October, 2012 update: chef/owner Che Chartrand has old Chez Eric, and is now head chef at the new Gezellig
Pulling into Wakefield, I marvel at how effortless it is to escape Ottawa, drive through a pastoral landscape of handsome hills, and be on the patio of a country village restaurant in thirty minutes. Ain’t it grand.
Chez Eric is the restaurant. Not a grand place, to be sure, but quite sweet, inside and out. The patio is rustic, the setting leafy, our table wobbles just the right degree (we thought) but our server is on her knees straightening things out within seconds. The evening so happens to be splendid. Postcard stuff. The outside temperature is perfect, the light soft, the breeze gentle. The bugs are keeping to themselves.
We order wine from a short, kindly priced list. Some of us order BorÃ©ale Noire, a craft Quebec beer. Two little blond cherubs, the children of fellow diners from a neighbouring table, are playing hide and go seek in the garden, dodging Chef Che as he wanders the rows, plucking edible flowers for our salad.
I’m in the sort of summer-sun-drugged mood to find no fault whatsoever; prepared to stretch the truth, if need be, or at least to overlook the little things that don’t quite work. But that particular night, on Chez Eric’s patio, everything worked. The service, the food, the feel – all grand. (A second evening, inside, closer to the fish tank and to walls of local art, we enjoy all but the service, which has taken on an arrogant indifference we can’t quite overlook.)
Driving from Ottawa Chez Eric is on your left as you enter Wakefield, before you hit the river and the rails. It is a wobbly old house with a tall garden and a side patio on which a motley collection of rocking tables are available for a short, sweet time. Eric is the name of the goldfish that swims beside the bar. There have been a few Erics over the years, I’m told; just as there have been a few owners of the Erics over the years. The latest owner of Chez Eric – the restaurant, garden, patio (and of the latest Eric-the-fish) – is actually named Che Chartrand, a chef who used to be found at Par-fyum and, before that, at Beckta. Che has left the city behind to run a country restaurant in Wakefield that didn’t even need a name change to give him top billing.
The blackboard menu changes regularly and is commendably short. After a bowl of soup – a delicious smoked tomato one night – you might steer toward the house terrines. One fashioned with caribou meat comes with a pearl onion chutney. A quail and bison terrine has a roasted pear centre. Fruit and flowers garnish the plates. Golden beets and goat feta team up in a tasty way. Candied kumquats, leafy sprouts, grated red beets and a walnut vinaigrette garnish Boston lettuce. And how about splurging on plump, chewy-soft escargots paired with bacon in a cream sauce slicked with truffle oil spilling out of a buttery vol au vent?
Main courses go both hot and cold. Hot: gnocchi with beef, couscous with duck, roast chicken and green beans, striped bass done up fish and chips style, pasta with local mushrooms. Cold: a main course goat cheese salad, and a dinner plate of more of that well made terrine and well-dressed greens. Duck stands alone. Chartrand cures, smokes and roasts a magret (breast) and you’ve never tasted better. Slices of the ruby meat arrive with a dried cherry sauce and a pile of Puy lentils with black trumpet mushrooms. Another night the duck is paired with couscous, sweetened with currants and golden raisins, preserved lemons and almonds. Fingers of striped bass are moist inside their crisp, ungreasy tempura coat. They come with fingerling fries and sugar peas dipped in more tempura – the fish and chips and fresh peas (does it get any better?) stacked like logs of wood, with a side of the house tartare sauce and some cabbage slaw.
A caramel nut tart was the best of the roundup of OK desserts. (Chocolate cake a bit dry, cheesecake ho hum.) I’d forego them next time round and order up a plate of local cheeses with candied nuts.