Story by Janine MacLean
Vacay.ca Food Columnist
MONTREAL — If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in the food industry, it’s that hype doesn’t necessarily mean great things about a restaurant. In fact, I find a lot of top-rated restaurants underwhelming when it comes time to finally eating there.
When I managed to get a last-minute reservation to Garde Manger in Old Montreal, I was excited but wary. Ok, more excited than wary, but I still held onto the possibility of being disappointed and penniless at the end of the night.
Opened by celebrity chef Chuck Hughes (Chuck’s Day Off, Food Network) in 2006, Garde Manger has been a prime late-night dining spot, boasting great food, cocktails and music. With Hughes’ television success and subsequent stardom, I wanted to know if the restaurant’s output has suffered or if it still lives up to its reputation.
If you’ve watched “Chuck’s Day Off,” the restaurant is easy enough to find along the cobblestoned streets of Montreal. If you haven’t, you might have a bit of difficulty. The restaurant isn’t openly advertised. Outside the door, hangs one iridescent sign — otherwise, the restaurant is indistinguishable from any neighbouring building.
Its interior is dark but charming. A massive wooden chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Throughout our dinner we were painfully aware that if it decided to detach itself, we were goners.
“You should have been here when they held dance classes upstairs,” our friendly bartender, Annie, jokes. “We never knew if the chandelier was going to stay put.”
Laughs aside, the restaurant’s décor is perfect for the location. Modern, but not too modern, you still get a taste of Old Montreal. Specialty cocktail in hand (key lime pie, delicious), we settled on our barstools and took a good look at the menu.
I found it difficult to choose. I could eat and would ideally enjoy everything on the menu. Eventually we decided on Chuck’s famous lobster poutine to start ($19, one of the winning dishes on “Iron Chef America” when Hughes’ beat Bobby Flay) along with a braised veal cheek with fois gras, served on a waffle ($24).
GARDE MANGER A MONTREAL RESTAURANT REVIEW WINNER
Before our appetizers came out, we were treated to a bread basket with a simple but tasty cream cheese spread made with caramelized onion and paprika. When the appetizers did arrive, we ditched the bread and attacked.
The lobster poutine is made with reduced lobster bisque as opposed to gravy, which really makes the whole dish work. The flavours were intense and the cheese curds squeaked between my teeth (a sure sign of a good cheese curd). The chunks of lobster were slightly overcooked for my taste, but by the way I demolished the poutine no one would ever think so.
The veal cheek with fois gras is a clear winner. A vegetarian’s worst nightmare, this dish invokes layers of palatable flavour. The veal on my plate was perfectly braised and fell apart as soon the fork hit it. The fois gras was nicely seared and the crisp, eggy waffle brought the whole thing together (it’s also great for sopping up the excess braising liquid).
For our main course, I opted for the gnocchi with seared scallops and carrot butter ($35). My husband went for the Bavette ($36) — or flank steak — with potato fritters, jalapeno mayo and a fried egg.
My scallops were perfectly seasoned and seared. The carrot butter was sweet and savoury all at once — I wished I had a piece of bread to sop it up. The gnocchi, again, was a bit overcooked for me but the dish as a whole really worked. The flavours were well balanced and melded nicely with the Semillon-sauvignon blanc I sipped.
The Bavette was perfectly cooked to medium rare. The fritters were freakishly light and fluffy on the inside and fried to a crisp golden brown. My husband only lets me have a bite when I nag. This time, the egg was a great addition, making the Bavette more like a Portuguese bife com um ovo. Garde Manger politely serves the jalapeno mayo on the side so the diner can slather at will.
Our neighbouring diners noticed me taking down notes and asked what I was writing. Nicole Authier, a true blue Montrealer, told me she had been coming to Garde Manger for years.
“Years ago, Hughes used to be working the Ipod behind the bar,” she said.
Although Hughes was not present that evening (he was in Malaysia filming “Chuck’s Week Off” — no joke), his chef de cuisine, James Baran, showed me around the restaurant and answered some of my questions. Having just opened Le Bremner — their new restaurant located down the road from Garde Manger — Baran was excited to talk about both spots and about why he thinks Montreal is a great city.
“Montreal is very special. I find we have fantastic food, fantastic restaurants. A lot of places are a lot less known (than Garde Manger) but they’re still doing amazing things. We cook to please Montrealers.”
Baran took me on a tour of the restaurant’s open kitchen, which didn’t take long. It is the tiniest kitchen I have ever seen. In the back room where they have more seating, their shucker worked away at their oyster bar as I walked through. I asked Baran what it was like opening Le Bremner and how he came to be chef de cuisine at Garde Manger.
“I was originally the chef at Le Bremner, and what happened was I opened that place and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. You never know what opening a restaurant is until you’ve done it. I was pulling off 18-hour days just to make this place work,” he said.
“I remember me and Chuck in the restaurant at 6 in the morning rolling out breadsticks, thinking like ‘Wow, this is where we’re going back to — after all our success we’re back to rolling out breadsticks.’ Anyway, I ended up coming back here (to Garde Manger) because I was needed. I had a great sous chef at Le Bremner who I ended up making chef de cuisine, and I was able to come back to Garde Manger.”
Baran, with his open, friendly face reminded me of his boss. He could almost be Hughes if he was a few pounds heavier. He has such a passion for what he does that the hype of the restaurant took a backseat for a minute. Talking to this guy about food and being a chef was just too much fun. I told him how much I enjoyed the veal cheek appetizer and he broke out into a huge grin.
“Chuck asked me if I was trying to outdo his lobster poutine when I came up with that dish.”
MORE ABOUT GARDE MANGER
Address: 408 Rue Saint-François-Xavier, Montréal, QC
Contact: 514-678-5044; www.crownsalts.com