Friday, January 25, 2013

MAISON PUBLIQUE


You've heard all the hype and read all the articles about Maison Publique, chef Derek Dammann's new neighborhood restaurant with high-profile investor, celebrity-chef Jamie Oliver behind the scenes. But it's precisely that relationship with chef Dammann's former boss when he held position as chef de cuisine at Oliver's London restaurant, Fifteen that unfortunately continues to usurp the lion's share of attention away from Dammann who is 100% responsible for concept, menu, and operation. We've long since been fans of chef Dammann's cusine at his previous (now defunct) restaurant, DNA. But there was always a palpable amount of disconnect between the flashy old Montreal dining room full of glass walls, modern furniture and all-together odd, bordering on extraterrestrial (though surely expensive) light fixtures versus the down-to-earth, delicious food that came out of a kitchen that cut no corners. Can you name another restaurant, at least in Montreal, that brines their own capers, makes their own mustard, cures their own charcuterie and bakes their own bread - and does it well? The answer is likely, no. And if you can, please send us an email because we'd like to know what we're missing. This type of attention to detail is chef Dammann's fundamental approach to cooking and that's what deserves the attention and credit. It's that passion that will be the focus of this post; not Mr. Oliver, as good a bloke as he may or may not be.

French for public house, the name from which the ubiquitous term "pub" is derrived, Maison Publique sits on a corner in a primarily residential neighborhood. A large mural paying homage to Montreal's darling Molson brewery adorns the red brick exterior of the restaurant. On the inside, it's the details that set this casual spot apart. We can't speak for anyone else, but for us, it's got everything the restaurant we own and operate in our dreams has. A beautifully crafted bar that must have months worth of man hours that went into it's construction, staining and varnishing, tin tiled ceilings, rich textured wall paper and exactly zero pretentiousness. In the bathroom, hand and toilet paper hang on antlers secured to the walls and back in the dining room your cutlery can be found in a built-in, pull-out drawer on the underside of the table, rolled up in a cotton dish towel. The menu that changes regularly, and isn't on a chalkboard is Dammann's take on what he identifies as Canadian cuisine, even the beer and wine list is sourced from uniquely Canadian suppliers and producers. As Canadians and Quebecers, we've found the food to be an ideal mix of British colonial heritage and French influence that we'd be proud to identify with as a great example of our country's culinary identity. Throw into the mix Dammann's friend and former business partner Alex Cruz, who now operates the office of his food distribution company Societe Orignal out of the Maison Publique space and you've got a talented chef with direct access to some of the most uniquely Canadian ingredients around; high quality, limited availability ingredients sought after by some of the world's most discerning chefs.

Our budget doesn't always permit us to visit a restaurant multiple times before writing a review but in the case of Maison Publique we have, indeed visited several times prior to writing this post. Not necessarily because it's more affordable than anyplace else, although we've yet to see a menu item break the 30$ mark, but because we've genuinely enjoyed returning several times in a short period of time.

It's our fourth, and most recent visit for dinner though that will be the subject of this post. The habs season opener was playing on the TV over the bar, Johnny Cash was playing on the sound system and we shared nearly the entire menu with 4 dining companions. As usual, in the interest of full disclosure and transparency with our readers, it should be noted that while the meal was not comped by the restaurant, a member of our group (and family) graciously picked up the tab for the entire table that night. It should also be mentioned that we are no strangers to chef Dammann's dining rooms past or present. On this occasion having been greeted warmly and with familiarity by him on the way in, our suspicion that our anonymity in his restaurant is no longer viable was confirmed.

Your waitress will let you know that dishes will be delivered to the table as they're ready. Nothing sits under heat lamps on the pass getting frigid, but the whole table will not be getting their order simultaneously either. Plates are meant to be shared at Maison Publique, so staggering your order's arrival shouldn't be an issue so long as nobody gets greedy with the good stuff and you don't feel uncomfortable sharing with your dinner company. A few orders of foie gras toast were first to arrive, each piece of toasted bread generously smeared with a pâté made of the decadent, fatty goose liver, it's creamy texture on the verge of melting where it comes in direct contact with the warm toast. A small handful of gherkins work well to cut the fat. What's not to like?

