Get a taste of Quebec's wild side
This unique restaurant now offers once-a-month foraging workshops
Where did you go?
My wife and I visited À la table des Jardins Sauvages, a restaurant in St-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Que., about 45 minutes northeast of Montreal (about three hours east of Ottawa).
What is it?
A rustic, riverside cottage turned high-end restaurant with a unique theme. As its name implies, the menu's ingredients are sourced largely from the "wild gardens" of Quebec: fields, forests, streams and anywhere else that edible plants, fruits, seeds and flowers are found.
So it's just a place to eat?
New this year, owner and life-long forager François Brouillard is offering a two-hour, pre-dinner wild foods workshop on the last Sunday of each month until September. The bulk of the workshop is in French, but the printed materials and the restaurant's staff members (other than Brouillard) are bilingual. Then again, looking, touching and tasting don't really require translation.
Who came up with the concept?
Brouillard is the restaurant's mastermind, as well as its main supplier. His partner, acclaimed chef Nancy Hinton, handles the cooking and prepares most of the Jardins Sauvages line of products -- pickles, jams, oils, syrups, flavoured sugars and salts, sauces, herbal teas and dried mushrooms -- all available in the restaurant's shop.
Where else can I find Jardins Sauvages products?
At the eponymous, ever-busy kiosk in Montreal's Jean Talon Market, which also sells a large selection of fresh wild produce, in season.
What are the hours and do you need to reserve?
There is a single dinner service starting at 7 p.m., Thursday to Sunday. Reservations are required. The restaurant can accommodate groups of 12 to 45 people.
How much does it cost?
The workshop is $40 per person and the five-course dinner is $75 per person, not including taxes or gratuities. Wine and beer lovers will be pleased to know that they can bring their own bottles.
What did the workshop entail?
During the workshop, we walked through three different environments -- open field, river bank and deciduous forest -- all within a few hundred metres of each other. The assembled group was treated to daylily stalks (they taste like sweet leek), wild ginger root (more intense than the cultivated variety), and the leaves of pigweed (a.k.a. lamb's quarters or white goosefoot; reminiscent of broccoli), common yarrow (a cross between rosemary and sage), crinkleroot (a spicier version of arugula), oxalis (citrusy), and wintergreen (just like toothpaste!)
What did you eat for dinner?
That was a more refined affair. Our server sat us in a quiet nook overlooking the river and brought out our bottle of Isle de Bacchus rosé, from Île d'Orléans. We quickly emptied a basket of wild herb bread, duly slathered in bee-balm-flower and boletus-mushroom flavoured butters. Our starter was a mini hamburger bun stuffed with chunks of lobster in lovage-and-crinkleroot mayonnaise and a cattail-flour onion fritter with a relish of crunchy live-forever leaves and cucumber, spiced up with poblano pepper.
A creamy soup of fiddleheads, garlic mustard greens and fava beans, laden with chewy cubes of salt pork and a hint of bee balm. The salad course was an Asian-inspired dish of duck breast strips and buckwheat noodles, with daisy leaf, cabbage and carrot slaw in a wild ginger and sesame oil vinaigrette. The musky ginger gave it a bit of kick, while the daisy leaf added a bit of anise-like sweetness. My wife usually doesn't like duck, but she loved this dish.
What was the main course?
The plat de resistance was the milk-fed lamb with mushroom-and-wild-grape jus, potato gnocchi with nettle and smoked lamb belly, and sautéed hedgehog mushrooms. The lamb was mouth-meltingly tender, and perfectly balanced by the savoury-sour gravy; the gnocchi, which seemed to have been panfried, were the only off note: tasty, but a bit dry. We skipped the optional Quebec cheese course (an additional $7.50 per person) to save room for dessert.
And what was for dessert?
That's where Hinton really outdid herself. In one corner of the plate, a rhubarb-strawberry-and-raspberry dwarf cobbler in a sweet clover crust, topped with a thick cream of white chocolate and sweetgrass, also called vanilla grass (in fact, it's both sweet and vanilla-like). Its sweet sidekick was a granité of sumac, Labrador tea, apple cider and rhubarb syrup.
Was that the end of the evening?
We capped off the meal with homemade herbal tea: a combination of linden, Labrador tea, wintergreen and bee-balm flowers, among other ingredients. At this point, the chef came into the dining room to chat with her guests and answer our endless questions about her use of seemingly exotic ingredients, all of which are free for the picking throughout Quebec. A good reason to get lost in the woods, if there ever was one.
How do I get there?
À la table des Jardins Sauvages (jardinssauvages.com, 1-450-588-5125) is at 17 chemin Martin in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que. The easiest way to get there from Ottawa is to drive east on Highway 417, continuing in Quebec on Highway 40 east until Exit 108 for Route 341 toward L'Épiphanie/L'Assomption. Turn right at chemin Martin.
Giancarlo La Giorgia is a writer and willing weed eater who lives in Montreal.