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Restaurants Reviews

Maison Publique

Maison Publique restaurant

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). 

Restaurants

La Salle à Manger

Salle à Manger Wine

Excellent Montréal food critic Lesley Chesterman said of La Salle à Manger “when the plates hit the table, it’s gourmet game on”. This was back in 2011. Guillaume and I headed there a couple of nights ago to see if this Mont-Royal hot spot was still worthy of such high praise.

The place is cool. Nice dim lighting, wooden benches intermixed with individual tables, a glassed-in meat locker with a glimpse of the bustling kitchen behind. Vintage style wall paper behind a long, inviting bar. The Boss crooning “Atlantic City” in the background. So far, so good. The menu is simple but enticing with a good mix of vegetarian, meat and seafood options. Everything sounds market fresh, and approachable. No complicated laundry lists of ingredients, no high fallutin’ poetic descriptions; short and to the point.

The wine list is long, with a pleasing number of by the glass options and a nice range of prices. But then I start looking at the origins… Austria, Loire Valley, Jura…and my heart sinks. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of these regions. But they are also the poster children for the ultra-trendy natural wine movement. I am going to say something very unhip now…   Ready? I don’t like natural wines. I have had some good ones. But on the whole….not a fan. Wine producers, waiters, friends all swear that this bottle will not be murky and taste like apple cider or barnyard, but to greater or lesser extents, they all do. Side note…I am very keen to be proven wrong, so feel free to send suggestions. I will dutifully try them and be happy to change my opinion. Anyways…back to the topic at hand… La Salle à Manger’s wine list.

I ask the waiter, who proudly announces that yes, the wine list does focus on natural wines (sigh…). As we are already seated, and have ordered, we decide to push on through. We are in a celebratory mood. I have passed my 1st year of Master of Wine studies! We order Champagne. Robert Barbichon Réserve 4 cépages to be exact. I take a first nervous sip and am relieved. The nose is highly aromatic with apricot, tarte tatin and floral notes. The wine is crisp, light and refreshing, with subtle but persistent mousse and a lifted, fruity finish. This is not an earthshakingly good Champagne but very nice for the price. Our starters arrive: green bean salad, with grilled courgettes and fresh goat’s cheese for me (very fresh, but a tad bland) and grilled octopus, jalapenos and corn waffle for Guillaume (better, though the octopus is a little overwhelmed by the spice and quantity of waffle). Our smiling waiter brings over glasses and a couple of bottles to let us try the wines before committing. I like this guy! For the green beans he recommends a Pierre Frick Alsatian Sylvaner for its weight and minerality. The pairing works reasonably well, though the wine is a little neutral for my taste, with a tell-tale hint of apple sourness on the finish. For the octopus, our friend pours a decidedly brown glass of rosé. It is a Loire Vin de France Cabernet Franc. Guillaume’s verdict? Pretty nose of hawthorn and mixed berries, enough fruit and body to soften the spice, but a pronounced animal note on the finish that clashes with the octopus.

For our next course, I take a wild mushroom dish with a jus de viande and egg. It is rich, hearty and flavourful, just as I’d hoped. I am offered two choices. The first one is the winner. A Catalan Garnacha Macabeu blend (Laureano Serres “Aidons Nous”). It is redolent of potpourri and cherries, with moderate acidity, medium body, integrated alcohol and animal notes on the finish that work well with the mushrooms. Guillaume has lamb liver with caponata (great mix of textures and flavours, liver well cooked, all in all a thumbs up). The pairing works well here too. The wine is Ca’ de Noci “Gheppio” Rosso from Emilia Romagna. An IGT blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and local grape Malbo Gentile. Super-ripe fruit with volatile notes garners a frown from Guillaume, but the acidity matches the caponata nicely, and the full body and firm tannins work well with the liver. We finish with richly textured, firm and delicious panna cotta. No wine pairing here, but our waiter kindly offers us a glass of Rivaton Rivesaltes Grenat. A surprising wine with classic vin doux nose, but bone dry with lots of body, depth and smooth, rounded tannins.

Overall, we would rate this restaurant experience in the good to very good range…sort of B+ level. A little on the expensive side, but a great vibe and really excellent service. The wine list, like the menu, has obviously had lots of thought and care put into it. The waiter knows his list and recommends well. However, I just can’t shake the fact that, unless the concept is made very clear to customers from the outset, a wine list should not be made up almost entirely of natural wines. There does exist an informed minority that love this style, and more power to them. But I don’t believe the average consumer will understand or enjoy murky, brown rosé, sour cider notes on whites or heavy barnyard aromas on light bodied reds. The wine pairings were good, but I just didn’t like any of the wines save the Champagne, and what is a good restaurant experience about if not pleasure?

