I hate rushing for dinner, but because of the ineptitude of the Canada Border Services Agency, we spent a not-terribly-interesting 100 minutes sitting in line at the border. Yes, that is one hour and forty minutes. And the worst part was that we made great time on the way up, some of it through the very beautiful Adirondack State Park. I averaged in excess of 70 mph, which really made a difference over a five-hour drive (I am joking: I have never exceeded the posted speed limit and would never dream of it). So screeching to a halt, cooling our heels, thinking of the lovely dinner we would, hopefully, soon be having was a bit irritating. I couldn’t even be an aggressive ass of a driver, because the Canadians surrounding us all seemed so polite. And when we finally got to the head of the line, the official who checked our papers made it even worse by being efficient, pleasant, friendly, apologetic, and amusing. We couldn’t even be angry!
We missed seeing the Montreal skyline by daylight, which of course will be one of our excuses for returning as soon as possible, because one hour after we checked into our hotel, a short cab ride took us to Liverpool House, a restaurant in which I want to spend some quality time, preferably with a beer and a few (dozen) oysters. But really, anything on the menu would make me smile. Their business plan is a bit strange: The owners have three restaurants on the same side of one block. Each is a bit different, but still, it takes self-confidence and real talent to pull it off. Luckily for Montrealers, and a few intrepid Americans willing to brave the wilds of Canada, they have an abundance of both.
Let me get the negatives out of the way. Actually, there is only one, and it probably isn’t a negative for many people. They have no menus available except for a written menu on a large chalkboard on one wall, with the wine list next to it. The problem is that to read it, you have to get up close and personal with the innocent diners eating at the tables below the menus. I enjoy sitting at our table, sipping a cocktail and chatting about the food choices, and that is tough unless you get one of the few seats with an unobstructed view of the menu. There is one advantage though: When you are leaning over the poor diners, trying to see the menu, you can snag some food off their plates.
I don’t know what “market French cooking” (their own description) is and, quite frankly, I have limited patience for the incessant labeling of restaurant styles. How does “market French” differ from “country French?” Whatever they want to call their cooking is fine with me, because they execute it very well. This is not haute cuisine; rather, it is good food, made with excellent ingredients. I guess if I had to call it something, I would choose…”market French?” Perhaps that’s incorrect, because the quality of the oysters was such that this joint should be described as “oyster bed perfection.” Last summer, I ate what I thought were the best oysters in the world, but the folks at Liverpool House have given the Normans a run for their money. Wow. That’s really all I can say. Beautiful plump, briny, slightly sweet, meaty…blah, blah blah. I do not have the oyster vernacular to describe these wonders, other than to suggest that you get to Montreal and try a few of these beauties. I tried two varieties, one of which was called “Marina Gold,” I think. The other one? I don’t remember, other than recalling that both varieties were from Western Canada. During the rest of our stay in Montreal, I mentioned to a few people how good the oysters were, and everyone said that the restaurant was famous for the quality of their oysters. Not famous enough, because I heard about them only in the last few weeks. There should be a large billboard in Times Square, proclaiming the glories of this place’s oyster mojo. As I was guzzling these fantastic specimens I might have noticed my wife eating something. I think it was a very interesting appetizer of asparagus with a superb Gruyére soufflé that she generously shared with me. Well, to be accurate, she grudgingly gave me a minuscule taste, and that only after a bit of arm-twisting.
I had ordered a venison dish as my main course, with which I had planned to drink one of the very nice Australian reds offered by the glass. As you may know, my wife is pathologically afraid of anything red in wine, so she asked about the whites, most of which were French and completely unknown to both of us. The waiter graciously brought a few bottles over to our table and poured some very generous tastes. My wife liked one much more than the other, but the one she rejected was a very nice Sauvignon Blanc blend, without the vegetal qualities that I find unpleasant. I mentioned that to the waiter and thought nothing more of it until he brought me a glass of it with the oysters, saying that the oysters deserved to be eaten with a nice glass of crisp white wine. I had planned to poach a sip or two from my wife but hadn’t really thought about it. What a nice gesture! This is exactly the kind of thing that separates mediocre service from excellent service. And I doubt that the waiter pondered what he was doing; it probably just seemed like the correct thing to do, which is why he is a successful waiter working in an excellent restaurant.
My wife ordered crab cakes with a red pepper reduction, and I ordered the aforementioned venison. As usual, I ordered well. The venison was excellent: perfectly cooked, tender and very flavorful. It was served on some whipped potatoes that were simply seasoned and a bit buttery. Very nice. The venison was garnished with Brussels sprouts, but they were cooked differently than I had ever experienced. They seemed to have been cored and then sautéed briefly, just to soften them and add a bit of flavor. But they weren’t sulfurous at all, which leads me to believe that they were first parboiled. Whatever these folks did, it worked wonderfully. My wife’s crab cakes were good, but nothing out of the ordinary, and a bit of a letdown after the excellent quality of everything else.
We were full, and the dessert list was nothing exciting, so we declined. I had taken some quick notes at the table, and my comments on the desserts consisted of two words: “boring cake.”
This is a casual restaurant whose relaxed attitude belies the quality of the kitchen and the service. And perhaps the best part of the evening (in addition to the food, of course) was the crowd around us. Our fellow diners were there to eat well. They obviously took food seriously and clearly would not tolerate substandard fare. We chatted with the people sitting next to us, and one of them, an attractive young woman, said that she won’t date anyone who doesn’t love to eat. Now there is someone who has her priorities straight!