Le comptoir charcuteries et vins, Montreal – Worth the buzz?

Click here for a recap of  my picks of all Montreal’s top fine dining & best Montreal’s bistrots. 
Also: My  3 and 2 Star Michelin restaurant review web site

Le Comptoir charcuterie et vins
Addr: 4807, boul. Saint-Laurent, Montréal
Type of cuisine: Modern French/Cosmopolitan Bistro
Phone: 514-844-8467
Dinner there this Friday November 11th 2011, 17:00

Food rating: Exceptional (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7), just Ok (6)

(English review will follow) – C’est le nouveau prodige de la scène gastronomique Montréalaise. Un petit bistro/bar vraiment charmant: accessible, le service aimable, l’ambiance vivante, le décor chaleureux. Coté cuisine, oui, ce fut généralement réussi: ils ont l’intelligence de savoir jouer sur l’acidité, le gras, le croquant, les gouts riches..donc des plats généralement savoureux sans etre bouleversants. Quoique pas vraiment à la hauteur du buzz (à mes yeux, évidemment): des ‘shorts-ribs’ sans saveur, les meme garnitures sur plusieurs plats, des pates tièdes (le plat de cannelloni)..donc à la texture peu enviable…j’ai beau vouloir faire partie du buzz, mais désolé..il manque de jus dans ce cas. Ce fut quand meme beaucoup mieux que mes repas  Chez Victoire, KGP, Newtown mais moins saisissants que ceux  que j’ai dégustés Au Kitchen Galerie, Bistro Cocagne, et Bouillon Bilk. Pourtant, le buzz ca ne conduit pas nécessairement à des attentes exagérés: à preuve, San Sebastian…c’est du buzz….et la prestation gourmande surpassa le buzz. Le Buzz c’est pas de la faute du resto CCV, mais en meme temps ca ne l’aide pas car ce soir, je suis sorti de là en me disant que ce fut vraiment bien…mais pourquoi autant de bruit? Lol. Attention: tel que je l’ai mentionné, ce fut bien mieux qu’à d’autres bistrots en ville (eux, au moins, ils s’assurent que ca goute bon!). Mais d’un endroit avec autant de buzz, sans exiger  de la perfection sur toute la ligne, je m’attends au moins à quelques plats qui tonnent et transcendent. Y allez? Oui, allez-y! A la hauteur du buzz? Non (à mon avis). Retournerai-je? Oui  Dans mes favoris? Non. Aussi: j’espère que c’est un cas isolé ->  le chef était dans la salle au lieu d’etre en arrière des fourneaux au moment de notre passage (Vendredi 11 Nov à 17:00)..??? À leurs époques, de grandes Toques comme Ducasse, Joel Robuchon bossaient  fort en arrière de leurs fourneaux. Ici à Montréal, des Chefs de grand  talent (Rouyé, Alexandre Loiseau, Mercuri, Navarrette Jr) font de meme: ils sont en cuisine. L’on se pose donc naturellement des questions… Paul Bocuse? Robuchon? J’aurai compris..mais là… Bref, c’est pas un drame..d’ autres jeunes cuistots Montréalais sont de toute facon concernés par ca…Lol.. et c’est surement pas tout le temps comme ca..du moins je l’espère…, mais la cuisine c’est aussi une question de perception! Au final,  lisez attentivement la description de chacun des plats que j’ai mangé: tout y est exprimé en toute franchise.

This web site  focuses on what stands out amidst Montreal finest dinings and bistrots, but honestly, lately … I am disappointed: many good tables have recently opened but none (in my view) really worths spending time to write about. I have visited a good dozen of the latest  new ones, and mostly ended with  comments like ”oh geez…can someone surprise me a bit please“!  Most of us cook since a long time (in my case, since my tender childhood), so I don’t expect surreal fireworks from food (it’s not a circus, it’s food) at restaurant but for the money I pay, I do expect either  a work of flavors that is outstanding (as usual, compared to what the most are offering in the same city of the restaurant that I am eating at) or things I seldomly see at most of the competitors of that restaurant. Wherever I go, I like comparing local apples to local apples. I am not the type of person expecting one city to be compared to another. When I write, for ie, that a restaurant is creative or stands out, that is in comparison to its closest peers (wherever it applies, I’ll of course mention if the restaurant performs to standards I saw abroad) . 

Le Comptoir charcuterie et vins may appear, at first glance, to not fit with what this web site is focusing on, but this restaurant is THE new star in town, with an avalanche of massive raves coming from all parts: the medias, food critics, and way more. I know this does not guarantee that things will necessarily live up to my (or yours) expectations, but I am under the impression that this eatery has that little something that sets itself apart. I went to find out  for myself.

