss ambiance and cossetting hospitality. But Bar Lyon, its new spot in the South End, presents a few useful departures from the group’s typically glamorous hot spots.
Under the auspices of chef/co-owner Jamie Mammano, executive chef Cameron Cieslak plates familiar French classics and the greatest hits of the Lyonnaise canon. Drinks-friendly small bites include rosette de Lyon ($10), delicate slices of mild, salami-like pork saucisson with red wine mustard, and fast-disappearing gougères ($6), swank little poufs of fried choux pastry larded with Gruyere and bacon. Tartare de boeuf ($13) is a lighter take on steak tartare, serving coarsely hand-chopped beef topped with watercress over oily grilled bread, faintly dosed with salt, letting the flavor of boutique beef and the tender texture of raw filet mignon do the talking.
More generous small plates include foie de volaille ($13), chicken liver parfait for spreading on bread with a glossy marmalade of red onion, rich yet mild. Terrine Lyonnaise en croûte ($15) is a thick slice of a delectable, aspic-edged country pate of pork and lamb in a tenderly baked pastry crust with some coarse truffled mustard. Confit de canard ($18) is the only disappointing example of Lyonnaise charcuterie, with the desired super-crisp, salty duck skin but rather dry meat on the bone underneath. Tartare de saumon ($15) echoes the virtues of the beef tartare, only lightly seasoning its coarse-cut raw salmon and showering it with pickled horseradish, carrots and shallots. Salade de légumes ($13) is the first of several fine, elegantly simple salads, with cubes of roasted and barely smoked root vegetables, a hint of horseradish and a flawlessly lightly applied sherry dressing. The more substantial salade Lyonnaise ($16) layers bitter, stiff greens of chicory and frisée with crisp lardons of smoked bacon, potato cubes, good croutons and a judicious sprinkle of vinaigrette, all crowned by a soft-poached egg.
Mains include an omelette ($16) fatly stuffed with triple crème cheese, so perfectly bavuese (just undercooked, with nary a brown spot) that I excitedly texted a photo of it to my Parisian pal. Bavette steak ($28) splashes a goodly slab of flap (a flavorful, slightly chewy cut more often seen locally as steak tips) with garlic confit and compound butter, plus a chunk of roasted, marrow-filled bone. Moules ($20), a big mess of steamed mussels in a mild, ocher Indian curry, proves to be ill-conceived fusion, as mussels with naan is an off-putting textural combination even without an unforgivable amount of grit. But then come two sensational seafood dishes, starting with truite ($21), a slender, fileted whole trout wrapped in a thin layer of slightly salty, prosciutto-like jambon de Bayonne and drizzled with brown butter, a marvel of precision cooking given earthy fragrance from wafer-thin slices of fresh mushrooms on top. The real showstopper here is quenelle de brochet ($14 for one, $23 for two), a smooth, oblong dumpling of pike, a mild freshwater fish sieved into almost custardy smoothness, poached in stock and swimming in an infernally buttery/creamy lobster velouté flecked with crayfish tail meat. It’s incredibly delicate and luxuriously rich-tasting at once. Coq au vin ($22) is another super-trad Lyonnaise dish, baby chicken braised in red wine with pearl onions, mushrooms and fatty lardons, here served with buttery, parsley-flecked fettucine in a separate vessel. What might have been a desultory burger is instead the high-style “Le burger” ($16), a pileup of dry-aged beef, pork belly, tarragon aioli, mushroom duxelles, American cheese and a sunny-side egg on a glossy brioche bun, plus a side of excellent frites for another $4. Desserts include a wee caramel-rich version of tarte tatin ($7) and a terrific, simple mousse au chocolat ($9) dusted with cocoa nibs and flaky salt.
Beverage director David Borsman serves 18 nice-priced wines by the glass ($11-$17, plus one $27 sparkler) from all across France, a handful of mostly local beers and ciders ($8-$16) and a short list of specialty cocktails ($13-$16) that mostly bestows a slight French accent on Golden Age classics, like the Coupe Normand ($15), a gentle, Calvados-based riff on the Honeymoon. Service mostly exhibits CHG’s famously attentive hospitality with only a couple of rough spots. The 48-seat dining room flanked by a long 13-seat bar is flatteringly lit—save near the bright open kitchen in the rear—and comfortably noisy except at peak weekend hours. It’s decorated like an upscale turn-of-the-last-century bouchon: antique crystal chandeliers, a gilded Louis Quatorze mirror, tile floors, dark woods, comfortable banquettes and a quaint pull-chain toilet in the john. All in all, Bar Lyon represents a welcome departure from the pricier modernity of its elder siblings: less a dressy dining destination, more a polished neighborhood spot and a useful bridge over a long-standing gap in Boston’s celebration of regional French cuisine. ◆
Rosette de Lyon
Foie de volaille
Terrine lyonnaise en croûte
Quenelle de brochet
Coq au vin
Mousse au chocolat
Bar Lyon, 1750 Washington St., Boston (617-904-4020) barlyon.com; Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 pm; Sun., 5-9:30 pm (Bar: 1 hour later every night); Liquor: Full; Reservations: None; Parking: Metered street spaces, very limited guest spaces