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... real good.
Every so often a restaurant opens that I really don't want to like. This was true of Vin Papillon, Serpent, and everything David Schmidt has opened since Sardine. These are owners who have figured out what it takes to fabricate convincingly cool restaurants from scratch, and I really don't want to fall for it.
It's no secret that I'm a fan of Dominion Square Tavern, even if the food can be fairly inconsistent (I've been served some of the best fish in my life under that roof, but also the most accidentally undercooked fish). Yet the room captures perfectly that authentic 1930s vibe, even if it was rebranded as such only recently.
Balsam Inn, starting from the soulless shell left behind by iBurger, had almost no legitimate heritage to work with apart from the wood stove at the heart of the restaurant. I don't know who the interior design firm was, but they've hit it out of the park. The place looks very similar to its conjoined sister, but perhaps a post-war version of Dominion that had been renovated in the early 1950s (i.e. to install fluorescent lighting).
We visited this week before the Habs game. Service was excellent, and although prices are low for the location, there was a very attentive yet low-pressure approach: No one asked if we would like another cocktail ($10-12) when we had finished our first, but as soon as I looked interested there was a waitress at the ready with a drinks menu. These cocktails are not the best I've had, but were very well executed for the price. Well done. The wine list, based on recognizable bottles, had a moderately steep markup: I could be mis-remembering, but I think this was in the range of 2.6x for a lower-priced bottle. However, the list starts at a shockingly low price-point (including one 1L bottle in the low-$30s).
The menu has been very well implemented. A hockey night 2-course fixed menu is a great idea, providing quickly-prepared dishes at a good price-point. When we visited this consisted of soup/salad (the latter was surprisingly delicious) and a version of the fried chicken dish from their regular menu that also included potatoes, kale, etc etc (to turn it into a full meal), for $21. Fried chicken was crispy and flavours were well balanced by a drizzling of honey (or possibly maple syrup), with a generous portion size.
I ordered a fish and a pasta dish: the former a small confit tuna with rapini and raisins, and the latter an orcchiette and pancetta plate. Each was $15 and at least as large as would be expected for that price. Neither dish was perfectly executed nor particularly innovative, but in their simplicity they represented some of the best Italian food I've eaten in Montreal in recent memory (and was better than most of what I ate in Milan last month).
Tiramisu was a bit odd (it was a bit like some cake had been dropped into a cup of frigid coffee), but still tasty.
Damn you Balsam Inn, damn you. This is a restaurant I will be visiting frequently when I'm downtown and hungry in the evening. Although I could be wrong, I suspect that the prices might creep up in the coming months once this place has wooed a fan-base, but even so it is one of the most affordable up-scale dinner options in the core of the city. Importantly, it does something I've almost never seen before: it gives you a place to bring your cheapskate co-workers who don't want to spent more than $20 on a meal and $10 on wine, without sacrificing your own enjoyment.
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