Review: Bistro Boréal
100 Laurier St., in the Canadian Museum of Civilization, 819-776-7009, civilization.ca
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
Mains: $14 to $20
Last fall a Citizen restaurant critic savaged the dining options at the National Gallery, which was sadly typical of the dreary food served in the national cultural institutions in our capital region.
The cafeteria-type “menus” at the gallery and the museums of War, Nature and Civilization are dominated by pre-fab sandwiches and fried hot dogs that look and taste like they’ve spent years stored in the archives.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau, used to have Café du Musée, with an excellent view of the river and Parliament and finer, albeit still forgettable, food. You may not have known that restaurant existed at all, as it was in an administrative building. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the restaurant was in the main building, where all the action is?
Enter Bistro Boréal, tucked among the coffee shop, cafeteria and Imax theatre in the museum’s main lobby. Finally, diners in the capital region can go to a gallery/museum and get a decent meal made by a proper chef.
In the kitchen is Georges Laurier, who previously helmed Laurier Sur Montcalm, Café Henry Burger and the Wakefield Inn, and who never stood out at the Café du Musée, perhaps boxed in by location or bureaucracy or the distraction of catering large events.
The new bistro lacks the splendid view, replaced here by the uninspiring drone of Laurier Street. On the upside, large windows flood the room with natural light, giving the bistro an appropriately bright, open and airy feel.
The dishes also shine, or most do, and the best come at the start of two recent lunches. (The bistro is open for lunch seven days but only open for dinner Thursday and Saturday. The lunch and dinner menus are the same, except for dinner it’s small plates or “bite-size.”)
The menu is clear and concise, with a single page of six starters and five mains, including vegetarian options at both stages. We start with the “eastern” coast fish and shrimp cake, and the goat cheese, spinach and McIntosh apple stacker. Both look fabulous, even if the stacking-vertical plating thing is getting a bit tired.
The fish cake is moist and meaty, not stuffed with potato fillers. It’s set above a celeriac remoulade and beurre blanc. On top are two plump, perfectly cooked shrimp, with a caper berry and micro greens. It’s all delicious and we finish it despite it being quite big for a starter.
The other stacker is equally large and flavourful. A tower of goat cheese, sautéed spinach and diced apples sits in beet jus. I’d like more savoury and less sweet, though the bold sweetness of the beet jus nicely tempers the bold tartness of the goat cheese. We finish both starters, despite their considerable size: with a roll or desert either might be enough for diners who have no time to nap post-lunch.
For mains we have steak frites and a daily special, pasta fusilli with bison, garlic and olive oil. The steak is well seasoned, cooked to my guest’s preferred medium-rare, and comes with a dark, red wine sauce, the generous serving of fries has a herbed mayo. Steak frites always seems ho-hum to me, but this is tasty, and more successful than my pasta special. Some of the thin slices of bison are tough, and the dish is overwhelmed by olive oil. It begs for other flavours. It’s the only real disappointment during two meals.
Our second lunch is on a Saturday, a busy day at the family-friendly museum, but the bistro is all but empty at 12:45 p.m. We wonder if the greatest challenge before chef Laurier is the public perception that the museum is a place for young kids, and not for gourmet dining. There is a kids’ menu, with veggie lasagna, fried salmon or chicken breast, all for $9.
Our starters include a cucumber vichyssoise, which is fresh and smooth, served in a chilled bowl and perfect on a hot day. The chicken liver paté, with honey and port, is another large starter, yet we happily pile it all on to the home-made Melba with dollops of cranberry and thyme compote. Excellent.
Duck confit is moist inside, crispy outside and delicious on both sides. A yam and poached pear salad, diced and chilled is a pleasing contrast to the duck on taste, texture and temperature.
A plate of pan-fried black cod with braised fennel and leek and mixed veg is delicately cooked, light yet filling. A roasted vegetable salad is a hearty bowl of zucchini, red pepper, tomatoes and sautéed spinach, with a round of eggplant at the bottom, like a wholesome treasure to be discovered.
We had no desserts — no room after the ample starters and mains — but I’ll be back to try the trio of crème brûlée. The wine and beer lists are short but sufficient, and our bottles of Boréale Blanche arrive with orange slices, as a white beer should.
We have minor issues with service on our second lunch, with a waiter who was attentive and friendly but oddly guarded with details. We have to ask if there’s a special. “Smoked salmon,” he says. We have to ask if it’s a starter or main, and then how it’s prepared. He also didn’t know the menu well, which staff should in a restaurant with quality food and the grand aspiration of being — one presumes — a culinary destination.