Montreal has only been on my culinary radar for a handful of years now. Ever since I heard about Au Pied de Cochon on No Reservations, the beautiful city just north of our border has been a fascinating curiosity for me. What other gems might be hidden among the art galleries and cafés of old town, or around the corner from indie clothing shops on Rue St. Denis? Well my question was answered during my latest trip to Vermont. Fortunately for me, my parents are also food lovers who relish in discovering an interesting eatery as much as I do.
They had been talking up Garde Manger (literally “keeper of the food”) for a few months, so by now I was chomping at the bit to visit. After landing at Trudeau International, we set a course for old town. The great thing about the new Montreal food scene, at least in my opinion, is its understatedness. These places have no interest in presenting a boisterous image to the public, instead they tend to keep their heads down and create some of the best food in North America. This was made clear when we arrived, had we not already known where it was, we would’ve walked right past it, no sign, no nothing. Upon entering, you realize that they obviously don’t need one, it was packed. Word of mouth is enough to support a deserving restaurant around here.
The ambiance was cozy to say the least, it was warm and inviting, the perfect place to grab a bite after a cold walk around the city. We were seated in a little niche at the edge of the dining room so we had a great view of the restaurant. They left the kitchen open so you can see the boys hard at work. Another great thing about some of these new Montreal joints, is the informality they bring to fine dining. The servers are all in jeans and flannel shirts, they have classic rock softly playing in the background and even they place the menus on the wall for all to see. It’s a fantastic mix of high-end dining and family get together.
After perusing the menu for a couple of minutes, we all decided to tag team a mixed bag of dishes. We started with an order of Accra de Morue (salt cod fritters) with creme fraiche and salmon caviar. If you don’t like salt, cod, creme fraiche or salmon roe…get this. Fritters are so often ruined by incorrect frying and lack of seasoning. Not here, the salt is front and center, accentuating rather than clouding the pillowy cod. Each fritter received a dollop of creme fraiche to give lightness and a small pile of salmon roe to bring it all back to the sea with a briny burst of flavor. It was a strong start.
No sooner had we finished the first pile of succulent seafood, we were presented with a spread of oysters and fresh scallops on the half shell. Small tubs of cocktail sauce with horseradish, and a classic mignonette were stuffed alongside hot sauce and lemon slices. If there are still any oyster haters out there, I implore you to visit Garde Manger, the shellfish here is otherwordly; sweet, smooth and incredibly fresh. On a previous visit, my parents ordered the platter as an appetizer and a second one for dessert, they’re that good.
If appetizers were boxers, our third choice would be the heavyweight champion of the world. Gaufre a Joues de Veau & Foie Gras (waffle with veal cheeks & foie gras). It’s dishes like this that invoke a “are you freaking kidding me?!”, of course I’m going to order this. When you see a dish like this on a menu, you order it, you hear me? As expected it was ridiculous (with me that’s always a compliment). The waffle, despite being surrounded by veal and foie drippings was fluffy and moist without being soggy. A bite containing a cut of waffle, chunks of joue de veau and a slab of foie, is the physical embodiment of happiness. Having that combination of ingredients in my mouth brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart, no joke. If such an insane world existed where one could enjoy this for breakfast, I would happily live there.
This was only the halfway point folks, we rolled with five entrées (for four people I’m not sure how we finished):
- Côte de Porc a Crème de Mais a Sauce aux Poivrons
- Shortrib a Spätzle & Cambozola
- Risotto de Homard
- Filet Mignon a Oeuf Frit
- Dorade a Chili de Fruits de Mer
The short ribs were a great example of that classic cold weather, soul warming cuisine the Quebecois do so well. The deep crimson reduction soaked into the spätzle creating little juicy puffs of dough that paired perfectly with the fork tender short rib. If that wasn’t decadent enough, the whole slab of meat was blanketed with a thick slice of Cambozola, which is a combination of a French soft-ripened triple cream and Italian Gorgonzola. A few slices of crispy shallots on top rounded it all out, a great dish.
The lobster risotto kept the rib-sticking theme going. The generous portion of rice had a giant claw draped over it like a hunting trophy. I had never seen a risotto with such a dark red coloring. When I took a bite, I was struck by the strength of flavor. There was a hint of sherry and spices that lead me to wonder if they had used lobster bisque instead of stock to simmer the rice. Thankfully, my parents purchased the Garde Manger cookbook beforehand, so I’ll definitely be sharing it with you all soon.
Not to be out done was the filet. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it may be the best filet I’ve ever had. First of all, I’ve never had a filet cooked like this. I believe they take the entire tenderloin, or a least a good portion of it, and sear it on its side. Then they slice each portion leaving the sides totally untouched by the pan leaving them pink and gleaming. Most restaurants pan sear the steak on all sides which is fine, but this preparation seemed much more refined. It was wobbly to the touch, as it should be, perfectly cooked. The fried egg sat alongside what I believe were fried cheese curds. Are you beginning to see a theme here with all these dishes? We broke the egg to unleash the flood of yolk that coated the filet like a golden blanket. Like the foie dish, the perfect bite here consisted of a healthy slab of filet, slice of egg, a bit of cheese curd and a slathering of the dark gravy at the bottom.
We decided to finish with a second platter of oysters for good measure. When the opportunity presents itself to indulge in world-class oysters, you take it, no questions asked. We left Garde Manger satisfied and smiling. Montreal should be proud to have them in town, another feather in their culinary cap. As always, and I can’t stress enough, if you’re anywhere near this city, make a point of stopping in at Garde Manger, it’ll be a memory you won’t soon forget.