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:Little Italy/Portugal Village:Rock Lobster

As far as twitter goes, Rock Lobster is a busy community.  Every night I get numerous tweets and retweets from happy people raving about their recent experience. I must admit I was quite excited for a piece of the action. Walking through the door, I was looking for a place to happen and was greeted by three friendly, plaid wearing barkeeps who quickly sat me at the bar. Looking around, I felt like I was an extra in a Tragically Hip video.  Nostalgic Canadian paraphernalia  filled the walls and the menu followed suit, offering a near coast to coast menu.  It only made sense to salute the flag and partake in the cross country adventure.

Must

Nothing signifies the start a Canadian road trip like a classic caesar.  It followed all the rules including celery and steak spice with the luxury of half a lobster tail  for 12 bucks.  It wasn’t bland nor watery and didn’t require a fire in the hole warning either.  It was yummy and spicy and good.   The tail didn’t hurt either.

Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail
Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail

Ironically, the best item on the menu wasn’t lobster. A trip over the hundredth meridian offered a grilled flank steak  served with homemade hickory sticks, a soft yolked duck egg and a side of homemade tangy dipping sauce  for $14.  The steak was grilled to absolute perfection. The egg was served with a shiny, runny yellow which would trickle down onto the crispy and smoky version of delicious of the Canadian classic snack. Despite the richness of each of the ingredients it was far from a greasy jungle; I would describe it more as hearty small plate presented with skill and determination….and grace, too.

Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg
Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg

I stayed out west for my second drink of the night. I ordered an “Iginla Fizz”, a  $10 modern spin on a rye and ginger.  It was simple but delicious. Maybe it was the drink itself or the fact that  I’ve always felt so hard done by as a Calgary  fan and drinking a cocktail named after the Flames captain in Leafs nation was final  and just retribution for the Gary Leeman/Doug Gilmour trade.

The "Iginla Fizz"
The “Iginla Fizz”

One of the showcases of Rock Lobster is a cooler displaying the restaurant’s namesake as well as other things born in the water.  The fresh PEI malpeque oysters drew my attention, especially at a price of two and a quarter each.  One of the bartenders pulled three out, shucked them and served with all the fixings including fresh horseradish she ground with a box grater right at the bar. It was a great offering  other than the mignonette sauce, which I found a little off. She didn’t know for sure what she regularly shucks in a shift  but figured she may do a 20o plus on a good night.

Rock Lobster Oysters
Rock Lobster Oysters

I was told the  lobster roll is the mainstay of the restaurant concept  itself. It had all the fireworks of the classic east coast sandwich.  Chunks of lobster were coated in a rich but not overbearing mayo and served on a fresh and lightly toasted roll. Normally served with fries and a McClure’s pickle, I asked if  they could sub the fries and they gladly doubled the pickle.  This may not sound that exciting, but these pickles have been considered some of the best in the business for a long time running.

Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll

Maybe

Rock Lobster’s Quebec contribution was a lobster poutine.  The fresh fries hit the mark, the cheese curds were authentic but the bisque gravy fell a bit short.  Although full of flavour, the bisque was a little scarce and  served luke warm which prevented the heart of the melt, a bit of a cardinal sin in the poutine world. I know it didn’t blow my mind but I couldn’t figure out if it left me yawning or snarling.

Lobster Poutine
Lobster Poutine

I have a confession.  One of the twitter feeds bragged about diners enjoying whale tails which left me wondering if this was a taboo spin on the Parkdale offal movement.  Much to my relief, the “whale tail” was instead a spin on the classic Canadian beaver tail pastry. It was a crispy and nicely presented, coated in cinnamon sugar and served on a chuck of tree with a shaker of maple sugar.  It came with a few irrelevant trickles of creme anglaise.  It was good enough but wasn’t too hard puttin’ down.

Whale Tail
Whale Tail

My Take

Rock Lobster has rapidly become a  lionized addition to the Ossington strip. The service was friendly, attentive and didn’t take forever.  I can’t explain the exact feeling, but it has a modern spirit that so many foodies crave  as much as the grub itself.  The ironic coupling of  extensive twitter hype with a certain degree of secrecy, the dark canuck ambiance and most importantly the solid execution of a cross-section of Canadian classics from hickory sticks to lobster tails define this eatery as a  pelagic pinnacle as opposed to a nautical disaster.

 

Rock Lobster on Urbanspoon