A flying visit to Montreal – tout seul – so, where to eat? Of course, it’s a Monday night and the usual suspects are closed. Thumbing through recent suggestions from two friends on the local Gold Medal Plates judiciary panel, Robert Beauchemin of La Presse and Lesley Chesterman of the Gazette, I see that they both seem to like Bouillon Bilk, on Boulevard St. Laurent – which makes it a longish but doable walk from my hotel. And it opens seven nights a week. So be it.
But Bilk? The SOED defines “bilk” (noun) as “a hoax, a deception.” Are we to presume that the bouillon here has been brewed with a kettle and a stock cube? To me, the name conjures vivid memories of Mr. Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band whose greatest hit was undeniably Stranger on the Shore, a plaintive melody with no lyrics, performed by Mr Bilk on the clarinet. It was a theme of my childhood since I too learned to play it on my shrill, ex-U.S.-marine-band, nickel-plated instrument and would terrify the judges at music competitions who were expecting the minuet from Mozart’s clarinet quintet. But I digress. In her review of the place, written two months after it opened, in 2011, Lesley Chesterman explains that “the restaurant’s name… really has no significance other than it sounded good to the owners when they dreamed it up.” As honest a reason as any.
It turns out to be just what I needed – a simple, modern room with white-painted walls, a bar in one corner and a couple of high tops to vary the look of the dozen or so tables, each one dressed with snowy linen and fine stemware. The greeting is warm and the sound level drops to a sophisticated hum once two large early-dining parties leave. The conversation all around me is about the food on the menu and the smart, well-trained servers are kept busy explaining nuances of ingredient and technique. Chef Francois Nadon’s menu is small – maybe half a dozen starters, five mains – but there are a couple of specials and everything sounds intriguing. By the end of the evening I have written “Wow” in my notebook half a dozen times – something that hasn’t happened for years in Toronto.
I start with an “amuse” for $6 – a delicious and elegant little appetizer of a moist, warm duck drumstick, impressively tender and succulent beneath a sweet chili glaze. It sits on a streak of black bean paste painted onto the plate and is topped with shaved triangles of pineapple and a flurry of seedlings. The salty sweetness of the black bean and pineapple is a delightful counterpoint to the richness of the duck.
Then a dramatic presentation of soft beef carpaccio cut to form a scarlet rectangle on the white plate. The meat is wet with a soy and citrus marinade and is crowded with toppings – pieces of fresh heart-of-palm and shaved rounds of radish beneath which hide amazingly tender little clams. Torn crumples of crisp nori add another flavour and texture and there are different red and green seedlings here and there together with an invisible and delicate scent of ginger. It’s a plate of remarkably fresh flavours rendered just a little pleasantly funky and decadent by the unexpected fishiness of the clams, though I feel there may be a drop too much soy. The wise sommelier recommends a very light, unoaked Pinot Noir from Australia’s Yarra Valley called Pepé le Pinot (Jamsheed 2011) that suits it perfectly, the dish emphasizing the earthiness beneath the wine’s cheerful red fruit.
My main course is a crisp-skinned fillet of sea bass smothered in chopped razor clams. Teaspoon-sized dollops of green pea purée are a lovely foil as are shavings of ginger, two soft discs of fondant potato and some quarters of baby turnip. A sauce vierge of chopped red grapes, minced bacon lardons and salted capers matches the clean, lucid flavours on the plate, making little islands of buttery wilted greens seem all the richer. With this, we go to a Portuguese white wine with much more chewy texture and oakiness than the graceful Pinot – a 2010 Bical from Campolargo in Bairrada. That also gets a Wow.
The wine list has certainly grown since the place opened. It’s now full of regional treasures from Jura, Savoie and Gaillac (so unusual in Ontario) and other French destinations that add a stripe of exoticism to the more expected Old and New World offerings. One of the Jura treats is a Macvin (unusually, a red one made from fortified Pinot Noir) that works brilliantly with the four Quebec cheeses I try – a Sorcier de Missisquoi, like a Canadian cousin to Morbier; a firm, sweet cow’s-milk cheese called Le Canotier; a soft, creamy, white-bloom goat’s cheese called Chèvre à ma manière; and a semi-soft, yellow slice of Les Métayères. They are all splendid, served with a sweet compote of figs, glazed walnuts and hazelnuts and a teaspoonful of white honey. The Macvin reveals all sorts of cherry-herbal-prune aromas with a subtle, almost medicinal hit, like a chinoto wine.
Such a good meal – and not wildly expensive. The staff remain friendly to the end and I step out into the night feeling less like a Stranger on the Shore than I usually do in Montreal.
Bouillon Bilk is at 1595 St. Laurent Blvd. (near de Maisonneuve Blvd.). 514 845 1595. It’s open Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.