Come Hangry, Leave Happy
Convivial (adj.) relating to or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company, i.e., my online dating profile. Shaw's newest eatery is just that: a place you visit to have fond memories of eating and drinking with great company. Even if you are unsure of your company before you enter the restaurant, you will surely share in some joy together during your dining experience. I was eager to try Convivial and am excited to share my delightful experience of perfectly portioned, French-inspired cuisine with you!
On a rainy Monday, my friend Robin and I walked down the streets of Shaw, dodging half-melted snow mountains, while our feet crunched over salty ice-melt debris. Happy to regain our freedom from the #snowzilla prison, we thought it only appropriate to celebrate by checking out Chef Cedric Maupillier's newest brick-and-mortar, Convivial.
Upon entering, we were greeted with a bright umbrella receptacle, which for some reason stays with me because of it's cheery and unique appearance - plus the obvious reason that I didn't have to take my wet umbrella to the table with me. Just one of the many touches that makes this place great. The hostesses hung our coats and led us to a cozy banquette in the intimate dining room. Floor-to-ceiling glass encloses the dining room, making the small space seem expansive and refreshing. The lighting above our table, however, was uncomfortably bright. I prefer dim lighting to mask my wine stained teeth, haha. Just as we were discussing the harshness of the lighting, it was dimmed! Magic. Someone must have been paying attention to the diners, and I was incredibly surprised by that. Ambiance can really make or break a restaurant for me.
Time to eat...
While browsing the menu, a warm flat bread was placed on our table in a take-away bag similar to those you would find at a patisserie in Paris. The bread was teeming with fresh herbs and finished with a healthy sprinkling of salt. Carbs while you browse is always a good thing, keeps hangry diners in check and this bread hit all the high notes - chewy, fluffy, warm and crisp.
The menu at Convivial is a work of art. Simple, yet enticing; concise, but curious, it is one of those menus that makes you want to order one of each, please! Since there were only two of us we decided to get three nibbles, two cold dishes and one hot... seemed conservative for my over-ordering habit. Our server, Alain, assured us we had picked a perfect amount of food to "keep us happy." That was a phrase he used a lot - and I appreciated it. Instead of asking us, how is everything? thirty times throughout the evening, he would ask, Are you happy? A unique twist on the standard check-up, and I found it comforting. I WAS happy, and even though I liked some things better than others, I didn't feel like I was lying - ha! - because if I wasn't happy it would be easier to say so instead of saying, "actually this dish kind of sucks, but I'm too hungry to send it back and I don't want to hurt your feelings."
OK, OK, so what the eff did we eat?! Let's talk about it:
Tartiflette Fritters, Escargots in a Blanket, Duck Egg Beignet
Sweet baby Jesus these nibbles were my favorite bites of the meal. Let's start with the tartiflette fritters - tartiflette is a traditional French dish made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions. If that doesn't sound decadent enough, Chef Maupillier turns them into perfectly crunchy, bite-sized fritters that arrive to the table piping hot. Piping hot or not, I could not stop biting into these potato, bacon, cheese balls and was willing to risk burning my mouth as I reached for a second and a third. The golden batter was beautiful - not oily to the touch and thin enough to taste the smoky, porky lardons inside. Sigh, my mouth is watering.
NEXT! Escargots in a blanket. Ladies and gentleman if you are too squeamish to have tried the Earth's land snail in all their glory until now, go to Convivial and try these. It's the less scary (?) version of tugging the little critters out of their shell and slurping up the garlic butter left inside. Chef Maupillier has already done that for you - chopped escargot with lots of garlic, parsley and butter - wrapped in a thin phyllo blanket for some complementary texture and served with a side of even more garlicky-parsley dipping butter. They are exquisite. Tender snails don't leave your jaw sore from chewing, and fresh herbs and garlic pair wonderfully with the snails' earthy flavor. Order them.
