A straight-shooting bistro
A WARM WELCOME. Solicitous service. Nice fish soup.
Excellent desserts and coffee. For a tourist – or local –
wandering Old Montreal, La Gargote is just the place to
Open: Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner daily
(until late fall, when they close on Sundays) from 5:30 p.m.
to 10 p.m. Licensed: Yes Credit cards: All major cards
Wheelchair access: No Parking: Street with meters as well as
a public parking lot near McGill St. Reservations: Essential
Vegetarian-friendly: No Price range: Starters $3.75-$16;
main courses $14.50-$28.50; desserts $5.75. Table d'hôte,
lunch $16.50-$19; dinner $19.50-$25.50.
Vacations are great, travel is even better, but I loathe
the tourist thing. I won't carry a longlensed camera, I
won't take a guided tour, and heaven help anyone who
suggests I wear a fanny pack. Heck, I would rather get lost
than consult a map on a street corner. Instead I try to do
my research in advance, and stride around new cities as if I
were any regular Joe (or make that Joanne) headed to the
museum on my lunch break.
Sometimes my blend-into-the-scenery approach works.
Sometimes it does not – especially when it comes to
restaurants. In search of the city's best, I comb the
streets for hours (with exasperated family members trailing
behind) scanning menus and peering through windows. But to
no avail, as I usually end up in some hole-in-the-wall
eating poorly prepared local dishes like stuffed peppers and
lamb testicles, which happen to be a specialty of Nice, a
city I actually explored for two hours before ending up in a
Thank God, I thought, while munching on an odious salade
Niçoise, that this never happens to me in Montreal, a city
whose restaurant scene I know like the back of my hand.
Or so I thought. Truth is there are more than a few
neighbourhoods whose restaurants I have yet to fully
explore, chief among them Old Montreal, an area with a ton
of touristy eateries that fall in that gray zone between
fine and casual dining. I'm not talking about restaurants
like The Keg or Le Vieux Port here, but all those little
bistros that churn out dishes like snail cassoulet, duck
magret and profiteroles.
When a restaurant reservation went sideways recently, I
spent close to an hour – with two exasperated dining
companions trailing behind – trawling "Le Vieux" for a
restaurant to review. After passing on several
establishments, I came upon a bistro on St. Paul St. that
simply screamed tourist trap. Yet for some strange reason I
was drawn to the place. It's as if my trust in the city's
food scene was so great that I couldn't imagine eating badly
even in a restaurant like this, despite its overly long,
clichéd menu, unsmiling customers and rough-and-tumble
Yet one sip of putrid fish soup later, I knew this was
Nice all over again.
After watching my dining companion's face contort after
tasting what looked like a petrified frog's leg, I cut my
losses, paid the bill, and with visions of food poisoning
dancing through my head, hit the Old Montreal cobblestone
streets yet again in search of a less deadly bistro.
Then one of the dining companions made the bold
suggestion that we head to La Gargote, a decade-old Place
d'Youville resto that I had earmarked long ago as tourist
Yet my friends were enthusiastic – and hungry – so we
made a beeline for the place, straight past the outdoor
terrasse and into a warm room with beamed ceilings, stone
walls and paper-topped tables.
No wonder owner Jean-Pierre Ousset, a 17-year veteran of
the now-defunct Bistro St. Denis, fell in love with the
building back in 1996. I, too, immediately warmed to the
room, not only because of the decor but because the
surrounding tables were filled with Montrealers, including
two large groups of families with toddlers in tow.
To my surprise, the wait staff seemed genuinely pleased
to see us, and considering the time, 9:45 p.m., they had
every right not to be.
After the fiasco of the last restaurant, I was eager for
some no-nonsense bistro fare. And with its endive
salad, herbed lamb loin, cheese plate and crème brûlée,
that's just how I'd describe La Gargote's menu.
