For years, Le Café — the restaurant inside the National Arts Centre — was a place to see and be seen. With the atmosphere of a late-1970s’ lounge, food often played second fiddle. But after a three-month closure that saw some decor updates, the menu has been revamped. Now executive chef Kenton Leier, formerly of the Westin Hotel and the Château Laurier, is highlighting the “national” at the NAC with such ingredients as Fogo Island shrimp, East Coast lobster, Prince Edward Island and Alberta beef, and Ferme des Voltigeurs chicken from Drummondville, Quebec.
On a rainy mid-week afternoon, my guest hankered after duck confit poutine. It was enough for a meal but was gone in a few minutes. Crispy French fries hid under soft shredded meat, a few squeaky cheese curds, and rich beef gravy. It was perhaps too much to follow this with a hanger steak, but she did, and it arrived perfectly rare as requested.
A sous-vide cured salmon starter won points for presentation, but the fish itself had the overly soft texture of ripe mozzarella. Better was the chicken main that arrived piping hot in a jacket of deep-fried breadcrumbs, its centre stuffed with garlic and parsley butter.
On another visit, we found the beef tartare to be well-seasoned, with crunchy pieces of gherkin hidden throughout the meat, a hard-boiled quail’s egg balancing on top. A retro wedge salad was surprisingly good; initial disappointment at the presentation gave way to satisfaction at the balance of salty cocktail shrimp, crispy lettuce, red onion slivers, baby tomatoes, and chive-buttermilk dressing.
For his main course, my guest chose a veal tenderloin and scallop dish, largely because he was baffled by the combination. A generous plate of two veal medallions and one huge, perfectly seared scallop arrived atop bitter spinach, roasted vegetables, squash purée, and charred corn. This dish deserves a standing ovation. My own striped sea bass with clams was delicate by comparison but offered warmth via roasted garlic, mushrooms, and a saffron-infused fishy broth.
The dessert menu includes the standards, but they seem an after thought. The wine list offers several Canadian choices, a few international wines, cocktails, and an extensive spirits list.
Service is spotty, but there are people at Le Café who are really engaged in the excellent food coming from the kitchen and knowledgeable about wine. There’s a suggestion that further renovations are to come in 2019. For now, the reason to eat at Le Café is the excellent food.
Open Tuesday to Friday for lunch from 11.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Open on Saturdays 5 to 9 p.m.