L’Échelle de Jacob is far more attractive than when I last reviewed it, back in 2008. Gone are the sky blue walls and goofy Care Bear clouds that guided you to this second-floor restaurant. Gone too is the unfashionably homey, tavern-style dining room dripping with spider plants. L’Échelle de Jacob is now configured a bit differently. It’s smarter, sleeker. The inherent charm of this space – the upper room of a limestone building once used as storage hangar for streetcars that worked the Aylmer-Gatineau routes – is on better show now.
But gone too, I’m afraid, is the charm in the cuisine. I can only summon tepid enthusiasm for the food at the new L’Échelle de Jacob. For every respectable dish, there was a troubled one.
After three visits, I am closer than ever to pronouncing the end of the golden age of fine French restaurants in Gatineau. The list of dearly departed is long. I had hopes this one would be a revitalizer. But for all the continental promise of the menu, the plates failed too often. And my visits have been lonesome ones. It’s a wretched thing for a restaurant not to have customers, but it’s not much fun for the lone diner either to be clanking around in an echoing space that ought to be filled with the happy sounds of happy people having a fine time. Is it empty because no one can find it? (It is unquestionably off the beaten track, even tricky to find once you’ve found the 27 boul. Lucerne address.) Is it because it’s not well promoted? (It’s not a restaurant you read much about on either side of the river.) Or is L’Échelle de Jacob empty because it’s just not that great – and too expensive to be not that great?
The new chef-owner is Peter Wardrope, whose last job, I understand, was at The Grange Retreat in Cantley. His cuisine is old-school French, his plates are busy, a bit fuddly for my taste, though portions are certainly generous. The menu is set up as a four-course table d’hôte, priced between $40 and $47.
I imagine you could order a single dish, without committing to the full four, but the menu doesn’t make this clear, nor does it post prices for individual plates. We were game for the works, in any event, and working through it (I think I’ve now sampled just about everything) was a mixed affair.
We began with a good soup (seafood in a tomato broth with some jalapeño heat) and a bland soup (sweet potato and leek) and, on the whole, fared better with the starters than the main dishes.
The favourite was the aspic-roofed, richly flavoured chicken liver pâté, served prettily with greens, but curiously missing a crostini, or something thin and crunchy to ferry mousse to mouth. Second best of the starters was a big, bouncy salad, prettily plated, filled in with berries and nuts. Fine too was the terrine studded with pistachios. The scallops were a bit rubbery, and over-sauced. The shrimp were a dull lot, in a too-sweet mayonnaise and I suspect the creamed “wild” mushrooms in puff pastry were tame, as was the mushroom flavour.
Eight main dishes were on offer – one fish, no vegetarian option, the meaty list a bit brown and heavy for a warm summer night. The best was the duck leg confit with a red onion jam. The rack of lamb was ordered medium-rare and arrived medium-rare, but the meat was hardly memorable, and the poached apples on the side tasted mushily canned. The salmon with a little mango salsa was no more than inoffensive. The rabbit was terribly dry and stringy and the veal kidneys in mustard sauce were tough. Every main dish came with roasted jacket potatoes and a pretty mound of al dente vegetables, disconcertingly doused with sesame oil – a bully flavour, and not one that marries well with demi-glace port reductions on these plates.
Go straight for the cheeses to end. A generous, mostly local selection, served with fruit (and pretty pedestrian crackers.) Though we liked too the Rève de Jacob – a white and dark chocolate bread pudding with a crème anglaise and raspberry sauce. The sticky toffee pudding is meant to be sweet, but the caramel sauce absolutely obliterated the little cake, and it was unbearably sugary.
We certainly didn’t leave L’Échelle de Jacob hungry, only wanting more.