First, a bit of background: Last June, the restaurant we knew since 2001 as “Signatures” (professionally staffed) and the lunch room we knew as “Bistro Cordon Bleu” (run by students of the culinary school) shut down to reorganize. In November, it reopened as a joint venture, staffed by both students and certified chefs, with Yannick Anton remaining as its executive chef.
So let’s start with a before-and-after comparison.
Gone from the dinner experience are the little cushioned stools for ladies’ handbags, the silver domes over monogrammed plates, the many pages of Ã la carte, high-priced, luxurious French food and the four table d’hÃ´tes that accompanied.
What remains are the stately building, the elegant dining room and the very civilized service.
You can still dine in complete comfort here, but Signatures (sorry, Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @ Signatures) now feeds you more simply, with less fanfare, and at a price several affordable rungs below what it used to be. (The most costly dish on the new winter menu is $27. That dish used to be $47.)
They still greet you at the door, remove your coat, hold out your chair, and fill your water glass instantly and often. The staff continues to dispense dependable wine advice with considerable charm. And no one ever asks you to keep your fork.
The dinner menu is now a concise one-pager. On a January menu, there were six starters and seven mains, a seasonal roll call of Frenchy things I want to eat — oysters, beef tartare, onion soup, snails in garlic butter, roasted lamb shank, duck with green beans, gnocchi with mushrooms and bacon.
For the most part, it was the starters that caught our fancy. That onion soup boasted a much reduced duck consommé, rich and only slightly too salty, capped with Gruyered toast. The salad of mixed lettuces, with radish and carrot, was unfussy, dressed as only the French can dress greens. A green spiral of parsley oil and a long loose line of black olive tapenade were the adornments for an assertively garlicky brandade of salt cod, a mashed-potato-looking purée of fish, cream and oil.
They make a fine steak tartare here. The raw, maroon-coloured mound of hand-chopped beef, mixed with shallots, capers, parsley and pepper, and sandwiched with wafers of gaufrette potatoes, rested next to a soft-boiled quail egg, wrapped in crumbs and deep-fried. Moved on top of the mound, it spilled its golden yolk over all. The dish was finished with piquant polkadots of mustard sauce sweetened with apple. This was a lovely plate.
The one starter that failed to impress was the snails in pesto, served in a hollow bun. The escargots were lukewarm and the bread basket felt gimmicky.
There were problems with some of the main dishes. A duck breast was terribly tough. I took three 50-chew bites and left the rest. The artichoke and green olive ravioli that accompanied the scallops arrived curling up, the pouches dried at the edges and chewy, as though they’d been languishing beneath the heat lamps too long, while the smoked tomato sauce overpowered the scallops.
Better was the gnocchi of spinach and ricotta, scattered with meaty King Eryngii mushrooms, thin slices of braised fennel, and thick chunks of prosciutto. And best of all was the lamb shank, the meat perfectly tumbling-off the bone, arranged as a raft on a gritty sea of Puy lentils with pearls of roasted garlic and one lean, well-flavoured lamb sausage.
With what else to end a French bistro meal but profiteroles au chocolat? Three school-made ice creams in very fresh choux puffs, slathered with a divine chocolate sauce.
Dinner here was not without some disappointment. The absolute confidence I had in this restaurant has been slightly rattled by my last two meals here. But still, I am dining in fine comfort in an educational facility where culinary students are part of my plate, where the price point is very reasonable, and in a dining room in which I feel utterly cared for. And these are rare and precious things.