There is a not-so-secret secret about me: I love to eat.

In fact, I have a reputation as something of a glutton. One of the principal joys of my day-to-day life is the anticipation of my next meal. On occasion, I actually find myself counting down the minutes until I can justify my next feed (three hours isn’t quite long enough, but four? Off to the fridge...). (My feats at the dinner table are often viewed with  some combination of awe and disgust), and the truth is that my primary reason for working out at the gym is a desire to be able to eat to my heart’s content.

I am not proud of this.

There are myriad reasons to condemn this behaviour, foremost among them the fact that it is entirely unsustainable and inequitable. It is also unhealthy, although that is the least of my concerns. The other major problem with the way that I eat is the fact that I am a completely unreformed carnivore. I live to eat flesh. When I fantasize about my next meal, it is the meat I am thinking about first and foremost. I can't imagine giving it up, though I believe that the only moral choice is to do so. Between the environmental and ethical repercussions of the meat industry (for humans and animals alike) there is no justification for the consumption of meat. And yet, as I write this, my mind skips ahead to the fried chicken I plan to eat tonight (prepared by The Stockyards in Toronto—it's to die for).
Despite my love affair with all things edible and the fact that I enjoy television, I am not a huge fan of cooking shows in generally. This is probably because I am not much of a cook (another thing I'm not particular proud of, and am working slowly to change). In general, my appreciation of food is unrefined. I don't have a sophisticated palate or vocabulary for food ... just a passion for its consumption.

And then, by chance, my partner and I stumbled upon a television chef who captured my imagination: Chuck Hughes. Chuck was born and raised in Montreal and currently runs two restaurants there. His show is called “Chuck’s Day Off” and the premise is that Chuck loves cooking so much that he even likes to cook for those who help make his restaurant hum (staff, suppliers, etc.) on his days off.

Of course, one should be wary of anything seen on television, particularly that which claims to be ‘reality.’ Nevertheless, despite myself, I must admit that I was charmed by Chuck. He is unpretentious and exuberant. When he tastes the food he has just prepared, his knees seem to buckle with pleasure and he declares much of it to be “amazing.” In other words, he behaves just as I imagine I would if I had a similar gift for culinary alchemy. Aside from his charisma, what I like about Chuck is the way he approaches creative cookery. He seems less interested in mastering the art of French cuisine and more into preparing comforting (and unhealthy) dishes inspired by his Montreal roots but injected with twists his own imagination that cater to base desires rather than intellect.

It's not, I’m sure, for everyone (or maybe it is, but I can’t speak to Chuck's reception amongst gastronomical sophisticates). Chuck is, however, the perfect chef for someone like me, who imagines that the best way to improve a dish is by adding prosciutto and/or sending on a journey through the deep fryer.
It should be no surprise, then, that I had long been thinking about making a stop at one of Chuck's restaurants the next time we were in Montreal. That opportunity finally arrived this weekend. I phoned ahead to Chuck’s more established restaurant, located in Old Montreal: Garde-Manger, smugly thinking I could ensure a reservation. Instead, I learned that reservations typically require thirty days notice, especially for a Saturday night.

Chagrined, I accepted a spot on the waiting list and booked us a seat at the bar of Chuck’s newer restaurant Le Bremner (a quieter and less rowdy version of Garde-Manger also situated in Old Montreal). Fortuitously, late Saturday afternoon, I received a call to say that a spot at Garde-Manger had opened up; we would have the classic Chuck experience after all.

The reviews of Garde-Manger, as food reviews tend to be, range towards the snooty. It was once a brilliant restaurant, they say. Then Chuck became famous and tourists began to arrive. Prices rose and what was once cool now only pretended. This is the hipster way.

I was not to be put off. Cool or not, Chuck was my culinary soul mate and I was determined to consummate our relationship.
Now, I come to the part of the post in which I will rave about the food. There is no surprising twist or ironic turn to this narrative. There will, I hope, also be none of the overwrought pseudo-poetical prose of the typical restaurant review. I couldn’t do justice to the food that way even if I wanted to.

