Homer St. Café and Bar is a new rotisserie that specializes in spit-roasted chicken served with baby potatoes and home-style sides. I visited three times and enjoyed almost everything – except the chicken and its fixings.
Rotisserie chicken is the ultimate Parisian street food. Go to any outdoor market and you'll find trucks stacked with rows upon rows of juicy, crispy skinned poulet rôti. In Montreal, the bronzed birds are a Sunday night standby so popular that even in the most remote neighbourhoods, you can have them delivered. They have lately become trendy in Hong Kong and appear to be the next new thing in New York.
Homer St. Café is the first restaurant in all of Canada to use a fancy-schmancy Rotisol Grande Flamme Olympia imported from France. Enamelled in candy-apple red with glass doors and brass trim, the showpiece rotisserie allows the skewered chicken to self-baste on rotating spits while the juices drip onto baby potatoes in a tray below.
It is not a machine that is easily dialled in. Restaurant chef Tret Jordan says he and executive chef Marc-André Choquette (also of Tableau at the Loden Hotel, which owns Homer St. Café) have had a steep learning curve.
First, they had to adjust the size of the chickens, all free-range from the Fraser Valley. He says 3 ½ pounds is ideal. Early customers apparently squawked that the larger birds were too big to consume in one sitting.
Then they had to learn how to stagger the roasts, adjust the timing and fine-tune the rotations (the spits are moved up the burner ladder as they cook).
In the beginning, Mr. Jordan was preparing the chicken with a dry ras el hanout rub. But he found that, even after a 24-hour marinade, the spices were not penetrating well enough. So he switched to a 48-hour wet brine comprised of salt, sugar, paprika, coriander, fennel seed, rosemary and black pepper.
After all the tinkering, the Homer St. chicken, finished with a squeeze of roasted lemon, is succulent. It is certainly not dry, as many customers initially complained. But the meat does not exactly fall off the bone. And the skin is not crispy. In parts, it's barely bronzed.
"I can make better chicken at home," a friend groused. So can I. But a single roast chicken cooked in small oven is a whole different beast. We can adjust the temperature and monitor the basting for that perfect balance of croustillant fondant (crispy melting).
Homer St.'s chicken would be more compelling if the sides were crave-worthy – but they are not. The thickly skinned, pan-roasted peewee potatoes are unpleasantly firm, unevenly seasoned and not browned in the slightest. Perhaps if they were cut in half, they would come out more fluffy and golden.
The red-wine jus is oddly sweet. Brussels sprouts bagna cauda is bathed in a caper cream sauce that has a nice tang, but little heft. The cream slides off the sprouts rather than coating them, forcing you to keep dipping and dipping to capture the elusive flickers of flavour.
Braised cauliflower is lightly dressed in brown butter and crushed hazelnuts. The cider-honey vinaigrette on a green-leaf salad is insipid.
We also found it strange that a whole chicken, although cut in half, was not served with any utensils for carving and serving. And why were we given small side plates?
Over all, it was a spare, unsatisfying dinner. Perhaps my preferences lean to overcooked chicken that melts in the mouth. And maybe I was wrong to expect big, rich, buttery sides.
No, I was not wrong. Because when I returned for brunch and a second dinner, everything else was wonderfully hearty.
Chickpea dip is robustly seasoned with oodles of garlic and nicely textured with a top layer of crispy fried chickpeas. The lamb potato pie is lusciously tender with rich gravy and a side of piping hot, slippery bone marrow. Rotisserie beef loin (the restaurant offers a daily roast, in addition to chicken) is meltingly tender and darkly crusted.
For brunch, the maple chicken cobbler with its buttermilk biscuit baked over a creamy, aromatic filling flecked with apples and maple bacon made me moan out loud. The hollandaise is thick (almost too thick) and brightly lemony. Pork sausages are abundantly herbed. A deep-fried banana and nutella monte cristo sandwich is just plain fun.
The restaurant is an absolute stunner, spread over several levels. Appointed in a cream-painted tin ceiling, tufted green-leather banquettes, white marble, black tile, restored wood-frame windows and colourful roosters here and there, the design is haute farmhouse chic.
Service was exceptionally friendly and attentive during all three meals and the couple of times I went in for drinks. Mixologist extraordinaire JS Dupuis creates terrific cocktails. And the wine list includes a nice selection of unusual biodynamic and organic wines.
But then we come back to the chicken. It should be the star. If a restaurant is lauded for everything other than its specialty, well, the restaurant is doing something terribly wrong.