Café Boulud, Toronto.

December 2015

The famous chef has joined David Chan and others in establishing a branch plant in this our biggest and wealthiest Canadian city. It’s right downtown and occupies two floors of pretty swish real estate in the Four Seasons hotel. We were lucky to get reservations (made by friends) for a Saturday night getting close to Christmas. Although the restaurant has been here for a couple of years, for some reason it  started getting rave reviews only just recently.

It’s busy. We were reserved for 7:15, but not seated until just before eight. The dining room is complex and designed to belie the big surface area using baffles and alcoves so a faux intimacy is nicely achieved. Interior design is café, not culinary cathedral, noise is substantial but tolerable and it’s a rock beat, not Mozart chamber music, that we are competing with.

I found the menu a bit of a surprise, it looked a bit like a frenchified version of a North American steak or chophouse. Appetizers across the top, mains in the middle, side dishes and other features around the outside. The wine list is economically (space wise that is) fine-printed on the reverse side of the single-sheet menu. It’s very short but carefully-chosen. The dishes are classic bistrot: duck confit, pike quenelles, steak frites, veal stew, boudin blanc, saint-jacques. Etcetera.

Server is a very pleasant European French girl who can be heard over the din and who is resolutely cheerful, and coquettish when she can manage it. Although she says she knows the wines, her response to a request to rate them is the not-helpful “it depends what you like”.

So to dinner. Two of us shared steak tartare one had escargots, and another tuna nicoise to start. The tartare was delicious, beef chopped not ground and plenty of classic sour mustard background. I didn’t taste the escargot or nicoise tuna but there were no complaints.

Mains were steak frites, boudin blanc, and a rare lamb tenderloin number that doesn’t appear on the online menu. My boudin blanc might have been the best of the bunch, the sausage magnificently understated without any nutmeg or other overwhelming flavour fanfare. It was presented on more mashed potato than I wanted, and with a few slices of cooked apple that were complementary. The lamb was surprisingly to me just a shade undercooked, liking everything raw as I do, but very tasty. Steak was a flatiron, perfectly seared, with very good but not over-the-fence chips.

We drank a couple of approximately $80 wines, a very young pinot grigio and a 2003 medoc. I loved the red, the kind of wine you find in average French restaurants, nameless to everyone except extreme enthusiasts but charmingly full of old fruit and empyromatic goodies on the nose, and easily long and balanced enough in the mouth to complement the food.

$500 pre-tip for four, with more money spent on wine than most people would bother with. You can certainly get out of there at $100 per person quite comfortably if you’re careful.

What surprised me here was my amateur take on the economics. Very high-class real estate, and definitely colloquial café fare which, although quite beautifully done, doesn’t command a haute cuisine Manhattan price. But that’s Monsieur Boulud’s problem. I have no problem at all with his very nice Toronto restaurant, delicious high-bistrot food, and quite reasonable prices.

Food 8.7, service 8.4, ambience 8.9 if you ignore the noise, value 8.0. I would go back for a special dinner if I’m in town.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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