Review:Montreal:Garde Manger

There’s one place a food network fan has to go when visiting Montreal; Garde Manger. The charismatic Chuck Hughes heads up this trendy yet rustic eatery in Old Montreal.  Sampling the Iron Chef winning lobster poutine would be on the bucket list of any food porn junkie.

We had dinner reservations elsewhere but decided to hit it up early for an appetizer or two including, of course, the aforementioned iconic dish. Somewhat hesitant to drop in on a Friday with 4 people, I prayed to Julia Child (who in my opinion should be on the list for sainthood) and walked in.  In a squeaky yet deflated voice I explored the possibility of a table.  Without hesitation, the waitress (who in the food porn world would be a dominatrix) pointed to four seats at the bar right by the front door and kindly but firmly said “Sit here but you have to be out by 7”.

One of my first observations was the limited booze list.  Sure, there is no shortage of wine, but the beer and cocktail list is minimal.  One of the signatures was the giant caesar ($15) garnished with clams, steak spice and celery. The caesar itself was good, but just good.  It was easy drinking but didn’t knock me off the stool.

Giant Caesar
Giant Caesar $15

I’m a big fan of the craft beer movement (which is once again in style).  I asked the bartender about local brews and she suggested the bierbrier ale from Montreal.  I thoroughly enjoyed this beer.  It had a traditional ale flavour and was neither too intense nor too weak.

Bierbrier- Craft Beer from Montreal
Bierbrier- Craft Beer from Montreal

Given the time constraints, the menu choices were a bit limited.  Anything we suggested that fell outside our allotted time was politely shot down by Madame Caesarmaker at the bar. As mentioned, the lobster poutine was a must and available within our time limit.   Interestingly enough, it was the only menu available in three sizes and the only item without a price listed. We took the “go big or go home” mentality and ordered the large and hoped that the credit card wouldn’t get declined when we left (it was a close call at $45).  Was it worth $45?  No.  Was it worth $45 to tell random food geeks and friends and family that you tried the dish that brought down Bobby Flay? Absolutely.  The fries swam with abundant lobster and cheese curds in a gravy  with a good balanced flavour.

Large Lobster Poutine $45
Large Lobster Poutine $45

Don’t ask me why, but I love creamed corn.  It’s one of those comfort foods I crave regularly so I was pleased to see it as part of a clam, speck and jalapeno dish (I think it was $12).  This one was magic, a symphony of land and sea and sweet and spice. The speck added just enough salt and texture to round out the starter.

Clam with Creamed Corn, Jalapeno and Speck $15
Clam with Creamed Corn, Jalapeno and Speck -$12 (I think)

My buddy ordered the lentil and goat cheese bruschetta with sausage ($16).  I only had a few bites due to my dislike for goat cheese.  The lentils were done well and the sausage had a pleasant taste.  All in all, it was a complex blend of flavours that could have as easily been thrown in a bowl with a spoon and called a good soup or stew.

Lentil and Sausage Bruschetta with Goat Cheese $16
Lentil and Sausage Bruschetta with Goat Cheese $16

My Take

Eating Chuck Hughes’ lobster poutine was on my bucket list.  So was meeting him.  I’m not sure how often he actually cooks at his own restaurant (unless it’s his day off of course) so I wasn’t surprised he wasn’t there.  Then a funny thing happened.  Less than a week later I got an email from the gastropost people (it’s a feature in the national post showcasing home cooks by issuing challenges and published results) inviting me to meet Chuck Hughes  in Toronto if was one of the first 20 people to respond.  I quickly hit reply and made the cut.  He was in Toronto to promote the culinary showdown to raise money for Breast Cancer research. It was a catered event at a swanky house in north Toronto. I showed up, mingled with fellow gastroposters, got in line and met Chuck in person.  Yes, I’m a dork.

Chuck and I
Chuck and I

As for Garde Manger, it is an experience. I’m not surprised that reviews are often so polar.  It all hinges on when you go, where you are seated, who serves you and how high your expectations are going in.  The fact that I went before the dinner rush, was seated at a cool spot along the bar, was served by Lady Bierbrier and was intent on stroking “Ate Chuck Hughes’ lobster poutine” off my bucket list, I can’t complain. That and it likely beats a visit to New Jersey to dine at Bobby’s Burger Palace.

Garde Manger on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Annex:Harbord Room

I’ve had a few celebrity sightings in life.  I remember seeing famed baseball pitcher Denis Martinez in a café after a Red Sox game back in the mid 90’s.  I rode 7 floors on an elevator with Alicia Silverstone and her dog in Toronto hotel circa 2004.

