After only two visits, Garde Manger has entrenched itself deep in my heart. It’s not simply because the food hits the mark with near perfect accuracy, or that they’ve achieved such a warm and inviting atmosphere, but because it has quickly become forever linked to happy times with friends and family. On my most recent visit, I was bestowed the honor of minting two new oyster lovers. Only Garde Manger, with a constant supply of the most pristine bivalves North America has to offer, has the power to turn people’s preferences around on a dime. I ordered a beginners pack of oysters, featuring a pair each of Cooke from PEI, Chipaganne from New Brunswick and Montreal’s own Trésor du Large (thanks to Meggie for the spelling!). I’ve said it before, but in my opinion the oysters here set the bar, no where else even comes close. As a tasty accompaniment, we chose a tidy bowl of buttery smoked salmon and pickled onion.
With five people, we planned on sampling a majority of the menu if possible, starting with a crisp beet salad with apple radishes in a buttermilk dressing. As you’ll tend to do at Garde Manger, especially in the winter, we left the light dishes behind and dove headlong into a plate of pork and mushroom bread pudding topped with mizuna and a soft-boiled quail egg. Keeping the rich train rolling was a hot reisten brioche topped with foie gras and cranberry sauce. The thick lobes of buttery foie linked up perfectly with the tangy cranberries. The brioche standing by to soak up all the glorious drippings.
Everyone at the table, all loved ones of mine, did me proud with their selections. As this was Montreal, the lobster poutine was an automatic choice. Fresh cheese curds, thick gravy and a sprinkling of chives were mounded over succulent chunks of lobster meat. Somehow the frites managed to sustain the moist barrage and kept things crisp and salty, flavoring the crustacean nicely. On the other side of the table, the walleye with quinoa, artichoke and rosemary crisps was a hit with the ladies.
A handsome plate of seared scallops soon arrived joined by Romanesco broccoli, buttercup squash and bacon topped with healthy slices of black truffle. Scallops are a tricky protein to get right. The chefs at Garde Manger will take you to school in the art of scallop searing, achieving a perfect caramelized layer on the outside, while leaving the interior pearly and loose, sort of like a medium rare steak. Speaking of medium rare, a grouping of slice venison looked like little targets, their deep crimson centers indicating where the choicest bites would be found. The sometimes gamey nature of venison was noticeably absent here. A smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée and crispy bits of kale gave contrasting textures to the beautiful meat. I was leery of the last seafood dish, a seared fillet of cod surrounded by clams in a fennel purée. I’m a notorious fennel hater, but I have full trust in Chuck Hughes and company, and with good reason. The purée was delicious, maybe it was the mixture of saffron and butter that tamed the licorice tinge that I so abhor, or it could have been the sweet caramelized endives. Either way I found a preparation for fennel that I could swallow, and dare I say, enjoy.
Nothing could have prepared me for the dish I chose. Whole Cornish game hen, swaddled with winter veggies, stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and red cabbage topped with truffle butter. The smell coming off this bird was enough to induce a truffle aroma coma. I will admit, I was simultaneously excited and intimidated by the fowl. The prospect of an entire bird, with ribcage and all replaced with a foie gras, mushroom mixture was almost too much to resist. Needless to say, I dispatched the bird along with the truffle infused veggies.
Loyal readers, I feel that I’ve made this clear in last post on the subject, but if there’s one restaurant you visit while in Montreal, make sure it’s Garde Manger.