Restaurants

Economically Gastronomic

La Prunelle Resturant

The bring your own wine solution to fine dining in Montréal

Among the many things that I like to splurge on, my favourites are wine, restaurants and taxis (it is cOOOOld here in the winter). A good night out usually involves all three, which can be a little hard on the old pocket book. Especially since I am going to start having to factor in a babysitter since I don’t believe in bringing babies/small children to nice restaurants (a rant for another time….).

I always have the same dilemma when the menus arrive. Do I choose the wine first, or the food? I usually open the wine list first and one of two things often happens….

  1. The food looks amazing but the wine menu is just a dull collection of big brands, obviously provided by one big winery conglomerate or agency that has paid handsomely to own the list. The majority of said wines can be found at the liquor store for a third of the price. This always frustrates me. It is like painting a masterpiece and then putting it in a cheap Ikea frame. The food and the drinks should be of equal calibre, to complement and enhance each other. It seems to me that a chef who is passionate about his food would understand that.
  2. The wine list is worthy of the menu, but the prices are astronomical. And, after spending upwards of 50$ on the table d’hôte menu, I just can’t bring myself to tack on an extra 100$ for the bottle I really want. So I end up going for a lesser wine; still good but not the kind of quality that is going to play up the best attributes of the dish and vice versa. And while I’m eating, I am thinking “this Haut Médoc is pretty good but I wish I was drinking the Pauillac”….

This is what makes the Montréal dining scene so fantastic. You don’t have to fear the wine list. You can just bring your own! Long gone are the days when all the BYOW restaurants were cheap Greek joints on Prince Arthur or Duluth. The city is now overflowing with choice from affordable little bistros to serious gastronomic treats.

Here are a list of my top 5 Montréal BYOW spots; that deserve you spending a little time at the SAQ picking out the perfect wine. Not only is the food fantastic, but the staff often give excellent wine service (good glassware, happy to decant, etc.). There are many, many more that I have forgotten or have not yet had the pleasure of dining at. Feel free to send me some suggestions!

La Colombe

554 Avenue Duluth Est, Montréal, Quebec H2L 1A9

The food here is so good that it made me forget my epic 25th birthday hangover. My dad brought one of his few remaining bottles of Cos d’Estournel 1982. It was divine. I went back 5 years later and the meal was just as good as I remembered. Fresh, market cuisine; a perfect mix of classic French and modern Québec. Their foie gras is delicious, as is the filet of deer in a pepper sauce. The ambiance is intimate and romantic.

La Prunelle

327 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2W 1J1

I’ve seen mixed reviews on this little spot, but I really enjoyed it. A French friend was in town a few weeks back that loves nothing more than excess. So we showed up, armed with 4 bottles of wine, sat at the bar and ordered lots plates to share. The wine service was great. The décor is a little boring, but on a summer’s night, with the huge floor to ceiling windows open, the feel is cool, casual terrace (with the comfort of indoor furniture). The wild mushroom starter with truffle oil and aged cheddar is a flavour and texture explosion…great with our Langhe Nebbiolo.

Amelia’s

201 Rue Milton, Montréal, QC H2X 1V5

A classic! Simple, delicious and seriously affordable pizzas and pastas in a cozy, brick walled setting. This place has been around forever. Don’t be confused by the recent name change (used to be called Amelio’s…long story), the food is as good as ever. They don’t take reservations and close the kitchen at 9pm, so show up early and don’t be afraid to wait. It is never too long, and totally worth it!

Bistro Monsieur B

371 Rue Villeneuve E, Montréal, QC H2J 2L5

Monsieur B has casual chic down to a tee. Again, a French/ Québec market cuisine fusion theme…which is pretty common among the better BYOWs, but who can get enough of that? There is a fantastic 6 course “menu degustation” complete with a Trou Normand. My only complaint was the teeny, tiny portions of cheese…definitely not shareable.

Bombay Mahal

1001 Rue Jean-Talon-Ouest, Montréal, QC H3N 1T2

Ok, so wine pairing is not quite so easy with Indian fare, and I admit that I usually drink beer here, but a nice Mosel or Alsatian wine will usually do the trick. A fruity rosé (think Spanish Garnacha) is also a pretty good match. The décor is pretty simple, but the food is rich, spicy Indian food done to perfection. You are guaranteed to eat too much…and then crave more a couple of weeks later!