Tuesday, June 3, 2008

L’échelle de Jacob – a hidden French gem in old Aylmer

Sunday was my parents’ 34th wedding anniversary. (Go Mom and Dad!) To mark the occasion, they asked if my sister and I and our respective spouses would join them for dinner at one of their favourite old haunts, a place they hadn’t returned to in many years – L’échelle de Jacob, across the river in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau. They had always loved the dressy-casual French food and homey décor, but somehow had never gotten around to bringing their daughters there. We happily acquiesced, and turned up Sunday night slightly overdressed but happy to have an occasion to wear dresses and nice shoes.

The restaurant is in an old stone building, tucked behind what used to be the Hull streetcar garage. It occupies the second floor and is a low-lit room dominated by dark wood tables and chairs, with a small bar at the front and a fireplace in the corner. We were one of two occupied tables that night, which was fine with us. We all enjoyed an aperitif before our menus were presented – Chris and I went with Dubonnet on ice as usual, while the rest splurged on kir royales (each arrived with its own individual Lilliputian bottles of Henckel Trocken).

The four-course table d’hôte menu (which is the only menu; no à la carte here) changes seasonally – it’s still in spring mode, but I assume it will switch over to summer in the coming weeks. We were apprised of the day’s two soups: Provençal-style fish soup with crouton and rouille (red pepper and garlic paste) or crème de verdures (cream of green vegetables). Interestingly, all the men went for the fish and all the women for the veggies. I traded bites with Chris and was certainly pleased by the taste of the fish soup, but I enjoyed my green potage just as much. I tasted peas and possibly broccoli or asparagus, and my sister guessed watercress. In any event, it was smooth and not too rich, and the serving size was perfect with a hot buttered roll.

It took all of us forever to decide on appetizers and mains, but eventually we managed it. Mom and I started with a tiny goat cheese soufflé, which was hot and fluffy and nicely browned on the outside with a smooth, sharp but not harsh-tasting cheese interior. Chris tried a charlotte of field and forest mushrooms, which ended up being something like a warm mushroom bread pudding of superlative flavor and texture. When he offered me a bite he said “you’re going to wish you’d ordered this” and he was right. The remainder of the table went with a crab cake, which was spicy and delicious.

For mains, Chris and my mother both went for the duck leg confit with apricot sauce, and once I tasted it I kind of wished I had, too, but I have this thing about not ordering the same thing as Chris. The problem is that he always orders the thing I really want! It was cooked perfectly, moist shards of meat falling away from the bone in a sweet-tart sauce, accompanied by two small triangles of fluffy cheddar polenta that was so light and un-gritty that even Chris liked it, and a trio of vegetables – four fiddleheads, three baby carrots (ugh) and a stalk of cauliflower.

My sister and I both ordered the pork in vanilla and white wine sauce, which turned up on the plate as moist slices of beautifully roasted tenderloin in a sauce that was tasty and interesting, if not something I’d order every day, alongside a piped puff of mashed potato and the same three veggies. My brother-in-law went with the coquilles St-Jacques, seafood in a saffron cream sauce, which was very tasty if the chunk of sea scallop I tried was any indication. Dad ordered the rack of lamb – a no-brainer, as whenever it’s on the menu, Dad will order it. Here, it was simply roasted without too much fanfare, but the meat was so good it needed nothing more.

With our apps and mains, we shared two bottles from Bordeaux – the first was a lighter, more acidic St-Estèphe with an apple-y top note that, for me, only balanced out once I paired it with my goat cheese soufflé. It was definitely a food wine. The second, a Cotes de Castillon (I think – my Dad did the ordering) was much heavier and oakier, very good with the meat dishes.

Dessert was classics all round: crème brulée for Dad, top-notch profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and dark chocolate sauce for myself and my brother-in-law, and the house specialty for the rest: le rêve de Jacob, a slice of warm bread pudding studded with white and dark chocolate, in a crème Anglaise sauce. It was truly a dream. Tisanes and good decaf sent us home warm and happy despite the evening’s rain.

Service, by the owner, a delightful man of Algerian and French extraction, was superb, well-paced and friendly. He answered all of our myriad questions and chatted amiably when engaged. His wife cooks, and does it beautifully. It was a relaxing and truly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday evening.

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