I loved Lyon when it was a French-Japanese restaurant in a sushi bar configuration on an obscure side street. And I love it all prim and prettied up Western-style now that it is on Green Street in Pasadena.
Lyon is an American success story in the truest sense. Sincere, honest couple from Japan, who barely speak English, open restaurant. Work hard, give more than take, save enough money to move to better place. Dream fulfilled.
Lyon is a dream fulfilled for Chef Tadayoshi Matsuno and his wife, Keiko. You can read pride everywhere in the room; in the smallest detail of the flower arrangement center stage, the care in the selection of wall treatment and the choice of design and furnishings. It's in the greeting at the door and the genuine courtesy you get from the waiter who serves you and the classical music wafting softly in the air.
You get it from Keiko, who, when I first met her several years back, was so timid she could barely recite the wine list without blushing. She was always warm and welcoming with her eager Japanese bows. Now she is poised and affable. And she speaks fine English. And she still has the same lively bow that makes you feel you are in Japan. Matsuno, proud, silent and knowing, sees all.
The place gets my full blessing and more. They deserve it. The lunch and dinner menus are still French, interpreted with a Japanese point of view: The food is light--much lighter than the French equivalent it sets out to be--and the presentation is attractive, but not overwhelmingly fussy. In fact, if you've never experienced interpreted French cuisine by Japanese, Lyon is a great place to start.
Lunch is an extraordinary bargain if you are in the neighborhood. And this goes especially for diners who need a quiet, serene place to conduct lunch business. You are offered four fixed-price menus to choose from, although they change daily. A full meal of soup and/or salad, entree and coffee is only $10 to $12. There is hardly a place in town, good, bad or indifferent, that could do better for the quality.
Evenings may be another story. Prices are slightly higher and the service a bit less attentive or courteous, possibly due to a need for additional staff.
It's no fun watching waiters or Mrs. Matsuno is also perhaps too lightly staffed in the kitchen. Even though they come through, my feeling is that they have to exert extraordinary effort to keep things moving. The other part of it is that Matsuno works almost nonstop from morning until the last dinner is prepared at 9 p.m. or more. A one-man marathon feat no matter how you want to look at it.
Still, the product is good. At lunch we tried a filet mignon au poivre on the full fixed-price menu . The meat quality was excellent and overall presentation most appealing. The salads are always crisp and the creamed vegetable soup made with fish stock, is, without question, a culinary feat. I have rarely had better at some of the best French restaurants.
The Japanese who cook French-style food, interpret the fat content out of the total product, so what you get is far more light and rarefied than the French equivalent. The sauteed chicken with red wine sauce is also light and very tasty. You can't go wrong with the grilled fishes, either. You can be sure the fish is fresh, as Japanese cringe at even the thought of poor fish.
The dinner menu is a la carte, so you are tempted to try things from each of the categories. The appetizer section has just about everything you'd expect to see on a French menu: terrine de Saint Jacques, Chicken liver with brandy, smoked salmon, duck pate, seasonal salad. Then there is something you rarely see anymore on French menus: escargots with garlic butter sauce and ris de veau au feuillete (sweetbreads in puff pastry) is also a lovely touch on the appetizer menu when available.
Matsuno has a terrific touch with fish and their accompanying sauces, and you'll find the scallops with tomato-butter sauce and the halibut or salmon with white wine sauce grand. The homard a l'americaine (prawns with lobster sauce) and the fruits de mer a la nage (seafood soup) are fantastic buys for $15 and $18, respectively.
The meat dishes are lovely, too, and the sauces divine. Try the duck with orange sauce, or the lamb chops with white pepper. For those who like tongue there is a tongue dish with a wonderful red wine sauce. A fricasee of veal with white sauce is also fine.
Give the desserts a try (they change daily), if you've never experienced Japanese-style French pastries. I, personally, am not fond of the extra-light interpretation of French pastries, which to my way of thinking were designed to be sinfully rich and lush, something the Japanese aesthetique would not allow.