There's also a table d'hôte with dishes like vegetable
soup and tomato/bocconcini for starters and pheasant
sausages and veal bavette as mains, as well as a bare-bones
wine list that features about a dozen French and fairly
priced bottles, such as the $46 Lirac Côte-du-Rhône we
savoured with our meal.
Though the appetizers didn't wow, they certainly
satisfied. To help forget that horrible fish soup, I sampled
La Gargote's, which wasn't quite as intensely flavoured as I
would have wished, but still offered flavours of saffron and
pastis that worked well with the garlic croutons, rouille
and cheese. A light fish soup, yes, but a good one that I
would gladly enjoy again.
Less successful was a plate of sautéed chanterelle
mushrooms, which were surprisingly lukewarm while their
sauce was hot. Odd one, that.
Not much better was a salmon tartare that consisted of a
small timbale of salmon cubes that were heavy on the onion
and poorly mixed: some bites were too salty, others weren't
Main courses fared better. The best was my osso bucco.
Served French-style with buttered noodles instead of the
Italian classic risotto Milanese, the thin-sliced shanks
were meltingly tender, blanketed in a full-flavoured brown
veal sauce and included a lovely chunk of marrow.
Equally toothsome was the veal bavette, which was served
with a similar sauce as the osso bucco and offered a
pleasant chewy texture one relishes
in this semi-tough cut.
But by the third entrée – filet mignon au poivre – my
enthusiasm for the brown sauce (this time strewn with green
peppercorns) was starting to wane. But what really failed
here was the cooking of the filet, which had been seared
beyond the requested medium-rare – a fiddly detail, I admit,
but when you get past medium-rare with less marbled cuts
like this, you end up with dry steak.
Accompaniments made up for a lot. Not so much the stiff
and underseasoned mashed potatoes, but the colourful
assortment of al-dente vegetables served on all three
Desserts ended the meal on a high. I could have done
without the cold and clammy tarte Tatin, but I would gladly
gobble the blueberry-studded crème brûlée and the oh-so-chocolately
profiteroles again and again. Coffee was so good that I
downed it in two gulps.
Service continued on the same solicitous note on which it
began. Despite a few times having to pour our own wine (life
is tough isn't it?), I really have no complaints.
In fact, I was happy with my meal at La Gargote. What I
expected to be a dudly dinner turned out to be very pleasant
The next time I want to play tourist in my – or any other
– city, here's hoping I run into a place this good. For a
solid bistro meal isn't so much about the colour of the
sauce and the texture of the mashed potatoes as a welcoming
waiter and a warm atmosphere.
Of course, a winning fish soup doesn't hurt, either.
Montreal: French Treat
True to their French heritage,
Montrealers are passionate about food and love to eat out. "We die
poor," one woman told us, "but we have a good time." The city has
over 4000 restaurants of every size and stripe from humble to haute
- with sidewalk cafés and luxurious rooftop restaurants, chic
bistros, salons de thé
and sleek sushi bars.
Many restaurants have table d'hôte
menus, in which the price of the main course includes an appetizer
and a simple dessert - a boom to the frugal gourmet. At charming
in the Old Port area, a local favorite
with stone walls and wood-beamed ceiling, we enjoyed delicious
traditional French food at remarkably low prices. We had wonderfully
succulent leg of lamb and braised duck
mashed potatoes and vegetables for $14.75 and $14.95 respectively
and that included
choice of soup or eggplant Milanese to start, and
for dessert. At these prices, we recklessly threw in an order
of escargots à la carte. Served in little shells of phyllo pastry
nestled in a delicious tomato sauce, they were the best we've ever
False modesty or a sense
of irony must have led the owners of La Gargote to their
choice of name. La Gargote is a pejorative term meaning “an
inexpensive restaurant where the cuisine or service lack
care.” In a more familiar sense, it can mean “local eatery.”
