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om nom nom restaurant review :: ben & florentine

downtown brunch: it's not about pretty
ah montreal, what is it about you and brunches? is it the fact that people here love their food so much that the late morning feast carries such significance? or is it that there are so many artists, self-employed entrepreneurs and general reprobates who don't haul themselves out of bed in time for what could properly be called breakfast? i'm not sure and i don't care. i just love how in love with brunch this city is.

unfortunately, if you were a tourist staying in the area of town where most tourists end up, you wouldn't have a clue what i was talking about, because the locals seem to have stashed away all the finest brunch places for themselves, away from the bustle of downtown. indeed, the city's core is primarily occupied by chain restaurants you can find most anywhere, or at least that you can find in multiple places within montreal. so what's a person to do when they're downtown and craving some brunchables?

well, dom and i opted to try a smaller chain, ben & florentine, who have a few locations around the city, but haven't hit that starbucks level of saturation yet. in the heart of downtown, tucked away on a lesser traveled corner across from place ville marie, they serve up the usual staples of eggs, eight kinds of piggie, toast, waffles, pancakes/ crepes and those perfunctory healthy yogurt and granola choices that only appeal to me in the summer.

the menu and the decor are what you'd expect- both family-friendly, both telegraphing that old-fashioned kitchen meets brass tacks basics vibe. cosiness and stylishness might be de rigeur in the plateau, but in the land where tourists wander and families seek shelter, you want something more frank and unpretentious, which is exactly what you get.

of course, "unpretentious" can mean different things to different people. when i say it, i have in mind things that are uncomplicated, straightforward and easy to enjoy. the woman who came to show us to our seats- old enough that i suspect she was a manager filling in a shift rather than someone regularly employed there- apparently interpreted the idea quite differently, looking rather that she'd rolled out of bed and into the restaurant, still clad in shabby, well-worn sweats and jeans that she might have been wearing to help a friend move the day before.

i'll admit i'm a bit of an aesthete and i don't want to put too much evidence on appearances, but there's a difference between casual and not giving a shit and to me, the latter is never a good idea for work. so yes, i'll admit, i judged just a little before we sat down, because if she thought so little of the place, it didn't make me think i should expect much.

dom and i are pretty predictable in our brunch choices. he likes getting whatever the special scramble of eggs and meats and breads is and i gravitate towards things with hollandaise sauce. true to form, he went for the mixed breakfast special and i, thinking it was appropriate, went for the eggs florentine. we each got a breakfast smoothie as well, since nothing picks you up on a chilly grey morning like a blast of blended fruits.

i'm assuming that the staff actually had to go and pick the fruits at some country farm, because it was between fifteen and twenty minutes before they arrived at the table. the good news, sort of, is that we had an opportunity to savour and enjoy them as we waited for our food. in fact, we had a chance to finish them and start to do things like poke each other on facebook with our phones because we'd also drained our coffee long before and were running on a caffeine deficit. we eventually flagged down our server to ask when we'd be getting food, or at least a refill and were told rather brusquely that things were on their way.

the thing is, we had assumed that things were on their way, but at this point, it seemed more important that we find out "on their way" from where and by what method of transportation, because for a restaurant that looks like it offers a simple, efficient brunch, ben & florentine was really lagging on the efficiency part.

our food did arrive, of course and we didn't bother asking the waiter, who seemed very busy despite being one of four servers in a restaurant that wasn't more than two-thirds full, if our eggs had enjoyed their flight in from the middle east.

food-wise, we got pretty much exactly what we'd expected. dom's mix of meats and eggs and toast were nicely turned out. the house potatoes [brunch places seem to separate themselves based on their potatoes] were tasty, if not entirely unique. my eggs florentine were a little less orthodox, because the spinach, rather than laying on the english muffin underneath the egg, the spinach was chopped up and mixed with the rich hollandaise. unfortunately, this meant that i didn't really get much of a spinach taste at all [which i suspect is the point]. it's an interesting take and if i were a parent, i would have seized on any opportunity to force spinach on my unsuspecting spawn, but as an adult who really likes spinach... well, it just wasn't what i had in mind.

i did like the fact that the benedicts come with a small helping of apple sauce, because the sweet and tart compote has enough acidity to balance the richness of the hollandaise and cheddar. and the hollandaise itself wasn't bad, which it too often is. nor were the eggs overcooked, which is the other problem i often note with franchise restaurant benedicts. the point is, the food was likeable, the coffee was strong and decent and things would have been fine, except...

the food isn't what's leaving a funny taste in his mouth
part way through eating, we became aware of a distinctive aroma. it wasn't that long ago that the scent permeated every corner of every restaurant and bar in montreal, but it's so rare now that even a trace of it sets off alarms- often literally. someone was smoking. we craned our necks hoping to figure out who it was so that we could watch for the inevitable smackdown from the wait staff that was about to occur, but as we twitched our sniffers, something became obvious... something terrible... it was coming from the kitchen.

now, whoever was doing this must have had balls of steel, because the kitchen is mostly open. there was a section hidden from view and the smell was clearly coming from there, but it's still a sort of shockingly bold move in these times. the thing is, i used to smoke. dom still does smoke occasionally. but neither of us has ever been inclined to smoke around an area where food was being prepared, because that shit is disgusting.

we would have said something when the waiter passed by, but got distracted by the fact that he tried to take dom's plate away while he was still finishing his food. i was done, although my fork was still ferrying my last bite to my mouth when the plate was whisked out from under me. given the unhurried pace they observed in getting us our food, they suddenly seemed in a heck of a rush to get us out.

or maybe they just needed the plates. because, although we asked for our bill, we waited a half hour before finally winding things up the old-fashioned way; by standing up and putting our coats on.

it's strange, because, as with a lot of downtown restaurants that are light on crafted atmosphere, the thing that i remember least about ben & florentine is their perfectly decent food, while what i do remember is the overpowering sense of no damn being given by anyone who came in contact with us. and that makes me think that even if the food had been superb, i wouldn't be rushing to go back.

ben & florentine
1215 mansfield [corner cathcart]
for other locations, please see their web site

Comments

Martin Rouge said…
You know, in all the years we've had brunch, in all the places we've been, I'd say that Toronto's La Hacienda was by far the best. It just managed to pull off the weird hipster shabbiness and fantastic food... just the perfect balance.

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