The servers at Auberge du Pommier, the Oliver and Bonacini company’s romantic and, at nearly 25 years old now, blissfully old-fashioned North Toronto room, wear black ties and black vests and speak with the sort of deference that’s been all but abandoned in modern dining.Though they’re not stuffy, they address clients as “sir,” and “madam,” and remember their anniversaries. “Is it a special occasion?” the reservationist asks when she calls to confirm each night’s bookings. At Auberge, you sense, it always is.
The menu titles are written in French. The music ranges from Duke Ellington to crackly French crooners to xylophone jazz; it doesn’t range much past the 1950s. The cheapest à la carte dinner entrée costs $39.
But if all that sounds like a formula for restaurant suicide in this post-post-fine dining era, you should walk by at dinner some time and have a peek through the latticed windows, or make a reservation, even, if fancy French food is your thing.
Auberge du Pommier is crammed these days: not just with legions of older regulars, but also with young, doe-eyed couples from the neighborhood , business types wielding laptops in the two private dining rooms (the restaurant is surrounded by corporate offices), tables of Mainland Chinese in windbreakers, toasting – ganbei! – with Bordeaux.
What brought me there for a pair of dinners earlier this month was the résumé of Auberge’s executive chef, Marc St. Jacques, who took over the stoves last year. Mr. St. Jacques was born in Belgium, grew up in Montreal and Toronto, and learned to cook at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s most respected chef schools. After graduating, he went to work for a U.S. celebrity chef named Michael Mina, rising to lead the kitchen brigade at Mr. Mina’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel.
Where his cooking in Vegas was distinctly contemporary, at Auberge du Pommier, Mr. St. Jacques’s work is rooted in large part in the classics. It is progressive-conservative, if you have to put a name on it: High French, but through a cautiously contemporary lens.
Chef’s steak tartare gets a daub of cornichon jelly and chopped egg whites, but is otherwise a faithful (and very tasty) nod to the standard. The tournedos Rossini, part of the six-course tasting menu recently, switches out the usual toasts for buttery mashed potatoes, but doesn’t otherwise stray: the beef, a cylinder of dry-aged Cumbrae’s rib eye, is seared to medium rare, pooled with Madeira and truffle sauce, topped with pan-fried foie gras. It’s a comestible heritage moment, a taste back through history. That dish is delicious, also, especially with the Fronsac they pair alongside.
The restaurant’s “agneau” plate brings an enormous, bone-in lamb shank that’s been cured in herbs and salt, then confited in fat to melting. There’s a pool of black-olive jus around it, a trio of deep-fried lamb croquettes, a touch of white anchovy, a mound of polenta, spears of grilled romaine.
For meat lovers of the old school, it’s a plate of glory; you hardly notice those more forward-looking sides. (For palates more attuned to modern tastes, only a zip more of acidity to cut the melted collagen in the lamb would make it better.)
Occasionally, Mr. St. Jacques strays. His dish called “Oeuf” is a love letter not to tradition but to superb local ingredients and modern bistronomie cooking: it’s about the flavour and texture and provenance of a single, perfect, dark-yolked egg, softly poached and encased in a packet of thinly sliced Niagara ham.
It looked and tasted as if the chef had allowed himself to play a little: the oozy orange voluptuousness of the egg’s yolk against the salt and porcine meatiness of the ham, the mellow, minor-key sour of pickled garlic, the sweetness of confit shallots, the smokehouse soul of its black truffle and bacon jus. (The one thing missing from the plate: something to sop it all up with.)
Yet in other cases, the more modern dishes were less convincing. In a nod, one presumes, to nearby Forest Hill, Mr. St. Jacques served house-smoked salmon slices with bagel chips and “horseradish panna cotta,” as the menu called it. Far from tasting light and refreshing, as panna cotta should, this was as thick and heavy and mouth-coating as a bowlful of Philadelphia cream cheese. On another starter, he wrapped humdrum chilled lobster salad into strips of limp-tasting grilled zucchini and served it with yuzu-spiked aioli. “For the money, I want a bit more za-za-zou,” my dinner date one night said.
Though he is doubtless an excellent chef, it felt at times like Mr. St. Jacques was pulling his punches, as if in coming home to Canada he had allowed himself to fall into the fold of an institution that has more far history than he. Yet looking around the busy room, I could understand it. They’re busy, with diners who are happy. So what if it isn’t challenging food?
For dessert, we had a lemon soufflé and a good plate of chocolate, and then a pair of macarons that arrived with the bill. And it was hard just then to deny the seductiveness of it all.