L’Auberge St-Gabriel is one of the most beautiful places in Old Montreal. It’s modern, chalet-inspired interior, with fur-decorated stone walls, segmented dining rooms and dim lighting make it the perfect place to cozy up for a cocktail. The smell of wood fire wafts through the space inspiring comforting thoughts of deep winter, drifting snow and a feeling that the outside world has come to a standstill while soft music fills the air.
It’s easy to romanticize a place like l’Auberge St-Gabriel but a restaurant’s illusion, no matter how well it works, needs a strong foundation to stand on. Beautiful decor and modern design can only take a restaurant so far. A place like this also needs passionate staff and a great menu to keep people coming back for more. On a recent visit to the restaurant, things started off well enough but as the night went on the restaurant seemed to lose interest in our table which drained our interest as well.
We arrived at L’Auberge for cocktail hour and took our seats on the terrasse. I’ve eaten on the terrasse a few times over the course of the summer and its a spectacular location. Ivy clings to the one of the stone walls breathing life in the space while stacks of firewood lined up on the other side of the terrasse continues the chalet illusion created inside. We were a group of bloggers and media and we were excited to see what the night would bring. Our waitress for the beginning of the night was wonderful. After quickly taking our cocktail orders she returned to explain the menu. She was friendly, honest and attentive without being too intrusive and for the first hour of the meal she carried the majority of the workload.
Things started going awry with the food started arriving at the table. There was six of us seated at the table so we ordered a selection of entrees to start the meal. We started with a couple of charcuterie plates, the veal with tuna sauce, the salmon tartare, grilled cauliflower and bone marrow with parsley salad, capers and grilled bread. The charcuterie was as you would expect and from what I heard the bone marrow and the veal were ok too. The salmon tartare was fresh but lacked boldness whereas the cauliflower was delightful. Between courses we discussed the start of the meal and we were surprised that the food was so uneventful.
Continuing with the main dishes, we chose a selection of plates that we all could try. We chose the sirloin steak with grilled summer vegetables, basil and a green pea purée, the bouillabaisse, the lobster au gratin, the gnocchi and the aged beef rib with aligot and greens. The lobster and the bouillabaisse were satisfying but the gnocchi were disappointingly undercooked and had a chalk-like texture. The aged beef rib was veiny which made it hard to chew and mostly inedible and the sirloin, while cooked the way I like it, had the same problem. A thick line of fat running along one of the sides of the steak was not very appetizing.
Normally when the waitstaff comes to the table to see how everyone is doing, even if it isn’t perfect we’re programmed to smile and nod, not wanting to offend. We were there to try this new menu and give our feedback, which is what we did. We were polite in our comments which were well received by our waitress. After a few minutes we ordered our desserts, continuing our experience. Between the main dishes and the dessert our waitress informed us that she would be continuing her shift in another area of the restaurant and would have to say goodbye to us. She is an asset to the restaurant and we were sad to see her go.
A man in a white shirt (maybe the manager?) brought out the desserts. He was passive aggressive when he told us, “I hope these are better than the meat”. It was inappropriate and left me feeling that we were no longer welcome at the restaurant. The chef made an appearance towards the end of the night and provided us with a few details on what brought him to Montreal and his past as a chef in Europe. The Swedish born Ola Claesson moved to Montreal recently to be with his wife (who was born here). We learned that he has a rich history and background in the Michelin starred restaurants of Paris which is why the unevenness of the meal was such a surprise.
Our experience at L’Auberge St-Gabriel had sky-high expectations that started off well but fell flat towards the end of the night. It was disappointing because I’ve usually had very pleasant experiences at the restaurant. The menu, which may be more suited to autumn, shows promise but needs a little refinement. The terrasse remains one of the most exquisite in Montreal and I do recommend dropping in to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. I remain cautiously optimistic that our experience was simply a case of bad timing.
Image credit: David Major-Lapierre (@davidmajorlapierre)