Les Fougères chef-owners Charles Part and Jennifer Warren Part have planted the fine dining flag on their bit of Chelsea for more than two decades now, and they’ve been nothing if not resourceful over those years: opening a kitchen store, selling gourmet frozen foods, producing an award–winning cookbook, expanding their sizeable kitchen gardens, offering their pretty property for weddings, art shows, fundraisers, concerts.
Still, filling those fine dining tables, particularly in the ‘off season,’ wasn’t always easy. “Some winter nights, we’d have six people in the dining room,” long-time Maître d’Hotel and sommelier Louis Parisien told me when I popped in for lunch the other day.
It was never as hushed and starchy as some others in its Fine Dining category (it is, after all, a country restaurant) but there was no doubt Les Fougères was considered a ‘Special Occasion’ sort of place. Not one you’d seek out for a quick bite after a long, sweaty Gatineau hike, say. But the Parts clearly wanted what all chefs want: a full and lively restaurant. Their solution meant continuing to offer food and hospitality of a way-up-there level, but delivering both in a more casual, convivial, come-as-ye-be sort of way.
So, Les Fougères shut down last fall to rethink and to renovate. It reopened just before Christmas with a new look, and a space and menu that offered choices: still there is the dining room proper, with the traditional starter-main-dessert progression, or tasting menu possibility, but the new menu also presents dabbling options. An individual pizza for $13.50, say. A starter portion of Charlie Part’s terrific shrimp curry. Or a simple plate of local cheeses, if that fits the mood.
They’ve added a hearth oven for breads and pizza and so forth, and a winding bar for grazing and drinking and watching the (now) open-kitchen show. And between the oven and the bar is a counter-service menu of charcuterie, house-smoked fish, cheeses and prepared foods to go. The view of the gardens and woodlands has always been a draw, but new windows allow more of the splendid outside in.
The rustic-chalet, knotty-pine feel of the first Fougères is now replaced with a clean-lined, more minimalist aesthetic, one with a clear ‘sense of place’ in the materials and décor.
That sense of place extends to the food. It always has. The Parts were early adopters of showcasing local, of working with farmers and artisans in their neck of the woods. And, this time of year, of showing off their own extensive gardens and outdoor kitchen tools. If you start with the house salad, a full-flavoured jumble of greens, herbs, petals, you are further rewarded with the home-cured and -smoked bacon lardon topper and dobs of Ferme Floralpe chèvre.
On the screened-in verandah on a soft June night I had my first ever squid ink steam bun. The small plate featured octopus, prepared two ways, cradled in a pair of baozi. One soft bun was blackened with the ink, the grilled fish within tarted up with pickled onion and radicchio, moistened with a lemon aioli; the other bun and fried fish lightly sweet with a plum sauce. I followed this with perfect Arctic char, perched on a medley of Le Coprin mushrooms and firm Puy lentils, served with a sidecar of braised hakurai turnips.
Soft-shelled crab was available, so we grabbed it. A seasonal dish so rarely done well (the delicacy is typically lost beneath a deluge of flour and oil) here the whole blue crab was wispily-battered, the sweet briny meat beneath the molting shell delivering a balance of crunch and tenderness. It was served simply with lightly dressed garden greens and a cucumber-avocado relish with some pleasing jalapeño heat.
Tough not to revert to a trio of old Fougères favourites, though now available in two portion sizes. The confit of Québec duck balanced on a roesti potato with spinach, goat cheese, poached pears and a tart partridgeberry compote, is an absolute classic. Any curry of Charlie Part’s scores high on the flavour metre, and so we order the shrimp one, with mango and minted yogurt. And the dish called ‘Mouth of the St-Lawrence’ – which stars a gentle mussel fumet perfumed with dill, cradling scallops, Matane shrimp, and ravioli filled with a salt cod brandade – is a simply stunning plate of food.
One of the most satisfying dishes at a noon visit was a burger: local lamb, lightly pink and smokey-flavoured tucked in a house kaiser, topped with baby kale, red onion, and nasturtium petals for a peppery lift. And foie at lunch? What decadence! The seared and wobbly liver perched on grilled brioche, the richness cut with lightly pickled plums and sweetened with a plum gastrique.
Crème brulée remains the way to end things happily, served with thin buttery cookies. Though the pavlova, showcasing summer fruit and a lovely strawberry cream, is also a good bet. None of us felt the lemon bar had enough pucker power.
Service remains a big draw. The list of Quebec micro-brews appears to have expanded significantly, and the wine list offers more choice by-the-glass in two pours, with a reserve list for those wanting to splurge.
It might take a while to wrap our heads around the notion we may now drop in to the venerable Les Fougères for a pizza and a beer at the bar. But recent visits to the re-imagined Chelsea restaurant indicate that getting used to it won’t take long… and will be a pleasure.