Maison Publique should be exceptional — so why is it always a letdown?

“This visit, which began like every other — buoyed by the optimism of becoming a regular at my neighbourhood restaurant, widely viewed as one of the best tables in town — was yet another experience that was nearly great until it wasn’t.”

Maison Publique is in my neighbourhood — in fact, it’s one of the most convenient restaurants relative to where I live.

A few times a year, I’ll pass in front of its red brick storefront that’s dusted in snow in the winter and framed by nasturtium in the summer and think, “I should be a regular here.” But I rarely go. If I try to put a pin on why, it can be hard to isolate one single reason, it just seems that every time I’ve ever eaten there (and I’ve been eating at Maison Publique a few times a year since 2013), something’s been off. My most recent visit included.

The thing that’s off isn’t always the same. In the past, it’s been small but annoying stuff like having to take a photo of the menu. I remember on a first visit I waited behind two other tables before having my chance to take my snapshot of the menu board, only to get back to my table in the annex room and be told that they had run out of two of the dishes we ordered. The good news: they still have a chalkboard menu, but at least there’s one in both rooms.

On another occasion, the thing was condescending service: a less-than-warm reception, indifference to your table, the overall sense that your presence is an inconvenience. I am pleased to say, however, that the service, too, has improved. The greeting was warm and genuine and the service throughout most of the meal (I’ll explain what I mean later) was attentive. 

On every occasion, however, the thing that was irritating or unpleasant was tempered by excellent cooking. I once ordered a breakfast sandwich and my server suggested a side of potatoes that ended up being a $15 plate of fried potatoes topped with braised lamb. A bit of an audacious upsell, if you ask me. It’s a good thing those potatoes were fucking delicious. 

In a decade of eating at this restaurant, I have been put off in myriad ways but the food has always been great and the kitchen is responsible for some of the best dishes I’ve eaten in this city. That’s why I’m very surprised to report that for the very first time, the thing at Maison Publique that put me off was the food.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Maison Publique is modelled after an East Coast pub. The fact that it’s been perennially featured on best-of lists alongside many traditional high-end spots is just a testament to the cooking over the years. Distinct from a London pub, it’s covered in bric-a-brac, tchotchkes and sports memorabilia. It’s ugly in a wholeheartedly charming way, the kind of place that is so genuinely not trying to be cool that it’s exactly that, and you’d never be able to recreate it if you tried. It’s always been a characteristic of the restaurant that I’ve liked. A room like this, which puts out the quality of food that Maison Publique is known for, is the distillation of a “Montreal” restaurant. On this particular evening, the lighting was soft and warm, the playlist was upbeat but at a good level. It felt like a proper dining room at the local pub. 

Onto the food and drink. Maison Publique, for years, was known for stubbornly insisting on a Canadian-only wine list. To their credit, it’s where I drank my first bottle of le Couchant from Farnham’s les Pervenches. But the list was full of very overpriced and very mediocre Canadian wines. Over the past few years, they’ve eased up on the localness significantly and the list, curated by long-time general manager Félix Léonard Gagné, now touts references from quality producers the world over. Opting for a fish and seafood-focused menu, we were recommended a bottle of 2019 riesling from Element Vineyards in the Finger Lakes. A classic dry riesling, the wine was waxy with touches of lemon curd, chamomile and honeysuckle. It’s got good body for only coming in at 11.5% alcohol, and the driving acidity helps to balance out a particularly aromatic profile. It’s not my favourite wine but it’s undoubtedly a well-balanced riesling and a quality suggestion from our server.

The first dish to arrive was the best of the night: a mushroom and mornay vol-au-vent. A mix of seven varieties of mushrooms (I only identified maitake, oyster, and lion’s mane) sat on a bed of caramelized onions deglazed with vinegar (I’d reckon balsamic, but it could have been sherry) that was set inside a beautifully risen round of puff-pastry and bathed in a luxurious cheddar-based mornay sauce. A tuft of herbs (parsley, dill, tarragon) was placed on top for an added bit of colour. It’s a great dish. The mushrooms are hearty and burst with flavour, each one of the varieties offering its own texture and taste. The richness of the mornay is offset by the brightness of the onions and the pastry is as flaky as it comes while being sturdy enough to hold its shape as we cut into it. But the herbs seemed entirely superfluous, and the dill, especially, felt out of place. If the touch of green is essential, a bit of chive would have done just fine, or a sprig or two of chervil. My other criticism is a bigger deal: the dish was tepid at best. If it’s a hot dish, it should be hot. 

Maison Publique
Pumpkin-filled Mezzelune with mostarda and amaretti at Maison Publique

Moving on. While we were eating the vol-au-vent, a second dish arrived: mezzelune filled with pumpkin and served with mostarda and amaretti — an absolutely bizarre-sounding plate of pasta. I had to know if it was any good. Here’s the thing with a dish like this: If you’re going to be provocative, you have to buy in. Either you go for it or you keep it classic, and this dish landed somewhere in between. The plate featured six plump mezzalune (a half-moon-shaped stuffed pasta) in a chilli-flecked butter sauce topped with a few fried sage leaves and a nearly imperceivable amaretti crumb. Mostarda, if you’ve not had it, is a Northern Italian condiment made of fruits candied in sugar and mustard oil — equal parts sweet and hot. Amaretti is a type of almond cookie. If you’re doing a riff on a classic pasta and the riff includes candied fruit and cookies, there should be a good reason. In this particular dish, the amaretti and the mostarda were invisible — I can’t say that I noticed their presence or effect on the dish. The pumpkin filling was pretty one-note and a bit too wet for my taste. The pasta was very well cooked and had a lovely texture, but ultimately this ended up being a dish more audacious on paper than it was on the plate. I don’t think anyone would have thought less of the dish if it was simply squash mezzelune with brown butter and sage — no cookies or candy needed. 