Chef Ségué Lepage of  Le comptoir charcuteries et vins is a charismatic young talented Chef who was once  trained at 3 star Michelin Bernard Loiseau in France.He is now back in Montreal (after couple of years in Vancouver as well) with a Bistro/Charcuterie/Wine bar formula that is quite common in town lately, but appearently,  from what is buzzed around, his formula is ‘beating the formula’: since its opening, this eatery attracts hordes of gourmands, the success being instantaneous (Chef Ségué Lepage, within one year of opening his venture, has already many accolades to his credit: Gold Medal Plate’s top 10 best Chefs in Montreal, Air Canada’s En Route’s Mag top Montreal tables for this year, etc).

Although Chef Lepage is not trying to re-invent the wheel with his latest offerings (his cuisine is clearly playing in the same field as the casual modern bistro-centric trends), my   interest here is really to see how far he can push  the bar in leaving his imprint (read: how flavorful his food shines through or stands out in a way I could walk out from his eatery with the feel that his work has that little ‘je ne sais quoi”). You don’t need culinaric wowness  for this (for ie: when 3 star Michelin Chef  Jean-Francois Piège decided that he would be behind the stoves of his   bistro Thoumieux in Paris…naturally such Bistro benefitted  from  the very best standards / I did that Bistro btw, and however dissenting our opinions would be, Piège will always get away with what will always stand among the very best bistro formulas you”ll  ever find around the globe – I am always opened to be proven wrong, but I’d seriously be surprised of the contrary); some great Chefs  did just that within the same casual bistro standards that Chef Lepage is facing and they did it right here in Montreal: Chefs Axel and Bourdages at Kitchen Galerie (on Jean-Talon), Chef Alexandre Loiseau at Bistro Cocagne, Chef Lenglet at au  5e Péché. Could  Chef Lepage compete with those Chefs or even surpass them? Based on the raves, I naturally hoped so (or at least competing with that level) ! As a reminder, the food of Lenglet, Axel, Bourdages and Loiseau can’t be accused of being super complex, but in their apparent simplicity they’ve managed to outstand the most with bistro dishes that  simply taste better.  I  went to CCV expecting a bit of that from Chef Lepage.

The room was packed when we were eating there and I’d be surprised that you can get a table just by showing up at the door on a Friday/Satur evening. So book in advance. The interior did remind me of a  small wooden neo-rustic loft with omnipresence of wood. Le  ‘comptoir’ translates into ‘counter’, therefore you need to expect the minimal  setting that is in line with this designation. It’s busy,  and informal. Open kitchen, the menu  on a chalkboard and offerings follow what’s in season. The wine list will appeal to most Mtlers: mostly, bio wines with prices that reach out to a wide range of patrons (for ie wines as low as $33 Ribera del Duero Miros 2006, Penafiel up to a Corton Rognet grand cru 2008, B Clavelier @ $200 with plenty of affordable great findings in between). They do also offer some wines by the glass (this is one of their strengths: the wine by the glass that were offered to me on this evening being truely inspired with many wines rarely found in town).

I’ve skipped everything that’s marinated or that needs few manipulation (for ie, their beet salad) and went right into the cooked dishes so that I can more accurately get a good idea of this cuisine (this is my very first time here):

  Tarte de homard, oignons blonds, tomates confites, crème fraiche, huile d’estragon $19 – A lobster tart. My wife and I exchanged divergent opinions over this one. She thought this was the best dish of this evening. She gave it a 8 over 10. For her, every thing was right on point: the lobster meat being succulent, cooked right. To me, coming from a fishermen’s village, I prefer lobster with more upfront marine freshness, yep..even at this time of the year (it happened before) . Make no mistake though: the lobster was meaty and tasted good. Onions, tomatoes logically complemented this dish. A 7.5 over 10 for me (the sablé pastry tart that was beneath the crab was average in conception and  taste; it was not bad, but lacked the refinement and excellent execution I usually expect from a standout kitchen – I have no problem being challenged with my choices, that’s a subjective matter anyways, but before I rave over a meal it needs to be refined even in the little details. With that fullfilled, I can live in peace with my enthusiastic appreciation. Given the raves – Top 10 new table in Canada in 2011, etc — I believe it’s normal to have such basic expectations) which is very good –mostly for its price/value ratio  and especially because it tasted good —- but not a 9 (excellent) nor a 10 (exceptional), the latter being actually marks that I don’t necessarily hold only for fancy tables: the proof, some  of the $3 tapas I ate  in SSB were rated with 10/10. Same applied to some fares I’ve sampled at simple bistrots like Kitchen Galerie on Jean-Talon, Bistro Cocagne, Au 5e Péché ..regardless of the $$$. With that said, I insist and re-iterate: this $19 lobster tart remains far superior to many 25$-$30 food items you’ll get at many highly regarded bistrots in town. 

