–L’Ambroisie, Paris – is a 3 star Michelin restaurant that transcends time. Here, following trends is the least of their priorities. They know what Classic French food should taste, feel and smell like and they deliver benchmark versions of such food. They are who they are and are very proud of that. This is a very expensive restaurant to the point that they do not even bother revealing the price of their dishes. With Dal Pescatore, L’Ambroisie is my “ideal” of a “best restaurant in the world”. I do not mind firing confidently such bold statement as one should better know that this is utterly subjective. People who are not interested in Classic French cooking are obviously … not going to fall for such place, but putting down L’Ambroisie because one does not like Classic cooking is like electing one color as superior to another, the moon better than the sun, water superior to fire, that right is better than left, that eating is better than drinking ..meaning, as meaningless as it gets. L’Ambroisie will not win any prize for cost performance, which is not its intent neither, but this globe’s most serious food bloggers/foodies/food journalists (just google them if that matters to you) continue to admit it: this is Classic French food by which such food needs to be judged. Years after my sole visit there (there won’t be a second visit as the anonymous/normal diner that I am can’t afford a repeating visit here) –click here for my write-up on that meal — I am amazed to read about how stellar the Classic French food at this place continues to be a benchmark of its kind, considering that they have lost some of their major sous Chefs: Aki who opened La Table d’Aki and Matthieu Pacaud who is now at the helm of Hexagone and Histoires — (So, ….Chef Bernard Pacaud has not retired or what?? ).
–Restaurant Hvor , Montreal – This is one of the rare restaurants in Montreal that has a small garden that any normal / anonymous diner can actually visit (as far as I know, Joe Beef is the other local restaurant where normal diners have access to the restaurant’s garden). That, alone, will pass as a beautiful surprise for plenty of local diners and foodies. When I arrived, my table was not ready, so they invited me to go upstairs in the garden for a drink at a communal table to be found there, in the garden, which I opted for, with the promise that someone was coming to offer a drink..obviously..and that they will let me know when my table is available. This was going to have “””the same taste “””as the promises of most politicians: there was indeed a young waitress who came at the communal table asking the couple who came after me if they wanted a drink, but I was invisible to her. Needless to stress that I was not going to rely on her in regard to the second leg of the promises (…”””we’ll come to see you when your table will be available”” – ). Fortunately, when I went downstairs to claim my table, the same young lady was able to realize that I was an actual human being that can be noticeable to a human eye, or two, or more, actually, because … to be fair, the rest of the squad offered a stellar service on this evening. And in light of what followed, we can forget about that slip..,although..at those prices and with the stellar service found under this roof..that waitress may….if that is common practice in her world…pass as …an unpleasant feature of an evening that was actually really great. It is always hard to explain why some ppl make mistakes that even a child would stay away from..I mean does it take a genius to understand that the first person who is there…at a table of just 3 ppl… a couple and one other guest…expects to be served his drink (we are not talking about food, here) first?? We are talking about the very basics of hospitality services here.
On to the food (surprise menu concept):
A kale-wrapped maki sushi roll made of avocado, omelette, smoked egg plant – excellent take on a vegetarian maki sushi roll. Appealing textural contrasts (the kale — this one not bitter at all, so presumably boiled as that is the way to make kale not bitter — vibrant to both the eye and the smell, but also in mouth. Its texture as superbly well rendered as the one of the rice, omelette and smoked egg plant). The avocado is one logical component of most maki sushi rolls, indeed, but the addition of the other ingredients added a lot to this technically great piece of maki. Sometimes a dish is not designed to wow but to reveal much more than the ephemeral: there are tons of takes on vegetarian maki sushi rolls… but what this piece taught me is that …this is a kitchen brigade that can successfully blend a considerable amount of ingredients with great ease…the sign of a skillful kitchen. I won’t rate this dish as my rating won’t convey my real opinion about it, but the verbiage has all you need to know.
