While out walking the dog one frosty eve last week, Guillaume and I were reminiscing about the days before we were sporting a baby carrier and pulling on a leash, when we could just pop into a bar for an improptu drink or a meal. We agreed that dining out is a little more complicated to organize, but that there was no reason we couldn’t still pull off a 5 à 7 from time to time with our good natured little lad. So we trundled off in search of a quenching glass of white, and found ourselves in front of the very cool storefront of Maison Publique.
I inquired about a beverage while Guillaume secured our furry friend outside, and was curtly told that “you have to eat”. Despite the lukewarm greeting, we forged ahead, installing ourselves at the bar. I siddled up to the board to check out the sparse, simply worded menu (my favourite kind) and found myself joined by a friendly face offering advice and explanations, claiming to “know the menu well”. Our curiousity and appetites were piqued, so our original plan to share one appetizer quickly went out the window, and we settled in for 3 shared plates.
The sommelier, the gruff fellow from the beginning, loosened up and came by to talk wine. Canadian wine. No imports. And why not? I am all for going “local” if the producers are good, which they increasingly are. There is no formal printed wine list, just a verbal run down of suggestions. Usually, I am not a fan of this method, as I find sommeliers often omit a lot of wines and push their personal favourites on you with little regard for your tastes. This was not the case at Maison Publique. Our friend offered a range and described the wines well. I started with a glass of Norman Hardie Prince Edward County Riesling. Vibrant, with searing acidity, lots of juicy apple and citrus fruit and a smooth, lifted finish. A super choice for pre-dinner sipping, at an agreeably low 10.5% alcohol. Guillaume went a little off the beaten track with a Viognier from the Okanagan. This is definitely a minor player here, with less than 80 hectares (200 acres) total planted in the province. The Calliope Viognier comes from the talented folks at Burrowing Owl winery. While the nose showed great Viognier typicity, brimming with peach, apricot and floral aromas that played through nicely on the palate, the wine fell a bit flat on the finish, lacking the necessary acidic bite for balance (quick trip to the Calliope website showed the wine’s pH at 3.54; high for white).
We were off to a good start, enjoying some friendly chit chat with my menu adviser from earlier, when the dog, sick of being left out of the fun, starting barking up a storm outside. Our evening, which looked to be coming to a screeching halt, was saved by a kindly invitation to bring the dog in to sit at our feet under the bar. This is when we realized that the humble words about knowing the menu well had actually coming from the restaurants’ owner (and chef). So with the family all assembled in a cosy corner of the bar, we tucked in to our first dish: Calamari …cooked to perfection; soft and tender with a hearty squid ink sauce and some good, rustic bread for dipping. Seeing how much our gluttonous 7 month-old was enjoying the squid ink, the chef slipped away to the kitchen and came back with a small dish of creamy polenta, already at baby-ready temperature. Any lingering urge to wrap up our evening melted away, and we signalled the sommelier over.
He suggested a Reimer Vineyards “Galahad” Pinot Noir/ Gamay blend from Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Red Stone Cabernet Franc from Beamsville to go with the next two incredible courses. The Galahad was a hit. Pretty earthy and red fruit flavours, fresh acidity, rounded tannins, and a soft finish. A great choice with the horse meat carpaccio, served with finely cut spiced, roasted potatoes, fresh herbs and well-dosed little portions of a lifted, tomato-based sauce. The lightbodied Pinot blend also worked well with the bagna càuda, roasted root vegetables in a creamy, flavourful sauce subtly infused with garlic and anchovies . The Red Stone Cab Franc was not such a success. We were duly informed that it was a bit of a big and oaky offering, but decided to try it all the same. That will teach us to listen better next time! It was just as the sommelier had warned; potentially appealing to lovers of toasty, vanilla laden wines, but not to our taste. The vegetal character of the Cabernet Franc clashed with the heavy oak, and the overall effect was disjointed and overpowering.
We were all having a great time; even the dog was snoring peacefully. The chef again disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a tasty carrot mash for our little guy, which was gobbled up posthaste. So we decided to stay for one more plate. For us: fried partridge (delicously crispy skin, but a tad dry) and another surprise dish for baby: a spoonful of creamy, tart apricot sorbet, perfect for teething gums the chef explained. So there we were, merrily sated, having proved that we could have a great, spontaneous evening out…even if it did end at 7:30pm.
Overall, Maison Publique gets high praise from us. We were given such warm hearted, personalized attention. The menu is deceptively simple; each dish featuring complex, layered, harmonious flavours. The wines are well-crafted, interesting choices. Not all were to our taste, but that’s the beauty of wine…something for every palate. We will definitely return.
As a side note, we also brunched here recently. The pancakes are among the best I have ever had…so light and fluffy. The welsh rarebit is also a solid choice if you like richer fare (for brunch or dinner).