Why the Canadian gourmet too often pays first class but eats fourth
Food is the mainspring of my life. I judge people by their piecrusts and stare hungrily into pastry shop windows after a four-course meal at the restaurant next door. My happiest and saddest experiences have occurred in restaurants. Nothing I’ve seen or done can compare to the euphoria I felt when I first ate quenelles de brochet avec sauce Nantua in the Jura Mountains of France — or the depression I suffered after dining on frozen fillets of an unnamed and unrecognizable fish in a Newfoundland restaurant overlooking the sea.
Recently I got the chance to indulge my greed in restaurants across the country. I was on a cross-Canada tour promoting my book, The Gourmet’s Canada, and determined that in every city I visited I’d seek out the best expensive restaurant in town (despite the fact that the two adjectives don’t always go together) and enjoy, enjoy with no thought for the bill. As though I were a corporate executive on an expense-account binge. Or Jackie Onassis seized by a mad determination to go from a size eight to a 14 in a fortnight.
I now have eaten in restaurants from Halifax to Victoria. I have lifted menus of such weight and ornamentation they made the Gutenberg Bible feel light and the Book Of Hours look sketchy. My eyes are so accustomed to the dim lighting deemed necessary to elegant dining that I can now decipher a scribbled bill in a photographer’s darkroom. I have fulfilled my dearest wish. But happiness has not followed, as the Greeks well knew. Instead I feel peevish. My gastric juices turned to bile as I sat in rooms with pseudo-Tudor beams and mock ancestral paintings. I was paying first class and eating fourth too many times.
At a first-class restaurant I expect certain things. Soup that’s hot and made in the establishment’s own kitchens. Fresh vegetables and homemade salad dressing. Entrées cooked to order. Pastries made with real liqueurs, cream from a cow and a buttery texture, not doused with artificial extract of rum, decorated with shaving foam and tasting of dog biscuit. Waiters who are masters of their profession not the put-down. Surroundings that are elegant or, at the very least, unobtrusive.
Now all these sound like relatively simple things but they are found only rarely in Canadian restaurants. Too many owners spend enormous sums on hardware, sinking so much money into decor they can’t afford to pay the waiters or, more important, the chef, a decent wage. Brass, pewter and outlandish costumes are considered necessary but first-quality fresh ingredients are not. Vulgarity is mistaken for elegance. (The height of the Canadian restaurant style gauche is to be found at the North Star Inn in Winnipeg. Each table is backed by what could be a huge quilted bedstead in tones of purple and pink and the general effect is that of people’s heads and shoulders peeking out from between the sheets.)
Everywhere in the big cities gastronomic pretension is a curse. Too many dishes with complicated sauces are attempted with little thought to the delicate techniques necessary for them to be a success. Menus as long as the Gilgamesh Epic offer Spanish Gazpacho, Chicken Kiev and petits pois à la française, all cooked by a harried chef newly arrived from Zagreb. The wine steward may have a little silver cup around his neck, or be got up like the Lord Mayor of London in dangling chains and pantaloons, but his knowledge of the restaurant’s cellar is usually in reverse proportion to his condescension, and the prices on his wine list often represent a 200% markup from the provincial liquor control board listings. Waiters hide their ignorance under a supercilious manner and their scorn under a mock obsequiousness. During my eating odyssey I was usually either rushed through my meal (coffee was poured unasked for while my wineglass was still full) or kept waiting until I was ready to throw a butter knife in order to catch somebody’s attention.
Yet part of the problem of expensive restaurants has to do with the people dining in them. No one complains. Many are wheeling and dealing on expense accounts — who else can afford to pay such prices and care so little about what’s on their plates? Groups of men drink scotch / continued on page 66 after scotch, their taste buds attune to peanut butter and sweet-and-sour spareribs. The ketchup bottle, though longed for, is not used because they think this is elegant dining. The lemon pie may twang when hit with a fork and the broccoli look like seaweed, but they eat in apparent contentment even though the tasteless food, pretentious surroundings and indifferent service can cost as much as $60 or $70 for two.
