My two amazing friends took me out to dinner to celebrate my birthday last week. I selected L’Orée du Bois as it had been recommended to me by a co-worker. My friends didn’t seem very interested at first; neither had heard of it, the description of it’s like a cabin in the woods was uninspiring, and it is all the way up in Chelsea. But the drive up from Ottawa is laughably short and our whole experience was one to impress.
The unassuming red-painted wood entrance and gravel walk give you the impression you are about to enter a cottage family reunion -the feeling is carried through inside. Everything is old, the corners are dark, and there are people packed everywhere; but the old is charming, there is just enough light, and everyone has enough room and is having a good time.
There were families, kids stuffed into adorable formal outfits, old couples, young couples, groups of friends like us, and everyone was there to celebrate something. I believe the whole upper floor was rented out to a bus load of people who may very well have been there for a family reunion. The atmosphere was boisterous and friendly; a decided celebratory charge rippling through the many tables.
The staff were numerous and efficient, keeping what could have easily become a birthday-antlers-peanuts-on-the-floor type place into and elegant french restaurant. Our waiter spoke English better than I spoke French, which is more than I can ask of anybody. As the only non-bilingual at the table, français would not have been an issue regardless, but I truly appreciate her attentive effort in speaking l’anglais pour moi.
The first item to be ordered was the wine, as the birthday girl I had the honour of selecting a bottle for the table. I started to regret L’Orée du Bois as I looked through the wine list; everything was expensive. Since my friends were treating me I wanted to keep it under $40 but this was impossible. I ended up getting one of the cheapest reds, a Beaujolais for $42. Thankfully it turned out to be excellent, as Beaujolais usually are, so that crisis was averted and everyone was happy with their libations.
The numbers on the rest of the menu were less scary, actually they were a down right reasonable prices. A Table d’hôte was available for $38.75 including a soup, appetizer, main dish, dessert, and coffee/tea. This is a great deal, but although the members of my party all enjoy food of quality, we do not often enjoy it in that much quantity. We ordered À la carte.
To start, the four of us shared and appetizer of eight escargots for $8.50. Two snails each was a tease, but this was exactly what we needed to get us excited for the next course -without filling us up (we were already over-indulging on the wonderful bread). The appetizer was delicious and it is so nice to see escargot not in garlic. These were cooked in slightly creamed brown stock with mushrooms and bacon.
The ladies ordered the duck confit and the gentlemen the braised rabbit; but all plates came out looking pretty much the same. How elegant can you possibly make a big piece of meat in gravy look anyway? The kitchen did what it could and the pipped mashed potato dots looked fluffy and creamy, and the two sides had an interesting appearance requiring an explanation from the server. To the left you see an onion reduction mouse, and to the right a red cabbage wrapped Brussels sprout. They were both flavourful and executed perfectly.
The duck leg, we were told, was marinated for two days with thyme, rosemary, coriander, pepper, garlic and salt, and slow-cooked with white wine, cream, duck stock and green peppercorn sauce. A second sauce is made of red wine, duck stock and black peppercorn.
The rabbit thigh and shoulder were braised in spiced red wine with juniper, bay leaf, thyme, pepper, and rosemary, with fresh blueberries added at the last moment to be warm but not at all mush.
Everything was delicious and full of rich warm flavours and the serving sizes more than generous for $19 dishes. If I had to have a critique I could say that the rosemary was a bit too powerful and over-dominated the meat, but this did not render it un-enjoyably by any means. The entire meal felt like a cozy home cooked dinner from an indulgent and ridiculously good-at-cooking aunt visiting from one of the hearty regions of France.
As fun as the trendy new restaurants are, with all their buzz and impossible-to-get reservations, it was a nice change to go to a well established (since 1978!) place where success has been delivered time and time again. This was a perfect spot for my Birthday dinner, pleasing our pallets and the wallet of my dear friends. The service was friendly and efficient; and if we waited a bit too long between our appetizer and main, it was made up for by the food coming out hot and tasty and the easy conversation among friends. We left the restaurant discussing others who we should bring to L’Orée du Bois and picking the next occasion to visit.
I’m never sure what to wear to a restaurant I haven’t been to, so I hope this is a useful part of my review. My girlfriend and I both wore dresses and heels, and the boys were in dark jeans, dress shoes, and shirts without ties -I’d call us ‘dressy casual’. We were probably slightly over dressed but not out-of-place. I would say ‘business casual’ or ‘smart casual’ is the norm.