June, 2011 update: Steve Wall (from Town Restaurant) is the new chef at Luxe Bistro.
August 2012 update: Steve Wall has left Luxe to open his own place. Stay tuned.
The steakhouse. Let other restaurant ‘cuisines’ wax and wane in favour, as long as there are men with deep pockets who like to keep things undemanding, the red meat mecca will endure.
Luxe Bistro has ‘endured’ nine years on a primo corner in the Byward Market. Recent dinners here have suggested that its fans have not been fatally distracted by the newcomers: Steak Modern on Clarence Street, and the glamorous Shore Club attached to the Westin Hotel, which, as it happens, poached Luxe chef Duane Keats last year.
Luxe has its own glam. It’s a more intimate size, and its French bistro-meets-1950s men’s club feel – brass, tile and dark wood, brown leather, table lamps, low light, framed mirrors – has always appealed. The rounded banquettes are the favourite plush and private nooks at Luxe, but popular too are the high-topped tables by the bar. Try to avoid the drafty seats by the window with the less appealing view of a loading dock. (Drapes that close, perhaps?)
I have reported on Luxe Bistro a few times since it opened in 2003, mostly showing up whenever a new chef did. Helming the kitchen now is Kyle Christofferson, putting his stamp on a menu that offers what it’s always offered – steaks and seafood, along with bistro faves like oysters, steak tartare, bouillabaisse, duck confit. But this menu looks a bit different from my last visit. For one, Luxe used to sear up top end Alberta beef. And now the menu reads: “We proudly serve USDA Prime steaks”. (Can you imagine the outrage if a Washington steakhouse within lobbing distance of The Capitol “proudly served Canadian beef”?) And here too is something new: “Add chicken/steak/shrimp/tuna” to any Luxe salad. Sure, it may be popular, but it’s an option that dumbs down a menu.
That said the steak tartare is brilliant. This was the best of the starters sampled: a mottled pink brick of roughly chopped, perfectly piqued and seasoned raw filet, served with a crisp of Asiago cheese, a drizzle of something fruity and spicy, rounds of house-pickled radish, and Art-is-in breads crostini. The final flourish on the mound was a raw quail egg. Very nicely done.
Thumbs up to the charcuterie platter too – full flavoured meats and sausage (made in-house we are told) and Quebec cheeses in good condition, with marinated peppers, a bit of (lightly) smoked salmon and a dish of tangy, lemon-curdled crÃ¨me fraiche, sharpened with chives. Good too were scallops, seared dark and hard on one side, set on an oily toss of green beans, roasted pearl onions and grape tomatoes, and with coral daubs of sofrito sauce (tomato, garlic, onion, olive oil mayo).
The French onion soup was only OK – a bit sweet, a bit tepid, but otherwise a richly flavoured broth, though I wasn’t sure what to do with the branch of tarragon floating on top. And though the Caesar salad came out looking like something I’d get at any roadhouse – powdery cheese, knife chopped romaine and only a stingy amount of bacon lardons – it tasted better than it looked, thanks to a dressing with balance and guts. The one true letdown among the starters was the crab cake. It was oddly perfumed with a spice I couldn’t place, but it tasted medicinal, a bit soapy. None of us could eat it.
There were some stumbles among the main dishes. A cedar plank salmon was dry, juiceless, with undetectable cedar flavour. A duck confit was soft, fibrous, of good duck flavour, but letdown by a badly made risotto — well past al dente, cream-boosted, and too sweet. The Luxe frites are the thin bistro type, but clearly factory made, and tasting more of oil and salt than spud, and the mashed potatoes had the texture of over-whipped glue.
Since the steak I covet is on the bone, I was limited to the one bone-in option: the $50, 20oz, USDA Prime rib eye, a steak for which the doggy bag was invented. It had a good char and meaty flavour, still I’ve had better. It was fine – it just didn’t have the intense flavour of well-aged meat.
A lunch salad of tuna nicoise was a very pretty plate but remarkably dull – the assembly missing an oil anointment, unseasoned, needing some perk of some sort, and served with too-crunchy, stringy beans. The burger was thick and dense, and likely very good, but marred with too much salt.
They make good ice creams here – the chocolate particularly dark and intense – and the sticky toffee pudding was divine.
As ever, the Luxe wine list is a solid draw. The food, a bit less reliable.