4050 de Bullion, Montreal, Tel. (514) 847-1686
his is a French, table d’hôte restaurant at the corner of Duluth near Saint-Laurent. The appealing chalkboard menus and the low price of a 3-course dinner for $19.95 draws me in. I’d been there before, in the summer, when the restaurant had a 3 week waiting list for a reservation, my Vancouver guests alas unable to wait that long, but before they left they wanted me to promise that I’d go back on my own to explore. Surely it must be a fabulous restaurant if it’s so hard to get a table.
When I call to make my reservation, the woman on the phone asks me if I could speak French, please. Six pm is all she has open. I arrive to an empty restaurant, all tables with reserved signs, and at the stroke of 7:15 the place is packed and loud. It is a small space (28 seats) with a stone floor, walls pale yellow, chairs black and shiny. I know it’s hard to control the volume in small rooms, and on this night the loud American tourists next to me were using their “outside voices” inside.
The evening gets off to a rocky start when my red wine arrives freezing cold. I ask, in my quasi-intelligible French, if it is supposed to be served at this icy temperature. She says, “if you don’t like it …” and I’m thinking she’s going to say – “when you order your second glass I’ll pour it from a different bottle.” But no, she is stern and she doesn’t like me much. She says, “If you don’t like it, then let it sit for awhile and it will get warm.”
I know that there are occasions when red wine needs to be chilled slightly. It's supposed to be room temperature so on hot days, when it’s over 30ºC for example, you might have to cool it to 20ºC. Not this wine and not this day (it was 17 and raining). The wine was was – and I’m not kidding – freezing cold, colder than the crème caramel that would later arrive as dessert.
I find a common theme shaping up with the nicer restaurants in this lovely city: fine dining must include cold bread, cold plastic packages of butter, and paper napkins. I know I’m That Girl From Vancouver, but I particularly detest the hard baguette. How about warming it up? How about something a bit softer, something that won’t tear open the roof of my mouth? Can’t we splurge on whipped butter in sidecars? You could even cut it 80/20 with margarine. And how expensive are cloth napkins? Are they so expensive that you couldn’t raise the prix-fixe price from $19.95 to $22 and make this a kick-ass dining experience?
Resounding silence. I guess the answer is no. It’s not that I want to throw my money around, and I know that as a rule Montrealers are price-conscious. But rock hard bread and tinfoil packages of butter – to me – already dooms the meal, cheapens the experience. Cold baguette could be warm, could be small, soft rolls. And when it's not, we're already a half-step from perfection, a quarter-turn from warm and inviting.
My server, like the bread, is also a quarter-turn from warm. She lacks a genuine smile, maintains a certain emotional distance; she is useful but not friendly. She doesn’t hover (which I hate) but she acts like I could be interchangeable with any other Anglo. And I guess I could.
For my appetizer I order cajun chicken salad which is a large portion of fancy greens, tomatoes, lovely dressing that’s heavy on vinegar, and has lots of perfect cold chicken that is lightly spiced and hardly cajun. I don’t eat it all, because I see the size of the entrées go by and they’re fairly generous. This is not a one-tomato-makes-a-salad place.
For my dinner, I order steak au poivre, medium rare with frites, a traditional kind of meal (steak et frites). There are a lot of meat choices on the menu, including lamb, steak, pork as well as a fresh tuna.
I quickly realize I should have ordered the fish when my dinner arrives. It is by far the worst steak I’ve ever been served in a restaurant: chewy, profoundly undercooked, and most offensively it’s cold with a grey slick of bland poivre sauce on top. The fries are hot and well cooked (not the brown greasy fries that Montreal is famous for). The portion overall is large. I chew away on my steak, eating around edges and avoiding the part in the middle that is still “moo-ing.” In case you think I’m being a girl, I’d like to point out that I am not a squeamish eater. I eat big pieces of raw fish and I like steak tartare. What I don’t like is meat that has to be chewed for minutes per bite.
For dessert, I have a crème caramel, which is very regular, nice and smooth, and not as freezing cold as my red wine.
I resolve to return to Aux Petits Oignons again before writing this review, because as the evening goes on I try to rationalize that they're having a bad night. This popular place can’t really be this bad. It’s the kind of place I really want to like.
Meal #2 is a vast improvement. I order red wine, specifying that I’d like it to be room temperature, she says “of course madame” and then I realize that she remembers me. She opens a new bottle. For my appetizer I have a lovely slice of coarse pâté and cornichons and the bread is softer than last time – or maybe you get different bread with the pâté. For dinner, I try the tuna (which I order rare and is served completely overcooked). The side dishes are prune couscous and steamed spinach. I eat every bite on my plate. It’s all very average, good but not fabulous, filling but not interesting. There’s no flavour to really fall in love with, to wrap your love around. You know – that flavour you can crave, when you stand up at your desk mid-afternoon and announce, “I want to go to resto X tonight.” You might say, “I feel like the fish soup at Chao Phraya,” or “I really want a burger from La Paryse.” Imagine you're standing there at your desk, smacking your lips … what do you feel like?
Well, I’m unlikely to wake up tomorrow and feel like a big plate of prunes. Stop with the prunes, I don’t care if it’s French. I’m unlikely to stand at my desk and announce that I want a big plate of overcooked fish. Even if it’s French. I know this is Montreal. But does French food have to be so bad?
-- Reviewed by Shelley MacDonald