I found myself running my fingers over it, smoothing it, marvelling at its whiteness. A tablecloth: I believe this is the name given to these relics. When was the last time I sat down to starched napery on a restaurant table? It seems everyone’s gone naked. Bare and black or bamboo with a woven mat – this is the new look for restaurant tables. And all those marvellous restaurants in Old Hull (which wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving a table unwrapped) seem to have gone the way of the cloth.
The unhappy truth is that French restaurants – on both sides of the river, but more shockingly in Gatineau – are closing. Flipping through the 2004 and 2008 editions of my Capital Dining guidebooks, the once fleshy Quebec index has been decimated. Gone are Bistro 1908, Café Henry Burger, Laurier sur Montcalm, Le Panaché, Le Sans Pareil, Le Verlan, Le St Estèphe, L’Aubergine, Belair sur la Rivière. There’s a Thai restaurant – one in a chain – where Henry Burger use to be; a massage parlour has take over Le Sans Pareil’s address, and the handsome Bistro 1908 building remains endlessly for lease.
So thank God, I say, for St-Jacques – now in its third year, and seeming to me more mature at my every visit. This is a true bistro, where the cooking is classy, the portions are generous and the price is fair. What’s more, the service (which so won my heart in 2008, led by the charming Vincent Denis) remains a silky smooth draw.
New-to-me chef Christopher Mulder is now in the kitchen, replacing opening chef Lucas Hornblower. He sends out baguette, made more appealing with an irresistible roasted vegetable butter. The amuse-bouche one night is a flavour-packed mouthful of house-made Toulouse sausage, moistened with goat cheese and a bit of grainy mustard, presented on a thin crisp, curled like an elf’s boot.
Cold-smoked bison carpaccio is fantastic, with arugula and shards of Parmesan. The fruit-with-game rule is obeyed with molecular pearls of fig and balsamic vinegar that look at first like peppercorns, and then burst with sweet-tart juice in the mouth. (Mulder’s been noshing at Atelier, we are told.)
There are sweetbreads, as there must be, and they are luscious in an amber chicken broth with roasted cippolini onions and diced asparagus, though the liquid pool could use a bit more oomph. During a second visit, our favourite starter is a ceviche of scallops presented in layers in a tumbler of cool flavours, anchored with a smooth flan, greened with herbs, then a layer of roasted corn and crabmeat, and the crown of lime-cured scallops. Lovely.
A hunk of crisp-skinned striped bass is next, sweet and fleshy and dropping in petals into a silky beurre blanc sharpened with sherry. Buttered fiddleheads, Jerusalem artichokes and Christophe’s mushrooms make up the bass bed; a smear of fig and balsamic syrup lends a bit of fruity sweetness, and for crunch and salt, a Parmesan tuile.
The big order around here seems to be the steak frites, and it doesn’t disappoint. The meat has dark crunch, a terrific chew, and bloody good juice. It’s seasoned just right and furnished with a further belt of flavour from a smoky tomato jam. The frites are excellent, and the accompanying salad, while not expected when you ask for steak frites, is an additional pleasure. Makes you think you can eat every last fry, when there are greens to counterweigh.
Star anise and poached pear flavour the crème brûlée, and while I tend to like crème brûlée unhampered, this one works awfully well. Even better is the house cheesecake, amaretto and chocolate marbled with vanilla, on a nutty crust. The wine list offers plenty of good drinking at earthy prices.
In a neighbourhood that once groaned with good possibilities for dining out, it’s comforting to know one, at least, that’s a most rewarding place to eat. Let’s hope Bistro St-Jacques sticks around.