Non-vegetarian cuisine based on herbs and vegetables
Just inside the first arrondissement of central Lyon, on the peninsula between the Saône and Rhône rivers, Gaëtan Gentil (young, friendly, bearded face) is in charge of the kitchen at restaurant Prairial.
A word on the name says a lot about the restaurant and its dishes. Prairial was the third month of spring in the French Republican Calender that was used after the French Revolution from 1793 until 1805. Prairial derives from the French word prairie, meaning meadow and has gotten a similar meaning in English. The fields and the meadows play an important role in Gentil’s cuisine. No, Prairial is not a vegetarian restaurant. Cows and pigs are grazing in the fields, fish are swimming in the streams running through it, and some are coming from further afield. However, I am not surprised that our menu Herbier (French for herbarium) could be served as a vegetarian menu. Even the desserts had some tantalising verdant twists. The pre-dessert, a cucumber sorbet with poached rhubarb, rhubarb puree and rose meringue, was a perfectly refreshing palate cleanser before the main dessert, a pineapple ice cream accompanied by different preparations of coconut plus a gel of the herbiest of all herbal liqueurs, Chartreuse. Highly creative and flavorful.
Dessert of pineapple and hyssop
“Agastache”, answered our waitress’s to my question what other ingredient than pineapple the ice cream contained. Agastache? After having looked it up on-line, I understood that giant hyssop played its part. Its leaf tips can be used to make tea. Gentil has used it to infuse his ice cream with a hint of licorice.
Rewind to the beginning. As you could expect in a restaurant that puts greens center stage, many of the wines were natural, biodynamic, biological or organic. Overlapping terms. We ended up with a Chenin Blanc from Domaine Mosse (Loire). When I sat back in the soft yellow fabric of my Vitra/Eames inspired table chair with armrests, and took a sip, I tasted fresh apples, so typical for natural wines. It was a good wine, but it failed to meet our expectations of a more classical, mineraly, dry white. However, the following parade of dishes made us forget this minor setback quite easily.
Our first course, an enormous green asparagus from Mallemort, came with a sauce of green asparagus and something. Besides, there were thin cheese crisps, small pieces of grapefruit and roe. A butter sauce lightened up by lemon and grapefruit bound everything together. Good ingredients, balanced flavours, very good start.
Asparagus de Mallemort and tagètes
But what was that other flavor in the green asparagus sauce? “Tagetes”, our waitress said resolutely, a type of marigold, as it turned out, giving the sauce with its notes of citrus a more complex character.
The arctic char (from Lake Geneva) was subsequently served in an emulsion of verveine with purple leaves, sorel and green peas; one of those dishes where you would fail miserably if you had to determine all the individual ingredients. Relatively high on fresh acidity, it complemented the fish in a subtle way. So, what were the other ingredients?
With a friendly “why all these questions?”-look, our waitress stood to our disposal. “The emulsion is enriched with lierre terrestre. The purple leaves are from the Amaranth.” Lierre terrestre? Google was as indispensable as our waitress: ground ivy, a creeper member of the mint family.
Arctic Char and amaranth leaf
The third dish shifted my attention from the greens to the proteins. The skrei or winter cod, caught between December and April, when it moves from the Barentz Sea to the Lofoten, off Norway’s northwestern coast, was perfectly cooked. A still crisp white asparagus, an emulsion of melissa and a yoghurt based sauce – they called it a lassi – of green herbs perfected this dish.
Skrei or Winter cod
In the main course – buttersoft Iberico pork -, the eye-catcher was a crispy fried leaf of ramson. So simple, so delicious! Glazed carrots, carrot puree, sauces of black garlic and ramson, dandelion leaves and black sesame were excellent accompaniments. While I was devouring my last bite, I stared at the green wall, a vertical garden, and wondered if the chef harvested in his own restaurant. I swallowed my pride together with my last bite, and asked our waitress, again. No, the wall was just decorative, but it fitted in with the restaurant’s profile quite well.
Gentil took us out grazing in the French meadows and I couldn’t get enough of it. I must have irritated the excellent waiting staff with all my questions, but they answered them all patiently and with mild bemusement. Every course tickled my curiosity and my tastebuds. My assumption is that Gentil’s cooking is not only fresh and light during the spring, but all year round. The only way to find is to come back in fall or winter. I will happily do so.
11 rue Chavanne – Lyon
T: +33 (0)4 7827 8693
Six-course menu Herbier: € 67,-
Main picture: Iberico, glazed carrots, carrot puree, sauces of black garlic and ramson, ramson leaf