The extra seating provided on both sides of the huge, high-backed red bench down the centre of the room is probably its raison d'etre, but it seems like an intrusion in the Resto-Gare's traditional old dining room. Even more so, the ultra-modern steel contraption that is said to be a fireplace looks like an instrument of torture.
Still the atmosphere is informal, the chairs are comfortable, the tables well spaced, and those who want a brighter, lighter setting can opt for the charming old train car. Or, if the weather is fine, the pretty patio.
But we hadn't come to Resto Gare for the decor. This time we'd come to see what Scott Bagshaw was up to, after his abrupt departure from Pizzeria Gusto last March, a departure I took personally. When it first opened the Pizzeria had made only pizzas, appetizers and a few other little dishes, which were what I'd reviewed. But some time later, on a purely social (i.e. non-professional) visit, I discovered that a few pastas and entrees had been added, and I was so impressed by them I was looking forward to doing another review of what had become a full-scale restaurant.
At Resto Gare there's plenty of evidence of Bagshaw's ability, albeit some inconsistency also -- possibly because this much bigger restaurant and more comprehensive menu demands more trained kitchen staff than was needed for Pizzeria Gusto's limited approach and space. In any case, the present Resto Gare kitchen is an improvement over the previous one, and most of the food is very good.
The French-accented, all-day menu lists a number of bistro classics, and it seemed only fitting to start dinner with one of the most classic of all. Our escargots came, not in their shells but in a little casserole with shiitake mushrooms, a red wine reduction, the addition of a few wee potatoes and a sprinkling of garlicky bread crumbs -- not exactly traditional but absolutely delicious ($9). Good crusty bread to mop up the sauce, a decent red wine and we thought it was going to be clear sailing. But we were wrong, at least on the first visit.
Gnocchi are listed under main courses, and offered in both small ($11) and large sizes ($19), which is a really good idea, especially if you want a small portion as a starter, which we did. However, although the coating of butter and Parmesan tasted delicious, the gnocchi themselves were heavy, doughy and dull.
That night's braised bison short ribs were tender and flavourful ($24), but other main courses were flawed in different ways and to varying degrees. A thick Berkshire pork chop looked good but was dry and far too salty from brining ($25). A velvety velouté sauce for the gruyère-gratinéed crepes St. Jacques was tasty, but the scallops within were leathery from overcooking ($17). A slice of halibut tasted sweet and moist but --sometimes less is more -- was overwhelmed by the strong flavours of chorizo, roasted tomatoes and sherry syrup ($27).
Dinner No. 2 could have been in a different restaurant, and (on the assumption that dinner No. 1 was an aberration) it's what accounts for the four-star rating. The kitchen seemed more in control -- surprisingly, since the place was much busier than it had been on our first visit -- and the only flaw that night was a pork pâté de campagne that lacked enough fat for flavour or moistness, and simply crumbled apart at the touch of a fork ($9).
Mussels though, were plump and pearly in a saffron-seasoned sauce, with black mustard seeds and the occasional crunch of bread crumbs. ($13).
The frites to go with them -- a tangle of spectacularly good shoestrings, lightly drizzled with garlicky aioli -- cost another $4, and are an absolute must.
Bagshaw may have left pizzas behind, but there are a few pastas on this menu. I didn't get to the mac and cheese, but the fresh tagliatelle with a slightly tomato-y ragout of veal cheeks and a sprinkling of pecorino cheese was lovely ($23). We also liked the paella, with a seafood mélange that included lobster tails, shrimp, mussels and scallops (the last also overcooked to tough), plus spicy slices of chorizo bedded on lightly saffron-seasoned rice ($66 for two).
It also seemed fitting to try that other bistro classic, beef bourguignon -- a top-notch version, made with tender, flavourful short ribs as well as shiitake mushrooms in a rich reduction of red wine ($16 for a small size, $21 for the large). It is served with gnocchi which, on this visit, were light and delectable. Garnishes for other dishes were also excellent -- stewed flageolet beans or nicely done green beans and those wonderful shoestring fries.
There are some seductive sweets on the dessert cart, among them a flourless chocolate cake drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt, a luscious lemon tart and the long-standing house dessert, a maple sugar pie on a flawless crust with a filling that -- against all odds -- was light, non-cloying and quite wonderful.
The service is casual but friendly, attentive and well informed. There are dozens of fine aged wines tucked away in the sommelier's cellar, but fewer French wines on the standard list than there used to be -- among the few, surprisingly, that old war horse Mouton Cadet at $30 ($12.95 at the wine stores). On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the availability of a glass of Willm Gewurtztraminer for $10, or a Jaboulet Croze Hermitage for $12.
630 Rue des Meurons, 237-7072
4 out of five stars