Le Café du Musée has one of the finest views of any restaurant in the region. Gaze out its rounded wall of windows and you feast on the city – from the red roof of the Ottawa New Edinburgh Club to the Bank of Canada and everything in between: Parliament Hill with its newly unwrapped library, the icy cliffs that tumble into the snow covered river. Over there, the twin spirals of the Cathedral, the National Gallery, the Chateau Laurier, the old train station, the mouth of the Rideau Canal, the ugly, stump-topped US embassy, and beneath you, at the foot of this restaurant, the grounds of this magnificent museum.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization is the jewel in the crown of our national museums, an architectural marvel and the most visited museum in the country.
But remove the view and there’s not much left. Not much that rises above mediocre on the plate, and not much of a room. Tables are bare and wobbly. Cutlery is of cafeteria quality, rolled in a napkin. Banquet size wine glasses are spotted. High chairs and coffee carafes are stored in the aisle. The carpet is tired. The walls are all but empty. Service matches the stemware and plate ware: it’s all pretty much of cafeteria quality.
Indeed, remove the visual clues from the windows and you could be in any dining room in any city in any country.
That’s unfortunate. When the Canadian Museum of Civilization hired Chef Georges Laurier in June 2007, I had high hopes that there was finally going to be a commitment made to take its fine dining restaurant out of the doldrums, making it worthy not only of its situation and superb setting, but also of the considerable abilities and talents of its new executive chef.
Georges Laurier is brilliant. During its day, his restaurant – Laurier sur Montcalm – was a treasure. I miss it still. But seven months after his arrival Le Café du Musée remains lackluster. And his talent is likely put into the big banquets. I wouldn’t know. I only know there precious little evidence of it on any plate I sampled here over three lunches.
I won’t bore you long with the details of the food. None of it is dreadful, but neither does any of it sing. The baguette is very fresh but very Wonder Bread; a cornmeal crusted pickerel is overcooked, the corn and mushroom fritters are doughy. We send the bison shank back to the kitchen, as it is inedibly tough; the hot smoked mackerel pizza that arrives as a replacement, (with goat cheese and pine nuts) is truly dreadful. Better bets: other than the soggy crab claw garnish, the lobster bisque is quite fine, as is the duck confit, though the “risotto” on which it rests is not a proper risotto and the root vegetables are undercooked. There’s a chicken stew that’s tasty and rustic, but it sure looks silly on its white, doilied plate and the seafood chowder has a nice texture and flavour but a marked paucity of seafood and too many potato skins. The very best of the bunch is the mushroom stuffed pasta with King Eryngii mushrooms and a truffle oil boosted cream sauce.
Service is slapdash and the tiny wine list is dismal. Where are the great Canadian wines, oh great Canadian national museum?
When will someone please take this space, renovate it, update it, pay some attention to it, hire some crackerjack servers, get some good advice on the wine list, slap on some white tablecloths and let one of the region’s best chefs strut his stuff? And then open for dinner. I’d love to come back to feast on the view and the food.
This might have been another report of another mediocre restaurant, but I’ve just returned from a remarkable meal at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. I also recall an equally artful experience at the ROM dining room a few years before, and certainly there are many other cities with extraordinary museum restaurants. But I find myself embarrassed by ours. This could be one of the great destination restaurants of this region: a go-to place for out of town guests; a restaurant for pre- and post-Winterluding. And what a spot to feast on the fireworks on Canada Day!
So instead, I lament, tinged with a certain grumpiness, about a space that has so much potential in terms of its architecture, its venue and its chef, but is, in its present condition, a wonderful opportunity missed.