Wednesday, October 12, 2011

TAVERNE GASPAR



Taverne Gaspar is the most recent addition to the ever expanding list of boutique hotels, restaurants, lounges and spas in Old Montreal owned by the Antonopolous group. Joining their other latest popular spots like Méchant Boeuf attached to the Hotel Nelligan, this modern take on the tavern concept is located in a very popular tourist destination in the old port on the scenic strip of de la Commune street, near St Laurent attached to the Auberge du Vieux-Port.

There has been a lot of buzz lately on social media sites about the opening of Taverne Gaspar and we initially didn't want to buy into the hype but soon after, they released their menu online; when we had a look we found it to be very appealing. We visited over thanksgiving weekend, the establishment's first official week open to the public. We found the decor to be strikingly gorgeous. Deeply tufted vinyl banquets line the walls that have been stripped down to the original stone. Vintage prints and photos hang on the walls in mismatched banged-up picture frames, mirrors and chandeliers with antique light bulbs run across the ornate, heritage tin tiled ceiling and waiters in suspenders keep the mixed drinks and locally brewed beers coming while the Stones, Hendrix and Aerosmith play on the sound system.

We begin our meal with a round of one of their signature cocktails called the cucumber collins while we look over the menu. Hendrick's gin, tonic water, and a splash of lime are frothed up with a touch of egg whites and garnished with a slice of cucumber. The drink was refreshing on an uncharacteristically warm October night and the flavors were clean and classy, we liked it a lot. We also asked for bread since the menu has a notation that says "*bread on demand" at the very top. Admittedly, it did seem odd that they have bread, but only serve it on request. Call us old-fashioned but bringing bread and filling our water glasses are hospitality 101, it seems a little tacky to have to request it.

 Cucumber Collins - 10$

The bread we asked for never materialized but our food did arrive very swiftly so it was no big deal. We began our meal with the cod fritters & pimenton aioli, and popcorn sweetbreads with sweet and sour sauce from the "finger food" portion of the menu; as well as the onion soup with bone marrow from the appetizers section. The cod fritters were crisp, golden-brown, breaded fried nuggets of codfish served with what was basically a smoked paprika mayonnaise. We had a split opinion on this one, we both liked the pimenton aioli it was served with. We also both liked the crisp texture of the fritter and the fact that it wasn't at all greasy despite being deep fried. However, while one of us liked the nostalgic fish-stick like nature of the taste the other felt it came a little too close to actually tasting like fish-sticks. For a quick fix the smokey-sweet aioli eased this subjective shortcoming. It wasn't by any means a bad dish, just not a unanimous favorite.

Cod Fritters, Pimenton Aioli - 7$

There must have been a small miscommunication between our waiter and the kitchen staff because next, a trio of miniature meat pies arrived in place of the popcorn sweetbreads we had ordered. Our waiter realized the error immediately and brought the miniature pies back to the kitchen. When he returned he had the sweetbreads dish and had also brought back the pies. He offered us to keep them, compliments of the house. It must have seemed a better idea to have a customer sample it than to let it go to waste. In any case we appreciated the generous gesture very much and happily accepted. The sweetbreads were cut into little nuggets, lightly battered and fried served with a reasonable sweet and sour sauce, garnished with sliced green onion. The dish was appetizing and well executed even though the Asian flare of the flavor profile seemed a little foreign in a tavern concept. The texture of the sweetbreads were ideally smooth and creamy but the sauce easily overwhelmed their delicate flavor, they were just cut too small to stand up to the sauce's assertiveness. Another okay dish, but nothing extraordinary.
Popcorn Sweetbreads, Sweet & Sour sauce - 7$

The trio of miniature meat pies turned out to be quite good. Clockwise in the photo below, the first was filled with cubed beef and a copious amount of pungent blue cheese, a classically successful and delicious flavor combination that worked very well. The second had a chicken pot pie filling, it had creamy texture and tender chicken with some bright tasting green peas mixed in and the third was a miniature tourtière, a classic French-Canadian meat pie. The seasoning tasted right-on of traditional quatre épices but the filling was slightly dry for our taste. All three mini pies were served in the same splendidly buttery, tender crust, the chicken pot pie rendition was our favorite of the three.

