Confused about the name? Let me try to clear it up. Under the now-retired chef-owner, Gojko Bodiroga, it was Promenade Bistro, but the new owners -- formerly of Provence Bistro -- have dropped the Bistro part, and the new name is Promenade Cafe and Wine. Ironically, since it's now more of a bistro than the far more formal and upscale Provence ever was.
Although it has been open for several months, the restaurant has only recently had its official opening. The decor is still a work in progress, with a paint job and new chairs in the offing, but it is nevertheless comfortable and attractive, with a casual, almost rustic feel in the front room, and a more spacious dining room in the rear, with a semi-surround of windows that afford great views of the bridge and the city's skyline.
The food is more bistro than haute, and prices aren't as elevated as they had been at Provence. On the other hand, neither is the cooking, leading me to wonder why a crew with a five-star history should be guilty of so many lapses in this new location.
My first meal started with a pleasant, albeit dense house pate, with a lovely garnish of pickled red onions and grainy mustard, but without the promised cornichons ($9.50). It was acceptable though, something I couldn't say that for the mussels that followed, which were nothing short of disgraceful ($14).
The winey sauce was delicious and so was the tangle of crunchy matchstick frites that topped them, but the mussels were surprisingly few, and those few were not good. They came in varying sizes, some smaller than a thumbnail, others quite large, but all of them flannelly and poor in flavour. We mentioned it to our waitress, who responded with, that's what mussels are like. She then checked with the kitchen, and returned with the surprising offer of more mussels as compensation, causing us to wonder why anyone would think we'd want more of something we hadn't liked in the first place.
Three entrees were so delicious, so far above anything else we had they could have come from a different kitchen, and they are the main reason there isn't half a star less above: a duck leg confit glazed in a berry-flavoured gastrique ($25); maple-glazed pork tenderloin sauced with Napoleon brandy ($23); and lamb shanks with shiitake mushrooms and little dollops of blue cheese ($23) -- all absolutely yummy. Garnishes of tiny potatoes and asparagus were also excellent.
But then, out of that same kitchen, came the penne with seafood -- a slice of nice enough salmon and big, if not very flavourful shrimp, but also more of those mussels, which were even less appetizing than those in the starter. We could ignore the mussels but not the broth, which was described as saffron-vegetable but tasted only of an overdose of lemon juice, which had even penetrated the pasta to the point of sour inedibility ($25). The almost full bowl was eventually removed by the server, whose only acknowledgement was to ask, did I want to take it home, and had no further comment when I said no.
I gave the mussels two more tries on subsequent visits. On one they were acceptable -- nothing more. On another a few were acceptable, but more of them were flannelly, and some were shredding apart in their shells, a fact that didn't seem to bother our server when we pointed them out.
A return lunch visit was a series of disappointments. Not the poutine though -- you pretty much have to take the foie gras on faith since you can't really taste it, but the gravy does have a depth of flavour, and the dish was delicious ($6.95 small, $9.95 large). Certainly it was infinitely better than the sauces on other dishes that day.
The tourtiere's crust was tough, the filling was crumbly dry, and the gravy it so badly needed was unpleasantly salty. Something must have gone wrong with the kitchen's basic brown sauce that day since other sauced dishes tasted mainly, overwhelmingly, of salt -- the chewy beef bourguignon, for instance (with no pearl onions at that), and the utterly tasteless beef tenderloin tips with mushrooms on garlic toast ($12.95 each). A simple chicken-topped baguette with a dab of tapenade should have been a safe choice, but the chicken turned out to be a juiceless, tasteless slab that was replaced, after we complained, by another version with thinner, juicier and tastier slices -- evidence that someone in the kitchen did know how to do it right ($11.95).
Since that lunch was on the day of the restaurant's official opening, and the tension was understandably high, I felt it only fair to give some of the failures another try. Not at lunch though, since the evening's Bistro Menu also listed the same dishes.
That night the tourtiere's crust was good and the filling was moist and tasty but the gravy -- although not oversalted this time -- had no taste at all. The bourguignon was still chewy and although its sauce also wasn't too salty, it too had zero flavour. We also tried such starters as the smoked salmon crepe -- OK, but skimpy on the salmon ($9.95), sautéed flavourless shrimp with great sweet potato chips ($10.50) and slightly gummy but not bad gnocchi with mushrooms and spinach in a creamy sauce ($18).
Desserts included good rhubarb pie and chocolate cheesecake as well as a bland floating island ($7 to $8 each). Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 11:30 weekdays, and from 8 a.m. to noon on weekends. There is a $25 four course prix fixe dinner, which must be shared by two, with, if wished, two ounce wine pairings for each course at $17 per person.
Provence was noted for its outstanding wine list, and there are some fine bottles here too, albeit nothing under $30, On the other hand only a few are available by the glass, and those unimpressive. Service was friendly and attentive but needs training in how to handle complaints.
Promenade Cafe and Wine
130 Provencher Blvd., 233-7030