Licking the last smudges of mille-feuille pastry cream from my fingers, I am reminded of that time I woke in a Montreal hotel room unable to stand on my own two feet. It was no ordinary hangover. I honestly believed I was suffering from an acute case of gout. Although there had been great quantities of wine consumed over the weekend, that briefly crippling episode of swelling, sweating and rapid heart palpitations was more likely triggered by extreme overindulgence in cheese, pâté, poutine and Joe Beef's foie gras Double Down.
La crise de foie is the apropos French name for these gourmandizing bouts of debilitation. Don't worry, it's not an ailment often encountered here in Vancouver, the land of lean sashimi, whole grains and cold-pressed juice cleanses. I'm not knocking our relatively healthy ways of eating. But sometimes even the most abstinent diners just want to get messy and clog their arteries with, oh, maybe a meaty Paris-Brest – two delicately crispy rings of choux pastry filled with creamy duck liver, glazed with maple syrup, sprinkled with crackly duck-skin sugar and set on a sticky red-wine fig sauce. Mais oui.
Welcome to St. Lawrence, a seductive slice of haute country cooking from La Belle Province (with detours into France) where rich meat sauces, excellent terrines, luscious creams and decadent pastries are celebrated unlike anywhere else in the city.
From the moment I step through the curtained threshold, it feels as though I have been transported to a cozy rural home where everyone speaks French. The ceilings are painted tin, the brass lamps glow dim and the royal-blue walls are covered in gilded knick-knacks, fleurs-de-lis and faded family portraits of executive chef Jean-Christophe Poirier as a young child, standing with his hippie parents next to a wood-burning stove. (Having once been engaged to a Quebecker whose mother lived in a small town along the St. Lawrence River, I must say designer Craig Stanghetta nailed this room perfectly.)
After nearly 13 years in Vancouver and a string of successful restaurants co-owned with Kitchen Table Restaurant Group (Ask For Luigi, Pourhouse, Pizzeria Farina, Joe Pizza), Mr. Poirier has come home to the type of cooking that is closest to his heart. He says St. Lawrence will be his last restaurant and full-time station until he retires from the line.
I take a seat at the small kitchen counter. It's very late, almost 10 p.m., because the reservation book has been booked solid since the restaurant opened in June. When Mr. Poirier has finished cutting a flaky slab of pastry-encased mille-feuille (which I have already eyeballed for dessert) with surgical precision and an electric kitchen saw, he turns and asks how I would like to dine tonight: "Québécois or French?"
Québécois, bien sûr.
I whet my palate with a Labatt 50 tallboy. Not because it's kitschy or ironic, but because in Quebec, this working-class ale is still a thumbs-up beer of choice. A short cocktail list is heavy on cognac. The wine list is entirely French. I can appreciate a bar that knows its niche.
A sumptuous feast of typical Quebec specialties rolls out with elevated finesse and a few quirky twists. First, there is cretons, a fatty pork spread warmly spiced with clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, which is usually served on toast for breakfast. The complimentary amuse-bouche, served every night to every table, comes with seeded mustard and a slice of sweet sourdough country loaf, golden-crusted around the edges, light and fluffy in the centre. I remember this bread. It tastes exactly like the loaf my ex's mother used to bake.
Next up, Oreilles de Crisse (God only knows why they are called Christ ears), the deep-fried pork rinds traditionally served in sugar shacks. Here, the curly, crunchy snacking bites are tossed in maple syrup and Montreal steak spice and come flowing over the lip of a maple-syrup tin can. It's a very cute presentation.
Vol-au-vent? Oh, yes. These puff-pastry parcels are a staple in Quebec kitchens. It's a Tuesday night kind of dish, filled with whatever leftover meat, fish or soup can be found in the fridge, kind of like turkey à la king. Here, the feathery cups are stuffed with a volcanic explosion of thinly slivered porcini, glossy béchamel sharpened with grated Gruyère and a riot of fresh herbs. It's rich, yet bright; fragile, and at the same time hefty.
Pâté en croûte isn't in the lineup, but I can't resist after watching a few of these perfectly moulded wild-boar terrines being plated with their fudgy pastry shells, tight gelée chimney caps and rounded boudin-blanc centres wrapped in collard greens. Moistly dense and lushly spiced, it is the best pâté en croûte I have ever tasted.
The food just keeps coming. Golden tourtière venison pies (adorned with a little Habs flag) in a deep, dark pool of glossy jus, layered with flavour and slowly built over several days with roasted bones and gelatinous trotters. Baked potatoes (a fun play on poutine) filled with cheese curds in a sodium bomb of a chicken gravy that tastes exactly like they make it at St. Hubert. Classic sugar pie with a latticed top and rice pudding with salted butterscotch.
I am drunk on sugar and deliriously meat-sauced to the gills. On any given night, the St. Lawrence kitchen has about 10 sauces on the go and at least four types on pastry in the pantry. There is no other restaurant in Vancouver that is so dedicated to the classic, time-intensive foundations of French cooking.
So of course I must go back – after a couple of weeks in recovery – to sample a night in France. The pièce de résistance is cailles en sarcophage, a golden quail wrapped in puff pastry, stuffed with sausage and sweetbreads. It is served with peeled grapes infused with the jus from a Madeira-honey sauce that is reduced to such luxuriant thickness it leaves an empty trail on the plate when I run my finger through it.
This is the dish, you might recall, that was served in the wonderful Danish film Babette's Feast, introducing an ascetic, 19th-century Lutheran community to earthly delights by way of a real French feast. Perhaps it's a metaphor for Vancouver. Mr. Poirier couldn't go back to Quebec, but he has brought some of its finest pleasures home for us.