I started to eat my way across the country in Toronto. After intensive research among friends who lead expenseaccount lives and my own dedicated fieldwork, I decided to try the Westbury Hotel’s dining room. A reservation had been made the day before but I made the mistake of choosing female dining companions which meant we were immediately placed at a table beside the entrance. This section seemed to be reserved for what many expensive restaurants consider undesirables — females in a group (poor tippers?), families with children and single male diners. It was only 7.30 p.m. yet all three pariah classes were bunched together in this little ghetto, contaminating only each other. As the evening wore on, ladies in long skirts with male escorts were rushed by us to the farther glamorous reaches of
the restaurant far away from the door, but that section never became more than two thirds full. Why didn’t I complain? I was playing a game, pretending to be an average Canadian restaurant sucker who believes that it is bad form to fuss in public. More humiliations followed. After several supplications to passersby and squirming around in our chairs to catch our own waiter’s eye, we were eventually provided with aperitifs. But getting the wine list became quite a challenge. Apparently, ladies drink “Blockhouse Blackouts,” “Brandy Alexanders” or “Moscow Mules” but wine rarely. (This is a wine waiter’s dogma and it could be correct. One of the long skirts was drinking whiskey sours all evening and literally fell on her face as she left the Top People section.)
Our wine came, but the waiter still thought this was some sort of showiness on our part and never refilled our glasses. The food? Well, the Manhattan clam chowder was tepid but that didn’t matter since its flavor was instantly forgettable and there were no clams to speak of. Always one for trying local food, I ordered Ontario partridge, nine dollars à la carte, served with “diced goose liver, truffle, madère sauce and wild rice.” The waiter said, “Don’t order
that; it will take 40 minutes.” I explained that I was not at the Westbury dining room because I was in a hurry. In fact, the bird arrived 20 minutes after he brought me my excuse for a soup. Almost too quickly. The partridge was good and the sauce, though too peppery, nevertheless had a rich flavor. The goose liver tasted like squares of Plasticine. And where were the truffles? Best of all was the wild rice, not mushy as it so often is, but firm, almost crunchy. A friend ordered scallops, which had cracked from overcooking, and her fresh green beans, poor things, had wilted from all that heat. The French pastries were dry and spinsterish, lacking ooze and interest; the waiter had to tell me that the flavoring was coffee. I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Both women with me were very disappointed but swore they had eaten superbly at the Westbury when they had been accompanied by men. Maybe yes, maybe no. Perhaps everything tastes better when a man is paying.
Next I moved on to Montreal, the restaurant mecca of Canada. Although Italian, Greek, Spanish and Hungarian cuisines are well represented, it is French cooking that is the great specialty of this city. Prices are high, but the service is more adept and food more carefully prepared than anywhere else in Canada. (Except, of course, Quebec City, a town that has been eating better than Toronto and possibly even Montreal for the last 50 years. It is a tribute to the gastronomic refinement of the people who live there that so many good restaurants succeed in such a relatively small locale.)
According to the greedy, the rich and the knowledgeable, Chez Bardet and the St. Amable are the Montreal expenseaccount restaurants where one normally eats very well. I had already eaten at Chez Bardet many times but even though it offers the best service and some of the best cooking in Montreal, it’s a flawed jewel in my opinion. The markup on the wines is too high and the menu is unadventurous, so I decided on the St. Amable instead.
I had never been there in the evening and foolishly sauntered in, again with a female companion and again suffered the usual treatment: a table beside the stairs and near the entrance and a supercilious attitude on the part of the head waiter as we attempted to go over the wine list. This one knew his wines but the subject was obviously not one to be discussed in front of women. We finally chose a wine that was tried and true since no information on the year of the less familiar ones was going to be passed on to us by Monsieur Sneer.