Cannelloni de poulet confit, compote de tomate, crème sure à l’ail – Chicken Cannelloni. My wife thought this was less impressive than the previous dish, although she had no particular reproach. To me, this was the best dish of this evening: rich, with various dazzling flavors shining even into the little details such as in the black olive cream and delicious fresh tomatoes. Close to Excellent (8.5/10) for me, Just good (7/10) for my wife. In my view, had all the dishes performed at this level, then Yep…I’d tell you that I get the buzz. A friendly advice though: two dishes with same garnishes (the topping of greens that you’ve just seen on both the Cannelloni and Lobster tart) ..that’s to be avoided (this tends to take some appeal out of the dishes, I found). Also: always serve pastas warmer if you don’t want your dish to suffer from lackluster texture (which I still forgave since this dish was so tasty, but this is one of those slips that kept me a bit conservative about going enthusiastic over this table. Many would have under-rate this dish because of the textural slip…I won’t, but let’s keep in mind that my 8.5/10 is justified by the stunning taste of this dish only). At $11, this was  great value.

Short ribs de boeuf, agnoletti p.d.t, purée de céléri-rave, oignon braisé au vin rouge.  $15 (could have been a bargain, but…read the description of my review of this dish) – Braised beef short ribs – As much as both previous dishes had  many rich flavors, contrasting textures and a smart display of balanced acidity (without being necessarily exceptional), this was surprisingly average (no savory dimension, no upfront delicious beefy taste). Short ribs are condemned to be very flavorful, but flavors were muted on this one. The purée was fine, the braised onions without reproach but the main element was short of  sparks. 6.5/10

Poélé de chanterelles, langue de porc braisée, mini raviolis à purée de racine de persil – Smiles were back on track with this one. A dish like this has that kind of succulent  mouthfeel (without being exceptional) that made me insisting on the fact that although I didn’t think that it shone at heights of the buzz  it is enjoying (again, not the fault of this restaurant), this table still has an edge over many other top bistrots in town. The braised pork tongue was well cooked, it was packed with enticing flavor, the mushrooms perfectly seared and the raviolis had the right al dente consistency. It’s not a revolutionary dish (which I actually largely prefer over fancy challenging culinary constructions) , but the palatable impact is high. Again and again: why that topping of the same greens that appeared on both previous plates?????????? In the diner’s psyche, seeing the same garnishes over and over simply kills the mooooood!!  BUT what a bargain at $11! (many bistro fares charged at  double  the price of this course  never came as close to half of the amazing taste of this dish!!)  8.5 /10

Panna cotta à la vanille, compote de pomme à la fève tonka, purée de dattes, sablée breton aux pacanes – Vanilla Panna cotta, apple compote was average. No reproach with regard to the execution here (the panna cotta being technically conceived as expected, the compote flawless)..but the overall palatable impact was weak without being bad. 7/10    

Bottom line, I found CCV to be a fine and fun (it’s popular and the atmosphere is festive here) small laidback spot to have some nice wines (they  indeed have little gems you won’t see oftently at other tables in Montreal), food that’s mostly tasty (honestly, for a web site like mine that focuses on what stands out in town — No, this is not done in a snobbish way but just with the humble intent to find tables that push the bar — you’ll catch some top tables that haven’t offered as many 8/10 or 8.5/10 dishes as on this dinner). The problem here has nothing to do with CCV (although this meal at CCV is not a revelation neither): it’s the lousy buzz. If at least one single item (out of the 5 that we’ve sampled) was outstanding (the cannelloni and poélé de chanterelles were great, but I had better poélés de chanterelles and cannellonis alike-dishes in Montreal), I’d at least understand a bit of the buzz.  When you see  some tables that are far superior (for accuracy purpose, remember that those don’t match CCV’s cost Vs value advantage neither) not benefitting from such buzz, you naturally don’t get the buzz! CCV should not be criticized for that. But on the other hand, if buzz needs to predominate here in Mtl, then it has to start with far superior tables like Au 5e Péché, Raza, Le Marly, Bouillon Bilk, XO Le restaurant, La Porte..etc. Then I’ll get the buzzy buzz………………!      YES..for the $$$, CCV outstands, but is buzz about $$$  or food performance???  It’s a restaurant review site, so I insist in believing that food performance needs to be considered first (again, some food items here were absolutely delicious, for ie the chicken cannelloni and poélé de chanterelles…but not to a buzz-worthy level in my view).

A reality check directed to some chefs in Montreal:  I am not targeting any specific chef (they will recognize themselves wherever this applies): the intent here is not to be mean nor to patronize but to raise a constructive point that would benefit not only to yourself but also to your diners in their appreciation of your work -> when I went eating at 3 Star Michelin victor Gourmet Schloss Berg, Chef Bau was working hard behind his stoves till 2:00AM. This Chef  is one of world’s very best Chefs around the globe. When I went at 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie, one of the greatest Chefs of all times, Bernard Pacaud, was working behind his stoves. 3 star Michelin Chef Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance…closes his restaurant when he is away! Many other Chefs who are among world’s very best are working hard behind their stoves (another great ie would be 3 star Michelin Chef Valazza)…HERE, in Montreal, Top Chefs like Alexandre Loiseau, Navarrette Jr, Axel, Rouyé are  working hard behind their stoves ..Now, what do you think..some  may think of YOU….when they see you absent behind YOUR stoves! ……………..GET IT??……………………