Next up, the Calmars Sicilienne, a dish of squid cooked in tomato and chilli with almonds, currants, fregola and capers. While this was quite tasty, the tomato sauce could have been more concentrated (it had more of a tomato soup quality to it) and the dish was missing cohesion. It’s not to say that the parts themselves don’t work together — I think they do — but the dish lacked a sense of harmony. Maybe the sauce just needed to cook a bit longer before the squid was added. In any case, it was a dish with plenty of potential that slightly under-delivered. 

Maison Publique
Gaspésienne Halibut in sauce Messine at Maison Publique

The next course, what I would describe as the main course, was a piece of Gaspésienne Halibut in sauce Messine. This one was new to me. Sauce Messine is a traditional cream-based sauce used for fish. A mix of shallot, lemon, tarragon and chives, the silky white emulsion most closely resembles béchamel or béarnaise. The presentation for this dish is quite simple: a hefty chunk of the filet is set in the centre of the plate and the herb-flecked white sauce is generously poured overtop so that it envelops the fish and pools to the edges of the plate. Nowhere to hide on this one. The sauce is really delicious — surprisingly so. I might have liked a touch more lemon, but that’s just me. The fish, however, was undercooked. That’s the challenge with halibut — too much cooking and it’s ruined but underdo it and the texture is off too. It’s a really lovely product, Halibut from Gaspésie, but it’s not easy to cook with. It requires precision technique and skill and there’s little room for error — especially when its only accompaniment is cream and tarragon. I thought the dish fell a bit flat and at nearly $50.00 a portion, it’s a costly disappointment. 

The biggest letdown of the night, however, was a dish with the potential to be my favourite: clams with pork belly. Let me just start by saying that pork and clams are one of my favourite combinations. Fatty pork belly, perfectly crisped, mingling with the sweet and briny flavours of clams — there are few things better. This seemed like a dish tailor-made for me. The plate was truly enticing: a good dozen clams topped with crispy hunks of pork belly, golden pieces of fried potato and dots of garlicky aioli — all under a scattering of green onion. The pork and potatoes were tasty, although I got the impression that the dish may have sat on the pass for a few minutes because the potatoes were beginning to get quite soggy. The clams, I’m sad to say, were not good. With a mushy texture that burst with bitter saltwater, the taste was decidedly unpleasant and a sign that the clams weren’t their freshest. It’s not to say they had gone off — but they were well on their way, and in a dish where clams are the star, they should probably be the best part, no? My dining companion and I each ate two clams and agreed we could eat no more.

Maison Publique
Clams with pork belly at Maison Publique

Let me touch on service again for a second. It became clear, sometime after the squid, that we were underwhelmed with the food — and that’s when service dropped off. Check-ins became fewer and farther between, we regularly found ourselves pouring our own wine, and the interactions were reduced to bringing dishes and taking away plates of mostly uneaten food without asking a single question other than, “Is this finished?” To me and my dining companion, this came across as an acknowledgement that the meal was not going well, and an outright refusal to confront that reality or do anything about it. They simply didn’t want to know. I have always championed the server and the cook and implored readers to extend courtesy, kindness and patience, but the expectation goes the other way, too. For a meal that will cost over $300, I expect the restaurant to ask if I need anything, to find ways to improve the experience when they can and to care whether or not my meal was any good. 

We ended dinner with a slice of chocolate tart. I’ve eaten a version of this tart at Lawrence many times: a chocolate-crumb base, chocolate mousse and a dark-chocolate ganache topped with Maldon salt. Maison Publique’s was fine, but not better than that — we both found the crust to be oddly leathery. Strangest of all, however, was that the tart was served with a quenelle of what tasted like whipped sour cream. Unsweetened cream would have been welcome — a bit of crème anglaise poured overtop might have even been interesting, but the savoury and acidic side of sour cream was jarring at first bite and did nothing to improve or balance the tart. I can’t understand why it was on the plate.

And so this visit, which began like every other — buoyed by the optimism of becoming a regular at my neighbourhood restaurant that’s widely viewed as one of the best tables in town — was yet another instance of a restaurant experience that was nearly great until it wasn’t. In an article I wrote about fine dining earlier this year, I talked about catching lightning in a bottle and that a great restaurant is the culmination of everything working right and in harmony all at once. I believe that Maison Publique had its lighting-in-a-bottle era — I might have just missed it. The reality is, in these subsequent years, the harmony just hasn’t been there. When the food is excellent, the service is lacking and when things in the front finally seem on point — well, you might get a meal like the one I had. I want to say that, aside from the clams, our meal was adequate, but Maison Publique isn’t meant to be adequate. It’s meant to be exceptional, and I know that it can be. Some of the most talented chefs, cooks and service folk I know came out of this restaurant, and I know that it’s capable of being truly excellent. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it missed the mark. ■

For more on Maison Publique (4720 Marquette), please visit the restaurant’s website.

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.