It has been one year since The Girl and I wed. 12 months. 365 Days. I couldn't be happier. Life is fantastic when shared with someone you truly love. To celebrate, we hopped on a plane for Montreal, that bastion of French culture and food. For the meal marking our year together, we chose Garde Manger, the always packed restaurant of the host of TV's Chuck's Day Off. Chuck Hughes, the tattooed rock star chef whose French inspired seafood lead him to become the first Canadian to top Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America in Battle Lobster, has established himself as a front-line culinary star.
Located in the Old Town of Montreal, Garde Manger is not only difficult to get a reservation for, it is difficult to find. Everything begins to hum along nicely once you are in the door. The space is beautiful, hip, and vibrant. The staff is professional but clearly having fun. And by fun, I mean this is the most relaxed, accessible atmosphere of any fine-dining restaurant I've ever been in. There is a definite reflection of the chef's personality, with the music pumping loudly and with a genre-jumping schizophrenia. From Beach Boys to Foster the People to NWA, don't expect to come here for a quiet evening.
Okay, enough with the teasing and on to our meals. After a half dozen oysters on the half shell (with the best mignonette I've ever had), I let our incredible server Maude talk me into the Jerk Crab ($29) (a Chef Hughes favorite). The heat level on these crabs is very high, but the jerk flavor is deep and resonant. The hard work and dirty hands are SOOOOO worth it.
For her starter, The Girl went with what may have been the dish of the night, the Salmon Tartare ($17). So light and bright, with beautiful citrus notes, cubed into larger pieces than I am used to in a tartare. The Girl attacked it with such relish that you would hardly know how much she hated fish a few scant years ago. In all honesty, both of us could have been happy just eating on this dish.
My main was delicious, though I found the plating somewhat hap-hazard. Skate wing lightly fried with a fennel salad ($28). Very light and buttery, a beautiful summer dish. If you have never had skate, it is very mild and reminiscent of sole, and accepts flavor beautifully.
The Girl's dish was NOT Lobster Risotto. That is what I thought it said. Turns out I'm short a few words of French. What it was: Rock Shrimp Risotto ($36). Turns out rock shrimp taste....just like lobster, lucky me. This was a decadent and rich dish, though Chef Hughes prefers his risotto a little more toothsome than we are used to. Still a fantastic dish, with beautifully layered flavors.
For desert we stayed away from the inspired, and went with the just plain yummy, a deep-fried Mars bar with ice cream. The State Fair inspired dish is warm, gooey, and satisfying in a whimsical manner.
After Maude cleared the table she took us into the open kitchen for a picture, capping the evening. I can not stress how much FUN we had, to go along with the fantastic food. My only complaint has to be the plating, which just didn't measure up to the quality of the ingredients, or the skill of the actual cooking. The Girl LOVED the dinner, and has agreed to stay with me another year. Guess I need to start planning the next anniversary meal right now.
Ambiance: 5/5 (as long as you love loud, very modern music)
Overall: 22.5 out of 25 A fantastic special occasion restaurant in the heart of Old Montreal