Mustard ice cream, grilled leavened bread, green tomatoes – few kitchen brigades in Montreal do master the textural contrasts of their food this well (the way the grilled bread complemented the green tomatoes, which in turn lifted both the flavor and the texture of the mustard ice cream is not your ordinary kitchen brigade’s attempt at juxtaposing this seemingly basic collection of ingredients). Let us just say that they made this look so easy to do, but that most kitchen brigades would have hard time recreating this superb “symphony” of textures (the flavors, too, are worth of praises). Most just follow a textbook: warm vs cold, crunch vs smooth, salt vs sweet, but this dish was about stellar contrasts, not just dumbly applying the basic concepts of textural contrasts into cooking. Here, the cold in its prime, the crunch exactly where it should be but where many would not pull it off. What looks like a poached egg is actually what most would opt for, the poached egg, because that is the easy way out. Instead, here, what looks like a poached egg is your mustard ice cream and it dazzles, because your brain was expecting the warmth of a poached egg, but then it’s surprised by something that is an even better complement to the overall dish, the ice cream of mustard. World class skills! 10/10
Sturgeon from Cote Nord, sea spinach, orange confit – sea spinach seasoned excitingly. It is sea spinach, therefore already salty, obviously, so most kitchen brigades would be frightened of the idea of seasoning it because most will inevitably overseason it! Not an issue at all, here, a sign of … great confidence. Confidence is also what it takes to pair some orange confit with a piece of fish if you do not want the diner to walk away with the observation that it is a piece of bread, and not a piece of fish, that he needed with his orange confit. But confident they were and it worked. Dazzling orange confit that went so well with the spinach and the fish because … instead of tasting of a vulgar fruit jam, it had a complexity of flavors that was designed to complement the fish and the sea spinach. I am usually not a fan of fish caught in northern waters, so I am fonder of the subtropical sturgeon, but this was high quality subarctic sturgeon, its mild flavor an indication that it was wild caught (which my palate finds more flavorful than the farm raised sturgeon). Enticing smoky flavor from the fish. The overall is classic and yet not tired looking nor tasting, rather inspired! 9/10
Scallop from Cote Nord, spiced carrots puree/ celeriac, sea urchin sauce – classic flavors done superbly well. Nothing tasted tired here but flavorful / exciting. The sea urchin based sauce being a benchmark of its kind (this was of top quality, as all the other ingredients they do use, but what was remarkable is the way they got the natural flavor of the sea urchin amplified) . Again and again, not one single ingredient made no sense here… the sea (scallop, sea urchin) and the land (carrots, celeriac) so complementary (a piece of cake, you think? Well think twice because many kitchen brigades, using those same ingredients, will have hard time combining spiced carrots puree, celeriac and sea urchin sauce to such exciting effect) 9/10
Canard de la canardiere, cerises (cherries), choux rouge (red cabbage)- the least impressive dish of the evening, though nothing to fault as every single ingredient was there for a reason ..the sign of a skilled kitchen brigade. Some few of their aromatic leaves , pine seeds, cherries…an item or two too many? Not at all…rather some thoughtful add-ons that many kitchen brigades would be scared to add to this dish!!! My sole issue: the main star of this dish…the duck! Whatever the cooking technique they did use to cook the duck (some cook it sous vide then pan sear it switfly, others pan sear it then bake it, etc), the genuine gamey flavor of the meat of the duck — one flavor I am particularly fond of– was completely gone. This was just not as flavoursome as the better duck magret dishes I had at other local restaurants. Consequently, especially after enjoying the other superb items of this meal, I was kind of taken aback. 6/10
Mille-feuille , bleuet, caramel salee (salted caramel in place of the traditional icing or fondant that is usually found atop a classic mille-feuille) – A classic that I am fond of because it is so hard to perfect. Here, the classic French pastry did benefit from the addition of a bit of caramel sauce (atop the mille-feuille) and some blueberries . The creamy filling as remarkable as what the finest pastry Chefs in France are capable of, the crisp of the puff pastry superbly well conceived . As it was the case, all along this meal, every single ingredient adds to the overall enjoyment of the dish, so even the blueberry was not a dull adornment. A pastry team that seems to be as inspired as the team that has cooked the savory dishes. 8/10
And to wrap up this meal, some popcorn , salted caramel ice cream – clearly, here , every single ingredient has a purpose. I know this because when you add popcorn to desserts, or any type of food, I am skeptical. But they turned my skepticism into real enjoyment.
Pros: in its prime…easily in Montreal’s top 3!
Cons: The duck magret.
Bottom line: 8/10. My current top 3 in Montreal has two long time members (La Chronique/ Le Serpent) as well as a new one: Hvor! Hvor 1414 Rue Notre-Dame O, Montréal Phone: (514) 937-2001 URL: http://hvor.ca/
What I think days later – In general, I do not share the enthusiasm of most of our local food journalists ( with Maison Boulud , Le Fantome or Lavenderia coming to mind as the most recent examples of such) but in the case of Hvor, the local food journalists were absolutely right: Hvor, on the back of this meal, is worth going out of your way for, and that … regardless of my opinion about the duck magret. The quintessential duck magret is traditionally one key food item by which I judge the skills of a kitchen because it is so easy to get right, so hard to make a mesmerizing one and mesmerizing duck magrets are normally what you do usually get at restaurants of the quality of Hvor. But I have no doubt that a table like Hvor can cook a first-rate duck magret. The duck, on that evening, was perhaps intimidated by the beauty of the other food items. But as ever with most restaurants in Montreal, the right question to ask is one that is about consistency: will Hvor consistently maintain those high standards in the long run? Time will tell.