MONTREAL - As there’s no denying cutting-edge dishes are the ones that garner foodie attention, chefs feel pressured to create marvels. In reality, though, the upper echelon of creative restaurants serves the fewest number of diners. Those fortunate enough to experience the molecular, the foraged and the esoteric are but a select group who don’t so much eat out to actually nourish themselves as to put something beautiful and/or exciting into their mouths. For them, dinner isn’t so much a meal as a performance; a night’s entertainment could be either a modern dance show, or the tasting menu at that new molecular Smörgåsbord place.
Yet allow us for a minute to strip the dining experience of all such pretensions, and what do we have left? The restaurant, plain and simple. The meal switches back from performance art to plain ol’ breakfast, lunch or dinner. And you know, that’s great. Sometimes it’s nice to just eat rather than have to search for the deeper meaning behind the plating of the pea foam and buckthorn berry jelly combo.
Such deep thoughts wafted through my brain recently while dining at Verdun’s Wellington. This excellent bring-your-own-wine restaurant was packed to the rafters with happy customers wolfing back some pretty fine food. Nothing here came close to being edgy, fussy or pretentious. From the greeting at the door to the last bite of lemon tart, a night at Le Wellington made me rethink the beauty of a neighbourhood bistro.
Opened last September, Le Wellington is owned by Marc-André Paradis and Frédéric Leblond, the restaurateur duo who run a group of branché bring-your-own-wine eateries including O'thym, Les Héritiers, Les Canailles, Monsieur B et Le Smoking Vallée, as well as chef Jean-François Pigeon and maitre d’ Sophie Bergeron.
The food in all these restaurants falls into the modern bistro category. It’s not steak/frites simple, but posher than one might expect, with foie gras here, duck confit there and a granité in between courses if so desired. The menu offers a table d’hôte format that includes five courses, but we ordered à la carte, which might be best for those, like us, dining after 8 p.m.
The room is simple in design, with the three Big B’s of bistro decor: blackboards, banquettes and bare tables. Lighting is low and noise levels are high, but not high enough that you have to yell your way through the conversation. Everyone here looked so darn happy, too — even the wait staff, whose sincere smiles are so contagious that I sat there grinning like a show girl on the Price Is Right all night. That may also have to do with the Champagne I was imbibing, for which we were offered fine flutes from which to sip it. As in all of Paradis and Leblond’s restaurants, the tableware at Wellington is top-notch, which means wine lovers can’t complain about shoddy stemware and the foodies can marvel at all the pretty white plates.
As for what’s on those plates, think bistro cuisine done with flair. The dishes are quite standard, but the plate presentations are sharp. The first-course appetizers were exemplary.
Light in flavour and in texture, the first dish — a true étude in earthiness — consisted of a thin slab of blood pudding garnished with slices of green apple and Brussels sprouts leaves, and enhanced by a smear of parsnip purée. I also loved the spinach salad with roasted golden beets and feta cheese, and the fish soup, poured around a tempura shrimp, comes highly recommended, as well.
Though I wished the portion had been more generous, the beef tartare was a slight letdown. Topped with arugula and homemade chips, the tartare was spread into a thin disk of finely minced meat that didn’t really taste of much. Had I had more to chew on, though, it might have made a greater impression.
Main courses maintained the generally high level of the meal. Three fat scallops arrived surrounded by peas, sprouts and a light bisque-like sauce. Each was seared to the ideal golden crustiness, and the garnish, though not exactly earth-shatteringly creative, tasted great. A dish of braised beef also drew many raves from those of us eager to reach in for a second bite. The meat was melting and the root vegetable accompaniments (carrots, mashed potatoes) were luscious. I don’t think the quenelle of chestnut purée added anything but excess richness to the dish, but otherwise, all good.
The main not to miss is the sea bass served with mashed potatoes and braised red and yellow peppers. The standout here was the meaty/creamy texture of the fish, the hallmark of perfectly cooked sea bass. Yum!
The last savoury dish was a restyled cassoulet, with a large duck leg confit, chunks of preserved pork belly and a bed of white beans. As good as the duck and pork were, the beans added little. What was lacking was that rich, fatty sauce that holds a real cassoulet together. Cassoulet has to remind me of Ginette Reno, but this one was more along the lines of Céline Dion.
Just when I was thinking the meal had peaked, along came desserts. First up was a chocolate crumble in a glass mixed with chocolate sauce, bananas, liquid caramel and hazelnuts, which was all very good if a bit overwhelming on the crunchy side. Better yet was a roasted pineapple and sponge cake duo and a somewhat overcooked slice of French toast topped with maple ice cream and taffy. But the best of the four was a gorgeous lemon meringue tart that was big on the lemon filling, small on meringue, and so utterly scrumptious that I shot an evil eye to my friend who hogged the last bite.
Now, as enthusiastic as I may sound, keep in mind that Wellington is not trying to be anything more than a great neighbourhood bistro. Yet I would highly recommend dining here even if you live in Beaconsfield simply because it does everything so well.
No, there’s not a star chef at the stove, no, the ice cream flavours don’t include celery root, and, no, there aren’t chickens out back laying fresh eggs. But yes, it’s good (very, even), yes, you can bring your own wine, and, yes, this place has a lot of ambience. If it’s the nec-plus-ultra gourmet experience you’re after, take a pass. However, if you’re looking for that rare and elusive restaurant meal simply referred to as “dinner,” this is the place for you.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mentioned Wellington as having only two owners. In fact, the restaurant is owned by four people: Marc-André Paradis, Frédéric Leblond, Jean-François Pigeon and Sophie Bergeron.