About 8 years ago on a trip to France with a number of our North American dealers, I stayed at the same hotel in Lyon - the Hotel Carlton. One of the dealers, John Barnes from Denver, was telling me that the restaurant next to the hotel, Le Centre by Georges, was owned by a highly-rated and award winning chef and it was his goal to have a meal at the place when we were there. He invited me to join him for lunch one day when we had some free time on our own, but I ended up going out with a couple of my dealers who made the trip over. He spoke highly of the restaurant and I felt bad for not having lunch with John that day. He was such a friendly guy and he tragically died of a heart attack less than three years after our trip to France. On our trip to France earlier this year, I finally had the chance - along with my colleagues who made the trip - to go to Le Centre by Georges one evening.
The Georges behind Le Centre by Georges is Georges Blanc, a highly respected and award winning restaurateur and hotelier whose eponymous restaurant in Vonnas, FR has held three Michelin stars - the highest award available - for 35 years. Georges Blanc came from a family lineage of chefs - his mother was the chef of the family restaurant and inn before Georges took over in 1968 after graduating from culinary school and a stint in the French Navy (as the chef for an admiral). Georges' grandmother - Elisa Gervais, also known as La Mère Blanc - ran the restaurant in the family restaurant garnering her first Michelin star in 1929 and a second one two years later. She was famous for her Bresse chicken dishes - Bresse chickens are French-raised and are considered the finest table-served chickens in the world. Georges Blanc is the chairman of the French association that oversees the proper way to raise Bresse chickens and they're still served in his restaurant today made with the same recipes handed down from his grandmother.
The inn in which the family's restaurant was located dated back to the early 1870's. After Blanc took over the restaurant, he transformed the inn into a high-end boutique hotel. He eventually took over other properties near the inn, adding a farm-to-fork bistro, three more hotels, a spa, shops and a garden area making the Village Blanc in Vonnas - about an hour north of Lyon - a famous and popular French getaway place.
In addition to the two restaurants Blanc runs in Vonnas, he also owns seven other restaurants including Restaurant Le Saint Laurent in Macon, Restaurant Rouge et Blanc in Romaneche Thorins, and two restaurants in Lyon - Brasserie Le Splendid and Le Centre. Each of the Georges Blanc restaurants have a different personality and menu.
My colleagues and our host from our factory met up in the bar at the Hotel Carlton to have a couple drinks before walking literally next door to Le Centre which is located at the corner of Rue Grolée and Rue Jussieu on the peninsula between the Saône and Rhône Rivers in central Lyon. (see map) The restaurant, which opened in 1990, features contemporary fixtures mixed with large arching windows. Along one wall were a number of proverbs or quotes in French from famous philosophers, artists, statesmen and authors such as Confucius, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Jefferson, Woody Allen and Henri Matisse.
We were escorted upstairs to a small dining area that had similar decor to the main dining room with more proverbs and quotes on a wall, then around a corner to a smaller room with wonderful historical photographs of Lyon that was semi-private with one large table with 10 place settings. There were only 8 of us there that evening as two of my colleagues didn't make the trip to France this time.
Le Centre is basically an upscale steakhouse serving Black Angus beef. And they had something on the menu that night that basically caught our interest - a 1 kilogram bone-in chunk of beef (about 2.25 pounds) that they would carve at the table. It was served family style with fries, veggies and a salad before the meal. We signed up for 4 of those bad boys after debating whether or not we should just get 3. After I pointed out that the bone was part of the weight, we went with 4.
Of course, we needed to have appetizers before the meal. One of the plates featured a coconut-battered shrimp that came with some greens and a Rochefort cheese dressing. I'm not big on coconut all that much, but these were pretty good.
And foie gras was part of the appetizers, as well. I love foie gras, but it doesn't like me because it's so rich for my stomach. But it seemed like it would be a waste if I just left this chunk of foie gras on the plate with a balsamic drizzle on the side. I had to have a couple bites. It was killer.
The salad was a mixture of greens, endive, tomatoes and red onions and topped house-made croutons with a creamy ranch-style dressing. Everything was crisp, cool and fresh.
But the highlight were the cheesy rolls that they served with the salads. These had a hard outer edge with a wonderful cheesy taste and a spongy inner core that was warm and flavorful. Oh man - I could have eaten a dozen of these things.
Finally, the steak came out - two at a time. We had ordered a medium and three medium rare, so two of the medium-rare ones came out first. As two waiters brought out our sides and placed them on the table, two other waiters were cutting the meat on carts next to the table.
This was one of the medium-rare steaks before we dug in. I've had Europeans tell me that they just can't get beef there like they can in the United States. But this looked pretty darned good to me.
Cameras came out from every direction at the table to document the food fest we were getting ready to have. We had multiple bottles of the Domaine Chevalier Pere et Fils Ladoix Crux, a full-bodied red that went well with the beef.
The steak was very good - some of the best steak I've ever had in all of my travels to France. Flavorful and juicy, the steak was lean and tender. Along with the steak came frites (French fries) that were cooked perfectly with the crispy outside and the flaky and moist inside, mixed vegetables, a type of creamed corn, and fresh bread rolls. Alas, they were not the wonderful cheese rolls.
We were almost able to finish all four of the chunks of beef. The medium-rare ones went quickly. Only a couple guys were focused on the medium steak. It was a lot of food and I was stuffed. Well, until they brought out the dessert menu. I had to try the lemon tort with an orange merengue topping. Oh, God, was it good! It was light, but still very rich. I couldn't even begin to finish the whole thing, but I was very happy to have a few bites.
Above right is a decadent chocolate cake dessert that was covered with a white cream frosting, then drizzled in creamy milk chocolate and served with a scoop of caramel ice cream. It just looked decadent and rich. I was offered a bite, but I was getting to the limit of bodily explosion if I had another bite.
Finally, one of my colleagues got what was basically French toast served with dollops of a maple-flavored spread. My colleague John said this thing was heavenly, but very rich. I was happy with what I got with the lemon tort/orange merengue dessert. But looking back, the French toast with the maple spread would have been the thing for me to get.
During our meal, I thought a lot about John Barnes and the food that he raved about during his visit 8 years ago to Le Centre by Georges. Finally having the chance to eat there, I could fully understand what he was raving about. Everything - from the appetizers, the salad, the steaks, the sides, the desserts, to the wonderful wine we had, and even the service - was excellent. One of my dreams would be to get to Vonnas to experience George Blanc's 3-Michelin Star restaurant, but just being able to eat at Le Centre by Georges was a wonderful treat.