Foie Gras Toast - 14$

Deviled eggs were exactly what you expect. Halved hard-boiled whites piped full of the yolks after being well seasoned and mixed with enough mayonnaise or aioli to smooth it out. Classically garnished with a sprinkle of paprika, chervil and chopped chive like a photo out of a Julia Child cookbook. They were just as comforting and tasty as they are off a paper plate at your aunt's house somewhere between the potato salad and the crudites when company's over, don't act like you don't know what we're talking about.

Deviled Eggs - 6$

Speaking of crudites, a dish of winter vegetables that came with kind compliments of the house, was dressed with bagna cauda, an emulsified anchovy dressing; it was much appreciated and very well received. An assortment of raw fennel, celery and carrots mixed with blanched cauliflower, sauteed chard and naturally sweet root vegetables like beets, and rutabaga, contrasted well with the salty dressing. A beef and barley soup made from ox tails wasn't necessarily the ideal dish for sharing but it was hearty and comforting on a cold winter night, parsley provided a fresh punch that is always best described as tasting "green" when chopped fresh just before serving.

Winter Vegetables, Bagna Cauda - 14$

Colossal, Beach Angel oysters from BC were cut into manageable, bite-sized pieces before being served hot, baked under a blanket of cheese and marmite. If you're unfamiliar with marmite, its a spread made of yeast-extract (a by product of brewing beer) that's popular in England and Australia. It's often eaten simply spread on buttered toast. It's dreadfully salty, like beef bouillon cubes that have been diluted with just enough water to form a paste. Memories of this stuff aren't fond for either one of us. Neither growing up with a British mother nor spending a winter in Mont Tremblant teaching snowboarding and sharing a cottage with a group of British exchange program workers succeeded in converting either one of us to being fans of the product. So, imagine both of our surprise when we couldn't get enough of this dish. Whether it was the cheese, the briny oyster or a restrained hand on the marmite, we may never know. But we genuinely loved it, marmite and all.

Baked Oyster - 10$

The final plate before we ordered a second round of dishes that we'll call our mains, for lack of a better word, was pickled herring. Fillets of the soft fleshed, vinegary fish were garnished with salty white fish caviar, dill, and creme fraiche that rounded out the sharp edges. It was served with a couple pieces of buttered toast but we didn't use them, we didn't get the feeling that the bread would offer anything a fork and a family with a healthy affection for pickled herring couldn't muster.

Pickled Herring - 12$

Round two began with Humboldt squid, aka "giant" squid. Most often considered to be bycatch by the fisherman who unintentionally catch these squid in Pacific waters, chef Dammann decided that rather than let it be re-purposed as bait, he'd take a shot at cooking the hoods of these invertebrates that can reach over a meter in length. By cutting it and freezing it on sheet pans chef Dammann says the ice crystals that form during the process pierce through the flesh serving to tenderize it. The texture is more meaty, more substantial than the small squid we're used to eating. We first tried and loved it as part of a spectacular chilled seafood salad we shared at the bar on New Year's Eve, and when we saw it on the menu again on this visit, we were excited to give it a second try. Scored heavily and seared on the flat top or "a la plancha" if you have a thing for talking like Mario Batali and want to be trendy about it, the squid was served over small pasta shells, bright green peas and salty ham. It was once again, one of the standout favorites of the night. We're happy chef Dammann took a chance on this product, because it's certainly way too good to be used as fish food.

