It’s that little bistro in Venice that you raved about on an overnight train trip through the Alps. It’s that tiny café in Paris where you spent ridiculous amounts of money on dusty bottles of wine and the most incredible food you have ever tried.
Since Café de Ville is in the yuppified High Street area, the prices are a little higher. However, the wizardry performed every night in that kitchen is worth every dime.
I ducked under the enormous green awning, lowered to protect patrons from the full strength of the setting sun and pushed through the wooden door of the historic Buena Vista building. An archaic, upright radiator blocked my path, supporting a marble reception counter plus one of the largest floral arrangements I had ever seen. My wife gave our name as I rubbernecked furiously at the old world décor.
We followed the hostess to our dark wood table surrounded by beautifully mismatched chairs. The same wood accented the golden yellow walls, framed pictures and mirrors, and lent its elegant touch to both the lavish bar and a turn-of-the-century fireplace on the south wall. I restrained myself from poking my head through the doorway to the right of the fireplace to take in the outdoor patio.
We were gloriously childless that evening. We smiled at each other as my wife looked over the appetizers and I checked out the wine list. Bottles, half litres and glasses were priced quite reasonably and I quickly decided on a glass of Fonterutoli Badiola Toscana ($8) from Italy.
Our waitress seemed brusque when she took our drink orders, snapped out the day’s special and left to seek my wife’s virgin pina colada ($3) and our baked brie ($11). I glanced at the appetizer list and admired my bride’s quick choice: I would have been far more torn by the succulent options in the low teens. I briefly mourned the Thai ravioli and “pan-seared whiskey maple arctic char” before I moved down to the entrées.
For such a brief menu, spanning a single beautifully designed page, the choice was staggering. Continental flare graced every dish, and even the simple descriptions made my mouth water. I skipped outstanding pizza and pasta options to land squarely in the list of specialties.
My wife quickly chose the chicken ($23), and I just couldn’t make up my mind: duck confit, striploin or a tempting vegetarian option? My mind kept returning to the special, however, and when our server returned with our drinks, I chose the grilled wild boar loin ($25). My wife sipped at her slushy drink, puzzled at the two tiny straws but pleased with the flavour. I swirled, smelled and sipped my wine, then sipped again.
There was a higher percentage of cabernet to the sangiovese/merlot/ cabernet blend than I expected, but the mouth-furring tannins tamed quickly to a dry aftertaste. The rich, boisterous aroma translated into a powerful flavour: the wine gained volume and strength as I sampled it. I vowed to treat it with respect and joined my wife in her people-watching.
Café de Ville is a mostly well dressed place, with couples, businesspeople and family gatherings treating the bistro with a sense of occasion. About two thirds of the tables were occupied, and others sported “Reserved” signs on the busy Friday night.
Twenty minutes after we ordered, a small wooden basket of croissants found their way to our table. My wife, her blood sugar wavering, grabbed one immediately. I was a little time-obsessed, since I was told when I placed my reservation that we had to be finished in two hours to make way for the next patrons. We had no problem eating in that span, but at 20 minutes for bread, would Café de Ville be able to get us out in time?
I tried one of the croissants, stopped in surprise and looked more closely. They were darker than I was used to and sweetened with nutmeg to melt majestically in my mouth with every bite. Two each was nowhere near enough, and simply whetted our appetites for more. How long could it take to warm cheese?
Ten minutes later, I gazed at the rectangular plate set down before us. It was beautiful. The warm, creamy brie was encased in a flaky puff pastry, dusted with powdered sugar and crowned with a kumquat. It sat on a bed of pear purée, drizzled with multicoloured coulis and surrounded with slices of fresh fruit. Each taste delivered an exquisite combination of flavours: salty, dry, sweet and crisp. It was one of the best appetizers I had ever tasted.
We polished it off in record time, savouring fresh strawberries that had never seen the inside of a supermarket. Our server took the dish away without a word and our hostess refilled our waters as we sat back to wait for our entrées in high anticipation.
And we waited. Perhaps dining with a toddler had altered my sense of pacing for fine dining, but when we passed the hour mark, I was downright hungry again. I looked around at the beautiful restaurant and then at my blushing bride, her belly swelling with new life. The romance of the situation swept me away, and I realized that the night would have been flying by on the wings of first-date conversation or a thirtysomething birthday get-together between friends.
Nonetheless, I was very happy to welcome my entrée. The rectangular plate was arranged to balance the two wild boar medallions on either side of a pile of steamed baby potatoes and firm bean ratatouille in a tasty tomato sauce. My boar turned out to be well worth the wait, too: marinated until tender, it gained a hint of sweetness from dried blueberries on top; the dense meat brought flavours of both pork and—inexplicably—roast chicken to my palate.
My wife’s round plate boasted an artistic heap of aromatic chicken braced with steamed vegetables and rice. She generously offered me both a slice of the tender meat and a forkful of its quichelike stuffing: salty wild boar bacon underlaid the intoxicating combination of roma tomatoes, feta, garlic, spinach and amaretto.
We were again treated to a stereotypically European serving style of arm’s-length disdain when our waitress efficiently cleared our plates and we asked to see the dessert tray. My wife didn’t move quite fast enough to defend her drink and whispered, “I still had pina colada in there!” as she watched it go. We sipped water for an excruciating 15 minutes with the dessert tray on the bar directly behind me.
As our reservation deadline crept closer, I relaxed a bit: there were plenty of tables available. Our server finally walked us through the tray of fairly standard dessert options made with tantalizing ingredients. I considered the chocolate waffles with espresso mousse, but settled on a mixed berry strudel with bourbon vanilla ice cream.
Only ten minutes passed before we were presented with a final example of Café de Ville’s kitchen wizardry. Crisp strudel pastry concealed a warm combination of tangy fruits and supported two small scoops of silky vanilla ice cream. It, too, was surrounded by a moat of sliced fruit and shaved dark chocolate but was no match for our determined forks.
We made very short work of the dessert and, moving faster than she had all night, our server pounced on my Visa. I’m normally a generous tipper, but I hoped that ten per cent on over $70 sent a clear message.
How could I possibly improve on Café de Ville’s cuisine? I can’t. The meals were some of the most decadent tastes of European-inspired paradise I have enjoyed in the city. I would recommend the restaurant to absolutely anyone.
Just sit in someone else’s section. V
Sun – Thu to 10 pm, Fri – Sat to midnight
Cafe de Ville
10137 – 124 Street