For a city with so many restaurants, ethnic cuisines of all varieties, and an often thrilling gourmet scene, New York is depressingly deprived of high-quality casual French bistros and brasseries. Sure, on occasion, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a gem like Cafe Cluny or Le Gigot, but the vast majority of options either sink into muddled mediocrity or hover loftily in the heavens with Daniel or Jean-Georges. The middle ground is vast and empty. Unfortunately, West Village newcomer Lyon does little to elevate the current state of French food in Manhattan.
The relatively new restaurant in the storied Cafe Bruxelles space on Greenwich Avenue is gorgeous. Wood-paneled and gleaming, it’s hard not to be enamored by the seductive golden glow, the rolling French accent of the host, the sparkle of lantern light reflecting off glass knick-knacks, the cheery red-and-white check of the tablecloths. Everything is so shiny and new, rosy with optimism, plucky, design-conscious, and comfortable without being shabby. The narrow railroad car space is bustling to the point of bursting at the seams with well-dressed West Villagers, happy to be inside from the cold. The atmosphere is frenetic at peak hours, buzzing with conversations in French and English that rise to a fever pitch as more and more bottles of wine fly off the shelves. As the night goes on, Lyon is like a train picking up speed, starting off slow and steady before roaring through the countryside.
Unfortunately, despite its seemingly endless charm, Lyon falls depressingly short on the food front. With such beauty all around you, it’s hard not to be disappointed by generally bland and uninspired cuisine, especially when French comfort food is supposed to be so rich and flavorful. In short, the appetizers were a relative success when compared to the mediocre entrees. The onion soup is a marvelous way to start; it is brothy and savory, filled to the brim with tender ropes of beef brisket, heightened with an only slightly discernible layer of rich marrow jam, and served with a crusty slice of baguette, topped with creamy fontina cheese. It’s safe to say that the onion soup was the highlight of the night. Other notable starters are the jumbo-sized Lyonnaise salad, topped with hearty chunks of bacon and a delicately placed poached egg, and the escargots, served mixed into a vibrant green watercress risotto with a pungent and authentic-tasting garlic sauce.
The entrees are a laundry list of traditional French dishes: steak tartare, lamb shank, steak au poivre, and so forth. The kitchen takes a few liberties with classic cuisine, offering the eponymous skate wing and a modern bacon-wrapped whole branzino. The executions on the heftier dishes leave something to be desired. The bacon-wrapped branzino is not as advertised; rather than serving a whole fish, it offers delicate rounds of the flaky white dish – a fairly anemic and pedestrian alternative. The lamb shank is absurd in a couple of ways: 1) it is served on the bone in a plate half as big as the table, evoking caveman-style dining 2) the portion size is inexplicably larger than anything else on the menu, and 3) there is absolutely no seasoning on the meat; it was begging for healthy doses of salt and pepper. For such a large and tender piece of lamb, it is upsetting to see it served with so little flavor or pizzazz.
Lyon is simultaneously the epitome of casual glamour and a culinary disappointment. While so beautiful and glossy on the exterior, its restaurant guts need a lot of work. Not only is the food just a hair above mediocre, but the service is frenzied and inattentive and the wine list is poorly curated for a restaurant rooted in such a vino-centric culture. The best way to enjoy Lyon is to waltz into the crammed and spiffy bar, order une bouteille de vin and some fromage from the bartender, and spend your evening languishing over the two of the best parts of French culinary culture. If you’re smart, don’t bother with the crowds in, the wait for, and the irritation of finding a table in the dining room.
Perfect For: a drink at the bar, a bottle of wine over chocolate cake and cheese, gatherings of friends, a venue for francophiles, escaping chilly nights