Great country restaurants can offer a transportive experience of bygone culture: regional cuisines presented intact, or nearly so, despite rural depopulation, ecological destruction, and myriad other economic factors eroding culinary heritage the world over. Such restaurants are rare in the Beaujolais, but they became less rare early last year when restauratrice Cecile Ducroux, former owner of La Cave de Cecile in Lyon, took over Le Port de By, a riverside family restaurant of the sort that used to thrive along the Saône during les trentres glorieuses.
The restaurant is not, strictly speaking, in the Beaujolais; it is a stone’s throw over the Saône in the Ain village of Grièges. It’s perhaps a 15 minute drive from Fleurie, however, making it a popular Beaujolais dining destination almost by default. It helps that Ducroux is deeply connected to the local winemaking community.
She’s a cousin of renowned Lantigné natural winemaker Christian Ducroux; her companion and occasional service collaborator is the multivalent landscaper Lulu Chanudet, of the ubiquitous Chanudet clan of Prion. Her wine list is a pleasure to behold, a social cross-section of sincere, talented, almost unanimously natural winemakers of the Beaujolais, from Jean-Louis Dutraive to Gilles Paris to Jean-Gilles Chasselay.
Ducroux herself does the cooking, producing a small menu that highlights two mainstays of Sâone river cuisine: friture and frogs. Ducroux’s crisp, succulent friture is fished from the nearby Sâone, a distinction shared by only a handful of other restaurants in the area. (There are just two licensed commercial fisherman working a short stretch between Mâcon and Tournus, the only stretch where commercial fishing is permitted, the rest having succumbed to pollution.) If the frogs – like almost all frogs served at restaurants in France since the early 1980’s – derive from outside France, they are duly prepared the classic way, in a maelstrom of butter, garlic, and parsley.
I’m told the public response to the reopening of Le Port de By has been overwhelmingly positive, with the restaurant booking up most nights. It’s an encouraging sign for an area overdue for revitalization. Many factors contributed to the decline of commerce along the Saône: the construction of the Autoroute du Soleil; the rise of low-cost European airlines; the increasing heavy-handedness of French roadside law enforcement, to name just a few. Nowadays when one descends from Mâcon to Lyon along the route nationale one sees on the sides of old buildings a panoply of faded, hand-painted signs for restaurants that no longer exist and apéritifs long since out of fashion. To a visitor it’s moving and nostalgic; for residents it must be a drag.
Happily, a small revival is occurring just a few minutes over the river. (My photos, taken at night in October, surely don’t do justice to the restaurant’s full splendor. There is another dining area that looks out over the river. I can’t wait to return in daylight, perhaps this spring, if not sooner.)
Le Port de By
Tel: 03 85 35 56 05
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