Humboldt Squid - 14$

A couple of orders of rigatoni bolognese were OK, but not great. A meat sauce made of ground pork, pancetta, and pork chop trimmings was brawny but lacked acidity and a touch of sweetness. All meat and little tomato made for a sauce that was missing fluidity, it managed to stain the pasta red but had difficulty adhering to the noodles leaving you with two elements in a dish that tasted good but never really came together as well as we would've liked them to.

Rigatoni Bolognese - 15$

Hulking pork chops were ideally prepared, liberally seasoned with fresh rosemary, served with a side of not-too-sweet apple sauce and a pile of peppery watercress. Juicy and flavorful, each chop was a solid portion for a healthy appetite and had just the right amount of fat left on them.

Pork Chop - 25$

Another dish we enjoyed on New Year's Eve and were glad to see on the menu again was a couple of Spatchcocked quails heavily rubbed down with quatre epices. Robust in flavor and deliberately salty in the best way, they come served with a pair of the same foie gras toast as the appetizer we had earlier in our meal and a big dollop of soothing aioli. Quails like this are messy eating but they're worth every bit of the hassle. Sure, you can eat them with a fork and knife but you could probably drive your car with your feet too, and that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. Unless you're on a first date, in which case you might want to make a different menu selection, order this dish if it's available. Get in there and eat them like you would a basket of chicken wings or a plate of ribs - don't forget to thank the cooks for changing your life on the way out.

Quails, Foie Gras, Aioli - 24$

Desserts were a tart, steamed lemon pudding for 4 smothered in unctuous custard, eton mess, and treacle tart. The strawberries in a traditional eton mess are substituted here with sweet caramelized apples folded in with the requisite pieces of airy, crisp meringue and smooth, sweet whipped cream; the whole delightful mess served in a tall mason jar with a long sundae spoon. A slice of treacle tart was dense and pleasant with a tender crust but narrowly on the dry side, it was topped with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream and playful multi-colored sprinkles. The common theme amongst all the deserts we've had at Maison Publique is that they're very British inspired and ideally, never overly sweet. Our only complaint would be that coffee is unavailable during dinner service which is certainly odd, and honestly rather disappointing. We settled for tea but when they ran out of English breakfast tea bags we were forced to settle once more for mint - not ideal unless you've got a good piece of baklava to go with it. They do however, offer coffee during brunch service Saturday and Sunday mornings when the crew from popular cafe Myriade show up to brew diners their morning fix. If we might offer a suggestion, it would be to get a coffee machine for the dinner service.

Treacle Tart - 10$
Eton Mess - 10$

We've heard complaints about the service at Maison Publique, particularly regarding what some perceive to be favoritism for friends of the staff and regulars, but that hasn't been our experience. We've found the staff to have always been courteous, patient, and pleasant, proficient with menu descriptions and casual to a degree befitting the ambiance. Please note that Maison Publique does not accept reservations for brunch nor dinner service. Customers are seated on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Turning the page in one's professional life is never uncomplicated or done without apprehension, we know, we both did it transitioning from the restaurant business to our current respective careers. It's a time filled with angst and worry, throw entrepreneurship into the mix and you've got another level of anxiety to contend with. We can remember a discussion the two of us had when DNA closed, we were sad to hear the news but we had an underlying feeling that it would be in chef Dammann's best interest in the long run. They say when a door closes a window always open, but we feel that in this case a window closed when DNA did and a much bigger door was kicked open right off the hinges by chef Dammann. It has allowed his creative process to push beyond the kitchen, resulting in a business model and a creation much more befitting of the character we perceive him to have and the style his cooking demonstrates. Call us crazy but there was always something that didn't add up at DNA, donkey sausage was never meant to coexist with Arco floor lamps. Personally, we far prefer the mismatched china and the mounted deer head at Maison Publique. People cook best when they're happy and the food that comes out of chef Dammann's kitchen these days has never been better.


Maison Publique
4720 Marquette, corner Gilford
Montreal, QC
514-507-0555
www.maisonpublique.com

Maison Publique on Urbanspoon

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