Here\’s a wintry tale of woe. It was late last February; my third and (I had hoped) conclusive visit to Luxe Bistro under chef RenÃ© Rodriguez. As I was settling the bill, it became clear that business that had been ongoing in a neighbouring booth was in fact the final interview of a new chef. The handshakes and parting words tipped me off that the fella who had just made me lunch (and two dinners before that) was quitting after less than a year of service. And this baby-faced, goateed, bald guy was moving in.
The new guy turned out to be Duane Keats, then sous chef at Brookstreet Hotel under executive chef Michael Blackie. Keats was being handed the Firestone Group\’s upscale ByWard Market steakhouse, and Rodriguez, I later learned, was leaving to set up his own restaurant, Navarra (reviewed in this space in September).
My report on Luxe-under-RenÃ©, was now moot. That\’s the woeful part.
Ten months later, I\’m back, seated in the corner booth, tasting Luxe-under-Keats. This is where the story takes a happy turn.
Duane Keats is Luxe\’s third chef since it opened in 2003. And though each chef (Derek Benitz and Rodriguez were the others) has had an effect on the menu, Luxe remains a French-style steakhouse with durable mainstays — French onion soup, Bouillabaisse, steak-frites. Keats\’ strongest impression is on the page of daily additions in the colossal menu.
Many of the daily additions have Keats\’ time at Brookstreet Hotel written all over them. Note the equations: Golden beet + Lime + Goat Cheese soup (= lovely) and Free Form Short Rib Lasagne + Smoked Tomatoes + Buffalo Mozzarella + Seared Foie Gras (all delicious).
Meat rules here. At $38, the steak-frites better be damn good, and it is. The thin fries with their judicious salting and a pot of chive mayonnaise are regrettably great. The thick steak is well char-striped and well seasoned and cooked as rare as I ordered it. You can add vegetables to tote up to your vitamin intake. Or not.
The kitchen plays with threesomes. Giant prawns wrapped in wisps of potato, fried to crisp, served with a spicy mango relish + Sichuan salmon wrapped in leek + tuna sashimi with caperberries and a seaweed salad. This $20-trio could be a full meal, and may be one way to enjoy Luxe without breaking the bank before Christmas.
The gnocchi might be another way to go. The $29 price tag (for potato dumplings?!?) may seem insane, but they come with a hillock of lobster, the claw rising out of the centre of the dish. The gnocchi are very good, light, spongy and wildly rich in a gorgonzola cream sauce — with roasted pine nuts, fresh sage, cubes of roasted pear and chunks of softened dried fig. Five bites and you\’re through. Take the rest to the office for lunch.
Keats can braise. His short ribs are divine. He smokes too. A breast of Mariposa duck benefits from a light smoking before it\’s roasted to pink, sliced and fanned over a thyme-flecked, walnut and blue cheese stuffed bread pudding, on a bed of lovely braised veg. The backyard flavour and the unctuous duck jus gently waft down as you fork it up. Very nice.
A bright white black cod is given a miso and maple glaze, served with fingerling potatoes and braised bok choy. Again, very nice.
Missteps? Not many. We find a butternut squash soup too sweet. A pyramid of potato, pistachio and duck confit wrapped in cabbage leaves arrives cold beside the splendid seared scallops in a beurre blanc. A crab cake is too salty, too dense, a bit on the rubbery side. For dessert, chocolate reigns. One of the better chocolate cakes of my life, served with vanilla gelato, or a trio dessert of smooth dark mousse, a brownie (with figs) and ball of chocolate sorbet, served with candied lemons and stewed cloudberries for arterial relief.
If chocolate seems a bit much, there\’s a good sweet potato cheesecake with shards of pecan brittle and a maple syrup sauce.
Luxe is a restaurant of considerable comfort (except, at times, for the noise level and the curious choice of thumping music during the dinner hour, in a room filled with mostly middle-aged men eating steak).
The service adds to the pleasure. Fetching women in not-much-black and handsome men in white shirts and jeans run the floor with professional ease, and speak with authority about both the wine list and food choices.
The wine list is managed by sommelier giant Neil Gowe, and has consistently won Spectator Awards of Excellence.
Luxe is not a bargain. But I like it. Keats can stay put, please.