Onward! Three words: Duck. Egg. Beignet. Holy quack these are good. I had been eyeing these puppies on various blogs and Instagram and my expectations were blown out of the water. Light and fluffy batter encases batons of duck egg for a delightfully airy and savory bite of nirvana. Served with a stewed dip of feta and piperade - a traditional sauce accompaniment for eggs in the Basque region made up of peppers, tomatoes and onion - this unctuous complex sauce is filled with deep savory stewed flavors and bright salty brininess from the feta, hitting all the high notes on your palette. I'm not really sure if the rosemary sprigs stuck into beignets serve a purpose or not - I tried to use mine as a skewer but it went limp and we laughed. They sure look pretty, though!
If you dine at Convivial or research the restaurant online, you'll notice that the overlying theme is the portions of the food. As the website states:
A menu of fully composed, mid-size dishes looks past both the traditional entrée and the tapas-like snack, allowing guests to assemble an individual, multi-course meal or to select a variety of dishes for everyone to share. Two and a half plates is the sweet spot, and we’re always ready to help you put together a relaxed and satisfying dinner without ordering too much food.
I love this concept. Tapas are everywhere, huge entrées are outdated but familiar, and diners are more interested in trying lots of what a restaurant has to offer these days. Convivial has mixed the best of both worlds. Lots of smaller dishes that are satisfyingly shareable and entrée-style fare to segue into after exciting bites that leave diners full but not uncomfortably stuffed.
leeks dijonnaise, veal tartare
I embraced the sharing theme and was ready to dive into our cold courses.
Leeks Dijonnaise, the dish that caught my eye and put Convivial on my radar. It's just so pretttyyyy. A beautifully composed canvas filled with vibrant colors and contrasting textures. Too pretty to eat? Never. As beautiful as this dish was, it fell a little flat for me, which made me weep inside. What comes to mind when you hear dijonnaise? I think of a rich fatty element with bold, bright acidic tang, i.e., Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. The leeks were tender and chilled - so delicate and creamy - tossed lightly with oil, giving me the mouth-feel of a rich mayonnaise. Boiled eggs were shaved finely and dusted on top like snow, while capers and breadcrumbs were tucked into the nooks and crannies hidden beneath elegant micro greens. What was missing? The DIJON! I wanted a bold, bright tang of some mustard-y component. I was trying to find all of the capers to pile onto my spoon in search of the acidic punch this dish yearned for. Sadly, this dish lost the fight - but I think tossing the leeks with a potent Dijon mustard would enhance this dish to it's full potential. This subtle dish was still a glorious sight and Robin and I had no problem eating it all.
Veal tartare. Ok, this dish brought the punch. Fatty, fresh tartare was drizzled with cancoillotte, a french runny cheese, for super unctuous, rich decadence. The veal was so fresh, no tinny or iron-y aftertaste - my fave. Adorned with nicoise olive crackers and bottarga-dusted oyster leaves, there was no lack of salt or flavor. Oyster leaves have this fresh ocean-like brininess that literally tastes like you just slurped down an oyster, which was only enhanced by the powerful umami-packed shaved bottarga (salted, cured fish roe). Delightful. The portion was probably even more than necessary, but we shoved it all down our gullets, haha.
fried chicken "coq au vin," Celebration Cake
With very full bellies, we received our final savory offering of the night - friend chicken coq au vin. HEAD EXPLODES!
Why hasn't this been done already? It's genius - weaving together a simple American classic with a French. Glistening red wine sauce blankets the thick, crispy chicken - revealing juicy, tender meat. A quaint gathering of traditional coq au vin vegetables garnished the chicken and I honestly think it was the most delicious baby vidalia onion I've ever consumed. I think there were some skin-on, smashed potatoes underneath but I was so distracted by the insanely crispy skin and orchestra of flavors in my mouth that I don't remember.
It was a perfect portion to share a few succulent bites with my friend and leave us satisfied and sleepy (that's what she said?).
Finally - our server brought us two shots of whiskey and a flaming piece of celebration cake to honor Robin's birthday! It was such a fun way to cap off the evening, and the cake was to die for - especially the little chocolate-y crispy spheres. When I say flaming, I mean FIREWORKS, check out this video if you don't believe me. Way to upstage every other restaurant's birthday offering, Convivial. You win.
I had an awesome time and ate phenomenal food at Convivial; and with such reasonable prices, I can't wait to go back and try everything else on the menu. The buzzing atmosphere, feel-good food, and exceptional service gains high marks with me. Who wants to come with me?!