We lost two eminent French restaurants in Gatineau when CafÃ© Henry Burger and Le Sans Pareil closed and the Hull region hasn’t yet recovered. With the exception of the splendid Le Baccara (which, to enjoy, one must run the Casino gauntlet) there isn’t another great French restaurant in the area. Sure, there are some decent ones in the downtown core, but none that really scratches you in all the right places.
Though I’m not averse to hunting for one. A note from a reader reminded me that my last report on Le Pied de Cochon was seven years old, that it hadn’t been particularly flattering and that his favourite restaurant was surely due for another look. Seemed fair to me. And though it is a few decades shy of Henry Burger’s longevity, I was astonished to learn that Le Pied de Cochon was in its 35th year of service. Thirty-four years under the same chef-owner, in the same location, and — barring some modification of windows and patio — with essentially the same look.
Pigs of various deportment bunch on shelves and bar. Walls are green and burgundy, floors are carpeted. Tables are well-linened and properly set, over lit with tiffany-style lamps etched with Le Pied de Cochon pigs. (We wish they’d turn down the lights. We wish they’d light our candle.) About the most interesting part of an otherwise dated duo of brightly lit dining rooms is the wonderful folksy oils of old Hull and of this restaurant in its early days.
Le Pied de Cochon worked best for me at lunch. Service was provided by a memorably coiffed woman who seemed on kissing terms with two-thirds of the tables. She’s been running the lunch show — entirely on her own at my visits — for some 17 years, striding in stilettos from kitchen to tables to bar to Rancilio, taking orders on a notepad, delivering food, opening wine, drawing espressos, clearing plates, setting covers, manoeuvring the dessert trolley, and hand-writing each bill. No computer here, she explains. We do things the old-fashioned way.
Indeed they do. The menu du jour, handwritten exclusively in French, harkens to another era, when “bistro” really meant something. On the page are lobster bisque, vichychoisse, omelette aux champignons avec frites, steak tartare, kidneys in mustard sauce, veal liver sweetened with raspberries, entrecÃ´te grillÃ©e in a tarragon sauce.
The gazpacho is cool and flavourful, its presentation unfussy, its tomato flavour strong, missing perhaps a pique more vinegar, but otherwise a simple, refreshing bowl. The terrine of rabbit is rimmed with creamy white fat, touched with spice and a little gamey — served with salad and with strong mustard. A mousse of pickerel and lobster is gently likable.
The saffron mayonnaise has some fire to it, and gives the fish some oomph. Again, a well-dressed little salad on the side. If you like liver, you will like this liver, well prepared, well cooked, its offal flavour sweetened with honey and raspberry. Over-salted creamed spinach is the regrettable bed for a generous serving of beautifully cooked pickerel. It comes with puff pastry top and bottom, fresh and flaky, and with a butter sauce that is just a sauce, nothing more, tasting of very little, its texture a little over-thickened.
Dinner starters arrive with alarming speed. Coquilles St-Jacques are ho-hum. The vichyssoise with asparagus has wan potato flavour, with crunchy bits of asparagus paddling about in the cold, creamy bowl. The rounds of beets in a salad with feta could use some seasoning, but this is otherwise a best-of starter. Salmon is well done, moist and juicy, with fragrant basmati rice and steamed vegetables, all fine.
Other than the silly moat of sauce that drowns the duck, veg and all, the magret itself is tender, crisp skinned and with a layer of essential fat.
The one big letdown at dinner is the steak tartare, the raw meat on its bed of Boston lettuce tasting strongly of something musty, like too much white pepper.
Desserts from the trolley include a lovely bowl of strawberries with a light strawberry mousse, raspberries served with a forgettable crÃ¨me anglaise, a cup of chocolate-bar-thick chocolate mousse with a poached pear bottom, and a crÃ¨me brulÃ©e that would be fine but for the top half inch of curdled custard.
My sense is that Le Pied de Cochon remains busy with diners who came to this bistro early and have stayed tuned in for life. I suppose I’ve come a bit later to the show, and though I can understand its appeal, I find its performance a bit uneven, its ambience a bit wanting.