Rarely, if ever, has Birmingham seen a dish like it. It arrived at the climax of the meal, in a bowl-shaped serving plate: fricassé de homard et ris de veau, sauce Américaine. Lobster and veal sweet-breads, together?

What was the chef thinking? It sounded like a recipe for disaster, combining the jewel of the ocean with the pancreas of a calf, all luxuriating together in a classic shellfish sauce.

Surely it couldn't work, this blinged up version of surf and turf. But, work it did; and work sublimely. The textures, the challenging, strong flavours, a delightful palate tingling sauce . . . it was all there, as distinctly French as the Arc de Triomphe and Eric Cantona's barrel chest.

You couldn't, and wouldn't, want to eat it often, this concoction of oh-so-gently restrained excess. But my God, what a treat when you do.

In London, this course alone might command a price of £40, lobster being the king of restaurant supplements as well as the seas.

Fortunately, I, and my fellow 60 diners at Opus restaurant, in Birmingham city centre, didn't have to pay a single euro. The invitation dinner was one of the key celebratory events in a burgeoning new culinary relationship, launched this week, between Birmingham and Europe's great centres of gastronomy.

Birmingham, to many people's surprise, is the only UK city to have been invited to join the Delice network of European cities, which comprise places renowned for their outstanding food.

Sniffy members of the self-appointed, London-centric foodie Mafia may suggest it is a joke, cuisine Brum being put on a par with the likes of Lyon, Barcelona and Milan.

However, the new partnership is more about potential, aspirations and the future. Birmingham, in looking forward, will leave it to others to rest on their stale laurels and jaded past glories.

The official guidebooks tell one story. Depending on who you believe, and where you draw the geographic lines, Lyon has 15 one-star Michelin restaurants, three two-star restaurants, and one revered three-star, the culinary dream-works of the legendary Paul Bocuse. Feast in Lyon, and everything else is downhill.

Birmingham, meanwhile, has a solitary one-star Michelin restaurant - Simpsons in Edgbaston.

England's second city is unquestionably on a steep learning curve, but it has something other places lack: a hardcore of extremely talented food fanatics, bolstered by a highly respected food college, both of which are committed to the pursuit of excellence.

Hence the interest of Delice, which aims to promote the sharing of best practice within the catering industry among the 20 participating European cities. Crucially, Delice is keen to develop young culinary talent, and identify the rising stars of the future.

To mark its membership of Delice, Birmingham played host to four Michelin starred chefs from the prestigious "Toques Blanches Lyonnaises" organisation.

On Monday night, two chefs, Mathieu Viannay (Restaurant Mathieu Viannay) and Joseph Viola (Restaurant Daniel et Denise), took command of the kitchen at Opus, while their compatriots, Christophe Marguin (Restaurant Marguin) and Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex (L'Auberge de L'ile) assumed temporary control at Simpsons. As French revolutions go, it was all terribly amicable, with no bloodshed.

The two duos of chefs worked alongside the Birmingham restaurants' own teams to reproduce authentic Lyonnais cooking at two special dinners in the heart of Brum.

Then the following night, the French chefs worked with local cooks to prepare a special gala dinner at the University College Birmingham, the former College of Food.

At Opus, Mathieu and Joseph communicate with l'equipe anglais via head chef Olivier Perrard. Thankfully, Olivier, a Frenchman from the Jura, speaks fluent Brummie. The visiting chefs' linguistic repertoire remains an enthusiastic work in progress.

Faultlessly good-humoured, and faultlessly unpatronising, Mathieu and Joseph just seem too damn relaxed when I meet them at the bar, half-an hour before service. On neither face is there a flicker of worry.

Consider, then, that these men are preparing a gastronomic feast in a kitchen they have only set foot in this morning, with a team they have never worked with, in a country where they cannot speak the language.

"Aren't you stressed," I ask Mathieu, who has the debonair appearance of a French movie star. He looks like he has just stepped off a yacht at the Cannes film festival.

"Stress? Never," he says, and hits me with his super-dazzle smile.

What about Joseph, who at 42 is two years Mathieu's senior?

"I don't get stressed any more," he says, and shrugs. "Stress doesn't exist after Meilleur Ouvrier de France."

Joseph is referring to the daunting French competition in which the nation's leading craftsmen, including chefs, are challenged to create a "masterpiece".

If they succeed, as Joseph and Mathieu did together in 2004, they can count themselves among the "best workers", or leading lights, in their chosen field.

Today, however, the approach and aspirations of the two chefs represent two different sides to the Lyon success story.

Joseph used to be a two-star Michelin chef. He was brought in after the restaurant had just lost its single star and ended up surpassing its previous rating. Joseph has also worked as a second chef at a three-star establishment. After that, there is nowhere else to go.

But four years ago, he got fed up with the pressure and said au revoir to the madness of Michelin's exacting, some might say stifling, standards. Joseph is now chef/patron of one of the city's authentic buchon Lyonnais, traditionally working-class eateries, on the rue de Créqui.

