Steak-Frites or Steak-Frites
The last time I visited a restaurant with only two menu options, I was in Penn Station. You had to eat both choices standing up. It was hardly a restaurant and its offerings hardly constituted a menu.
My American aunt had taken me to stand in line at Krispy Kreme Donuts—pre-expansion blitz—and when you got to the counter you had two choices: plain or chocolate glazed.
The pushy, buzzing crowd, coupled with the Soup Nazi-esque suppression of customer rights, somehow allowed the simple product to shine through in all its sweet glory. Management had cut out every pesky step in the Customer Service manual down to just one: “Remove donut from fryer. Hand to customer.” Begone bourgeois frills like beverages, flavoured glazes, chairs or functioning bathrooms.
All possible distractions removed, there was no need to dwell on appearance. And so, one was left to focus exclusively on a brief gustatory orgasm, which lasted all of 15 seconds. This, of course, was back when only a handful of Krispy Kremes existed in the U.S., and the crack-dealer model worked quite well. When I was a bit older, I even rerouted a train trip through Penn to feed my growing addiction.
Yet in the grand tradition of Sam Walton (though clearly ignorant of his marketing strategies), the 500-calorie donutmaker soon engulfed each and every North American suburb—from Methuchen, NJ to Mississauga, ON—with stylish counters, overattentive staff, a plethora of glazes, and wheelchair-accessible washrooms. People lost interest, Krispy spiraled towards bankruptcy, and their once-precious product found its final resting place in a cup of week-old faux-timbits in a Couche Tard snack aisle.
On the other hand, other eateries have opted to save billions by sticking out the boredom and doing one thing well. Some, like L’Entrecôte St-Jean, on Peel Street just above de Maisonneuve, are rather literal about it. The two menu options—vegetarians be damned—are steak frites, or steak frites. As with a handful of other Montréal bistros, they’ve been doing this well for about 30 years. Unlike the other Montréal bistros, L’Entrecôte never bothered to try cooking anything else.
As the handsome, one page menu dictates in blue brushscript, you may enjoy your steak-frites in one of two ways:
1. with salad,
2. with salad and dessert.
To save you some cold glances from the seasoned waitresses, I could here run down a list of forbidden options: steak-frites without salad comes to mind (don’t even think of asking for this), steak without frites—an even worse transgression of bistro rules—etc. …but this is meant to be a short column.
The black and white tiled floor—probably a hokey appropriation of Paris bistro décor upon its inception—has by now survived enough scuffs and tarnishes to earn its own authenticity, as have the vintage café tables and crimson-carpeted upper lounge with comfy cigar-smoking armchairs.
Walking off the street, you are first greeted by sumptuous, heavy red curtains, forming a cushy ante-room in which you might brush the snow off your woolen overcoat. My cousin and I were seated perfunctorily at the very back near the kitchen. Some might have taken this as a slight, but I saw it as a bonus, allowing me excellent surveillance of the long restaurant, and audible access to the semi-open kitchen. To my surprise, the 50 or so tables filled up quickly, which seemed shocking to me on a snow-laden weeknight.
What’s great about the Entrecôte is that it summons the three key characteristics of the French bistro, c. 1850.
To save you some cold glances from the seasoned waitresses, I could here run down a list of forbidden options: steak-frites without salad comes to mind (don’t even think of asking for this), steak without frites—an even worse transgression of bistro rules—etc.
First: it is a meeting ground of the (lower-middle to upper-middle) classes: secretly-poor graduate students seamlessly dining alongside the elderly, the declining yuppy set and the nouveau-riche alike. A monochromatic elegance pervades the space, without tipping over into the stuffy, discriminatory practices of fine dining.
Second: the menu is simple. We’ve already covered that one, but suffice it to say that the “L’Entrecôte” tradition is rooted in ‘50s Paris, where a certain family sparked the legendary two-course service: salad with walnuts followed up by steak with matchstick fries.
With strict allowances for a wine list and six traditional desserts, St-Jean follows the Parisian-Lyonnais formula to a T, standing firm as one of the only “L’Entrecôtes” this side of the Atlantic. For all I know, they have to pay licensing fees and pass yearly exams to be able to use the name—such are the French with their Appellations d’Origine Contrôlés.
In the final analysis, an “entrecôte” is simply a cut of meat – a contre-filet – which when grilled, becomes a steak. The salad is delightfully crude: big buttery leaves with a hunk of walnuts and a balsamic vinaigrette. The frites are thin and crisp, and the steak cooked to an exacting medium-rare, unrested, so the blood still pours out upon first cutting. If we were somewhere else we might have complained. But at L’Entrecôte this is not a mistake, and you do not ask for mayonnaise: juices marry joyously with the complex butter-dijon reduction, a secret sauce reminiscent of a beurre-blanc on steroids. Even Le Monde, who in a particularly French version of “investigative reporting,” broadcast that thyme, cream, tarragon and sauteed chicken liver were the sauce’s crucial additions, were shot down by the Parisian owners who, in 2007 denied the allegations vehemently. No one knows and to be honest, it’s better that way.
And a third and final dictum: the bistro effortlessly fuses epochal elegance with simple childhood joys. Though the dijon sauce somehow achieved the latter, it came to full fruition in the profiterole that I ordered in lieu of birthday cake for my cousin.
Did you know that the profiterole is one of the only desserts served with fresh fork, knife and spoon? After cutting open a tough crunchy pod with the knife, the fork spears a piece of pastry-encased choux cream. It is then dragged through a lake of chocolate sauce, an excess of which remains after the profiterole is gone, necessitating the spoon. As the last few licks of chocolate graced my tongue, I was transported. Suddenly the wood finishings on the bistro’s walls were the wood of my parent’s kitchen cupboards, and I was diving in to steal a spoonful from a special tin of chocolate sauce a relative had brought us from France. I told my cousin that I was experiencing déja-vu. Concerned, she flagged down the waitress: it was time to leave.
I can’t remember if I actually ate at Entrecôte St-Jean, or if it was just a very vivid dream. But the chocolate sauce on those profiteroles certainly predated my first Krispy Kreme, which despite the company’s futile efforts, have found their rightful place: one single variety, available in that most utilitarian of environments: the dépanneur. If Krispy Kreme’s simple new home at Couche Tard honours the unrepentant glutton lurking deep down in all of us, then L’Entrecôte St-Jean honours its closely-related, ever-slightly-more sophisticated twin: the nostalgic gourmand.