CAFÉ MARGAUX (796 College, at Roxton, 416-588-7490) The former Café Societa easily shifts to a mid-priced bistro nouveau format with ex-Pastis sous Rob Briden confidently in the kitchen. Combine this cozy 30-seat candlelit room with loss-leader weeknight specials like onglet of pan-seared bison with roasted pears and wild blueberry reduction for 13 bucks and reservations become essential. Be sure to save room for the house's spectacularly plated over-the-top desserts! Complete dinners for $50 per person, including all taxes, tip and an $8 glass of wine. Average main: $18. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 pm to midnight. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
As yet another Alberta clipper rattles down College, I make my way through the driving snow towards the cozy confines of Café Margaux. Through the near whiteout I can just make out the profile of the Literary Device seated at a table in the nouveau bistro's front window. Once inside and unencumbered of mukluks, I join my culinary compadre in the welcoming space that once housed Café Societa, the late-90s spot that thrust a then unknown David Chrystian into local foodies' high beams.
Societa never really recovered from his move to the now defunct Patriot and opening-any-day-now Drake Hotel. First-time restaurateurs Patrice Baron and Rob Briden, ex of Pastis and Quartier, quietly took over the 30-seater last fall.
They've wisely retained Societa's look - warm exposed brick, dark wood everywhere, a long bar running down one side of the narrow storefront - and some of its retro jazz CD collection. Dave Brubeck's Take Five, Julie London's Cry Me A River and Bryan Ferry crooning Just The Way You Look Tonight shuffle through. But the new crew have ditched Societa's eclectic cuisine for somewhat more traditional Gallic fare.
A chalkboard menu overhead announces the weeknight's special, bison hanger steak with wild blueberry reduction sided with sautéed new potatoes and halved oven-roasted pears. Usually $18, tonight it's reduced to sell at 13 bucks.
Bargains abound. Once word gets round about Margaux's deluxe $27 three-course prix fixe nightly meal deal, the place'll be packed. But as of right now, the Literary Device and I are her only customers.
We make quick work of a tasty ramekin of smooth duck and chicken liver rillette, a fatty pâté we spread on stiff crisps of baguette. Ordering from the à la carte menu, we've augmented our set suppers with a starter of minced foie gras ravioli ($9), a sensational quartet of doughy, al dente duck liver dumplings. They're sauced in a reduced ice wine gelée infused with luscious violet-petal confiture. Did I mention the contrasting savoury garnish, a lengthwise chiffonade of leek?
The Device does soup, a velvety dark portobello purée blended with dried then rehydrated wild 'shrooms - chanterelles, porcini, wood ear - that give the cream-free potage a lovely underlying smokiness. My remarkably fresh Salade Maison (both $6 à la carte) sees a mess of peppery dandelion doused in a delightful shallot vinaigrette. I reach into the indoor planter next to our table and crumble a few lemon thyme leaves over top of the organic greens.
I've chosen chicken as my prix fixe main and receive a perfectly à point, partially deboned and skinless free-range breast and thigh that's been draped with a ribbon of wilted spinach and then pooled with licorice-y tarragon jus ($17).
The Device scores even bigger with her triple-A Alberta strip loin ($19), a uniquely shaped 2-inch-thick 8-ouncer that resembles a mega-medallion in a syrupy reduction of port and wild mushroom. Both come sided with addictively delicious cookbook-correct Yukon Gold frites double-deep-fried in peanut oil - a bit underdone for my liking, but then, I only account for my taste - which get duly dunked into Briden's marvellous garlic aíoli.
So far, Café Margaux has delivered more than expected - attentive but not in-yer-face service, relaxed surroundings and a confident card that offers value up the ying-yang. But Margaux has a surprise up her sleeve - dessert. You wouldn't expect much from the third course of a $27 prix fixe. Instant pudding, perhaps? But Briden's spectacularly plated fixe finales redefine over-the-top.
The Device's jaw drops when Profiteroles à l'Armagnac arrives at table, a dramatic oversized plate holding a diminutive pair of pastry puffs overflowing with Madagascar vanilla-bean ice cream and boozy strawberry coulis. Towering above them, upright chocolate tuiles preside over a loosely woven net of sugar-syrup brittle.
My Terrine au Chocolat (both $7 à la carte) comes with a lightning bolt of the same sugar-candy stuff inset with coffee beans. It skewers a sizable cube of two-tone chocolate terrine, the dense interior an ambrosial trufflesque mousse. A chocolate-dipped raspberry - in January! - and jaunty mint sprig garnish. Simply put, these are in the same dessert league as Senses or Rahier and a reason to visit Margaux on their own.
Bundled up for the weather and back on the street, the Device excitedly announces she's bringing a gang back tomorrow night for Margaux's Pernod-laced bouillabaisse Marseillaise ($18/$13 Thursday). On the coldest night of the year, she's thrilled to have discovered what could be the hottest boîte in town come spring thaw.