Exactly a year ago, I lost a bet over a discussion about the best French restaurant in Montreal. Which made me realize:
I’ve had bistro-type French food.
But real French cuisine prepared with the utmost respect for tradition in Montreal? Never.
So when Mtl à Table rolled around this year, it was a no brainer. I booked a table for two at Chez la Mère Michel, Montreal’s French restaurant par excellence. Who better to taste this grand meal with me in the company of a diehard crowd of regulars with now beautiful salt and pepper hair? Mother, naturally (although do not be misled, her perfect black hair is 100% natural. Strong genes she clearly failed to pass on to my sad self).In business since 1952, the restaurant has not changed since. It’s tucked in a cozy renovated Victorian house on Guy with its original drapery still ornamenting its walls and ceilings. Walk through the door and three waiters will greet you with the highest standards of courtesy and warmth. Yes, they may be dressed in tuxedoes and call you Madame, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hide their hell of a wit! In between bread and wine refills, they’ll slip in a few anecdotes, leaving you chuckling into your food as they rush back to the kitchen.
Our go-to man for the night was Marc, a wonderful gentleman from Alsace, who I suspect, has been at Chez la Mère Michel since its early days. Inspired by his accent, mother opted for a Pfaff Pinot Gris 2012 from the region, a light and peachy white wine. Almost as good as the Sauvignon Blanc Marc recommended for me: a Teriquet with lovely honey notes and, to show off my newly acquired knowledge, appropriate minerality. FYI, both wines are available at the SAQ.
We didn’t have to wait long before our feast began. Artic char “quenelle” for mother (a fish dumpling), mushroom puff pastry for me. You know you’re at a very typical French kitchen when they serve quenelles. Since the invention of food processors, this specialty from Lyon can be made by anyone. It subsequently lost much of its luster and its place on many venues’ menus. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can get it right. Firm, yet light in consistency, the quenelle at Chez la Mère Michel came in an unctuous lobster sauce, a comforting soup-ish appetizer for a cold November night.
As for the pastry, it was literally a mushroom wonderland: a generous portion of well-seasoned shiitake and porcino wrapped in infinite layers of thin and delicate pâte feuilleté. I was admittedly already sold on it even before tasting it. Sitting on a rich bed of Banyuls La Tour Vieille Valcros, the plate was worth it just for the sauce. While waiting for our mains, Marc brought us charming little verrines made of fresh cheese goat, baked Russet apples and little grapes from the chef’s garden. Unlike other apples, Russets stay firm even when cooked and so the contrast between the three ingredients (soft cheese – medium apple – crunchy grapes) was particularly pleasing. All the ingredients were generously soaked in Pineau des Charentes Château Beaulon, a friendly fortified wine made of grape and cognac eau-de-vie. This is what I call a serious aperitif ;).
Then, THEN, came the mains. The magret de canard was tender and juicy with a fine layer of crispy fat on top. Sinful. The cockerel “à la gasconne”? Covered in Cahors wine and Agen prunes – oh so typical from Lot-et-Garonne, in the southern part of France. If you’re wondering, cockerels are young chickens.
Having stolen what was left of mother’s duck breast, I reluctantly gave back our two empty plates to Marc. My disappointment didn’t last for long, however, because he eventually returned with a massive Grand Marnier soufflé! It even came with some crème anglaise…
Mom chose the orange tart, served with a coulis of Saint James rum. The dessert was a soft and delicately sweetened center balanced by only slightly bitter orange slices on top that had a pleasant consistency to chew on.
What can I say? Delightful.
Half way through our (decaffeinated) coffee, Mr Delbuguet himself came by for a chat. A photographer by trade, he shared his fascinating life-story with us. As if it wasn’t enough to be one of only three professionals to master colour pictures upon his arrival in Quebec at 24 years old (and handle all the related workload), he wrote books, hung out with other restaurant masterminds, and created a provincial association to defend intellectual property. Three quarters of an hour flew by in the blink of an eye, after which he gave us a tour of his unique cellar. If you’re a connoisseur, I believe I spotted some fine Château Talbot and Château Cos Labory – 1995, 1998, respectively.
All in all, it was a memorable dinner for the atmosphere, the food, and the wine (in our glasses and on the plates). If you need to stay dry, avoid this place. If not, make sure to reserve a table at Chez la Mère Michel on next year’s Mtl à Table edition for a unique experience of authentic French tradition – and wine.
Losing bets. Never again.
1209 Rue Guy Montréal, QC H3H2L3
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