There’s something about the old Hull district of Gatineau I seem incapable of navigating with any sort of dignity.
My style of locating a new restaurant there typically involves stumbling around in the dark searching for a street sign, a number, then piloting a maze of one-way streets on the hunt for a van-length landing strip. Parking found, I then try to recall, “Where was that restaurant again?”
Throw a snow squall into the muddle and I’m further in the dark.
The upside of this sort of hapless maneuvering is that it builds an appetite. Which is essential for L’Aubergine.
It’s not so much that plates are heaped. It’s more that they are wildly busy. Each one supports a great number of elements. Some might say a wacky number. Others might say a generous number. She who must scribble pages of notes might say a wearying number. Good thing the bits and pieces on the plates are tasty, even if they don’t always seem to dance to the same beat.
They’re colourful, too. L’Aubergine chef Olivier Joanicot’s plates are an eye-popping display of colour and construct.
Colour reigns in the dining room too. The interior walls of this old brick house have been painted cheerful shades of red, yellow, and blue, though the Crayola feel is thankfully played down with soft lighting. At the earliest possible convenience, I would respectfully suggest getting rid of the rec room panelling and recovering the green and pink seats. At the very least, some cushioning on the monastically-hard floral bench would be appreciated.
The pink and green (and gold) scheme – on chairs, on banquette, in the stained glass front window – you might recall from when this place belonged to L’Oncle Tom. Though the etching in that window now reads L’Aubergine. And it’s a much better restaurant.
A shot glass of gazpacho plumped up with Matane shrimp is the opening move. The fact this little freebie has a companion – a Chinese spoon plump with preserves and a flavourful wedge of terrine – should serve as warning. There is a generous spirit in this kitchen, and you might want to pace yourself.
We didn’t, ordered the table d’hÃ´te one visit and found ourselves flagging after the first course. It didn’t help that the first course was a thick fish soup, perfumed with saffron threads, fennel fronds and crowned with croutons and that we lapped every bit of it.
Or that the next round was duck and pork. On the same plate. An unexpected gift of pig, as it turned out. We had ordered a duck confit of the leg, and a lovely roasted breast, crisp-skinned and moist, and with these, lo and behold, a complimentary side of juicy pink slices of Nagano pork, served with a riot of vegetables, crisps (of taro root, of plantain) and dibs and dobs of oils and sauces.
Order the house special appetizer – foie gras crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e – and alongside the ladle-sized spoon of the liver-custard (delicious, though the crackling sugar crust I had to flick off, its sweetness too much for me) you find a mound of caramelized onion relish and another of cranberry. You also find a delicious baba ganoush fresh with cilantro and spiked with an aubergine crisp, a tower of well-sesamed hummus, more vegetable crisps (parsnip, carrot), bits of fruit (blueberries, ground cherries, a cherry tomato) and artfully placed dots and squiggles of infused oil.
The plate is a thing of great beauty. Or else it’s fussy and over the top. Whatever your take on it, be advised that the elements that fill it are each delicious, though you might want to separate the bites with a glug of wine or a bit of bread. Exactly what a foie gras custard and hummus bin tahini have to do with each other is something of a mystery.
It did cross my mind that the plates were filled with various and sundry treats because the restaurant was largely empty, and the chef was in a magnanimous mood with his mis-en-place. But who’s to know?
At a second dinner, we are wiser, and the restaurant slightly busier, and we opt for simple. A Caesar – nothing special – and mussels, a basin of the black beauties, fresh tasting, lightly steamed to just-open in a fragrant wine broth, and to close, a crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e perfumed with orange blossom water and with sweet chunks of roasted pear.
Service, when provided by co-owner and chef in his own right, ArsÃ¨ne Delrue, is charming.