Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Five-Star Surprises

Two Montreal restaurants, the Beaver Club and the Casino de Montréal, are 1999's unlikely winners of the most prestigious award

Earlier this year, the Mobil Travel Guide dished out its coveted Five-Star Award to just two restaurants in the country. Both in Montreal: Nuances in the and the venerable in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Headlines trumpeted Montreal as Canada's gastronomic capital. Did anyone hear the giant gasp from Toronto and Vancouver: ?

Only 14 restaurants on this continent garnered the Five-Star this year, including New York's Chanterelle and Cirque 2000 and Chicago's Charlie Trotter's. The rival CAA/AAA sweepstake, employing equally fastidious criteria and dispensing its praise in diamonds, awarded its Five-Diamonds to 42 restaurants in Canada and the US, two in Canada -- Truffles in Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel and Five Sails in Vancouver's Pan Pacific Hotel.

The may not be Michelin, but it gets respect. Mobil has been doing this sort of thing since 1958. Its standards are exacting: Anonymous inspectors follow a stringent litany of guidelines. At the Five-Star level, table settings less than extraordinary, utensils less than top-of-the-line, service less than seamless, food less than dazzling, wines improperly decanted: Let your standards slip and the stars will surely cease to shine.

But the guidelines tread preciously at times, such as "No two dishes alike in height, colour or texture." ? Like other foodies, we're haunted by such proclamations. Canada's best in a hotel built in the 1950s? Or in a ? What of Truffles, Splendido, North 44 or Vancouver's sensational Diva at the Met?

We had to see for ourselves. We booked seats on VIA Rail's four-hour express from Toronto to Montreal. We arrived in Montreal to find a city much revitalized in the department. Straight out of the VIA station, we enter the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and there it was: Mobil's chosen for the fourth consecutive year -- the Beaver Club.

The Beaver Club is remarkable if only for staying on top for the past 41 years, making it as old as the Mobil guide itself. Its name (stop sniggering) derives from the fraternity founded in Montreal in 1785 for the barons, explorers and adventures of the North West Company. A stipulation was that the members had to have spent at least a season in the "savage country" of the Northwest. Attending as guests were the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving and John Jacob Astor. These meetings were predictably raucous affairs: One guest recalled a dozen men "drunk like fish" consuming 120 bottles of wine. They dined, in true style, on bear, venison, pemmican and beaver, and next morning, probably remembered none of it. The club finally ran out of steam in 1917.

While the club may have seen wilder days, it remains the darling of Montreal's corporate elite, named by magazine as the city's leading business restaurant. "Our customers are decision-makers, powerful people, people who travel," explains executive chef Alain Pignard, a man who lets no gras grow under his feet. "Because of them, we have to stay on top of the trends."

Pignard took over this year when CP Hotels transferred John Cordeaux to Toronto's Royal York. Making the room his own, he looks to Cal/Ital, regional products from from Marieville in Quebec's Eastern Townships to freshwater salmon from Lac St-Jean, and in the spirit of the fur traders, wild things: caribou, venison and bison (but nary a nibble of beaver). His notion of a truly Canadian opener is a trinity of Canadian caviar: blood-orange salmon caviar from BC, tangerine-hued whitefish caviar from Manitoba, black sturgeon caviar from Quebec. Bless him for that.

Saluting a bygone era, the Beaver Club presents an interior so resolutely old-fashioned, its turn to be in fashion again should be coming around any moment now. The decapitated moose glowering overhead is old-fashioned. The gentlemen's club panelling is old-fashioned. The trolleys turning out table side Caesars and crèpes are old-fashioned. The couples shuffling to the dance floor are (sweetly) old-fashioned. When the resident seizes the microphone, it's "In the Old-fashioned Way." Lord, if a Toronto restaurant looked this old-fashioned, the wrecker's ball would strike by midnight.

Yet there is nothing old-fashioned when chef Pignard throws down the gauntlet. The first shot from his kitchen as an of sublimely-contemporary sensibilities: a single oyster warmed in butter and sided with sliced smoked goose and seafood terrine bound in salmon. Our eyelids fluttered.

The menu is plenty sophisticated. Its gives you the run of the menu: appetizer, soup or salad and main course of your choice for $45 per person -- a deal. The starter is Marieville accompanied by those gnatty little de Puy lentils. One bite and you know why the fatty duck liver is renowned as "the cocaine of cuisine." The foie is from Quebec, not France, and it need curtsy to none: Given just a sizzle in the pan, crisp on the outside, its flesh soft and yielding, its flavour incomparable, it's the measure of the Pignard's kitchen.

