For a chef, opening a second restaurant after your first one has become famous imposes something like the pressure of putting out a sophomore album. That may account for the diminutive street presence of Le Bremner, the new Old Montréal eatery from chef Chuck Hughes, star of the Cooking Channel’s “Chuck’s Day Off.” The only indication that you’ve found the place is an easy-to-miss “restaurant” sign hanging above its basement-level door, and some knee-high grass billowing out front that’s incongruous with the rest of the street.
Seats at Hughes’ other Old Montréal eatery, Garde Manger, have been hard to come by for the past five years as his celebrity has grown in Canada. (Last summer, Hughes beat Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America,” beefing up his rep within our borders.) The dim lighting and intimate vibe, combined with hearty nouveau-Québecois fare such as lobster poutine and braised short ribs over späetzle, proved irresistible to the legions of people doing somersaults to land a table there.
Le Bremner is a few blocks away, in a place that Hughes humbly billed before its June opening as a “seafood diner.” But a diner is the last thing you think about as you descend into an elegant, stone-walled room with beamed ceilings and sparkly chandeliers overhead. In contrast to the old-world details, the boom-chukka of reggae fills the room, a graffiti-covered pay phone hangs on the wall behind the bar and a sail from Hughes’ grandfather’s boat is stretched along the ceiling. It’s like stumbling into a speakeasy where the party’s been waiting for you.
While the hip ambience resembles Garde Manger’s, the menu at Le Bremner is oriented to lighter and brighter dishes. The young servers are uniformly gorgeous but also friendly, appearing within moments to explain a list of plates divvied into categories such as Menu Froid (mostly raw and chopped fish), Pain & Fromages, De la Cuisinière, and Légumes. The plates are meant to be shared, reflecting an ongoing trend of big plates getting smaller and smaller plates getting bigger. This arrangement ideally gives both chefs and diners more room to play. But many of these down-portioned dishes carry the price tag of a full-sized entrée, so customers need to choose wisely when ordering, lest they leave stunned by the bill.
Le Bremner’s bar looks like a modern apothecary, covered with jars of macerating fruit and dried herbs. There’s no written list of drink specials, just an oral narration of concoctions such as an orange-vanilla Harvey Wallbanger or a Bourbon Berry. Hughes might spend his storied “day off” cooking meals for friends, but some of the restaurant’s bar staff reportedly slip in on Sundays — their day off — to infuse their own tonic with absinthe, juniper, wormwood extract and herbs, or to stock the bar with chunks of pineapple stewed in basil. “We’re crazy like that,” says a bartender as he throws together a golden-hued gin and tonic, a drink that’s herbaceous, dreamy and lacking any hard edge. A Manhattan made with rhubarb bitters and muddled strawberries is sweeter and weaker than expected, but tastes like sipping a June garden. This drink comes with a spoon for fishing out bits of strawberry pulp; such details seem to be held in great regard here.
Hughes’ many tattoos — images of lobster, oysters, bacon and arugula among them — offer a clue to his culinary proclivities. As at Garde Manger, über-fresh oysters on the half shell are standard at Le Bremner, but so are raw scallops, dainty white morsels of sea meat served with a piquant jalapeño-celery relish that highlights their natural creaminess.
Grilled and broiled meats are plentiful on the menu, but the cold seafood plates really excel here. Every other table seems to have a towering dish of lobster parfait, an irresistible appetizer despite its hefty $30 price. Dip your spoon into one, and you realize why: What look like huge blackberries in the dish are actually smears of caviar, decadently layered with crisp lettuce, crème fraîche and generous chunks of succulent lobster flesh. Eating this is like an excavation, the cool, buttery lobster alternating with the briny fish eggs, tangy cream and crunchy, pulverized fried potatoes.
Another popular item in Le Bremner’s first few weeks has been the kimchi snow crab, a trio of crispy, fried rice cakes topped with a tangle of shredded snow crab and strands of kimchi — another novel juxtaposition of sharp acids and briny morsels.
More delicate but no less delicious are silky slices of raw sea bass sashimi sprinkled with smoky pistachios and pickled, sweetish radishes, and dressed in olive oil and a hint of vinegar — alternating layers of cool and crunch you practically want to lick from the plate. The greens of the day may sound banal, but young, ruffled lettuces with tomatoes, sliced cucumber and soft chunks of avocado — bathed in a creamy, comforting buttermilk dressing and sprinkled with fresh herbs — could make it onto your top 10 list of salads.
Each of Le Bremner’s hot dishes offers a complex twist, unusual preparation and multiple layers, though not all are as delectable as the chilled plates. Charred sardines come flattened on a skillet with wedges of preserved lemon, tomatoes and potatoes — a powerful, briny dish fit for lovers of oily fish. A trio of lamb and pork meatballs is tender but overpowered by the tomato sauce and oil in which it rests; the dollop of halloumi-like cheese in the middle, meant to cut the dish’s sharpness, could be larger. Also odd is a flaky white sea bass coated in Tex-Mex-ish spices and sprinkled with edamame; though the fish is cooked perfectly, the dish’s components seem divided rather than united, as if sharing the plate reluctantly.
Some of the cheapest and simpler-sounding dishes are the most satisfying: a cheddar focaccia topped with a pile of bacon and curly scallions and herbs, for only $9, is rich, unctuous comfort food. The tender roasted asparagus topped with poached egg and salty tomato confit, as well as the subtly bitter rapini mixed with chopped hard-boiled egg and bits of fried anchovies, might make you think about putting a little more oomph into your legume preparations at home.
At Le Bremner, you’ll pay for the privilege of eating in Chuck Hughes’ dining room, but you can mix two or three plates — preferably two raw and one hot, at least in summer — with a creative drink for about $75 per person, excluding tip. It’s not an everyday meal, but you’ll sample some intensely creative fare and become part of this friendly, sumptuous party before it moves on to the next spot.
And the bartender may even offer you a shot of tequila chased with chunks of that basil-bathed pineapple to cap your meal. If so, quash your Yankee Puritanism and roll with it. After all, you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Le Bremner, 361 Saint Paul East, Montréal, 514-544-0446.
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