27 October 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

Ottawa Dining: The secret's out about indulgent but affordable hole-in-the-wall Le Clandestin

Le Clandestin

45 Laval St., 819-921-9727, leclandestin.ca
Open: Tuesday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 4 to 9 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday
Prices: mains under $20
Access: steps to front door and walkway to front door is not well-lit, washrooms downstairs

When we went for dinner last week at Le Clandestin in Gatineau’s Hull sector, our amiable, bilingual server was wearing a suspicious-looking red ball cap with small white lettering on it. Was he trying to trigger us? Who did he think he was — Kanye West?

On closer inspection, the slogan on the cap in fact read “Make Gatineau Great Again,” which was not only a bit of a relief but also a sly nod to this tiny, 24-seat eatery’s fanciful style of cooking.

Tucked away on a pedestrian-only strip of Old Hull and open since May 2017, Le Clandestin sends out bowls and plates fully loaded with what chef-owner Eric Duchesne calls New American fare (or “Néo-américain,” as the small menu says). Among the open kitchen’s items are such comforting and even richly indulgent things as fried chicken thighs, pulled pork, grilled cheese sandwiches and mac and cheese.

I’ll suggest that the fare here also has a nouveau québéecois aspect. Look no further than the kitchen’s Martin Picard-esque love of foie gras and its ubiquity of curds, or its fondness for generosity and even excessiveness when it comes to plating and portion sizes.

However you want to call it, the food here was more often than not surprisingly flavourful and well made, and sometimes whimsically over-the-top. Also, Le Clandestin’s filling food was easy on our wallets — everything was under $20.

Le Clandestin was packed during my weekend and mid-week visits, with guests seemingly as enthralled by its impressive beer list, which puts extra emphasis on funky lambic beers, stouts and porters, or its shorter wine list, which favours natural wines.

I’ve found Le Clandestin’s foie gras French toast to be a must-order, eminently shareable starter, made with exceptional elements from bread to foie to sweet, tangy compote to maple-y drizzle. It was also priced like a steal ($13 for two big slabs).

Foie gras French toast at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Beef carpaccio ($10) was a second strong appetizer, with its toothsome, cleanly seared beef bolstered by bits of old cheddar and a truffle aioli. Fried, breaded balls of pulled pork and curds ($11 for four) might have raised suspicions on paper, but they were as deftly made as they were decadent.

Beef carpaccio at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Pulled pork and curd balls at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Main courses were always big and even sloppy, but all met with our approval. One tip, though — we were glad that we shared every plate, and it did occur to us that if one of us had stuck to eating just one item, especially one of Le Clandestin’s bowl-based dishes, it might have felt like too much of a good thing.

Le Clandestin’s mac and cheese ($19) is perhaps its most eye-widening indulgence. Not only was it cheese-y in the extreme, with cheese sauce, old cheddar and curds, but it was also flecked with bits of fatty thick-cut bacon. It was topped with enough cheese, slices of foie and arugula to obscure the noodles below, and the plate on which the casserole rested was spattered with apple butter and hot sauce. I often don’t warm to such excessive, I-dare-you-to-eat-me dishes, but I will say that the four of us tucked into this one with gusto, and wished there had been more when it was gone.

Foie-gras bacon mac and cheese at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Fried chicken thighs can be ordered on their own here as a starter, but we had their crisp deliciousness in two larger dishes. Three thighs were precariously contained with kimchi, avocado and curds in a tall, fantastical sandwich ($16) that was as tasty as it was unconventional and supported by a side of triple-cooked, dill-flecked fries. More thighs were obscured by a thick dusting of chia seeds on top of a bowl filled with quinoa, avocado and well-prepared, chopped veg and ranch dressing ($16).

Fried chicken sandwich as Le Clandestin Postmedia

Fried chicken bowl at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Fried chicken notwithstanding, the bowls, I believe, are meant to be healthier options at Le Clandestin. That would be truer of the seared-tuna-topped bowl ($18), made with glass noodles, avocado, a lemongrass-ginger dressing and a flourish of spicy mayo, and even truer still of the veggie bowl ($15) that starred smoked tofu, nuts, avocado and glass noodles with a sweet-salty Korean-style sauce.

Tuna poke bowl at Le Clandestin, pic by PEter Hum Postmedia

Veggie bowl at Le Clandestin Postmedia

Smoked tofu returned in Duchesne’s veggie Reuben sandwich ($15), along with house-made sauerkraut, curds, pickles, fries — tucked in the sandwich — and zingy Russian dressing. While it was plenty on its own, the sandwich came with potato salad on the side.

The veggie Reuben at Le Clandestin OTTwp

The kitchen served mussels ($18) in a thin but flavourful red curry-coconut milk broth, with fries on the side. The small mussels were OK, but the other plates provided bigger thrills.

Mussels in red-curry-coconut sauce at Le Clandestin Postmedia

The menu’s single dessert ($9) was a fine one, combining scoops of strawberry frozen yogurt and dark chocolate mousse with cubes of lightly lemony blondies. In keeping with the friendly vibe one night, our server gave me a free splash of a funky, molasses-y dark beer before that dessert landed.

Strawberry frozen yogurt, dark chocolate mousse and lemon blondies at Le Clandestin Postmedia

As pleasant food- and drink-wise as our visits to Le Clandestin were, there were two downsides.

The first is that the room felt cold until it filled up with other customers.

The other is that the walkway to Le Clandestin needs some lighting to illuminate its catch-you-offguard steps after sundown. Otherwise, it can be treacherous when you leave the restaurant.

Perhaps the darkened entrance suits Le Clandestin’s name, but no foie gras French toast or fried chicken, no matter how good, is worth a broken ankle.

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