The prestigious Relais & Chateaux association was founded in 1954 by eight luxury hotels in France, many of them genuine chateaux that had been transformed into hotels. Today it has 500 members worldwide, now including luxury hotels and restaurants as well, but their motto hasn't changed: character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.
There are a few in Canada, but the Fort Garry Hotel isn't one of them, although this designated National Historic Site is as close to a chateau as it gets in these parts. I can't comment on the rooms (I haven't stayed there), but most of the Relais's motto would apply to the hotel's restaurant, the Palm Lounge.
Not all of it, though. Character, courtesy, charm and cuisine, yes, but forget the part about the calm. The oval-shaped room is magnificent, with three tiers of windows leading up to a soaring, gilt-decorated ceiling, but the noise can be deafening, more so at some times than at others. Early on a Saturday night, when it was packed with people having pre-function drinks, and piano music that was unidentifiable in the din, we had to shout our orders into the waiter's ear. An even earlier midweek visit was more peaceful, at least to start with, but as the evening progressed so did the decibels, albeit not to that Saturday night level.
I've never understood why the handsome art deco Broadway room, where only breakfasts and the brunches are served, isn't used as the hotel's restaurant. On the other hand, you can't argue with success -- the packed, if noisy, Palm Lounge is proof of that. One reason is probably the stunning setting. Another is the food.
I've written about the fabled Sunday brunch, but it was years since I'd had dinner here, and while it doesn't approach the extravagance of that brunch, it has its own attractions. The all-day menu is fairly short, offering a few items in each category, some obviously aimed at hotel guests. In fact, the entrées are labelled Home Away From Home Dinners, and even if you aren't away from your home, some of those time-honoured classics -- expertly prepared, with no trendy flourishes -- may be just the kind of comfort food you've been missing.
When, for instance, did you last have pot roast? Well, this is the place for it -- a tender chunk of tasty sirloin with veggies in red wine gravy ($22). Or perfect roast chicken -- a generous half with old-fashioned stuffing, flash-roasted to full-flavoured juiciness ($22). The moist veal meat loaf is classic Italian, topped by a tomato gravy ($15), and the veal lasagna with three cheeses is one of the best I've had, ever ($16).
I also had one of the city's best steaks here -- a 12-ounce AAA New York cut with a marvellously rich beefy flavour ($31). You can even have (probably most appealing to a just-arrived hotel guest) a grilled house-made sausage with two eggs and fries ($13). Vegetable garnishes were simple but faultless, among them little roasted potatoes and spears of al dente asparagus.
The burger meat is ground in-house and exceptionally tasty. There are also burgers of portobellos with a blend of cheeses, or grilled chicken with cranberry sauce, and such sandwiches as hot turkey with gravy, a Reuben and a clubhouse. All are $16, including either a salad or skinny fries -- the fries were excellent but not nearly hot enough. There are four thin-crusted pizzas, and our Calabrese with Italian meats, back bacon and really spicy pepperoni was delicious -- small, and suitable for either a light meal or a shared appetizer.
One night's dinner started with the chicken liver brulée, not the usual sautéed livers we'd expected, but a little pot of mousse-like paté under a crème brulée-like glaze -- a brilliant and delectable creation. Other starters ranged from grilled vegetables at $9 to an antipasto plate of cured Italian meats, provolone and vegetable garnishes at $18. In between such choices as house-smoked salmon, meatballs in tomato sauce with Reggiano cheese, steamed shrimp dumplings or a wild and field mushroom quesadilla. There is also a list of monthly specials, from which we chose shrimp baked in filo pastry -- three little rolls that were too small and too uninteresting for a tab of $14.
Desserts are also listed as monthly specials, all $8. The baking is superlative, from the breads that precede the meals to the pastries that conclude them -- in our case, banana cake with chocolate mousse and a chocolate hazelnut dome with English cream. The wine list isn't long and is quite pricey, but redeemed by the availability of two-ounce pours, which allowed me the luxury of a delicious cava extra brut to start with, and a so-so Syrah to sip with the rest of my meal.
The leather lounge chairs are handsome but more comfortable for drinking than for eating. Leaning back with a drink in your hand is probably relaxing, but lean forward to eat and the table is almost at chin level, with the edge of the chair digging into the back of your thighs. However, a more comfortable, conventional dining room chair will be brought on request. The servers are professional but weren't always attentive, mainly because there weren't enough of them -- not in a full house, and not in a half-empty one either.