I’m not quite sure how to approach this review. I feel a bit akin to David versus Goliath.
Let me get the good stuff out here at the start. The ambiance is beyond reproach, located in Old Montreal with its exposed rustic brick walls a huge overhead wooden chandelier left over from its days as an antique store (I know this because I lived in a loft over the restaurant for a year back in the late 90’s) it oozes charm and old aged warmth. The music is great, eclectic, but perhaps a touch too loud to allow easy conversion and last, but certainly not least, the service is top notch, friendly, informed and very accommodating.
Garde Manger is however the home base and flagship restaurant of Food Network celebrity chef Chuck Hughes and as such its food should always be the primary focus. I have always been a ‘fan’ of Mr. Hughe’s approach to cooking and was looking forward to my first visit to his restaurant, albeit some 6 years or so after it opened!
Unfortunately my visit did not live up to my expectations. It reminded me of the old adage “the price of a bottle of wine in no way assures its quality”.
Getting a table here is still a major event and my opinion maybe in the minority, although I doubt it if the truth be really told. I had the feeling that this once vanguard of Quebec comfort food was now operating largely on its reputation and the celebrity status of its chef, a fate sadly not uncommon for such restaurants.
The food at Garde Manger is advertised on several blackboards located throughout the restaurant. This is rustic comfort food and it is presented as such with not much attention to presentation or the plating of the food.
The prices at Garde Manger are most assuredly not wallet friendly so be prepared to pay premium prices!
The menu board featured about ten appetizers including, as was pointed out by our waiter, their famous Lobster Poutine ($28). He was also kind enough to advise that this was a large appetizer and was made to be shared! There were also about eight main plate choices featuring a good selection of meat, poultry, game and seafood priced from $30 to $65 (for a whole stuffed guinea hen with truffles and foie gras, also meant to shared!)
We passed on the poutine and chose instead the Tuna Tartare with Puffed Rice ($17) and Octopus with Fingerling Potatoes and a Chorizo flavored Creme Fraiche ($19)
The puffed rice added a nice texture to the tartare of very fresh diced yellow fin tuna. Sadly the tartare itself was way over salted, so much so that my companion was unable to finish it. My octopus consisted of several thin slices of braised octopus, slightly under cooked and not entirely tender. I missed the charred flavor that always brings this under appreciated cephlopod in to its realm. It was served atop slices of fingerling potatoes and dotted with miniscule dots of chorizo creme fraiche.
Our main dishes did not fare any better unfortunately . We chose the Braised Short Rib with BBQ Sauce and Gouda Mashed Potatoes ($32 ) and the Arctic Char with Braised Brussel Sprouts, Braised Bacon and Almonds ($34). The short rib was well cooked, but the accompanying BBQ sauce was again too salty and left an unpleasant bitter and slightly burnt taste in my mouth. My arctic char was presented on a plate just big enough to hold a hot dog and lacked any semblance of ‘eye appeal’. The dish itself consisted of a half of a filet of arctic char lightly dredged in flour and pan fried, brussel sprouts were on the verge of being raw. I like my vegetables al dente and not over cooked, but this was taking it to the extreme. The braised bacon consisted of a small clump of what looked like a few sad strings of pulled pork and the almonds, about 20 of them, were served whole as if they had just been thrown on to the plate at the last minute. Surely they could have been chopped up a bit and roasted or served as almond slivers thus fitting more harmoniously into the dish. In spite of the passable red wine based sauce this dish lacked any semblance of passion and was way over priced at $34.
We ended our meal with one of their four options, a S’Mores Brownie with Graham Cracker Ice Cream ($10). The brownie itself was a bit on the bitter side for my taste and the traditional marshmallows where just placed on top and quickly bruleed, ending up tough and not completing the dish at all. Some bruleed marshmallow cream would have substantially enhanced this iconic and decadent concoction. The accompanying ice cream was a pleasant surprise, velvety smooth and delicious with the addition and texture of the honey flavored graham cracker crumbs.
The night we were there the restaurant was packed with largely young diners all seemingly enjoying themselves. You can’t argue with success, even after six or more years of operation, but based on the food we were served I can’t help but conclude that their passion for the food has waned and they are now relying more on their celebrity than on the food I know they are capable of.
I should point out that their in house chef spent the entire time we were there hobnobbing with the guests and never once entering the open kitchen.
There are many more restaurants in this great food city that currently offer much better quality food at much more reasonable prices.
SOS to Chef Hughes………PLEASE!
Our meal, including wine and taxes, came to $198.00
408 Francois Xavier
Tues – Sun 17h30 – 23h00
Photos courtesy of: cjnomsblogspot.com, yelp.ca, tripadvisor.fr, eatwellmontreal.com