What I want to do is describe perhaps the most gratifying meal of my life.

We started with drinks. Jen had a classic gin martini (dirty, because she loves olives) and I had a giant Caesar (see above video), replete with a giant stalk of celery and crab claw I proceeded to mash and mangle as I greedily slurped out the flesh within.
We ordered two starters. The first was a seafood platter that is a specialty of the house. We asked for the smallest size and were taken aback by the magnitude of the multi-tiered dish that arrived at our table. The shrimp (served with homemade cocktail sauce covered in grated horseradish) was the only moment in the meal when I felt blasé about what I was eating. The rest of the platter—oysters and more crab legs—was delicious. Certainly, our enjoyment was aided by the wine that our server paired for us with the course, as she would for each that followed (including both starters). Yes, we had fun.
The second appetizer was another house speciality: lobster poutine. I am actually not a hug poutine guy—I’m often put off by the gravy which, if not at its best, can turn my stomach. Not a problem in this case. The dish was expensive--$19  for a very small portion—but (and I am cheap) I really felt like I would have paid more. It was incredible. (In the interest of full disclosure,  I must concede that Jen did not think it was so great/worth the cost. But what does she know?)
Next I ordered a flank steak served with a fried egg on top, resting on a bed of deep fried mashed potato balls with a side of homemade sour cream. If this sounds excessive to you, we do not have the same tastes. I have never had a better steak. It was actually more delicious than it sounds, if that is possible. A masterpiece. Even Jen, who is not a potato person, declared the deep fried mashed to be incredible.
And yet, my steak, believe it or not, was the lesser of the two orders. Jen boldly made the choice I can never quite commit to: the risotto. Risottos always sound tempting to me, but I fear not being satisfied (there are also issues related to preparation, but I leave that for the professionals to discuss). In this case, the risotto was prepared in a lobster bisque with rock shrimp. After a single bite, my steak (my incredible, perfectly prepared, delicious steak) started to seem like a McDonald’ s hamburger. (Luckily, Jen couldn't finish her dish and I got to eat much of it as well as my own.)
I should add that we are not even lobster lovers. Both Jen and I tend to find it overpriced and understimulating. Not so when it comes from the kitchen of Chuck, who must be some sort of lobster whisperer. (Last year, in Halifax, I had a lobster bisque at McKelvie’s that might as well have been prepared by Campbell’s in comparison.)

At this point, Jen pleaded for me to stop. There was no doubt we had been more than sufficiently sated. But I found I could not resist the call of Chuck's famed deep fried Mars bar for dessert. Jen relented and the Mars bar arrived with ice cream on the side.
It would, it turns out, have been a tragedy not to try it. Jen had previously eaten a DFM in Scotland and declared that she was too old to try another, but even she admits that her previous experience with a fish and chips-style attempt bore no resemblance to the bread crumb coated festival of delight we were treated to at Garde-Manger.

(My prose is purpling, but I can’t help it. How to do justice in print to something that can only be appreciated on the palate?!)

All I can say is this: thank you, Chuck. I have never had a more satisfying (or expensive, I must acknowledge) meal. If you are a carnivorous glutton like me and you happen to have an evening out in Montreal, plan ahead and treat yourself to Garde-Manger. 

May Chuck never take more than a day off. 


jessica naves gladman
04/09/2012 10:17am

i am totally tickled by your post.
as you know, i can attest to your lifelong love of food and i am completely in awe of your ability to honestly describe how and why you eat.
thank you for sharing your experience at chuck's, sounds totally decadent and delish!!!
xo jess

Judy Kalman
04/10/2012 3:28pm

Well, if the parent's always to blame, I'll take credit first for Nathan's flair for composition, but must also admit to the apocryphal appetite that descends from the Kalman line.Everyone has his muse, and I think Nate has revealed his.

07/07/2012 7:50pm

Sounds yummy and what a great post


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