La Gargote’s prices are low, but neither the service nor the
cuisine has anything to apologize for. In fact, this
restaurant in Old Montreal is a hidden culinary
They’re low ceilings;
red-floored room with red and stone walls is decorated with
architectural photos, botanical drawings, and dried-flower
bouquets. The personal eclecticism of the decoration works
very well. Gazing out the large windows on to Place
d’Youville watching calèches go by, you may feel more
European than North American. Don’t worry – the food and
wines of this modern French establishment won’t break the
Usually full at lunch
time, La Gargote offers a table d’hôte each evening as well
as some à la carte selections. The menu is small but varied,
and the wine list is extensive for a small restaurant. The
tables are simple and comfortable, and everything about this
place is relaxed and friendly. The atmosphere is indeed that
of a restaurant de quartier, but the food is from a quartier
of Paris .
La Gargote’s offerings
fit standard bistro categories: pasta, sausage, chops, flank
steak, fish, and poultry. This is an evolved bistro,
however, where the recipes reflect the vast reawakening of
French cuisine over the past several years. For example,
their tartar is a blend of traditional French and Japanese
A rich fish aroma
preceded the fish soup to the table. Served with creamy
rouille on three croutons, the soup was a large bowl of
excellent fish and tomato broth well seasoned with pepper
and fennel. Cheese and small bits of fish – no large chunks
– added to the superb flavour. The rouille was smooth and
garlicky. A slightly bigger bowl would have made it a whole
(cream of market vegetable) came with the table d’hôte. It
was a cream of turnip and carrot with added spinach and
tomato. The texture was remarkably smooth, but unfortunately
the portion was small. A larger à la carte version of their
daily soup would thus be nice.
The other appetizer
choice on the Table d’Hôte was a rougaille de tomates. This
chopped tomato salad was served inside a ring of pesto.
Mixed with sweet red onions and dressed with a good olive
oil, the tomatoes were hereby, garlicky, and juicy. It was
served in generous portions, but with its blended flavours,
we could have easily eaten more.
We couldn’t resist some
of the à la carte appetizers. The gésiers de canard confits
were served warm a top a red leaf lettuce salad. Confit is a
typical bistro dish. The warm, slow-cooked, marinated duck
gizzards and their fat are tossed into the salad, mixing
temperatures, textures, and tastes. There were at least 12
gizzards, and the tasty balsamic-based vinaigrette was great
on the salad.
The salmon tartar
provided the visual and flavour high point of our meal. The
patty of raw salmon was mixed with onions, capers, and
chives in a binding mayonnaise. It was set in a pool of
tamari sauce and crowned with a pink rose made of Japanese
ginger slices. East met West in this large, filling and
The three lobes of ris de
l’eau were prepared perfectly and dipped in a very light
batter. They were served warm in a smooth, well-seasoned
sauce. Cleaned with the master’s touch, they were completely
even and veinless, with a cloud-like texture.
a Parisian name for hake, is served with a lemony beurre
blanc and a spinach sauce. This white-fleshed fish
(sometimes called white salmon) is similar to cod but more
delicate. La Gargote serves a large portion of this flaky
but firm delight. The two sauces were good, the combination
better. Both the ris de veau and the fish were served on
plates decorated with curry powder. The paupiette de dinde
(stuffed turkey roll) was a thick slice of turkey breast
rolled around a chopped-meat-and-herb filling, sautéed in
vermouth, then cooked wrapped in bacon and served sliced. It
was like a juicy, skinless sausage nicely accented by the
bacon. All of these dishes were served with potatoes and al
dente vegetables. The mix of peas and thin-sliced carrots
was particularly appreciated.
The house desert,
moscorite au coulis de kiwis, was a square of flan with a
kiwi sauce. The flan was a perfect smooth custard, and this
kiwi sauce really tasted like the ripe fruit. The plate was
decorated with cocoa powder. We had excellent coffee and
enjoyed the music that varied all night and finished on a
classical note. Service was excellent, despite some longer
preparations. Dinner for three came to $72.10 with soft
drinks and tax.