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Rostra rating: 3
This was not an easy review to write. At MagoGuide we prefer to do restaurants anonymously (that’s not hard), multiple times (very difficult during extended travel, in which we are often engaged), and with a minimum of two core team members in attendance. This third and inviolable stricture dove tails with MagoGuide’s philosophy of determining how food venues stack up for the average, occasional hoi palloi diner as opposed to how critics, foodies, celebrities, long-term regulars, etc. are treated. This culinary discriminator is further refined because Team Mago at a minimum consists of an egotistical omnivore and a picky high-maintenance eater. If the two of us find an eatery compelling, there is good reason to believe that such an establishment is indeed worth your hard earned fundage.
Over the years we have both made plenty of sacrifices in adhering to the core team rule. For example, I never get north of a single Michelin star (and that rarely), whereas Patti does not get to eat dim sum every day for the rest of her life. The result of such gastro-discipline has been cruel but fair reviews of restaurants that we believe best serve our small but fiercely loyal following and hold the greatest promise of fattening that long tail over time. But every once in a while, well just keep reading and you’ll see where I am going with this.
Patti does not really care for Francophone food, whereas I cannot live too long without it. I have no need of infinitely long tasting menus concocted by glitterati chef alchemists in gourmet temples and presented by supercilious fashion refugees masquerading as wait staff. But if I do not get a regular fix of genuine organ meat-driven bouchon/bistro/brasserie fare I get cranky. So I am always on the look out for unpretentious purveyors of cuisine bourgeois that do tremendous things with the food Patti loves such as roast chicken, anything with potatoes, flavorful soups and braises, etc.
So we ended up in Montreal at Liverpool House on the block of Notre-Dame Street bracketed by Charlevoix and Vinet Streets that is the core of the Morin/McMillan gastropire. Damned faintly by the foodnoscenti as the place to eat when you cannot get into Chefs Morin and McMillan’s flagship Joe Beef, I had hopes that Liverpool House would be more Patti-friendly than its serious older sibling given its humbler appointments and a seasonal menu sourced from the nearby Atwater Market (see our forthcoming Montreal Market Meal post)–and, of course, I could not secure a reservation at Joe Beef. Most important of all Liverpool House was personally recommended by Chef Aaron Barnett, a Canadian and Portland’s leading exponent of Lyonnaise cooking as well as the proprietor/chef of two restaurants where Patti will not only eat but eat happily.
Things began rather auspiciously when we walked in the two room (bar and dining) funky interior with mismatched plates, dish towel napkins, and a very long list of daily specials from the nearby Atwater Market scrawled semi-legibly on a large chalk board placed in the farthest corner of the dining room. And they were playing Steely Dan (Kid Charlemagne, perhaps in a nod to the ever-feisty Quebecois?). The clientele were dressed no better than our travel-stained Portland grudge, and they otherwise displayed the sensibilities of a MagoGuide crowd. To wit, the woman next to me did not pause from for an instant when I dropped my knife on the floor, scooped it up less than an inch from her foot and continued to employ it–perhaps because she was eating quail with her hands and did not turn to utensils of any kind throughout her meal.
My first course was divine drupe Daffy liva butta (aka, foie gras parfait with bing cherries and bing cherry gelee. The cherry gelee was not overly sweet, supporting rather than distracting from the delicacy of the foie. The cherries themselves were (Suumesh forgive me) every bit as good as those from the Flathead Valley. The bread accompanying the foie you ask? No wimpy toast points here, dude, but big sturdy slices of a light wheat sourdough grilled and then brushed with a garlicky aioli — bravo. Our waiter paired the parfait with a great dry, slightly spritzy muscadet. When the waiter asked if I was finished, I replied “Unless you think I can get my tongue in that small jar and lick it clean?” His response: “You don’t want to be that, guy.” Well actually I did, but he had a point, and in any case I was already feeling the stirrings of a one meal stand bromance.