Any gourmet knows that one should order ravioli at an Italian restaurant and stuffed vine leaves at the Greeks’, so why did I order stuffed Danish cucumber as a first course at a French restaurant? I could have eaten crab in a crêpe or escargots in brandy and egg yolks, but I panicked, worrying about gall bladder and gout, and blew one of my finest moments on an hors d’oeuvre that would have been agreeable in a box lunch but was not worthy of a Montreal temple of gastronomy. (Seventeen years ago I lost control the same way in Paris at Fapérouse, a three-star restaurant in the 1955 Guide Michelin. Fresh from the saltpetre cuisine of the University of Manitoba’s cafeteria, I ordered chicken curry because it was the only dish I could decipher on the French menu.)
Informed sources had been telling me that the best main course in Montreal is Tournedos Opéra at the St. Amable. Mercifully, I recouped from the cucumber with “Filet mignon in a pastry shell filled with mushrooms, foie gras and truffles in a porto sauce.” There was no disappointment; the steak was rare, yet the sauce was hot and rich and full of all the supportive nutrients promised in the blurb. And the tartelette was not merely a stage prop but only too edible. The memory of its buttery crispness enveloping and merging with the unctuous sauce enables me to forgive and almost forget the coldness of the headwaiter and the banality of the first course. My companion’s quail was gilded in the oven and then garnished with fresh grapes and vegetables which weren't mushy. We also ordered braised endive with a touch of cheese sauce, $1.25 à la carte, which were.
Perhaps the most exciting part of our meal was the cheese tray featuring Camembert, Brie, chèvre and Roquefort, each of them at room temperature and a perfect stage of ripeness. When asked the reason for this miracle, the waiter answered: “Parce que c’est pour le personnel; les clients ne le commandent jamais.” (“It’s for the staff; the guests never ask for it.”) The strawberry tart was light and well sprinkled with Cointreau. But they shouldn’t have served salted butter in portion control packages, especially with stale bread. I paid $50 for two people, which included the tip and a $12 Château La Garde. Everyone around was slapping down the same kind of money with no sign of shuddering.
After this, I went on to the Maritimes with a somewhat lighter heart. I do not expect nor want champagne sauces and escargots en soufflé when I go east, but I do like a bit of fresh fish. This is hard to come by in the more luxurious Halifax restaurants. The Henry House where I chose to eat had no halibut, haddock, cod, flounder or fresh trout on the menu, although all of them are respectable Atlantic fish which, given careful but simple cooking, would not shame the table of Maxim’s in Paris. The only fresh fish offered were salmon and lobster.
THE SAUCE WAS SO UNCTUOUS IT HELPED ME FORGET THE COLD CAST OF THE WAITER'S EYE
I ate alone and the service was almost touching. The waiter asked me if I wished to face the bar or the fire, opining that the view of the hearth was more pleasing. Henry House was built in 1820 and its fine architecture is enhanced by real copper, real squashes and pumpkins, and a real fire. I ordered the table d’hôte speciality, clam chowder and lobster Thermidor. Compared to Toronto’s Westbury the chowder rated alpha plus but was not as good as that of another Halifax establishment, Camille Fish and Chips, near the warehouse on Barrington. I know I should have ordered plain boiled lobster instead of Thermidor but I am a victim of the impossible dream: the dream of tasting the unsung sauce of a latter-day Escoffier content to practise his art away from the hurly-burly of Paris, New York and Quebec City. The lobster was tender and sweet, but the sauce, though made of most of the correct elements, was heated more in some spots than in others and was clumsily amalgamated; it might be described as pastiche of Thermidor. While' I was munching and musing, the people at the next table ordered oysters. This brought to their table the manager, who apologized and explained that the oysters were very fresh but lacked taste so he preferred not to serve them. They had come from Bras d’Or, NS, where the water was semi-salt. Too much sweet water had made this particular lot bland. How many Canadian restaurateurs would have taken so much trouble to make sure his guests were getting top quality?
The strong points of the Henry House were the willingness of the personnel (some of the girls hadn’t a clue but they always fetched someone who had), the ambience, the smoked salmon which was carved from a whole side and the butter which came in a butter dish, not little paper squares that make the fingers greasy.
