DINING OUT

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 stumble upon
Lesley Chesterman

La Gargote
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 dumpy café.
   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 waitress.
   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 central.
   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 salty enough.
   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 plates.
   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 indeed.
   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

Valerie Schroth

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 La Gargote 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 au framboises, with mashed potatoes and vegetables for $14.75 and $14.95 respectively and that included choice of soup or eggplant Milanese to start, and île flottant 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 tasted.

 

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 treasure.

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 spell.

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 flavours.

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 meal.

The crème maraîchère (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 satisfying portion.

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.

The poached colin, 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.