A short while back we were contacted via e-mail by the director of sales at Le Pois Penché, an upscale French bistro style restaurant on de Maisonneuve O. For the second time since we began writing our blog a restaurant was inviting us to enjoy a meal free of charge. It is of course an honor to be extended such a generous offer and we delightedly accepted only after making it clear that we intended to mention the bias of the meal being complimentary in the subsequent blog post. The restaurant was happy to leave their offer on the table (no pun intended) notwithstanding our condition, and honor our request for transparency. In the interest of remaining anonymous they sent us gift certificates to pay with at the end of our meal; this way we would experience an accurate representation of a visit to Le Pois Penché without any preferential treatment. We appreciated their understanding of our principles and eagerly anticipated a wonderful evening.
We ate there on a Saturday night, the dining room was busy without being crowded. An elegant chandelier hangs above a winding staircase in the entrance where the hostess greets guests from behind a podium with a smile. The floors in the lobby are tiled black and white but as you enter the dining room the tile transitions into wood with a dark-stained checkerboard pattern. Tasteful paintings line the walls, white linen table cloths and polished flatware adorn the tabletops. The chairs are upholstered in eye catching red velvet, the banquets in a deep burgundy, tufted leather. An open concept kitchen lines the back wall where a fairly large kitchen brigade maintain a composed and professional work atmosphere. No shouting at the garde-manger or banging of pots and pans are audible (at least in the dining room, after all what would kitchen camaraderie be without the hazing of the low man on the totem pole).
We were seated at a table that may not have been the most comfortable option in a tight corridor between the bar and the windows that line the street front. We find that restaurants sometimes intentionally seat people by the windows to covey the impression to passers by that the dining room is busy and happening, we also generally don't think they're fooling anybody with this old trick. We ordered a beer and a mixed drink and talked about how this table couldn't have been what they had in mind when they offered us the gift certificates. On the other hand, it accurately illustrated the success of the plan to remain anonymous by using said gift certificates. Ultimately, no table regardless of size or positioning has ever stood in the way of us enjoying a meal in the past, and neither would this one.
As we looked over the evening menu we noticed that you have the option to order à la carte, or from a table d'hote menu. The table d'hote offers your choice of 1 of 3 appetizer options in addition to 1 of 12 main dish options for 35$ per person (only one main dish selection in the table d'hote carries an additional charge). Conversely, the à la carte menu had a selection of 14 appetizers and 8 mains. We ended up both selecting the table d'hote menu because we found there was more variety in the choices of mains and opted for an additional third appetizer to share that interested us from the à la carte side.
Our meal began with our table d'hote appetizers, the salmon tartare and lobster bisque. Both portions were modest but certainly not too small, just enough so that we wondered if they were scaled down versions of their à la carte equivalents. The salmon tartare arrived presented as though it had been plated with a ring mold. It was garnished with a few croutons, a lime twist, and a sprinkling of chopped shallot and chives. The salmon was ideally chopped, not too fine but not too chunky either. The menu description mentioned crème fraiche and horseradish, but while the flavor and texture imparted by the crème fraiche was perceivable, the horseradish seemed to have been used a little too sparingly. The fish was firm, odorless and unequivocally fresh, it was seasoned terrifically. The lobster bisque came served in an over-sized coffee cup, garnished with chives and, according to the menu, truffle oil which we struggled to taste but didn't really miss because it struck us as being unnecessary anyhow. The intense crustacean flavor in the soup was pleasantly dominant but while one of us thought the seasoning was right on, the other thought it would have benefited from no more than a pinch of salt to really make it pop.
Salmon Tartare - Shallots, Horseradish, Creme Fraiche (35$ Table d'hote)
Lobster Bisque - Cognac, Creme Fraiche, Truffle Oil (35$ Table d'hote)
The additional appetizer we ordered to share à la carte was eggs en cocotte. Eggs are cooked in a small enameled cast iron pot, smothered with a generous amount of sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and finished with parmesan and black truffle shavings. The dish was decadent and hearty, the humble eggs turned upscale dining room worthy with the woodsy mushrooms, shavings of nutty cheese and luxurious black truffle that thoroughly permeated the aroma and flavor of the rest of the dish. The egg yolks were slightly less runny than we would have preferred but we enthusiastically ate every bit of it with the warm baguette it was served with.
