Fine Dining: À la table des jardins sauvages
Wizardry and foraging produce rare ingredients for an unforgettable meal at a country table
Turbot with sea asparagus and wild radish purée, lightly smoked cherry tomatoes and sweet Nordic shrimp.
Photograph by: Peter McCabe , The Gazette
À la table des jardins sauvages
Rating: 3.5 out of 4
17 chemin Martin, St-Roch-de-l’Achigan
Open: Saturdays, service begins at 7 p.m. (bookings for groups are taken on Fridays)
Licensed: No, BYOW
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: No
Parking: Lot on site
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Price range: Five-course tasting menu, $85.
MONTREAL - I’ve just finished a fantastic dinner, and the chef responsible for every mouthful, Nancy Hinton, is standing in the entrance of her restaurant talking to customers while holding a jar of dried Lactarius mushrooms. She removes the lid and sweeps the jar past our noses. “They smell like maple don’t they?” she asks, before repeating the same gesture with jars of Bolete mushrooms. She then brings over some wild grass that has a pungent vanilla-meets-cinnamon smell. When I say the odour reminds me of tonka bean, she answers: “Yes. They both contain coumarin, a chemical compound that’s also found in nutmeg.” Talk about your olfactory adventures!
Hinton is tiny and, with her sharp features, shining eyes and wavy hair tied up in a bandana, looks like a woodland fairy. The fact that she’s surrounded by mushrooms and wild plants, and that her restaurant is located in the forests of St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, adds to the image. And yet, truth be told, she’s more wizard than fairy thanks to her great skill of creating an absolutely unique cuisine using all those magical mushrooms, plants, berries and herbs.
Hinton’s partner in life and business is the famous forager François Brouillard, known as “François des Bois” and owner of Les Jardins sauvages. If there’s sea spinach, day lily buds, crinkleroot leaf, pig weed, cat’s tongue or wild gooseberries on your plate in a restaurant in Quebec, chances are they were foraged by Brouillard.
Les Jardins Sauvages in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan is now going on 28 years in business. They also run a great little stall at the Jean-Talon Market, where you can pick up all sorts of wild plants, mushrooms (fresh and dry) and products made with all of this unique produce. Food writers go gaga over European chefs like Marc Veyrat and René Redzepi, known for their foraged-herb-filled cuisine, yet we have our very own star forager here in Quebec who has been supplying high-end restaurants like Toqué! and L’Eau à la Bouche with wild edibles for almost three decades. These restaurants built their success on establishing Quebec cuisine. Brouillard’s ingredients, plucked directly from the terroir, no doubt helped them achieve such notoriety.
It was at L’Eau à la Bouche (now closed, alas) where Brouillard met Hinton, L’Eau’s sous-chef at the time under chef Anne Desjardins. Once together, they opened a restaurant at Brouillard’s headquarters. Called À la table des jardins sauvages, the restaurant features Brouillard’s products as well as local deer, pork, guinea hen, cheese and more interpreted by Hinton in a five-course menu that changes monthly. Probably most famous for her October mushroom tasting menu (where some 20 varieties are in play), Hinton offers a new menu every month, yet only on Saturdays, which makes a night at this restaurant a rare treat.
Located in the Lanaudière near L’Épiphanie, À la table des jardins sauvages is about a 45-minute drive past fields and farm stands from Montreal. The short walk from the parking lot to the restaurant leads you to a large chalet perched on the side of a cliff overlooking a waterfall. Arrive a bit earlier from the set 7 p.m. dinner time to stroll around the premises, which include a suspension bridge over a waterfall, and you’ll feel all those big city tensions melt away.
The restaurant’s dozen or so tables are located on a screened-in porch and inside the main building. It’s a bring-your-own-wine resto, so be sure to peruse the menu online before arriving, for this cuisine merits serious bottles. On the Saturday I visited two weeks ago, the staff consisted simply of Hinton and one waitress, a veteran of the house, I’m told, who knew every single item on each plate and could not have been more welcoming or informative. Mid-meal, she even arrived with a tray that counted all the various wild herbs included in the dishes we were eating. Smart.
And what exactly did we eat? Plenty, beginning with homemade bread served with two kinds of butter, one flavoured with day lily buds and the other with monarda flower petals. Get the picture?
Next came my favourite dish, a trio that included an escabèche of turbot (lightly breaded and fried fish served warm) with sea asparagus and a purée of wild radish. To the right of it was a mix of cherry tomatoes that had been lightly smoked and served alongside sweet Nordic shrimp on a bed of wild salt herbs, lovage, crinkleroot leaf and bee balm. Adding a welcome hit of crunch was a scattering of Ontario Kernal peanuts. What a dish, so rich in diverse flavours and textures, with the wild herbs adding little bolts of flavour to the fish and seafood. Really outstanding.
The soup course consisted of a corn chowder, built on a cattail broth and enhanced with a mix of wild mushrooms as well as sea spinach and sea lettuce. I loved the pairing of corn and mushrooms — chanterelles, porcini, lobster, hedgehog, matsutake, etc. — that gave the soup such punch. The mushrooms set the mood, the corn added sweetness and then all the textures followed. Nice.
And there was more. Slices of confit and roast organic Muscovy duck from Morgan farm were served atop choucroute made with kohlrabi, juniper and sea rocket, daisy and wild berry mustard. I wolfed that one down quickly, revelling in Hinton’s adventurousness with flavour combinations, but restraint with potent ingredients like juniper. The next dish starred venison seasoned with a homemade steak spice made with wild herbs and spices. Alongside was an eggplant caponata with pickled day lily buds, wild lamb’s quarters and garlic, and a wonderful gratinéed buckwheat crêpe. The mix of the slightly bitter buckwheat with the deer was a revelation, and certainly a first for me.
The Quebec cheese selection is definitely worth the $10 supplement, especially because the accompanying bilberry and sweet clover chutney is just so interesting and delicious. The dessert, a wild blackberry, blueberry and elderberry turnover with sweet clover flower, sweetgrass milk jam and elderflower jelly, was scrumptious, yet the wintergreen (thé des bois) chocolate pudding was a bit too perfumy for my taste.
All in all, this was an utterly fabulous meal, unlike anything I’ve tasted in the city, and whose unpretentiousness would be impossible to find in a similar restaurant in, say, Europe. For Hinton to employ such an unusual array of ingredients without just randomly adding them to dishes with hit and miss results, but understand how to best exploit their unique flavours is quite a feat. Chapeau!
To finish a thought: In a restaurant landscape overly dominated with generic bistro food, it’s restaurants like À la table des jardins sauvages that are taking Quebec cuisine to the next level. The research involved, the arsenal of rare ingredients, the dedication and passion of chefs like Hinton — that’s what this thing called “haute cuisine” is all about. No, they don’t have a flashy wine list filled with natural wines and funky private imports. No, they don’t have fine bone china, Riedel stemware or Christofle flatware. But so what? Hinton has something far more valuable: a pantry filled with foodstuffs that make her one of the most exciting chefs on the Quebec scene today.
I’m convinced that if this restaurant were located near a larger city or maybe even outside Quebec, there would be busloads of foodies arriving to experience such an eye-opening dining experience. And yet the night I dined there the room was sparsely populated. Maybe it’s time we stop drooling over what foreign chefs are up to and have a look at what’s going on in our backyard?
To start, I’d strongly suggest a night at Chef Hinton’s table.