The following week in Winnipeg, I went to eat in the Velvet Glove with my family who may be Prairie radicals in politics but are right-wingers in restaurants. For the last 40 years, my father has ordered roast beef, medium, when he is unfortunate enough to find himself in a public dining place. (“You don’t know what goes on in these restaurant kitchens, Sondra.”) My sister-in-law was brought up in an English boarding school on minced meat and mash and has never gotten over the trauma. My mother always orders the cheapest thing on the menu and would do so even if Onassis were paying. Only my brother is foolhardy enough to order something different. And that is why he ended up with the worst single dish served on my cross-country tour: something called Duckling Calypso which featured a pale and soggy bird flambéed with a sauce that convinced him the establishment had rediscovered the ancient Egyptian conconction of sweet ointments used for embalming corpses. If he had ordered something simple like steak, rack of Manitoba lamb, or even roast beef, he would have eaten quite well. The moral of the story is: eat meat in the west, without fancy sauces. Follow that advice and everything will fall into place. Of course the vegetables were terrible; protuberant carrots and frozen fiddlehead ferns disintegrated into identical pulpy textures when pressured with a fork. For dessert we had Brazilian frozen torte (why not call it Manitoba slush cake?); it tasted frozen but not Brazilian. During the meal, a woman played tinkling tunes on a piano; we decided it was one step up from Muzak. The waiters didn’t know anything about the food or wine they served, but they got us in and out in no time flat. We entered the restaurant at 6 p.m., not exactly your fashionable dining hour, the room was more than half-filled by 6.20 and we were out by 7.15. One good thing though — expenseaccount eating is less expensive in Winnipeg. For example, Chateaubriand for two at the Westbury in Toronto is $19.50 à la carte, at the William Tell in Vancouver it’s $18, but at the Velvet Glove only $14.95.
Calgary turned out to have several good high-priced restaurants, which is only just when you consider all the millionaires living there. My favorites were Hy’s Steak House and the Owl’s Nest in the Calgary Inn. Although another restaurant, the Three Green Horns, had been recommended to me by no less a gourmet than Pierre Berton, I found it wanting. It was there that I experienced for the first time a peculiarly Albertan phenomenon. Crowds of men bonded together at 12.30 in the dining room and at 1.45 simultaneously evacuated the room as though a whistle had been blown, pitched only to Albertan ears. Only I was left toying with my coffee, after a meal that had included Green Pot, a species of clam chowder which would have been excellent if it had been hot, and an egg roll which I thought was something extraordinary since it cost $1.25 but was just a bigger version of what you get in any Chinese takeout. The fillet of sole Burrard was made with frozen sole that had been overcooked and the rice pilaff tasted reheated.
At Hy’s the adage, stick to meat in the west, was once again reinforced. It’s possible to dine happily in this restaurant on steak with cheese and garlic bread, as long as you overlook the “antiqued” decor and waste no time in speculation on what century and which country the grab-bag style draws from. At the Owl’s Nest, I ate smoked salmon, Johann Strauss salad and a rack of lamb, all of them first quality and not too expensive.
A few days later in Vancouver, I encountered the same problem as in the Maritimes — not enough fresh fish. Lemon sole, caught off the coast of Vancouver, is one of my favorite foods but, except at Trader Vic’s at the Bayshore Inn, is rarely served in posh places. Frozen Dover sole is. And they say British Columbians are a proud people.
There are lots of good medium-priced restaurants in Vancouver, the best being Chinese, but my quest was for elegant dining. Vancouver people I polled decided four-to-one on the William Tell. For the third time my companion was a female (this one giggled), but the service was impeccable even though it was late on a Saturday night and every table taken. Outside of Toronto and Montreal I discovered that waiters cherished rather than merely waited upon ladies. Do male chauvinist pig waiters exist only in these two eastern cities?
