It's been a long, cold, cold, winter here in Ottawa, and to say I have been uninspired to write would be putting it lightly. It's not that I haven't been cooking (we gotta eat) but we've been sticking to comforting and simple meals for the most part, ones that don't invite much in the way of blogging. I have been honing my chili recipe, since we've been hosting regular Chili Fridays for friends to try and take the edge off the winter blues a little bit, and those have been hugely successful. Other than that, it's been quiet in my kitchen and we've not ventured out to restaurants very often either.
However, last weekend I was whisked away to St-Sauveur in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal for a birthday celebration, and it involved a very nice meal indeed. I researched all of the restos in town and finally decided on Maestro, a newish place that looked fun and interesting. I will say that the evening started off on a sour note: we turned up to a packed and rather noisy house for our 7:00 reservation (made five weeks ago) and were offered a tiny two-top right next to the kitchen. Completely unacceptable, in my opinion, so we immediately asked, politely, if there was another table to be had elsewhere. After a few minutes, the hostess informed us that there was another table upstairs that we could look at and see what we thought.
That table was near the top of the stairs and right next to the server's station, but it was at least quieter and away from the noise of the kitchen, so we accepted it. The next hurdle was the seating - one hideously uncomfortable bentwood chair and one very squishy banquette. I tried the former and asked Chris to trade me for the latter, and we managed fine, but I hate it when restaurants choose seating for its form over its function.
At this point I was fully prepared to hate everything about the place, including the food and service, but Joelle saved the evening. Obviously the most experienced server in the room, her calm, friendly and professional demeanour put us at ease immediately, and once we had a round of excellent cocktails in hand, we began to enjoy ourselves.
It didn't hurt that the food turned out to be excellent. I'd call it French-Asian fusion food, modern without being over-the-top, with subtle but interesting flavours and unfussy presentation. I started with a delicious salmon tartare, accompanied with crostini and a lovely, well-dressed salad. Chris had the "nanan du saumon" which sounded tasty and turned out to be small cubes of lightly seared maple-marinated salmon, with dill creme fraiche and toasts. I wouldn't mind going back and eating that myself. Good portion sizes - restrained without being austere.
Mains were equally well-executed: Chris's linguine with chicken, prosciutto, grapes and arugula in a creamy sauce was creative without being weird, and the flavours melded well. My duck confit with honey, ginger and soy was near-perfect (the skin could have been crisped, but was at least well-rendered, not flabby) with the meat falling gorgeously off the bone in melting shards, rich and delicately scented with Chinese five-spice. The accompanying vegetables were cooked perfectly (al dente sugar snaps! tiny bok choy! still-crisp red pepper!) and the bowl of basmati rice was buttery and spot-on.
We shared a half-bottle of Pfaff pinot gris from Alsace which was excellent and well-priced, from a good selection of half-bottles, a rarity on Ontario wine lists but common in Quebec, I find, and most welcome for a couple.
We didn't truly need dessert, but since it was my birthday, we decided to indulge, sharing a small plate of house-made ricotta beignets, with caramel sauce for dipping. Rolled in cinnamon and sugar, the doughnuts were warm and barely sweet on the inside, so the sauce didn't send you into sugar shock. My only quibble is that the caramel was very light, and I'm a fan of the near-burnt flavour of a well-cooked sugar molecule, but that's inconsequential here. Two decaf espressos rounded out the meal, which was well-paced but not overly slow, and served with a smile, a deft hand and an occasional humorous remark from the ever-professional Joelle.
The room did get noisier as the evening went on, so if you like a quiet meal, maybe go earlier, but overall I'd not hesitate to recommend this place and I will definitely be returning myself. It's trendy and a bit flashy, and they waste a lot of their limited space on a glassed-in wine room on each floor (!), but if you sit away from the bar with its giant TV, it's a fun and upbeat place to enjoy a meal. I was most impressed with the restraint shown by the kitchen - with fusion food it's easy to go big or go home with flavours - but this was classy, well-thought-out, tasty and easy to enjoy. A very happy birthday, indeed, especially with the sparkling view of the ski-hill lighting the way back to our hotel.