In 2007 Frenchman Yannick Anton took over the reigns as executive chef of Le Cordon Bleu’s restaurant, Signatures. That same year, it was recognized by the CAA/AAA as a Five Diamond restaurant—the highest and most coveted symbol of excellence for fine dining in North America. The following year, the Sandy Hill crown jewel shut down for what was billed as a mini-facelift. And like the secretive French woman who returns from her weekend getaway looking decades younger, the acclaimed culinary classroom emerged with little fanfare in November 2009 with new radiance, a new attitude and, judging by the new clientele, fewer wrinkles. It had a new-fangled name as well: Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @ Signatures. With its sunny yellow walls, contemporary tableware sans tablecloth, and servers empowered to make wine suggestions as well as small talk, Signatures bid adieu to its 7-course marathon meal, dark somber dining room, its sommelier and 40-page wine list and the decadent white glove and silver bell service. Gone is the $45 main course, and in its place, a three-course prix fixe lunch menu for $25.
Le Cordon Bleu’s decision to forgo Five Diamond status in favour of a bistro concept reflects something more powerful and enduring than an economic trend. The fine dining finishing school isn’t alone in recognizing a growing appetite for upscale food experiences that can be sated with more regularity, with less stuffiness and at more palatable prices. The death knell for haute cuisine has been sounded around the world and most famously in France as was documented in the book Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by American journalist Michael Steinberger. On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed the most-buzzed-about restaurants were no longer temples of gastronomy but postage stamp-sized casual spots, with simple menus that changed according to chef’s whims. Among the hottest reservation in town is the 20-seat Le Comptoir, a bustling casual brasserie by day with an ultra-gastronomic 50-Euro ($67) bargain of a fixed menu by night. Customers are treated to food worthy of Michelin-stars by famed chef Yves Camdeborde at a fraction of the price. Next door, he now also runs L’Avant Comptoir, a blissfully inexpensive take-out crepe and sandwich counter with a tiny standing-room-only tapas bar tucked behind it. There, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the zinc bar chatting with my neighbours while dipping steamed Camus artichokes in olive oil, popping back addictive croquettes filled with Ibaïona ham, and passing the communal bread basket, a slab of fine French butter and jars of pickles. It was the most fun I’ve had eating fabulous food in a long time. And it was there that I began to reflect on Ottawa’s restaurants, the ones that are working to close the gap between good eating and feeling good. If I had to sum up the gustatory zeitgeist, I’d say we’re seeking culinary excitement in the form of emotional connection.
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