Miniature Meat Pies (Tourtière, Chicken Pot Pie, Beef & Blue Cheese) - 8$

One of the dishes on the menu we looked at online that enticed us most to come try Taverne Gaspar was the french onion soup with bone marrow. It seemed too good to be true that two of our favorite things had been fused together to create a dish we anticipated would knock our socks off. Would it be a marrow bone in a bowl with soup poured around it? Would the dish come with a piece of toast and marrow bone on the side? We needed to know. As it turns out, it's a pretty standard french onion soup, albeit a perfectly executed one with sweet caramelized onions in a deep, dark, meaty broth covered with melted cheese. We especially liked that they put an extra piece of bread at the bottom of the soup bowl, not just at the top to float the cheese on, a nice touch. Unfortunately the solitary tiny morsel of bone marrow perched on top of the cheese didn't really merit being mentioned in the dish description. It was certainly there, but it really wasn't much of a piece and honestly, it's flavor got lost amongst the intense beefiness of the broth. In the end it was a superb onion soup only let down by a description that left you desiring a little more of a pronounced presence from the marrow component.

French Onion Soup with Bone Marrow - 9$

When our waiter came to take our empty plates from our first course we ordered another round of those delightful cucumber collins drinks, but when they arrived they were completely different from the first round. Less tonic water, more froth, and this time there was cucumber muddled in the glass. We took a sip and liked them even better this time. Not that we didn't enjoy the first round, but having them this way made us wish the first ones had been done the same. Our mains of scallops and pork belly with lentils, and fried chicken with buttermilk biscuit arrived on the heels of the drinks. This was the point when things really began to take a turn for the worse in our meal. 

Three scallops arrived served on a bed of lentils and topped with a sauce vierge which is basically a fancy name for fresh chopped french-style tomato salsa. The first things we noticed were that the portion was ridiculously small, perhaps suitable for an appetizer and more importantly, the glaring absence of half the dish, where was the pork belly? Although bacon is technically sliced pork belly, surely the bacon bits mixed in with the lentils couldn't be the pork belly referred to in the menu description? And why was one of our three scallops 1/3 the size of the other two on the plate (which were rather small themselves)? We had a lot of questions for our waiter, but he wasn't immediately available so we started eating before it got cold. At first glance the sear on the scallops looked great but as it turned out they were absurdly overcooked and rubbery, like chewing on the inner tube of a bicycle tire. Our confusion soon turned into contempt for the dish as our waiter arrived just in time to attend to the matter. We asked him to clarify where the pork belly was, after all, without it we would be left with a 28$ bill for a plate of 2 and a half scallops and a spoon full of lentils. At 9$ per overcooked scallop, and not even the nice big diver scallops, we expected an explanation. He left to find out and returned hastily to tell us the kitchen said the pork belly was "unavailable". With no substitution offered, no mention when we ordered the dish that half of it would be missing, the waiter acknowledged our frustration and offered us to speak with the manager.

The manager arrived and took the matter at hand seriously, having the kitchen prepare the missing pork belly and offering us another drink on the house to make up for the error, but not offering to take the scallops back and return with a complete dish as it was meant to be eaten. Magically, what had been "unavailable" 5 minutes earlier was now once again available. A small amount of admittedly well prepared pork belly arrived on a bread plate with more lentils just as we were finishing the scallops it was meant to be served with. A case of too little too late in our opinion. Have you ever received a side dish or sauce you ordered at extra charge late in your main course, and you want to say: "Sorry, but my steak is nearly finished now, i would've liked this pepper sauce with my meal but it's a little too late now, please take the item off the bill" well, it's sort of like that, but it wasn't a side, it was half the dish. To add insult to injury, the cucumber collins we were offered on the house came as a singular cocktail (not one for each of us) and was for the third time in one meal completely different and not as good as the previous two incarnations of the drink, can you say inconsistent? We were not impressed to say the least and the more we thought about it, the more it upset us. If you think we're making too big of a deal out of nothing, we encourage you to look at some of our other reviews and compare what can be had as a main dish in other Montreal establishments at the 28-30$ price range; this dish simply doesn't measure up from a value perspective. Overcooked, overpriced and poorly executed, the manager and waiter were left peddling hard to pick up the pieces of a half-assed job by the kitchen staff; our apologies for the vulgarity but sometimes you've got to call a spade a spade.  

