It was clear my dinner date was anxious as we made our final approach to L’Echelle de Jacob. We had just found it behind its low stone wall (because we paid attention to the small sign off boulevard Lucerne) in an old building that was once a streetcar barn and now houses apartments, a déppaneur and this long running French restaurant. Her apprehension continued through the pot-holed, puddle-hopping parking lot, and continued to mount during the cold climb up the dank staircase (with its corny painted clouds on sky blue walls). She remained nervous as we walked through the front door, where we were met by a rustic room boasting thick stone walls, arched windows, timbered beams and a corner fireplace, as well as a jumble of dated design and clutter and furnishings that looked borrowed from the attic.
But I was grinning from the moment we pulled in. I kept smiling through the parking lot, up those goofy stairs and into that unfashionably busy room. If L’Echelle de Jacob proved still to be the tucked-away pearl I had encountered five years ago, I was feeling pretty confident. My experience had shown that there may be nothing too fancy up past those puffy clouds, but there was plenty that was tasteful.
Sure enough, L’Echelle de Jacob remains a family-run, décor-be-damned, unrepentantly old-school French restaurant of nostalgic dishes, caring service, and gentle prices. The food takes no shortcuts. It tastes of integrity and a sure, steady hand. The service too is no-nonsense. It quietly, rather shyly gets on with the business of pleasing houseguests. The husband and wife team (she’s the chef, he runs the front of the house) is much of the pleasure of this place.
The four course table d’hote menu is only in French, and is explained in detail, dish by dish. Happily, there aren’t many details. The choices are not adventurous. They are homey bistro concoctions (fish soup with rouille, coquilles St Jacques, rognons de veau with Calvados, confit of duck) with some wistful dishes thrown in the mix (like airy, creamy fish quenelles).
You start with a choice of soup. A purée of cauliflower and apple is perked with curry, or the peppery fish soup, filled in with tomato and vegetables, served with a garlic mayonnaise on a crostini, the blob reddened and roused with harissa. Both very good.
Toasted walnuts, black grapes and slivers of ripe pear garnish a pile of fresh salad greens, dressed in a walnut oil vinaigrette. The quenelles are fashioned of pike, perfectly seasoned, light and flavourful, rising out of a lobster sauce.
Vanilla perfumes the pork, the pink meat is tender, its cream sauce memorable. The duck confit suffers from a bit of under-curing, though the rich flavour is fine and the dish suitably filling. It’s filled out with triangles of crisp polenta, slow cooked red cabbage, carrots and peas threaded with soft leek.
Desserts are homestyle French classics: nougat glacé, profiteroles au chocolat, gateau au fromage, crème brûlée, all on doilied plates. The crème brûlée is a classic, the cheesecake is flecked with lime and crusted with toasted coconut and both are excellent.
Our bill for an almost without-a-hitch four-course dinner for two, with a half litre of passable house wine – something from France our host reportedly drinks every day – came to $100.
When a restaurant lasts this long in a location as out of sight as this one and in such plain wrapping, it’s clearly doing something right. In this family run place what’s right is reliable, traditional French cooking delivered at moderate prices with old-fashioned courtesy.