Café Linnea lives up to its prestigious reputation and high praises
Café Linnea, though relatively new to the city, already enjoys a bit of prestige thanks to being named one of the best new restaurants in Canada by En Route Magazine and being affiliated with Duchess Bakery (named one of the best bakeries in the world by Buzzfeed). A glimpse at their menu, boasting European flair and $40 entrees, and one might even feel a bit intimidated. Is my palate really discerning enough to get down with Café Linnea?
That should probably remain a matter of debate, but I can say that despite an experience that might not have shown the place in its most accolade-winning light, I still sensed its guiding intelligence and superior taste, and I was impressed.
Café Linnea currently occupies the same esthetically challenged city block occupied by Local Omnivore and satellites of the Duchess enterprise. The café space is big, bright and clean, utilizing simply adorned wall shelves and many a fern to create an elegant ambiance that not even the weird novelty country song soundtrack during our visit could dispel.
The Scandinavian and French inspired menu is brief but meaningful, with many small plates and only a few entrees. The drink list is much more exhaustive—plenty of intriguing house cocktails, craft beers, wine and cognac to sample. One of Linnea’s signature items is the galette, a buckwheat crepe typical of Normandy that’s served with rustic cider. Sadly, they don’t serve galette at supper, but I went ahead and ordered a glass of Minotière Cidre Fermier Bio Brut ($8/glass) all the same.
Café Linnea’s version of the European culinary esthetic is expressed not in dauntingly fussy haute cuisine but in preparations that emphasize the quality of the ingredients, with a sense of connection to the farm, to pickling and fermentation, to potent natural flavours thoughtfully combined.
Our first exposure to this was the dodine de canard ($13), a baroque preparation of duck breast stuffed with pate and dotted with pistachios, which came sided with pickled onions, pickled mustard seeds, a daub of lemony substance and outstanding sourdough bread. It was duck-flavour concentrate, creamy and rich, which the pickled and citrus things complemented with astringent tang. Every bite was a pleasure that paid tribute to the savour of the duck. And the cider, amber in the glass with a beer-like head, did well as a pairing in how it offered a lot fruit and just the right amount of what some might call “the aroma of the barn floor.” It definitely had the funk.
Co-diner quickly opted for the Croque-Madame ($22) as an entrée, but I wanted to explore the small plates further so I asked for the Coquille St. Jacques ($14) and the carrot-cardamom salad ($13).
Co-diner ordered very well. Some people called Croque-Madame (or Monsieur) glorified grilled cheese, but Linnea’s version was more of an exaltation, putting ham and gruyere together on that glorious sourdough, smothering it in béchamel and topping it with a fried duck egg, its immense yolk constituting a sauce unto itself. A heap of local organic greens took up the other half of the plate.
I cannot fault anything in the Coquille St. Jacques, though I should probably have noticed the coquille was singular. While only one, it was an enormous scallop and treated beautifully—it was perched on a cushion of fine-chopped mushroom duxelle dosed with cognac, sprinkled with bread crumbs and fresh dill, and a grating of lightly pungent gruyere. I took tiny slices from the insanely tender broiled bivalve to slowly relish it.
The carrot and cardamom salad comprised pickled and steamed local carrots with a bright red fruity drizzle, pistachios, parsley and two generous scoops of goat cheese—time for more sourdough! Again, the quality of the carrots was central to the success of the dish, though the perfect tender-crispness of the preparation didn’t hurt. Name aside, I didn’t find the expected perfumey tingle of the cardamom to be very pronounced.
Because we never say no to dessert, we ordered Le Grand Macaron ($10), a certainly-larger-than-usual chocolate macaron split and dark chocolate cremeaux, salted caramel, cultured cream and house made cocoa puffs, which looked weird at first but proved to be the masterstroke. The crisp little squiggles rolled in cocoa were unsweetened and earthy, adding surprising depth and texture to the already sweet and creamy dessert. The only problem we had was figuring out how to eat it, as the macaron, so deliciously chewy in the mouth, was resistant to spoons on the plate.
For what looked like a slow night in the café, the pace of the meal was a little slow, and though our server was personable and very apologetic for not being better versed in the menu (she was new), she went missing completely when the meal was over and we had to go to the bar to ask for our bill. But from what we ate, I can tell that Café Linnea’s reputation is no fluke. I’d be excited to try anything on their menu. And I’m definitely going back for that galette.