Ça va très bien: The French modernizes the bistro
THE FRENCH MODERNIZES THE BISTRO
On a recent evening, my companion and I sauntered across the red brick road to where King William meets Hughson.
On the street-facing windows of the brickand-stone facade at 37 King William, in light gold capital letters, is the word “French,” reiterated on the vertical sign hugging one side of the venerable three-storey building.
The restaurant inhabits the ground level of the historic Reardon’s building — which dates back to 1867. It was renovated to house The French, which opened in December, serving lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
Elegant surfaces and cosy, warm colours greeted us as we walked in. Exposed brick and stone walls. Banquettes in red, grey and orange alongside chic yet rustic wooden tables, set and ready for diners. On the walls near the open kitchen, sparkling white subway tile.
Two dining areas, each with its own bar. Drinks are prepared at the one near the front; the other offers seating for those who enjoy watching the chefs in action. Both have white marble countertops set off by beautiful bar stools upholstered in grey fabric. Upscale comfort.
We were seated in a red corner banquette, not far from the open kitchen. The servers walked around with brisk proficiency, dressed in black T-shirts and long, bistrostyle aprons. Ours came over, her arms displaying amazing tattoos, and gave us some water while she took our drink orders.
We started with cocktails. The choices included a mix of classics, including a Sidecar, and the ever popular Boulevardier. I opted for the French Blonde, mainly grapefruit combined with gin from Dillon’s in Beamsville.
A touch of bitterness on the finish and a hint of rosemary underlying it all. Subtle complexity at its best.
My companion’s champagne cocktail was Courvoisier with bubbles, finished with a bitters-soaked sugar cube and lemon twist. Bitter bubbles, I thought, but in a good way, and as the sugar diffused, the drink balanced itself out.
Our server took our food orders and as we waited, garlic and other savoury aromas from the kitchen whetted our appetite. The sounds of orders called out to the cooking staff melded with subtle groove beats emanating from the speaker system. Floor to ceiling French doors and tall adjacent windows let in the late evening light, giving the space an airy, relaxed feel.
The first dish: parsnip confit. The parsnips were soft and cushiony on the inside, crispy on the outside. Mild Mornay sauce on the side was a very nice match for the veggies, and arugula salad piled on top. A sprinkling of bacon “streusel,” with crispy oats in it, gave the dish an earthy depth and a savoury textural surprise.
Then, the appetizer special: grilled asparagus with soft boiled egg, Manchego cheese, hazelnuts, lemon and chive.
I had to order the asparagus, now in season in Ontario. Perfectly grilled, with the egg cooked just right — soft, but not runny — though there was a heavy hand with the top salt; I had to brush some off to make it palatable. On top of the asparagus, grated Manchego formed a slightly cumbersome, lacy curtain. Adding the shavings closer to serving would be preferable, but I appreciated the simplicity of this seasonal dish.
The next dish sounds like the sequel to a “Terminator” movie — Eggplant: Fully Loaded. It did pack a punch but as my companion pointed out, it was more like a meat dish with a small base of eggplant. The lamb topping was spiced with cumin and chili pepper, and other Moroccan spices that tingled pleasantly on the tongue.
We asked our server to recommend wines for our two chosen mains: the side-by-side beef cheek and pork belly (they have just dropped this from their spring menu in favour of lighter options), and the duck confit.
The wine list had some nice local and nonlocal choices by the glass, including Malivoire and Rosewood Estate. The beer selection was excellent, including some larger bottles to share (black lager from Silversmith and others from Beau’s, for instance).
Our server’s choices were spot-on. Cherry notes in the Chateau Aimée Médoc Bordeaux picked up the depth of the beef cheeks. The cheeks and pork belly were fall apart tender; the pork melted in my mouth.
They came with roasted root vegetables and a big, nutty king oyster mushroom that had been scored to ensure it cooked through perfectly. The beef sauce was rich and went well with the meats. However, the potatoes could have been a touch richer to stand up to their cheeky companions.
With our duck, Fattoria Le Calvane Quercione Chianti, which laid off the big tannins just enough to let the duck’s richness shine through. It was a pleasure to have such good wines by the glass on offer.
The duck was also cooked quite nicely and came with lentils, mustard greens and some lovely shredded pickled cabbage that acted as a palate cleanser. A helpful one, though, as the duck was quite salty. Still, a well-conceived take on a classic bistro dish.
Dessert was next: a perfect lemon tart, its crust soft and tender. Amazing lemon custard filling, gently brûléed on top and bursting with lemon flavour that landed on the right side of being too tart. Blueberries strewn beneath, their sweetness tempering the tartness of the lemon.
The chocolate mousse also had many excellent qualities. The mousse itself had a very nice consistency but the salt (I believe it was Maldon) sprinkled on top was, again, too much for me.
I enjoy the combination of salt and chocolate at times, but felt the salt hijacked the show on this one. I removed what I could and this allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the garnish on top: candied orange peel and ginger. These playful flavours were just the right foil for the creamy chocolate.
Looking around at this point, I noticed that the place was full. With its solid kitchen, smart service and a beautiful dining room, The French appears to be thriving.
Elegant surfaces and cosy, warm colours greeted us as we walked in.