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Food

I Am Where I Eat: Aix Cuisine du Terroir at Happening Gourmand

Posted by Jer / January 20, 2012

Aix RestaurantIt's no secret that Russ Cooper likes the strange and tasty culinary events Montreal has to offer. So it was no surprise when he wrote in with a detailed account of the hopes and aspirations he had for the Happening Gourmand, a chance for locals to get "cheap" fares at otherwise pricey old port restaurants. If you're thinking of heading out to sample the event, read on.

Sure, terroir can be an immensely interesting subject. Some even argue that Quebec has very little culinary sway in terms of the traditional terroir due to a few limitations; among them, a shortened growing season over huge and relatively unvaried landmass, reliance on established French cuisine techniques, and a reputation for the meaty, fatty, and kinda dirty.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, there is nothing better than a watery steamé. I've murdered coagulated blocks of poots and fantasized about doing it again and again. To boot, this province wears the national cheese crown, an attribute that keeps my spare tire happy and round. These are the staples that bind us, especially through the arctic nightmare we call winter in Montreal.

For me, cuisine de terroir means Quebec-on-a-plate in a way. But since it may be the atmospheric and cultural conditions that often drive our foodish desires, can we consider these conditions part of the terroir on some miniscule extent? Probably not.

But let's just say we could. Could I taste years of linguistic squabbling or hockey sweat? Would there be notes of that joie-de-vivre that keeps us afloat? Road salt? What about crusty 100% wool? Would my smoked meat be imbued with les Gitanes?

I didn't expect (or want, honestly) any of these things on my plate when I visited Aix Cuisine du Terroir. Located at 711 Côte de la Place-d Armes, it's one of the seven participating restaurants as part of the Happening Gourmand event. This table d'hôte bonanza, running until the end of January, is a crack by the Antonopoulos Group at competing with this month's Restaurant Week events in New York or San Diego. One big difference, however -- Antonopoulous owns all the participating Montreal restaurants rather than the scads of restos with varied proprietorship in the other cities. In any case, I'll take the chance to eat something new and weird. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I've always thought one should know what his or her area tastes like. (Did I just say that?)

My gracious dining partner (who, it must be said, suggested Aix) and I were seated at the circular booth in the corner quite near the front door. I couldn't tell if this was an awesome seat or the penalty box as it did give a view of the entire Aix's pleasantly safe decor, but I could feel the arctic gales on my ankles when anyone opened the door. Atmospheric terroir, perhaps?

To start, her Vol au Vent de Boudin Noir garnered a "pretty good. Not too dry as it often is, and not overpowered by cinnamon." My poultry liver verrine with apple ice cider jelly was sweet and soft and quite enjoyable. Though, now that I think about it, it came with a delightful little salad of radishy sprouts that I probably should've put on the brioche toast. Meh. Winter is no time for vegetables, am I right? Especially in Quebec.

As a main, she had the lamb shank braised with star anise, Beluga lentils with chorizo, maple gremolata. Now, I'm a believer that any braised meat should be utterly butterly soft and flavourful. With one sample bite, I could tell this wasn't. It was tough and a touch bland. It felt hurried. Thankfully, she said, the lentils saved the dish and helped bring out the anise. "Very fragrant, which made up for the lack of seasoning of the meat. The maple sweetness really resonated the terroir flavours, but people need to branch out from this. Not everything from here can be maple," she said. Nonetheless, in the acute depth of winter, outstanding lentils are the perfect ankle warmer.

Me, I had the duck magret, quinoa with hazelnuts, rapinis, and a chicoutai berry 'broken' vinaigrette. It was prepared well, save for its lack of the requisite crispy skin and its under seasoning. The hazelnuts provided the quinoa with an agreeable accented, but was detracted by a cheesy flavour that just didn't jive -- an element that overpowered the vinaigrette.

This lovely little emulsion should have stood out much more. Made from the amber-coloured ground fruit found otherwise known as 'cloudberry' or 'bakeapple', this was the most unique Quebec-embodying ingredient on our table that night; it grows north of the 55th parallel and can withstand temperatures well below -40°C. It's also pretty tart. Sound familiar?

The desserts were the surprise of the night; hers, the chocolate gourmand with maple caramel and fleur du sel, and mine, the crème brulée with honey and thyme. While I wasn't wild on the thyme infusion, it was the perfect egg velvet consistency that made it absolutely heavenly. The staff was remarkably attentive, but service did feel a bit rushed; we had barely finished our mains and not done our wine when our desserts arrived and coffee was suggested. Let a man and a lady finish their wine, huh? Small detail, I'll admit, yet not insignificant.

Did this somehow sum up Quebec for me? How do I answer this without it getting touchy? Let's just stick to the experience and say, all in, it was a 7.5 out of 10. Hearty enough to feel relatively satisfied, but not adventurous enough to leave me wanting. With price tag of $114 (fixed meals of $27 and $37 with three glasses of wine between us), it wasn't quite the supposed deal it perhaps professed to be. Well, I was where I ate.

Discussion

14 Comments

Jess@BringYour Appetite / January 24, 2012 at 11:39 am
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I lived in Seattle for a while where they have Restaurant Week twice a year. The list of participating restaurants includes over 100 Seattle establishments that all offer a 3-course meal at $28. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, not really. In my experience, the options on these Resto Week menus left something to be desired. The dishes never looked as attractive as regular menu-items did, and they were usually dull, under seasoned, and generally lackluster. Service was rushed, and the dining rooms were jam-packed. Servers were frequently in grumpy moods because they knew they would be pulling in about half their regular tips for twice the work. There were often problems with the food because the kitchen was being stretched beyond its usual means.

When I asked the chef of a well-known Seattle restaurant why she doesn't participate in Restaurant Week, she told me that it's because the event does nothing to promote the restaurant: she can't offer her best food because it would cost too much, and neither the kitchen, or the front of house staff, can do their best work because they are rushed. Diners who come on Restaurant Week nights will not have the same impression of her establishment as those who come on a regular night. She also suspects that most of the diners who will jump at the chance to eat at her restaurant for $28 will not be willing to return and spend two or three times that, even if they were satisfied with their experience.

Restaurant Week sounds like a wonderful idea, and it's a great success in many cities, but in terms of actually getting to experience the participating restaurants in their best light, I think it fails.
Andres / January 24, 2012 at 08:31 pm
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I had a pretty dull experience with Happening Gourmand at the Vieux Montréal Steakhouse. Similar to above, I felt that the meal offered was fairly lackluster. For a $50 bill, I felt that small bistros and wine bars offer a much richer experience for a lower price. What I ate here was no different from a lower priced meal at Vieux Duluth or Casa Grecque.
Russ Cooper / January 25, 2012 at 07:33 pm
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Yeah, what the heck, huh? In concept, it's fantastic. For those who eat (everybody), who doesn't like to go try one of those places you've been licking the window of for years?

I haven't had the chance to try similar events in other cities, but from what I've heard (including from you up there, JessAtBringYourAppetite) it seems the focus is off.
Amie / January 26, 2012 at 08:07 am
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Speaking of other cities, Toronto has a similar winter restaurant festival where I've had equally lacklustre experiences. BUT my favourite food writer there just published an article on where might not suck and why, and you can read it if you want some perspective from a guy whose been in the cheap winter meal biz for years: http://www.nowtoronto.com/food/story.cfm?content=184885
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