Heres part 3 of a report on my familys August trip to Nova Scotia and Quebec with no holds barred in the dining department. Part 1 is in the Canada section.
For our first night in Montreal we traditionally dine at Les Remparts. Full disclosure: we stay at the Auberge du Vieux-Port and they treat us so well that we would be reluctant to say anything negative about their restaurant. Happily, there is no conflict as we always come away happy. The room is a historic basement excavated walls from an earlier era which give it an intimacy that is unmatched. Service was warm and attentive. The star appetizer for us was a duck and potatoes combination that rated two exclamation points in my scribbled notes. Two of the group were also happy with a shrimp and scallop combination. All enjoyed the main course and I was a little jealous of my wife and son who each had the braised lamb with lentils, beans and vegetables. But Remparts has always been a good place to order game, and I was very happy with the roast deer in an excellent setting including a berry sauce and parsnip puree I thought was perfect. We did not find the dessert offerings as appealing as in the past, and I believe they have changed pastry chefs. I enjoyed my chocolate/coffee crème brulee, but I may be easy to please in the c.b. department. All in all, a great start for Montreal.
On Monday, (with less to choose from) we tried Les Caprices de Nicolas for the first time. This one ended up being a flawed work of art. We loved what came from the kitchen, but the poor service soured us on the experience. Starting with the food, I found it inspired, and even my wife (who is more sensitive to service issues) had to admit it was something special. My appetizer of beef cheek provided perhaps the best mouthfuls of anything on our entire trip. The kind of thing you have to eat slowly with your eyes closed. Others were well received, including the scallops and the salmon topped with caviar. For the main dish the porcelet (piglet) was an irresistible choice, and 3 of the 4 us were lucky enough to order it. Served in multiple preparations, this was a unanimous winner. My notes remind me that the breads here were some of the best we had, including a nice cranberry roll accompanying the cheese course. All the plates were beautifully designed, and I wish I could say no more than this. But the headwaiter (or was he a manager or owner?) went a long way to mess up a fine meal with a combination of neglect of our table and irritating conversations with others. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder from the get-go (which is what I travel away from New York specifically to avoid!). I have to say that the servers themselves were very professional and did their jobs well, but regardless of the fact that most of the evening this fellow was just steps away, we felt nobody was watching to see if we needed service. Also, he engaged another table in a very long and too-loud discussion of the fine points of the Quebec restaurant business, which might be OK in a business lunch atmosphere, but at dinner in the reputedly most romantic restaurant in Montreal was inappropriate and irritating. And when we get up to leave after paying a bill of around $600, it would be nice to be thanked and wished a good evening instead we showed ourselves out and he was snippy when, after waiting outside for a few minutes I asked whether the taxi we had requested had been called for. In short, this is a chef to enjoy but a restaurant to which Im sorry to say we will not return.
On to Toque!, whose exclamation point is well deserved. For me dining at Toque after so many other fine meals was like the experience of splurging on a high-end bottle of wine: better than the rest in ways you could not have imagined before tasting it and possessed of a sophistication that goes beyond simple description. Normand Laprise is the only chef whose name I know from memory, and if I could I would collect his baseball card. I find any debate over whether Toque has slipped since its move to be preposterous this trip for us was our best Toque experience to date. Within our family there is controversy about the atmosphere of the current location. My teenage son the food snob is very taken with the open, modern design and for him it is a part of the excitement. I think my wife would be happier back on St.-Denis, and for my part while (as someone who works in a big modern office building each day) I generally prefer a more intimate or naturally charming setting, I give the designer his due that he has done an excellent job with the space. The service at Toque is top-flight professional, extremely attentive and warm without being intrusive. But of course the star is the kitchen, and it shined for us very brightly. If you are a lover of fois gras, you must order some at Toque. Mine was the appetizer, and when it came out beautifully presented with two berry sauces, edible flowers, coriander and a corn granitee, the smiles came to the faces and never left. No disappointment either for the ladies who enjoyed skate tempura with broken Bearnaise, and my son loved the half-lobster. He went on to what might be his favorite all-time food, the fois gras risotto with white truffle foam. I found the same fragrant foam on my belly-cut suckling pig, served with cauliflower puree, beets and almonds. Outstanding. My wife and daughter each enjoyed the roasted squab, accompanied by a ravioli stuffed with leg meat and a beet purée. I was lucky enough to get tastes of all! Incidentally, the breads and the cheese course at Toque are both top-flight. Dessert continued the enjoyment. I remember particularly my blueberry tart with mascarpone and, startlingly, a wintergreen sorbet. The crème brulee and molten chocolate cake were also terrific. If you have the opportunity, you must go!
After Montreal we spent two nights at Auberge Hatley, which as far as we are concerned is in a class by itself in terms of the total hospitality package, including the cuisine, focus on wine, and fine service (not to go off topic and mention the beautiful inn, great setting, etc). Over the two dinners we enjoyed appetizers including a fantastic lobster ravioli with rhubarb and fennel, the fois gras with mushrooms (not to be missed if its up your alley) and scallops with shaved beets. The duck entrée is always a treat here, and my wife was delighted with the sea bass crispy outside and perfectly rare inside. With a days notice they let us go off-menu and order the lamb from the set menu, because we think the chef at Hatley does lamb as well as anyone anywhere. We were not disappointed with the perfectly prepared and beautifully presented roast with braised leg on the side. One of the stars of the show at Hatley is the wine cellar. The huge and thoughtful list is minded by very well-informed and helpful sommeliers. Give them your preferences and price range, your choice of food, and let them be your guide. For dessert the trio of crème brulees (vanilla raspberry, Cointreau citrus, strawberry) is not to be missed, and if you like chocolate do not pass up the taste of Valrhona medley. The women loved an apple/rhubarb tart with caramel ice cream and an angel food cake with fresh berries in a red wine soup. Leave a small space for the chocolates and jellies after coffee. The room at Hatley is charming, overlooking a large lake. This is matched by the service, which is flawless to begin with and has here and there a little extra flair Ill leave it at that.
By the way, the breakfasts at Aubrege Hatley are wonderful too, the best we get anywhere. The setting with the early morning views of the lake and the gardens doesnt hurt, but in addition to the excellent buffet and the hot food, I noticed that the fried potatoes are the champion in that category. (Second place? The fries at Schwarzs deli.)