Scallops, Pork Belly, Sauce Vierge, Lentils - 29$

Our second main was thankfully far better than our first, but not without it's own faults. A fried chicken thigh and drumstick were served with fries, coleslaw and a buttermilk biscuit over red checkered wax paper on a silver tray. The chicken was brilliantly fried with an audibly crisp coating on the skin. Biting into it revealed perfectly cooked, juicy leg meat beneath, truly an excellent example of great fried chicken. The fries were also very good but the coleslaw was mediocre at best, reminiscent of every vinegary coleslaw you get in a chicken joint served in that soggy little paper cup. The buttermilk biscuit was unfortunately not executed properly. The term biscuit does not uniquely refer to the final product, but also refers to a specific baking method belonging to what's called the quick bread technique. The biscuit method requires cutting cold fat into your dry ingredients creating pockets that will help your biscuits to rise when the butter melts in the oven and creates steam, this results in a buttery flaky biscuit. This dough had the correct ingredients required for the method: buttermilk as an acid and baking soda as a non yeast leavener but the execution must have been flawed. Likely, the fat wasn't cold enough when the biscuits went into the oven because the final product was not flaky, nor buttery. It was dense, with the consistency of doughy bread and tasted overwhelmingly of baking soda. Thankfully that delicious chicken picked up the slack on this one. 

Fried Chicken, Fries, Coleslaw, Buttermilk Biscuit - 18$

At this point we were pretty discouraged and decided to forgo the dessert course and ask for our bill. Our meal at Taverne Gaspar was very hit and miss, some items without question shone brighter than others. Consistency was not the strong suit of the night, with the same mixed drink arriving differently all three times we ordered it. The decor was beautiful and the service was very good, but the food itself let the front of house staff down. Very courteous and professional waiters and managers were left skating double fast to compensate for the kitchen's weak performance. If the cooks or the chef forgot to put the pork belly on our plate they should have owned up to the mistake and corrected it, lying to the waiter that it was unavailable and having to be told by the manager that serving half a dish at full price was unacceptable should have never taken place. It's true that the restaurant had only been open a week at the time of our visit and some time for the team to hit their stride as a collective unit is in order but this is not the first newly opened restaurant we've ever visited and when the errors pile up quicker than we can let them roll of our backs the shortcomings become more evident. This is the danger of opening to the public before you may necessarily be ready, if we're expected to pay full price for our meal (which wasn't cheap) then we expect to receive what we pay for, it doesn't seem to be an unreasonable expectation. Likely the restaurant will only improve with time and hopefully sooner than later it will hit it's stride. With their first-rate location Taverne Gaspar will foreseeably pack in the tourist clientele and certainly benefit from walk-in business but at the price point of some of their menu items they have placed themselves in the midst of stiff competition with other Montreal restaurants for the local crowd. Maybe we'll return sometime this winter to try their daily comfort food specials which include a pea soup appetizer and pudding chomeur for dessert, hopefully by then they'll have all the kinks worked out.

Taverne Gaspar
89 Rue de la Commune East, near St Laurent 
Montreal, QC
514-392-1649


Taverne Gaspar on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

  1. This review is well written and strikes me as being quite fair. I just have one point of contention: the matter of bread on request. I think that it's a good idea to have bread on request as there are a lot of people with gluten allergies who can't eat bread and other folks who are watching calories and don't want to use up calories on bread. The fact that you didn't get the bread you requested is another matter...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi msq,

      Point well taken, you're right.
      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

      Cheers,

      Foodie Date Night

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