Ça va très bien: The French mod­ern­izes the bistro

RESTAU­RANT RE­VIEW

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ALANA HUD­SON Alana Hud­son has cooked in restau­rants in­clud­ing Le Bernardin, Vong, and Avalon. With Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor files

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.

GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

El­e­gant sur­faces and cosy, warm colours greeted us as we walked in.

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