This weekend we went out to chef Chuck Hughes' new restaurant, Le Bremner. Though it has had very little promotion, word-of-mouth in Montreal and on social media spread like wild-fire about the opening of this restaurant making it the talk of the town for the past month. As it turns out, Le Bremner is a casual sort of seafood restaurant with a perhaps not so casual price tag.
The restaurant is on St Paul street in Old Montreal directly opposite Marché Bonsecours. Don't look for a sign that reads "Le Bremner" because there isn't one, just a low key sign that says "Restaurant". The restaurant is below street level, almost hidden. If you're tall, watch your head as you walk down the stairs towards the entrance because the overhang above is waiting for your forehead. Upon entering, to your right is the bar with really cool lighting above made of an old sail from a boat and a small kitchen station separate from the main kitchen which seems to be where the cold appetizers are made, to the left the dining room complete with chandeliers and the exit to the terrasse out back. Brick walls, distressed floors that are concrete in some areas and wood in others, and some pretty eclectic design choices make the place feel very laid-back.
Our reservation was at the bar so we took our seats and were immediately annoyed with the mural air conditioner over the bar blasting frigid air directly in our faces. We would have no doubt asked to have been moved but the restaurant was full to capacity. It would be nearly 10 minutes sitting at the bar before we were acknowledged by a waiter who was working the opposite side of the dining room, he offered us a bread-stick (which was delicious) and alerted someone to greet us.
We began by ordering two of Le Bremner's signature cocktails all of which have fresh fruit, sometimes fresh herbs, and house made syrups or sodas muddled similarly to the mojito making process. There is no cocktail menu so it's up to the really friendly bar tender to list and suggest what is available. We had the house Harvey Wallbanger made with fresh orange segments in a vanilla bean syrup and a mint-julep made with fresh pink grapefruit segments. Both drinks tasted fantastic and were very refreshing, but we won't mince words saying the portion was too small for the price. As great as they taste, at 12$ each, you expect more than a small tumbler glass with a lot of ice and alcohol from the rail. Even at nightclubs you can expect top shelf spirits in your mixed drinks at that price tag.
(L) Pink Grapefruit Mint Julep - (R) Vanilla Orange Harvey Wallbanger 12$/ch.
The menu doesn't have designated appetizers and mains, instead it's split up in sections designated predominantly by temperature or cooking method. Portions are all very nice and plates are meant to be shared, we were told generally 4-5 dishes between two people seems to be the right amount. We start with 2 dishes from the cold item's section, a "lobster parfait" and bass crudo. The lobster parfait was a great dish, the type of menu item people will return for. Easily more than 1/2 of a whole lobster, perfectly cooked and chilled was layered in a sundae glass with caviar, lettuce, a mayonnaise based dressing and crushed fried matchstick potatoes for crunch. It was served with a really nice tasting anise flavored flat bread and the ubiquitous twisty long sundae spoon. It was a generously portioned and decadent dish that was spot on in terms of both taste and texture. Our meal was off to a great start.
Lobster Parfait - 30$
Our second cold dish was recommended by our waiter but would not be nearly as successful as the first. Bass was served raw or "crudo" garnished with pistachio nuts, radish, olive oil, salt, pepper and a little bit of pickled ginger. To serve raw fish takes a delicate hand in seasoning so that you can taste and even enhance the flavor of the fish in question, a task that seems simple but really isn't. This dish was not delicate or refined in any sense of the word, and the fish was completely lost. The plate was drowning in olive oil, you could see it pooling when you tipped the dish, and it was nearly the only thing you tasted other than the equally outrageous amount of salt that was used. The peppery flavor of the radish was overshadowed by the again insane amount of cracked black pepper on the dish and even the pistachio nuts were used too liberally. Everything put on a plate should be meant to be eaten or it shouldn't be there, we could have done with about 1/3 the amount of pistachios that were on the plate. The acidic quality to the pickled ginger was necessary to cut the oil overload but it was literally the only ingredient on the plate used sparingly. We're sorry to say that this dish didn't work for us at all.
