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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.