Patti chose a rabbit croquette for her appie. One bite told me that I was ingesting the apotheosis of Thumper. Perfect pan fried panko-like crust gave way to a melting interior that did NOT taste like chicken with the rabbit’s rich and ever so slightly gamey flavor shining through the delicate seasoning. The Bugs fritter was served with barely blanched peas fresh from the Atwater Market, perfectly sautéed chanterelles, and sprightly pickled cauliflower. Oh I loved that waaaabbit!! The muscadet worked with this dish as well.
Patti not so much. She began with a phrase known to strike terror into chefs and restaurateurs throughout the galaxy: “Well, I like it OK” (this is how a southern lady says “sucks, pretty much”). Then the croquette was further described as ” a bit mushy and bland.” Patti’s idea of a croquette hails from Catalonia where the good ones are basically deep fried béchamel studded with intense nuggets of Jamon Iberico, and while I am a stone pavlovian for pig candy crack in all its manifestations, I could see where the comparison she made had more than a little apples to baklava bias to it. Oh well, agreeing to disagree is one of the major keys to harmony at MagoGuide.
Any further fatal impulses toward mansplaining the difference between la croquette and la croqueta evaporated with the delivery of my Trigger filet. This was precisely the kind of food I came to Montreal to eat: bacon wrapped horse tenderloin served very rare on a thick slice of toasted bespoke brioche slathered with more of that foie parfait, napped with a peppercorn jus, and topped with a perfectly fired sunny side up egg. The bacon was very thin so that it crisped perfectly in tandem with the equine Pittsburgh. Best steak I ever ate regardless of species origin. If we can have retail weed in the Oregon why can’t Chef Barnett serve retail horse?
The waiter suggested another excellent wine pairing. This time he offered me the choice between a 2013 French Syrah or a 2012 Barbaresco. I love Barbaresco, but this one was way young and unopened to boot. The waiter patiently opened the bottle for me and poured a generous taste, confirming my opinion that the wine needed about five years in the cellar followed by 2 to 4 hours in a decanter. He agreed and cheerfully poured a very generous dollop of the syrah, which was all leather, barnyard, and terroir—perfect with Trigger mignon. I needed another glass of wine to wrestle every bit of horse flesh into my distended stomach, and the waiter obliged with a nice 2012 chianti that had less force but a much better balance between fruit and terroir.
My post foodgasm glow was destroyed by Patti’s main course. Reasonable reviewers could differ concerning the Bugs fritter, but we were unanimous in our condemnation of her tagliatelle, which proved a sad refugee from clunkersville. The house made pasta was on the almost too firm side of al dente and served luke warm with a watery sauce. The other ingredients, those wonderful Atwater-sourced peas and pork belly strips were just fine in and of themselves, but the whole dish seemed just thrown together as an afterthought for people like my wife, who do not really like full-blown Gallic cuisine. The pasta was not properly finished in the pan and it set around too long waiting for Old Paint to leave the last coral. Pasta needs to be served when it is ready, although this dish never really was.
I almost never order pasta in a French restaurant (or pigs feet in an Italian eatery) and this is why. On the other hand, I had read that Liverpool House’s menu leaned Italian under original chef Emma Carderelli (replaced by Ariel Schor in 2012). Well, she took a lot more than her knives when she left as far as pasta goes. A real shame. I cannot help but think that Chef Barnett, not the biggest fan of Italian cuisine himself, would have been disappointed with the dish.
So how do you rate a restaurant that serves both the sublime and the ridiculous side by side? The easy answer is that you go back, at least once or twice in order to give the kitchen the chance they obviously deserve to prove that nasty pasta was a fluke. But we did not have time for any more meals at Liverpool House, and while I’d go back in a heartbeat on a future trip to Montreal (definitely in the cards), I would not even pretend to get Patti back there for very good reasons.
So I am going to give what was for me a 4 rostra meal, an overall rating of 3 rostras for that egregious faux pasta and draw on my gastro capital in the favor bank to fund meals at Au Pied de Cochon and maybe (well, actually almost certainly) Joe Beef.
Mago Tip: Do not order pasta. Did I really need to say that? Also, do not bother with the dazzlingly eclectic and decently priced wine list. Your server will know more about wine than most somms you are likely to encounter, so leave the pairing to the professionals.