Raw animal magnetism
Brut Cantina Sociale
Address: 131 Prom. du Portage, Gatineau, 819-205-6300, brutresto.com
Open: Tuesday and Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later, as per demand, Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. or later, as per demand,, Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed Mondays
Prices: small plates $3-$8, main courses $18-$32, lunch courses $12-$20
When I told a colleague what I would be ordering at Brut Cantina Sociale, she responded, “I’m glad I don’t have your job!”
For her, the thought of eating horse tartare did not appeal. Whether that’s because horse was on the plate, or because raw meat was on the plate, I don’t know. But I do know that Brut’s horse tartare ($7) is mighty tasty, and so are many more of its small — in some cases, very small — plates ranging in price from $3 to $8.
At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I’ll state that you should rush to this welcoming, five-month-old Gatineau restaurant on Hull’s main drag if you’re hankering for a fine pastrami sandwich made of beef tongue ($4). I would probably be recommending Brut’s roasted bone marrow ($5), except that it was unavailable when we popped by.
Four of us were there last Friday night at Brut, which was formerly Molto Bistro Café. It’s a handsome, modern, yet cosy restaurant that feels smaller than it is because of its two separate rooms.
Some of the distinctive decor touches tell you what Brut is about. Near its entrance is a large blackboard with a map of the region that depicts where Brut gets its ingredients — duck, pork and quail from Mariposa Farms, for example, along with fish and oysters from Whalesbone and horse from Les Viandes de la Petite-Nation. Shelved on the walls are jars of pickled vegetables, and a few open ones must be in the kitchen.
Brut’s “Cantina Sociale” menu, created by chef Daniel Mongeon, who has worked at the late, lamented Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro, Petit Bill’s Bistro and Atelier, consists of almost 30 items — five vegetables, four fried items, three small sandwiches, four raw items, seven charcuterie choices and four cheeses, if you’re counting.
Our friendly server suggested that we order five or six items per person, but we found that two waves of food totalling about 15 items, plus one of four main courses (the selection changes daily) were plenty.
While other small-plates places in Ottawa serve more composed and even refined dishes, Brut is happy to bring you well-crafted, rustic yet artisanal single components.
The range of rich and toothsome preparations made from duck and pork, served with a clear appeal to a diner’s animal-protein-based hedonism, and the casual bonhomie of the place brought a bit of Montreal chef Martin Picard’s famous and excessive culinary ethos to mind. The difference: the portion sizes at Brut won’t leave you with a wicked food hangover. Instead, your palate will be satiated before your stomach is distended. You might think of it as dim sum meets Murray Street Kitchen.
Our first wave of items arrived quickly after we ordered, assembled in picturesque mélanges on thick wooden boards. There wasn’t a flop among the items, and it was great fun to flit between them, alternating crunchy, savoury, fatty, spicy and acidic bites as we pleased.
We ordered squares of beef and horse tartare side by side to see which we preferred. We liked the chop and seasoning of both, and the raw quail’s egg yolk that crowned each serving. But the winner by a nose was the horse, more mellow and balanced while the beef tasted more of its capers, onions and parsley.
A salt cod fritter ($3), fries with roasted garlic mayo ($4), cinnamon-tinged boudin croquettes (three for $4) and duck confit pogos ($7 each) all spoke well of the kitchen’s care when it came to deep-frying. All arrived with crisp, ungreasy exteriors and tasty, true interiors.
We split two small sandwiches — the sumptuous beef tongue pastrami ($4) and the two-bite oyster po’ boy ($5), its mollusk cleanly deep-fried, tartly sauced and topped with slaw. The conclusion after splitting one of those beauties three ways: Another round of po’boys for the table, please.
Duck rillettes ($6) in a glass jar were smooth-textured, fat-enriched and loaded with quacky flavour, the meat spread easily devoured on crisp crostini. The only pity was that you can’t take any leftover rillettes in the jar home for breakfast. (Brut really needs to sell the rillettes to go.)
We mitigated the heaviness of these items with the acidity and crunch of purple, pickled cauliflower ($4) and spicy pickled beans ($4).
Of the nightly mains, we tried the half-rack of wild boar ribs ($31). While appealingly sauced, the boar meat struck us as too tough, although the potato salad and other vegetables on the plate were winners.
I’ve also been to Brut for weekday lunch, when a few of the cantina items (beef and tuna tartare, beef-tongue pastrami) are available as large dishes, along with burgers, quiches, salads and other choices.
Properly cooked gnocchi ($16) had been pleasingly smoked, and were mingled with smoked mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, arugula and a blue-cheese cream sauce. In a vegetarian wrap ($12), grilled peppers, onions and zucchini benefitted from the crunch of fried chickpeas and the unctuousness of goat cheese. The hanger steak sandwich with caramelized onions, smoked mushrooms and fries ($20) was big and flavourful. Smaller appetites would prefer the minimalism of the Mariposa duck salad ($19), with slices of pan-seared duck breast, arugula, julienned peppers and a citrus vinaigrette.
A daily special of clam chowder ($14) was a hearty bowl, thick with soft blobs of potato and topped with three plump, briny clams. The same potatoes detracted from the Nicoise salad ($15), which in spite of its nice seared tuna seemed a little tired.
Two desserts, a potent Calvados-spiked granité and a nicely composed plate of gluten-free chocolate cake, raspberry ice cream and chocolate “earth” (both $8) brought lunch to a satisfying close.
But while I liked my mid-day meals here, it’s the small bites at dinner that pleased me most and beckon me to return. Horse tartare, oysters and beef tongue? It’s a tough job, but I’m glad I get to do it, thanks to Brut.