Another starter is a basket spilling over with seafood tempura. The shrimps and scampi are remarkably generous, but the batter is closer to fish-and-chips than tempura -- Down Home goes Japanese -- and the grease would be better cut with a dollop of , that fiery Japanese horseradish, than the attendant black bean sauce.



As in most restaurants, the appetizers are the realm in which creative juices flow. Main courses lean towards the conservative, so fewer elements go awry and fewer plates are sent back to the kitchen. Here almost everything is skillfully prepared, balanced in flavours, aromas, colours and textures. Caribou is lean, rare and tender, in the venison mode, sauced with wild cherries and wine from the embryonic industry trying to make a go of it in the Eastern Townships. Pignard's brigade pan fries a plump veal chop, slathers it in morels and cream and serves it with risotto of wild rice and barley. You can have a whole Dover Sole Belle-Meuniere or Bonne Femme. How gloriously old-fashioned. This must be one of the last places in Canada where you can still get one.

If a 1950s hotel is an unlikely Five-Star winner, what of a casino run by the Government of Quebec? The big surprise for anyone eating in the Casino de Montréal (or the Casino de Hull, for that matter) is how well Quebec's glamorous gambling palaces feed their high rollers: If we must have casinos, we might as well do it with pizzazz. (Has anybody ever noticed the food in an Ontario casino?) Nuances in the Casino de Montréal pulls no stops for opulence and gastronomy. If you've just lost everything but your socks, you're entitled to a final blowout, yes?

Nuances is a lovely room, even if its view of Habitat and Montreal is splintered by the architectural spokes of what was the French Pavilion at Expo '67. Maitre'd Gerald Jalby wins his Mobil points with a velvet welcome. The appointments are topnotch: Crystal and silver, brass and mahogany glow against the backdrop of the city twinkling in the purple dusk. But what is it about Montrealers that compels them to smoke, even at dinner, like the Hamilton skyline?

Servers are the soul of professionalism -- they neither grovel nor sneer -- and they're smart enough to double as sommeliers: Our waiter, Claude Bouffard, knows his way around a cellar of 240 labels, almost half of them French, the Americans healthily represented, the Australians and New Zealanders inexcusably ignored. Claude can marry food and wine with the best. He can also remember what you drank on your last visit a year ago.

The menu, artfully devised by exec chef Jean-Pierre Curtat and chef de cuisine Frederic Filliodeau, draws from a repertoire of 500 dishes. Like the Beaver Club, Nuances makes an effort to showcase regional Canadian products from wild Arctic char to Quebec cheeses. It takes nothing for granted. "We work at maturing," says Curtat. "In fact, we're getting close to the very best we can do."

Last January, Nuances instituted a five-course menu , at $59 per person, no frivolous romp through the kitchen's capabilities. The table d'hôte selection, less than $40, includes soup, quail-and-lentil terrine dressed in walnut-oil vinaigrette, an addictive shrimp tempura with spicy mango sauce, main course -- will that be the roast ostrich garnished with its own liver? and dessert, maybe the two-lemon bombe with raspberry compote.

The wonder of Quebec , seared and served with wild mushroom and apple compote, presents no surprise. The surprise is cold lobster salad, a dish that often disappoints with chewy shards of lobster tail. It delivers a knockout punch: Claw and tail drape themselves on a voluptuous tomato capped with Abitibi sturgeon caviar, fringed with designer greens and stuffed with more lobster. It's a beautifully-conceived dish that must give the Mobil inspectors heart.

Among mains, Filliodeau roasts fat Atlantic scallops and drizzles them with Chardonnay butter under a tangle of frizzled leeks. Poached grouper arrives zapped with pistachio oil, one of those dreamy products you find rarely in restaurants and never anywhere else. Lamb two ways, rack chop and loin, is a carnivore's carnival both perfectly pink and juicy, but not really different enough to justify the two-way treatment in the way, say, duck works contrasting a lean, grilled breast and a succulently roasted in its own fat.

Desserts? As at the Beaver Club and every other major restaurant in Canada, dessert is architectural, the stuff of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bucky Fuller, its pavilions and towers, avenues and burgs ever more fanciful. At Nuances, you can wind up with bourbon-and-vanilla crème brûlée sidekicked with cookies and maple pecan ice cream, or, for the restrained, sorbets of exotic fruits sauced in cardamom.

At both restaurants, we notice Mobil's lofty standards fractured hither and thither: Here the noise level is higher than the guidelines allow, there the heights of our dishes -- the horror, the horror -- are identical. These are minor cavils. The guide is a guide, not a Bible. Canada's absolutely best restaurants are up to you, but Mobil does us a service by heralding these unorthodox choices among contenders.

Reservations: The Beaver Club at (514) 861-3511; Nuances at toll-free 1-800-665-2274, ext. 4322.


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