I love Valentines Day. I don’t love anyone in particular, but I love the hallmark holiday of special treats for someone you care about, or the excitement of someone new. Basically the excuse for a romantic day or evening where you show in some way, big or small, that you care about someone else. Call me a romantic, or call me naive, but I really believe that any excuse to celebrate is one worth taking, so why not spend the day trying to make someone else happy?
Then in walks the prix fixe dinner concept. Take a restaurant (of whatever quality), concoct a special table d’hote, prix fixe, meal, and watch the couples come like moths to a flame. What a nice idea to have a special meal, maybe splurge a bit, they think. But a restaurant can sense a gullible couple in love a mile away.
There’s a Montreal Company, the Antonopoulos Group, that owns a lot of restaurants in the Old Port. At 5 of these restaurants they are advertising prix fixe meals: Aix Cuisine du Terroir, Suite 701, Narcisse, Verses and the Vieux-Port Steakhouse.
Aix Cuisine du Terroir is my favourite French restaurant in Montreal currently, Suite 701 is the ultra-hip lounge upstairs that serves generally less expensive meals out of the same kitchen. In this kitchen the lamb is cooked 5 hours. The gravlax is smoked in-house. I dream of these things. So when I found out there was a special menu for Valentines Day I got really excited and wondered where I could pick me up a date. Except the menu is pretty much exactly the same as the normal menu, thus negating the need for a significant or insignificant ‘other’ this Valentines…The smoked salmon is there as an appetizer again (though it’s just the salmon this time. No arctic char and smoked scallop to go with it like normal. I somehow don’t think the accompanying vodka vinaigrette was quite as much work to make…). The one vegetarian appetizer option is still in place (quinoa and goat cheese mountain stack, except they’re calling it a salad now), and the veal sweetbreads are back, minus the incredible fig spread that usually accompanies. The amazing lamb is still one of the mains, served simply with roasted squash. Aix Cuisine’s normal 3-course $45 prix fixe of pretty much the same dishes is a lot of money as is, but the food is so good…It’s a good place to go for a very, very special occasion. The only real difference between this and the Valentines $65 prix fixe, however, is a grand total of one Quebec cheese course (or optional champagne and pineapple ice) and $20. That’s a very expensive palate cleanser. $20? Really??
So you think you’ll save a bit of money if you go upstairs to the Suite 701 lounge and order their prix fixe, right? Same kitchen, same high quality. There you get a three-course meal (EXACTLY the same menu, but with fewer options) for the low, low price of $50. But that’s still a $5 mark-up from the fancier restaurant’s everyday prix fixe of $45!
Taking advantage of happy couples is a sad, sad thing. They’ll spend the extra money, either because they don’t think there’s a choice, this is what the restaurant is offering, or they think that it’s a good deal. They’re going to a fancy restaurant and it’s a special occasion, so it’s justified. You should be ashamed of yourself, Aix Cuisine and Suite 701. In fact, just a few weeks ago, there was a winter special on for their everyday prix fixe for $35. Same lamb. Winter’s a slow season for restaurants. Valentines Day is the exception. So now there’s a $30 price jump on pretty much the same meal. And you know you’re going to want at least 1 glass of wine, maybe a bottle (it is a special occasion), and this is certainly not included.
So that’s my favourite restaurant crossed off my Valentines Day wish list. What about the other restaurants’ options?
Vieux-Port Steakhouse: You better like Clam Chowder, because you don’t have a choice. You’re getting it. This $45 prix-fixe just doesn’t compare with Aix Cuisine’s usual $45 menu. A plain salad of diced tomatoes and onions to start? Not exactly on par with foie gras…The only reason to go here would be for the surf and turf or the grilled meat shared platter. Very romantic to share a big plate of beef, lamb and shrimp with your loved one, also to stuff yourself on a steak AND a lobster tail. Gluttony is very attractive.
The most affordable of all the meals, at ONLY $35 for 3 courses, is Narcisse. You get a salad with raspberries, a decent choice of filet mignon, duck or shrimp (this will really depend on how good the chef is), and a molten chocolate cake. It’s probably going to be fine, and it’s probably actually an okay deal, but it’s not fine-dining and the quality will not be as high as spending the same amount of money on a different night at a better restaurant.
Finally, Verses. This looks like an incredible restaurant. The menus are always stunning, and I’ll admit I’ve never been there, but would love to go. Here you will get the house-smoked scallop I waxed poetic about at Aix Cuisine, as part of the 6-course $68 prix fixe. It’s a gorgeous menu involving black truffle oil, cherries confit, tahitian vanilla, a sweet potato brandade accompanying porcini-mushroom coated cod, buckwheat risotto, rabbit stuffed with chorizo, and accompaniments of exotic chili sauce and garlic, butter and parsley croquettes. Who knows what a garlic, butter and parsley croquette is, but either it’s mostly garlic (not a Valentines big-seller) or it’s mostly parsley, and anyone who can make a croquette-like thing out of one of those is ingenious.
But for $68?? Plus wine, tip and tax…
You’re not going to find anything affordable in terms of upscale Valentines Day restaurant dinners, but if you’re looking for a unique menu that you can only take advantage of this one day in all the year, Verses is not a horrible choice. A much better idea would be to wait an extra day and then go to Aix Cuisine du Terroir, save a ton of money (it’s all relative…), or get yourself a nicer bottle of wine, a digestif, and a lot more menu choice. Better still, braise your own Atwater market-bought Kamouraska rack of lamb for 5 hours…now that’s a gesture. Of love? Maybe. Sorry, vegetarians. “Quinoa and goat cheese?” says Aix Cuisine.