For this visit to a Montreal restaurant, I will deliver you back to an area where my appreciation for excellent catering first took root: Mile End. I had made the journey this time in response to a simple comment by a friend in appreciation for the donuts there. Sorry, donuts? Yes, he reassured me - but also so much more. And so it was that I found myself at the Café Sardine, just a handful of months after its opening in a space that was formerly occupied by La Montée de Lait. Pretty much right up to my arrival at the front door, I hasten to point out, I wasn't positive if I was really there to taste the donuts - a pastry in which I don't so often indulge - and certainly didn't imagine that I was going to write an article about it.
Things started to change on the other side of that door though, as the essence of lemon and spices infiltrated our senses. As is the case with so many restaurants I've had the pleasure of visiting in recent years, the Sardine's kitchen is open for its clients' sensory pleasures. Coincidence or not, I've always found that open-kitchen restaurants, where the secrets of food preparation are thrown wide open, have produced a pleasant experience for me. Otherwise, I find it impersonal. The place is beautifully decorated in the style of an authentic British pub.
Although I wasn't able to determine an official explanation for the name of the restaurant, when you're sitting cheek by jowl with your fellow diners at the table, so close you could almost share your entrees, a possible reason emerges.
Curiously, the restaurant offers a slightly different concept to that with which we are accustomed. Here, you can gloriously eat donuts and pastries for breakfast, nibble sandwiches and savour premium coffee for lunch, and then luxuriate in the fine-dining atmosphere that envelopes the place as evening sneaks in. At night, the tables are illuminated with small candles, a nice touch that lends a romantic atmosphere to the experience, and a sommelier is on hand to help with wine choices. As meals are served in appetizer sizes, it's easy to order two dishes for variety, and to share.
The menu is the product of Aaron Langille, a celebrated chef whose previous employment record includes gigs at the Filet and Le Club Chasse et Pêche. Such pedigree offers dubious diners a sense of what to expect, from a quality perspective, at the Sardine. And one pass of the menu, which spills over with evidence of the chef's commitment to research and ingredient novelty, puts to rest any lingering doubt. We started our meal with the lamb on mashed walnuts - a sublime blend of flavours. The accompanying caramelized squash was also delicious. And we were utterly charmed by the restaurant's famous tomato bread. Humble and unassuming it might appear, but don't be deceived - that little loaf is sublime. Next, we ordered the filet of mackerel with homemade mustard. The inspired foam and cucumber that accompanied the dish introduced the fresh taste of the sea. And then at last we had reached the point in the meal that had inspired our visit from the start: dessert. The two beautiful homemade donuts that arrived at our table - the first, a brilliant concoction of lemon and ginger; the second, a soaring marriage of cinnamon and sugar - were fresh from the fryer and a world away from the Tims and Dunkins with whom they share provenance. The verdict was unanimous: moist, just sweet enough, crisp, light, fluffy, a real delight - and for just $1.25 apiece. And the coffee that washed it down, prepared with grains from Vancouver's Roaster 49th Parallel, was a fragrant foil to the entire glorious affair.
The service at Café Sardine, from our arrival on, was flawless. Everything was done with good humour and the utmost in professionalism. Dollars to donuts.