Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
They are indeed vilains, these boys.
I was dotting the last i on a review of the one-year-old Hull restaurant, when the friend with whom I had just lunched sent me a link to Les Vilains Garçons’ Facebook page. On it, co-owners Cyril Lauer and Romain Riva wrote that they were closing. After much soul searching, the post read, they were so sorry to have to say this, but they were shutting their doors. Their final day would be in June. Merci beaucoup, etc…
With a heavy heart, I hit delete. The review was now moot. And as sad as I was for them, I was sad for me too: back to the blank page, needing to book another table somewhere else to fill this space.
The few people I told in the restaurant industry that evening were shocked and saddened. They no doubt told others. Word spread of yet another failed restaurant.
The next day — April 2nd as it happens — ha ha hee hee ho ho. They weren’t really closing. It was their poisson d’avril, the trick they played on April first (to a hook-lined restaurant critic among others).
So call me a pooper but I wasn’t giggling. There’s been too much grief about shuttered restaurants, and I don’t find much funny about ‘news’ of one more.
I retrieved the review from the trash bin. ‘Naughty and Nice’ had been the general theme. It seemed pretty bang on now.
The last time I tasted Romain Riva’s cuisine was at The Wakefield Mill Inn, where he had worked his way up to executive chef. Before that, he had apprenticed at Oncle Tom in Hull. The boys opened Les Vilains Garcons in early 2014, in the upstairs space vacated by Gy Resto when it moved to rue St Jacques.
They’ve done a nice job with the interior – tables have been plastered with wine labels, walls covered with chalkboards, and splashes of red add drama. The atmosphere is buzzy, welcoming, and service has been uniformly kind. The food, however, has been inconsistent.
For every dish I’ve liked — and there have been a few — the next two have been troubled.
Presentation is one key problem. It’s fussed over, to be sure, and there’s no shortage of playfulness on the plate, but the look is contrived, flavours and textures don’t always add up, or else they collide in the mouth.
I’ve liked some things: the steak tartare with puffed mustard seed, charred toast and a minted pea salad (served in an enormous stainless mixing bowl.) The calamari was fresh tasting and very tender, though its batter was unseasoned. Oysters have been luscious. A ratatouille (of sorts) was fine.
These dishes have been part of the pintxos selection — bar snacks from the Basque region — that lead the blackboard menu. (The menus are all on the wall, which typically requires leaving your table to wander over for a read and a think, and then returning to your chair to wait for your server and then trying to remember what you thought you wanted when he arrives. And then getting up again to read the wine list. Bring a notebook.)
One night the 3-pintxos-for-$15 deal arrives on a three-tiered cake stand, Oysters on top. One is fine, one is gritty. A scallop crudo with avocado cream is on tier two. It tastes better than it looks, and it looks inexpertly hacked up. Mackerel sashimi with torn sheets of nori and a pretty pedestrian wakame salad anchor the bottom.
Octopus arrives dangling like socks on a clothesline, cooler than ideal and a bit rubbery. An unseasoned, bone-in tempura frog’s leg hangs next to it, along with plantain crisps that taste like they were crisped quite a while ago. Beneath the stringed up food is a treatment of beets, including a Pepto-Bismol coloured beet purée (mixed with mascarpone) which tastes okay but looks like it ought to be icing a cupcake. That same pink anchors a whole sardine on another plate of pintxos, its flesh unpleasantly mushy.
Salmon tartare with an avocado cream and tempura fried onion is marred by an over generosity of cheap-tasting red caviar. One night the paella special is a bust — the seafood overcooked, the pea-dotted rice tasting very ordinary and saffron-free. Much better is a main dish of braised ris d’agneau (lamb sweetbreads) served with a mustard sauce and grilled zucchini, and with sweet potato crisps adding colour and crunch. I could have done without the avocado purée on the bottom. One element too many.
There are some things to like in this upstairs lair — atmosphere, service led by the affable Lauer, and the price point is pretty reasonable. But I’d like to see these Vilains Garcons reign themselves in a bit. Get rid of the gimmicks, and favour simplicity over theatrics.
And I’m not joking about that.
39A rue Laval, Gatineau, 819-205-5855