Montreal is well known for having some fantastic restaurants. Reviews by Zagat, AAA, and Frommer's can't seem to lavish enough praise onto eateries such as the casino-anchored Nuances, the brilliance of Toqué!, or the inventiveness of Le Chevre. The worthiness of such praise notwithstanding, they're all missing a gem which left me giddy. Chez La Mere Michele is, currently, my favorite restaurant in Montreal.
You don't get that impression, initially. Nestled in an old house on a remarkably quiet road, there was no fancy architecture to warn me of what lay inside. It even had its menu in an aged, wooden box outside to tempt walkers-by. I, in my usual street clothes, interested by the French-inental cuisine inside, wandered in.
There is a coat check-in area, which leads to a maître d', and finally the dining area. The dining area is glorious. Flawless table dress, sumptuous lighting choices, and decorative touches that are so genuine, so hard to find elsewhere, that I would dare you to find a nicer dining area outside of Versailles. I don't consider this an exaggeration.
My dinner partner and I were greeted warmly, with flawless panache the waiter led us to our table. Only after sitting down did I realize how wonderful this whole scenario was. He did not judge, or at least he hid any semblance of it, and sat us with nary a look. We looked around at the other diners, and sitting in our street clothes, realized how horribly out of place we were. This was a very nice place. The professionalism and utter tact of the waiter was exemplified by how he did not place us in some far-off corner, away from other guests, or turn us away. The menu placed outside was not some off-handed gesture. They meant it. You CAN just walk in. Whether you feel out of place or not, I guess that's your problem.
Without a hiccup, he sat us, and with the flourishes of a classically trained waiter, he gave us our menus, the specials, and off he went. I was so impressed with the service. Speechless. Speechless about covers my initial feelings. Every move, every word, every stance was perfectly chosen. As our appetizers came out, that this was a traditional restaurant was further confirmed, when he brought out a serving tray loaded with various food stuffs and he commenced preparing our salads and appetizers by the table. As per the traditional blueprint, the waiter was a part of the establishment; critical to its operation and immensely skilled.
The dinner breads were wonderful and freshly cooked, and by the gods, they gave us butter. Living down in uber-hip Providence has made something as simple as getting butter, as opposed to some shallow dish of oil and spice, a treat. My dining partner ordered the Swiss cheese souffle which was, for her, nearly beyond words. Airy, crispy, creamy. The textures and flavors danced a jig all over our palates. I ordered a crab cake special which was, sigh, almost without peer. It was the best crab cake I have ever eaten. I've had some excellent crab cakes in Rhode Island, but thanks to the precedent set by Baltimore, American crab cakes are almost always soft. I like my crab cakes with a crisp and a crunch to their outside that I just can't get here. This cake had it. Chunks of fresh crab meat mixed with some powerful spices, and voila, Captain Planet.
For entrees, we both couldn't resist a filet mignon with bernaise sauce. I so rarely can find bernaise sauce on filets, nowadays. It's so frequently some weird concoction of butter, or spices, or something involving a wine reduction sauce. Give me bernaise! And boy did they. They gave me the best bernaise I've ever had. It was thick, exploding with tarragon, and slowly melted into a thinner sauce over the heat of the steak. Combined with a perfectly(!) cooked filet, it was the best filet mignon I've ever had. It came with a vegetable arrangement that was, as with everything else, perfectly cooked. None of this blanched nonsense that's so popular. These vegetables were COOKED. Steamed, with just a little bit of snap left to them.
Desserts were a frozen mousse for my partner and an orange rum tart for me. The frozen mousse was unique and delicious. Call me a traditionalist, though, for I prefer my mousse upright and unfrozen. My tart was a bit of a disappointment. The rum and oranges conspired to give the tart an overpowering taste which squelched the divine custard underneath. After scraping off some of the rum-soaked oranges so only a couple remained, the excellence of the creaminess below was able to come out and I think wistfully of it now.
As with any restaurant about which I actually dream, especially one with French cuisine, Chez la Mere Michel must be compared to Basil's. And there is some give and take between the two. Michel's has a wider and more inventive selection of entrees, but the continental cuisine available at Basil's offers a wider selection of tastes. The quality of the two is generally a wash, but Michel's filet was undeniably better. Appetizers such as the cheese souffle collide head-on with Basil's fantastic fettuccine alfredo and stuffed artichokes. In only one area does a winner emerge completely; Basil's wine list is better.
Still, the magnificence of the dining area, the perfect professionalism of the waiter, the mind-blowing filet, and the completeness of the rest of the package push Chez la Mere Michel into a small lead. The praise lavished on Toque! may be worth it. The inventiveness of Le Chevre is undeniable. And the entrees at Michel's are a bit traditional. But when traditional is done so well, and traditional is traditional because it's frequently hard to do that, there's nothing quite like it. If you find yourself anywhere near Montreal, forget all others. Go to Chez la Mere Michel.
Chez la Mere Michel: *****
Price range for two: $100+(C) $100+(US)
1209 Rue Guy
514-934-0473 (Reservations recommended)
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday 12:00-2:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Saturday 5:30-10:30pm