Nothing, however, makes me as excited as meeting anybody who has anything to do with the food industry.  I have had run-ins with icons Lynn Crawford and  Mark McEwan.  I’ve met top chef participants Jonathan Korecki, Carl Heinrich and Connie DeSousa through  visits to their restaurants.

Needless to say I was quite excited to meet Kevin Brauch during a recent visit to Harbord Room, a well established restaurant making good burgers and high end cocktails before burgers and high end cocktails were so cool.  He came in toward the end of my Monday night meal and we had a chance to chat all things food, drink, Alton Brown and Iron Chef.  Let me put it into perspective… I’d rather meet a guy who had built his career drinking all over the world and managing the egos of the likes of Bobby Flay  than let’s say, Tom Cruise, whose definition of acting is trying to convince us that he could street fight guys half his age and twice his height.

Stalking Kevin Brauch
Stalking Kevin Brauch

Must

Harbord room had a cool burger before having cool burgers was cool.  Erring on the side of simplicity, it’s as well known as Mario Batali’s orange crocs and the burger praises are ubiquitous in every critic and blogger review. It’s a gem from the bun to the perfectly cooked beef to the fries.

The Harbord Burger
The Harbord Burger

The whitefish ceviche was a blackboard special that was fresh and clean with perfect tones of heat and acidity and a Morimotoish delicacy.

Whitefish Ceviche
Whitefish Ceviche

As charcuterie crests in popularity across the GTA, Harbord room keeps up with the times with a board full of carnivorous treats ranging  from venison pepperoni to an airy chicken liver pate to a pleasant terrine that would make Marc Forgione’s hair stand on end (ok..bad example). There were house pickles, great crostini, homemade preserves  and a fried egg round it all off.

Charcuterie ($20)
Charcuterie ($20)

Harbord room has also stayed current in the world of cocktails, likely in part to the fact about a third of the restaurant is taken up by the bar.   High end liquors highlight a diverse drink menu which can get rather pricy.  I indulged in “Liquid Swords”, a complex meczal based multi-ingredient drink with an execution as meticulous and passionate as a Michael Symon lamb chop.

Consideration toward a good side is like paying homage to a good sous chef.  Let’s call the rapini the Anne Burell of sides.  Bitter rapini, salty almonds, hot chili and sweet sultanas only make sense as it appeals to all senses.

Harbord Room Rapini
Harbord Room Rapini

Maybe

There was a bit of Cornish hen controversy as our table was told it was not available due to a lack of greens.  We asked for it anyway only to find out that it hadn’t been brined for the appropriate amount of time but they would serve it anyway.  Despite the lack of bath time, the poultry was delicious and moist.  If anything the sausage, the only thing on the plate not involved in the controversy, was as lackluster as an Iron Chef trying to make dessert.

Cornish Game Hen and Sausage
Cornish Game Hen and Sausage

I enjoy olive oil cake and I like Harbord’s spin.  Priced in the single digits, it hit all the elements of a good dessert. The citrus and chocolate sides provided some variety to the neutral cake. The almond crunch added some needed texture.

Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch
Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch

Mundane

Let’s call this a relative mundane list.  Nothing at Harbord was bad per se, but the strength of the menu made some of the dessert seem a bit substandard.  The Valrhona Dark Chocolate & Smoked Banana Terrine, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Mousse & Dehydrated Chocolate & Banana Chips was a bit confusing.  A little too deconstructed, the flavours didn’t quite come together.  The Fresh Ricotta Doughnuts
Espresso & Caramel Pot de Creme, Espresso Tapioca & Crumble Meringue Wafer were decent but a bit predictable.  Although good and filled with diverse flavor, I don’t get the meringue wafer trend.  A little too much sweet on sweet.

Doughnuts and Terrine
Doughnuts and Chocolate Banana Terrine

I realize sex sells, but really……

Ummm....Harbord Cappuccino
Ummm….Harbord Cappuccino

My Take

The constant rave about the burger is a bit of a disservice to Harbord room.  The complex drinks, brilliant charcuterie and intuitive sides elevate it to iron chef caliber beyond it’s signature dish.  In a highly competitive market, Harbord maintains a balance between what works and what might work.

In honour of Kevin Brauch, Harbord room is one of the iron chefs of the Toronto restaurant scene.  Challengers emerge, claiming vivacious vibes and great burgers but Harbord has held the test of time against these admirable culinary opponents. It maintains tradition yet remains current in a manner synonymous with the likes of Geoffrey Zakarian. I’m looking forward to the new THR and Co. spin-off in May. Gotta run….I think Tom’s coming to kick my ass.  I’d tell him to pick on somebody his own size, but my 13 year old daughter is not home right now.

The Harbord Room on Urbanspoon