His hearty dishes might include eggs poached in wine, shoulder of lamb confit, and pan-fried tripe.

Mathieu, though, is still Michelin star-struck. He got his first in 2005, four years after opening his namesake restaurant on Avenue Foch, and he is desperate for a second.

His epic £70-a-head menu degustation is fit to bust with foie gras, lobster, monkfish and honey Madeleines.

Clearly, the kid is going places. "In Lyon, chefs are like movie stars," whispers Jean-Jacques Billon, the food critic of Lyon's regional newspaper Le Progres, who is shadowing the chefs on their visit to Birmingham.

JJ, as the chefs call him, has to eat out once or twice a day in Lyon as part of his job. It must be hell. But how does JJ keep in shape?

"I only eat vegetables and drink water on my days off," he confides.

Both Mathieu and Roger have been hitting the phones since day break, as the new French Michelin Guide was published on Monday. Mathieu retained his star while Roger won a Bib Gourmand, awarded to restaurants offering high quality cuisine at lower prices. Maybe that explains why they are so relaxed. It could also be down to the fact they are very good at what they do.

David Colcombe, chef director at Opus, is enthused with the spirit of the entente cordiale, even if he has only had three hours sleep. David says his chefs have revelled in the experience of cooking alongside Joseph and Mathieu. "It's been so French," says David, which might seem an obvious thing to say, but you know exactly what he means. Opus, for one night, has become Le Opus, or is that L'Opus?

Both Roger and Mathieu contribute two courses to the dinner. Roger is responsible for a cream of mushroom and morel tart and roasted scallop, which is served as a second course, and the dessert of roasted pineapple, Earl Grey ice cream and ginger bread toast.

The delicate tea flavour is a tribute to the traditions of the host nation. The ginger bread is just "wow". I'll never eat another gingernut.

Mathieu is tasked with delivering the main course of lobster and sweetbreads, and the starter of chaud-froid de langoustine et chataignes - a delightful dish of warm lang-oustine with chestnut mousse and the faintest of sharp, hazelnut dressings.

The fish, sourced by M & J Seafood, is just world-class - langoustine from Scotland, scallops from Lyme Bay, Dorset, and superior hen lobsters from Canada. The crisp white Burgundy, from Tanners of Shrewsbury, works beautifully with the food.
 
 
One can only hope such dinners become a regular occurrence, and that is certainly the intention of David. He believes the only way to bridge the culinary gulf between Birmingham and places like Lyon is through education, and that means getting out of the kitchen.

"We need to go out and eat in different places to improve our standards. There is no point in sitting in our little bubbles," says David.

He believes it is important for staff already working in Birmingham's top kitchens to continue their education by experiencing, and inter-acting with, different cooking cultures.

One of the aims of the new Delice partnership is to establish a culinary scholarship scheme, to be launched next year. In the first instance, it will recognise developing talent in the culinary schools of both Birmingham and Lyon, but the potential within the Delice network is enormous.

The culinary schools in each city will identify two trainees (one a chef, and the other from food service) to take part in a four-week placement in leading restaurants in Birmingham and Lyon, the British trainees going to France while their French counterparts head in the other direction.

The scholarships will be awarded every two years and it is hoped culinary schools from other Delice partners, such as Milan and Barcelona, will be invited to participate from 2011.

As far as David is concerned, the scholarship scheme cannot happen soon enough. Now aged 42, he grimly recalls having to quit his native Birmingham in the 1980s to get what he calls a "proper training".

David took a City and Guilds in catering at Solihull College but had to head south, to The Dorchester in Mayfair, as an 18-year-old.

He was a fourth commis chef and it took more than three years to rise to the dizzy heights of demi chef de partie. "These days, kids leave college and think they can walk straight into a head chef's job," David reflects.

He hopes the visit by the French chefs will kick-start a revolution in Birmingham cuisine, and food appreciation.

"We think it is an investment in the future because by forging new links we are creating new opportunities," adds David.

Ann Tonks, Opus' one-woman dynamo of a managing director, says: "The purpose of Delice is to share good practice in education, promote an interest in eating among the children in the city, develop marketing, and promote local produce."

Ann believes Birmingham is on an exciting culinary journey, but admits there is some way to go to catch up with Lyon.

"In Birmingham, we don't have generation after generation of an uninterrupted fascination with food. But that doesn't mean we cannot bring something to the table," she says.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the night is the graciousness of the French chefs. I ask them to be honest: didn't their compatriots laugh into their bain-maries when they announced they were coming to Birmingham to cook with les rostbifs?

They almost look offended. "That old thinking that England cannot cook has finished," says Joseph dismissively. "There is no prejudice."

And for once, he looks deadly serious. Mathieu then confesses to a secret vice - his love of English faggots, mushy peas and fish and chips.

Food really is everything to these men. "La cuisine c'est la vie," says Mathieu, which needs little translation.

Surely there must be more to life, though. "Ahh, oui," says the chef. "The wine and the bed - with a woman."

And there's that smile again.