You have to hand it to Hervé Martin. When it came time to move his long-established Hermitage away from Robson, he knew exactly what to do. He closed it down. The Hermitage's long and celebrated path was run. Once a hangout for lawyers and judges from the law courts down the street, especially since the economic shift, Hermitage was a victim of the times.
Martin understood that the era of formal dining had come and gone, at least for now. And that it was time for something different.
Within a few months last year, the former chef to the King of Belgium and his loyal team had gutted and refurbished the premises at Main and 23rd Avenue that are now the French Table.
The comfortable pistachioand burgundy-trimmed bistro sports much more of a down home, neighbourhood feel, devoid of white linen, with glass-topped tables instead. Banquettes run the length of the long walls and the light wood chairs are country style.
The simple room is less cluttered than its predecessor, with plenty of room between tables reflecting the fewer number of seats. The bar is more spacious, a centrepiece with five stools for comfortable casual dining. And while a wall of wine still yields good labels, choices lean to the more affordable, although Martin advises there are some first growths tucked away for the heavy hitters.
The deliberately understated surroundings complement a cuisine style that remains true to its French roots, but now with a more rustic touch. Several of the Hermitage classics have made the trip from downtown in some form or other, including pan-fried sweetbreads, escargots, coq au vin and a duck confit cassoulet with Toulouse sausage that's turned out to be the house best seller.
Highlights from our visit ranged from a roasted beet and pickled fennel salad with goat cheese and spicy maple nut crust, equally copious, coarse paté de campagne and pickled vegetables, the everpopular sweetbreads with intriguing kholrabi remoulade; and a wide-ranging platter of cold meats and salamis from Drews Driessen.
A New York steak frite with peppercorn sauce was flavourful with addictive fries, while a trio of seared scallops came prettily arranged with a apple garlic emulsion. Prices ($12-$25) are entirely reasonable and the well-seasoned staff cosset customers old and new with the same happy familiarity.
For dessert, tart tatin and espresso creme brulée still rule, followed by seriously good espresso.
Martin says one of the biggest changes he's noticed is a penchant among his newer clientele to share plates, which everyone seems to do-requiring an inordinate amount of plates and cutlery.
Insiders used to frequent Hermitage for its lunches which, to the day it closed, remained one of downtown's best kept secrets. Judging by the menu, the same holds true at the French Table, whose reasonably priced lunch menu cries out for a lingering truant, perhaps on the sunny streetside patio.
The French Table is at 3916 Main St., 604-689-3237