Eggs Cocotte, Chanterelles, Parmesan, Truffles - 12$
For our mains we ordered the roasted duck pappardelle and the braised lamb shank. The lamb shank was braised to perfection, tender as you could ever hope for. The sauce was spectacular, made from a combined reduction of red wine and lamb stock it was velvety-smooth and robust in flavor with a rich and elegant consistency and beautiful sheen. On the menu the dish is described as being served with hand made gnocchi but instead it came served with patates dauphinoise (French scalloped potatoes). Objectively, the waiter should have mentioned the substitution when we ordered, but they were so good that we didn't even bother asking what happened to the gnocchi. Frankly, we can't imagine them being better than those dreamy potatoes, soaking up all of that fantastic sauce. A real stick-to-your-ribs dish that was nothing short of a resounding success.
Braised Lamb Shank (35$ Table d'hote)
Our second main of roasted duck pappardelle was also praise worthy. Broad, rustic ribbons of pappardelle were tossed with succulent, chopped roasted duck and coated in a mouthwatering veal jus. Despite being tossed with the sauce and pasta the roasted duck meat retained those lovely crispy bits that really, only pig and duck can achieve. The dish was finished with shaved parmesan and black truffle shavings that aromatized the dish as they were mixed in with the warm pasta beneath. The truffles came precariously close to overpowering the dish but stopped just-short of taking the proverbial plunge; another solid dish in our opinion.
Pappardelle, Roasted Duck, Truffles, Parmesan, Veal Jus (35$ table d'hote)
Regrettably, we found the desserts to be our least favorite part of the meal. We chose the chocolate soufflé and the tarte tatin. Let us begin by saying, we have a theory of sorts when it comes to putting soufflé on a menu. Soufflé is a notoriously finicky dish to master and execute consistently, especially when the variables of coworkers are factored into the equation. All it takes is for one person to unwittingly open the oven door for a split second and you can kiss that soufflé goodbye - start over. Seeing one on a dessert menu says the following to us: "We are so confident in our abilities that we dare put the biggest pain-in-the-ass crapshoot of a dish on the menu. Furthermore, we believe it is so delicious that it will be worth the requisite 20-30 minute wait." Soufflé must be prepared à la minute, preparing this dish ahead of time is impossible. As you may be beginning to see, these are big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, this soufflé did not meet our expectations. It came served with a scoop of decent vanilla bean ice cream garnished with a drizzle of melted chocolate and a sliced strawberry. We ate the whole soufflé because the flavor was great, but the texture was all wrong. It was insufficiently light and lacked all of the airy volume and loftiness that it should have had. The texture more closely resembled one of those molten chocolate cake desserts than a soufflé; had it been labeled as such, it would've been wonderful. After the 20 minute wait, failing to deliver on the promise of soufflé was its downfall. Also, at the price point of 15 dollars for a dessert it has to be on point, every time, or it deserves the criticism it receives.
Chocolate Soufflé, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream - 15$
The tarte tatin was garnished identically to the soufflé with the same vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate drizzle and sliced strawberry, which was slightly redundant. A tarte tatin should have deeply caramelized and tender apples that are the result of being cooked face down in the pan and turned out upside down for serving. This tarte tatin suffered from an underdeveloped caramel in the base and apples that did not surrender their bite. Furthermore, the pastry portion had been replaced by a dense cake more reminiscent of a pineapple upside down cake rather than a traditional pie dough or puff pastry which are more characteristic of tarte tatin. Essentially, it was a mediocre apple dessert but did not fit the classic description of what a conventional tarte tatin should be.
Tarte Tatin - 13$
Objectively, we likely would have been less forgiving when it comes to the dessert portion of our meal had we been paying with our own hard-earned paycheck rather than complimentary gift certificates. Contrarily, we would have unquestionably been thoroughly pleased with the rest of our meal on our own dime. The duck pappardelle and braised lamb shank on the table d'hote were sensational dishes that both represented great value at 35$ each, including the strong appetizers that accompanied them. We could easily see each one of those mains being proudly served in any dining room in the city in the 30$ price range without the bonus of the appetizers. Our waiter was courteous and provided us with excellent service and menu suggestions, the meal was well paced and the ambiance of the restaurant was beautiful; our only suggestion on that front would be to play more classic french bistro music in the dining room rather than the eclectic mix of John Legend tunes and unpleasant house music. We had a splendid time dining at Le Pois Penché and were surprised by the liberal use of such luxurious ingredients at a very feasible price point on the table d'hote. Don't forget to keep Le Pois Penché in mind for seafood platters, we saw a few come out of the kitchen that looked nothing short of opulent as well as for happy hour when they offer competitive deals on oysters. We are very curious to return for their lunch table d'hote where a lot of the same menu items that are served on the evening table d'hote are reduced to an even more surprising 23$ price point and weekend brunch which also looks delightful.
Le Pois Penché
1230 Boul, de Maisonneuve Ouest, corner Drummond