Bass Crudo, Olive Oil, Pistachio, Radish, Pickled Ginger - 15$
Before we could finish our first of the two cold dishes waiters arrived with dishes three and four. This ended up being a complete disaster in terms of meal progression and nearly ruined the experience as a whole. Since we were sitting at the bar we already had, to put it lightly, very limited space. The arrival of our third and fourth dishes while our first two dishes were still occupying 100% of our available space forced the staff to set our hot dishes pretty much directly in front of the couple sitting beside us. We finished our lobster parfait in haste and set aside the crudo for a moment to eat our hot dishes before they got cold sitting under the air conditioner which was getting more and more irritating by the second. Compounding our counter-space vs. dish ratio problem was the staff's unreliability in clearing our dirty dishes; thankfully the friendly bartender picked up a lot of the waiter's slack.
Our first hot dish was in the "From the Stove" portion of the menu. A huge piece of fabulous tasting, moist cornbread was topped with plenty of tender sautéed rock shrimp and a very deceptively mellow salad made of chive, green onion, and paper thin sliced french shallots. This dish was extremely flavorful and comforting, a true standout menu item. Our second hot dish was whole sardines in the "From the Salamander" section of the menu. Three sardines came served whole with heads-on flattened in a very nice pan, with tomato, fingerling potato and preserved lemon. This is not the dish for picky eaters, eating sardines comes with a lot of baggage in the form of skin and bones but to those in the know, boy is it worth the fuss. These sardines were fresh and paired terrifically with the potato, briny preserved lemon, and fresh tasting tomato.
Sautéed Rock Shrimp & Cornbread - 20$
Sardines, Tomato, Preserved Lemon, Fingerling Potatoes - 15$
For dessert we ordered the strawberry shortcake and the jelly donuts. We had heard wonderful things about the jelly donuts, that they were "not to be missed" but we're going to have to humbly disagree. Three over sized donuts came covered in powdered sugar looking scrumptious, only to let us down immensely. First of all they were labeled as jelly donuts, when they arrived there was one chocolate, one lemon curd, and one that we first suspected was jelly. We ordered jelly donuts because we wanted JELLY donuts, maybe raspberry? Maybe strawberry? Last time we checked lemon curd and chocolate are delicious ingredients but they are not jelly. To add insult to injury the one donut we got that was supposed to have actual jelly in it had not been filled, that's right, an empty jelly donut. Furthermore, the donuts that did get filling were without question insufficiently filled, only a teaspoon was to be found immediately under the surface and we found the dough itself to be very tough, not at all soft like a good donut should be. The strawberry shortcake, on the other hand, was excellent. Sweet fresh berries were layered with velvety whipped cream and tender pieces of cake in a sundae glass, a perfect way to end a summer meal. The dessert portions at Le Bremner are enormous, which is great, we just wish that our waiter would have let us know that one dessert between the two of us would have been more than enough.
Strawberry Shortcake - 10$
"Jelly Donuts" - 8$
Our meal at Le Bremner had its ups and downs. First thing to know is, if you call for a reservation and you're offered space at the bar, you're probably better off waiting for a night when a table is available. The confined space at the bar is not conducive to sharing dishes and the air conditioner blowing in your face is far from an ideal way to spend a pretty expensive dinner. After beating chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America and landing a hit TV show "Chuck's Day Off" on the Food Network, like it or not chef Hughes' new celebrity status carries high expectations. In the past we've had fabulous meals at Garde Manger; Le Bremner is going to require time and menu honing before it reaches that level. With chef Hughes' following it's a pretty safe bet to say Le Bremner is here to stay and will be another Montreal hot-spot at which to see and be seen. The food and service are bound to improve as the restaurant and its staff find their groove.
361 St. Paul East