As a concept, the French bistro seems played out. With the undeniable globalization of food, the average palate is as advanced as ever. On any given day of the week, one might opt for shakshuka for breakfast, sushi for lunch, a pint at the pub and a massaman curry for dinner. By comparison, an old French standard seems stodgy and plain. But how many of us have lived to see the bistro hit its peak, rise to the level so immutable that ubiquity sets in? I for one am born in a time where French fusion was the most recent mutation of the genre and since then the culinary world has turned its head to the east or to the south. For me, the age of the bistro was over before it ever began. My question is why?
Bistro style is more democratic than the excessively bourgeois cooking of French fine dining. It is a temple to bread, butter and wine, a cross-class standby where one can come any time of day and be served something good to eat at a reasonable price. Being wowed by food at times is overrated; simply eating well while eating simply is an aspiration of anyone who loves to eat and it may as well be the bistro’s mantra. The hard truth, however, is that it’s much easier said than done. We so often bemoan the bistro for its mediocrity, and it’s not to say the critique is unmerited, but mediocrity is a symptom of neglect. The times changed, and the bistro fell by the wayside, but I for one say we should return, we should demand better, we should demand the bistro of days gone by, and then we should sit in a beautiful room and have a proper tartare or sole meuniere, with something good to drink.
One new bistro that embraces this vision is le Blumenthal. Making its home in the space formerly occupied by le Balmoral, adjacent to the Place des Arts festival grounds, le Blumenthal has ambitions to distance itself from the tourist clientele that came to define its predecessor. My interest in visiting the restaurant came in November during RAW wine week in Montreal, where natural winemakers from across the globe converged on the city loaded with their wares and popped up at some of the city’s best restaurants to pour their wines the week leading up to the fair. Le Blumenthal was amongst the few restaurants hosting events with winemakers across the city. A bistro I’ve never heard of, with a wonderful wine list, designed by the Gauley Brothers and with a former Leméac chef in the kitchen — a stacked deck.
The room borrows some stylistic features from the classic bistro trope: black armless bistro chairs pulled up to black tables. Besides the dark features, the look is modern, an updated take on the bistro for the present era. Velvet banquettes are fringed by foliage against a textured black and rusty orange wall. The space blends the elegance of the theatre and the industrial feel of the space’s confines in a meticulous and composed way.
I pull up a green velvet upholstered stool to the counter and sit facing the well-stocked back bar. I’m not much of a cocktails guy, so it’s the copper bowl keeping the wine chilled that catches my eye. The wine list is expansive and predominantly natural with plenty of options available by the glass. I order a rosé from the Youngster series by Czech phenom Milan Nesterec. It pours into my glass a deep magenta hue and tastes like wild berries bursting with pure energy. It makes for a fine companion as I peruse the menu. At lunch, the kitchen proposes a table d’hote at the price of the main with a salad or soup included, or for a few dollars more one might choose from the list of entrées available à la carte. There are plenty of options within the scheme of the classic bistro like a salmon tartare, or a boudin noir with apple tatin. But since this is a modern bistro, it demands a modern choice. Perhaps where the classic entrée might be a shrimp cocktail I’ve opted for fried calamari, and where a steak frites might be the natural suite, I went for the Hambourgeois de Boeuf. Which is to say, I played to my lowest common denominator tastes, and happily, if a bit gluttonously, ordered fried squid and a bacon cheeseburger.
The room is abuzz with business meetings, lunches with colleagues, clients being wined and dined. It’s a distinctly business lunch vibe in the room, but it is Thursday at noon downtown — what else could be expected? It’s also worth mentioning that from my point of view, le Blumenthal, business lunchy as it may be, was full of locals, a surely welcomed evolution from its predecessor.
As I sip my wine, my server arrives with the calamari, crisp and battered in speckled seasoned flour. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten fried calamari, but it looks very enticing. There’s something about fried seafood that just satisfies at such a base level. Maybe it’s the natural sweetness of the squid with the tangy acidity of lemon, but honestly, it’s probably just because fried things are delicious. Le Blumenthal’s calamari delivers. Crispy rings of squid and their tentacles crunch in your mouth and give way to bouncy textured but ultimately tender squid. The lemon adds a nice balanced acidity, but also slightly softens that textural crunch. The chipotle mayo is good as well, but I for one am a bigger fan of fried calamari with cocktail sauce, so barring a few dips here and there I mostly eat them dressed with a simple squeeze of lemon. One small note: they could have used a bit more seasoning. Perhaps the seasoning is light to accommodate the spicy mayo, but in my opinion, go ahead and salt liberally — the squid came from the ocean anyhow.
In quick succession, my burger arrives moments after my squid is cleared. Very efficient. The burger is a towering sandwich held together with an olived toothpick. It’s flanked by a mountain of crispy and golden fries and a cabbage salad. It’s a substantial burger to be sure: the patty is thick, nearly an inch, topped with tomatoes, crispy bacon, maple-shallot mayonnaise and slathered in gooey melted cheddar cheese. Excessive? Yeah, maybe, but is modesty really an admirable quality of a burger? Not to me. The bells and whistles on this burger don’t really add all that much to the sandwich in my opinion, but that’s not altogether bad. To me, it just tastes like a good cheeseburger, and what’s not to like about that? The positives are that the flavours work really well, the bacon is crisp and, maybe most importantly, the bun is soft but toasted so it never becomes soggy. One negative however is that the patty is too thick and cooked all the way through. If you’re not going to grind the meat in-house and then cook it medium, it might be worth reducing the size of the burger because an inch thick puck of well-done beef is a bit taxing to chew. Despite the cuisson, the burger remains juicy and flavourful.
Le Blumenthal isn’t a trendsetter and it’s not exactly the kind of restaurant that you’d gush about and recommend to your friend visiting from out-of-town, but it’s a place you’d be glad to eat at whenever you were in the area. Bouillon Bilk might have brought gastronomy to the neighbourhood, but le Blumenthal has brought accessibility in an elegant and contemporary way. L’Express is perhaps the city’s finest bistro, but in all its glory it is, in essence, a recreation, a faithful homage, meant to transport you to a table in Paris or Lyon. Le Blumenthal, on the other hand, is what I would venture to describe as the natural evolution of the form. The purpose of the bistro is to serve good food at moderate prices, quickly. The times may have changed in so much as our tastes as diners have evolved, or perhaps mutated, but the bistro as a concept remains as relevant as ever. Le Blumenthal embodies the spirit and format of the old guard, but thoughtfully considers the modern client and reflects this modernity in the decor of the room, the wines in the cellar and the food on the plate. But perhaps most importantly it is preserving the glorious tradition of eating and drinking well, even when eating simply. ■
305 Ste-Catherine W.