Never heard of Café Souvenir? Me neither, until recently.
It’s another red awning on the busy restaurant-lined strip of Bernard west of Parc. In truth, that beautiful sun-soaked string of terrasses, enticing as it may be, is relatively devoid of good places to eat — until now. Café Souvenir, with its underwhelming facade, nearly indistinguishable from its flashier, busier neighbours, is in the midst of becoming what could be the single best place to eat in the neighbourhood.
The restaurant has been open since 1992 and over 27 years it has maintained the same relatively uninspired menu. We all know the type of restaurant — there’s one failing in every neighbourhood in town — but Café Souvenir won’t succumb to the slow and silent death awaiting most of these restaurants. Instead, it’s attempting to breathe new life into the business by hiring a consulting chef.
That chef is Tom Allain. His name will be unfamiliar to many, but I can almost guarantee you’ve eaten his food, whether it was during his most stints as chef de cuisine at l’Orignal, Marconi or Nora Gray. The young chef’s credits even include Attica in Melbourne, which ranks amongst the 50 best restaurants in the world. While one might expect a chef of this calibre to attempt showy world class cuisine, Allain demonstrates his experience by using restraint. He’s created a clever and simple bistro menu that reflects the restaurant where it’s served. Being a fan of Allain’s cooking, we left him in charge of our order.
To begin, we were served an endive salad, simply dressed in a fresh white wine vinaigrette and dill, garnished with toasted walnuts and generously covered with grated parmesan. The seasoning was perfect, balancing acidity and depth of flavour from the parm and walnuts, with the fresh textural crunch from the endives — it’s a winning combo. It’s a testament to Allain’s cooking and experience that not only is he mature enough in his career to see the value in the classics, he executes them in a way that reminds us why they’re classic in the first place. That theme continued with our next dish, cured salmon with caviar de mujol, crème fraiche and rounds of fingerling potatoes. Another obvious dish, pairing cream, caviar, potatoes and salmon, it’s done nearly to death but rarely as satisfyingly as this. The cure on the salmon is perfect, the crème fraiche is delicate and adds a welcome sweetness to balance the salty caviar, and the starchy potatoes add structure. Two wonderful plates.
Next, a bourgeois classic and personal favourite of mine, coq-au-vin. Who still makes coq-au-vin, and who serves it in summertime? Allain does, and he does it because it’s good –– weather be damned. Another thing I appreciate about Allain’s food is his presentation, each element of the dish placed deliberately and lovingly, but without becoming fussy or dainty. Each plate is clean and attractive, but doesn’t masquerade as art. It’s simply a good-looking plate of food. Two bone-in chicken thighs –– turned deep burgundy from being braised in wine –– sit triumphantly in a crimson broth, garnished simply with cubes of carrot, slices of cremini mushrooms, short batonnets of celery and delicate petals of pickled cocktail onions. It’s rustic elegance embodied, and the chicken is so tender I literally eat it with a spoon.
Asian fusion has always been a part of Café Souvenir’s identity. Tom keeps the Asian element alive on this menu, but demonstrates how to keep the menu distinctly French. The dish is a seared duck breast served in an airy celeriac puree and garnished with pickled carrots, pickled daikon and coriander and sauced in a hoisin-laced demi-glace. There’s hardly anything more French than duck, celeriac and demi-glace, but the simple addition of coriander and hoisin changes the flavour profile without fundamentally changing the dish itself. Brilliant.
For the final savoury course, we’re served an enormous beef femur, sliced lengthwise and roasted with rosemary to reveal the tender and infinitely savoury marrow within. I stand corrected: l’Os à Moelle is perhaps the most French thing you could serve, and the most bistro of dishes to boot. Garnished with a bit a parsley, some of those delicious pickled onions and serve with sel gris and cornichons, it’s an indulgent but effortlessly classic way to finish a superb meal.
Although there is hardly any space left in our bellies, dessert arrives: a modest but decadent slice of dark chocolate terrine, handsomely garnished with a sweet and savoury combination of salted rye crumbled and shards of sponge toffee, and subtly dotted with bits of fresh thyme that cleverly tie together the sweet and savoury elements in perfect harmony. Unsurprisingly, it’s a knock-out.
As it stands, Café Souvenir has the best menu on Bernard, bar none. Aside from the food, though, there’s little to say about the restaurant. The service was relatively inattentive, barring the interactions between resetting plates. The wine list was uninspired. The terrasse could use some serious polishing, and similarly the interior has quite a lot of charm but is undone by sloppy handwriting on the chalkboard, twinkly christmas lights and unattractive accent furniture. The menu positions this restaurant to be amongst the best bistros in town, but nobody will have the chance to discover that if they aren’t charmed by the room. My advice: hire a consulting sommelier and an interior designer to finish off the overhaul. With a little elbow grease, even after nearly three decades, this restaurant’s best years might still lie ahead. ■
1261 Bernard W.