The crevettes with avocado at the William Tell were real, fresh, Pacific small shrimp but the ensemble was neither exciting nor ample enough for $2.25. The paté maison was light and greaseless and the Cumberland sauce had orange peel in it. One of the specialities of this Swiss restaurant is veal scallops in a morel mushroom cream sauce. Having lived for many years in Geneva, I have been spoiled by eating this dish with fresh morel mushrooms. It is impossible to find anything other than dried morels on the commercial market in Canada, so I never order the dish. But my friend did, and the restaurant prepared it as well as anyone could under the circumstances. The entrecôte Café de Paris was overdone, but fresh zucchini, not overdone, accompanied it. And the dessert, iced soufflé with orange liqueur, was a masterpiece. On the whole we were satisfied, but why should smoked BC salmon cost $2.45 in Vancouver and $1.75 in Winnipeg?
These were the high and low lights of my gastronomic tour but I also ate in the expensive dining rooms of the big hotels in every city I visited — places I call “corporate restaurants” where Ostentation, Indifference and Tasteless Food are the three graces; there are so many people on the staff you are sometimes served by as many as six different men from wine stewards to butter boys, none of whom know what stage of the meal you’re at; local produce is never featured; and the menus appear to have been made up by a computer somewhere in the American Middle West.
MALE CHAUVINIST PIG WAITERS APPARENTLY EXIST ONLY IN TORONTO AND MONTREAL
After I came home again to Ottawa and reflected on my experiences, I decided that what we need in this country are not more palatial eating establishments but reasonably priced restaurants specializing in the fresh produce of the land, prepared and served with skill and simplicity. A restaurant is worthwhile when the owner has a personal interest in the food served and uses his imagination in deciding his menu. The difficult standards of French cuisine, on which the best restaurants based their cooking standards 50 years ago, are practically impossible to maintain anywhere in this age of high-cost labor. Even in France, where cooking and restaurants are an integral part of the civilization, the trend is away from the elaborate in most of the newer restaurants. It is no longer necessary to have an army of untrained waiters clanging chafing dishes and flaming food up to the diners’ eyebrows. If the kitchen is properly organized and the menu and restaurant relatively small (20 tables is a good size), a few experienced well-paid waiters can handle all the work.
In Canada, the restaurants closest to this ideal are those that take advantage of their geographic or ethnic surroundings, offering fish that come from nearby waters or specializing in dishes popular in their regions. My favorites are the Chinese restaurants in Vancouver that serve local crab and rock cod, a place on Main Street in Winnipeg that makes delicious Ukrainian perogies and fried local whitefish or pickerel, and those ever changing Italian restaurants in Toronto that serve lasagne made from their own pasta. In Quebec City or Montreal it is still possible to find the odd “little French restaurant,” such as the Colibri in Montreal, which serves simple cooking at a low price.
All these restaurants reflect the human and physical resources of their locality. They are usually run by families who believe in the 19th century work ethic and hence avoid the impersonality of the restaurant run by a big bureaucracy. A good many of them are owned by fairly recent immigrants to Canada and feature what we call ethnic cooking. But there are at least two outstanding restaurants that do represent the cuisines of our two founding nations.
One is the Marshlands Inn at Sackville, New Brunswick, which specializes in what I would call Anglo-Celt cooking, and the other is L’Atre on the lie d’Orleans, just a bridge away from Quebec City, which specializes in rural French-Canadian cooking. Neither is expensive but both take pride in their culinary heritage and local produce.
The Marshlands Inn is the old family home of the Reads and the recipes and Spode dinner service have been handed down from generation to generation. This is where you go if you want homemade rolls, fresh scallops, the best mashed turnips anywhere and roast goose the way they used to make it in the Maritimes before World War I.
L’Atre has a more limited menu: soup, tourtière and sugar pie with a few variations. But the soup is made from fresh vegetables, the tourtière is the best I’ve ever eaten and the sugar pie indescribable. They throw half a jug of fresh farmer’s cream over it, the thickest this side of the Atlantic. The owner, JeanAntoine Demers converted a 17th-century farmhouse into a restaurant with a real hearth and real oil lamps. It’s only open in summer but to compensate, there’s a calèche ride to the door.
Both places are prospering examples of what can be done in our country using our heritage and surroundings at relatively low cost to the diner. Both of them offer a gastronomic experience that — as my cross-country tour proved — you literally cannot buy for $50 a couple in any of the big cities in the land. ■