Tastiness Factor: 9/10
Locavore Approved? YES- The opening page of their website sums it up perfectly: "The menu reflects chef/owner Sean Brennan's approach to using seasonal, locally available products to cook in a classic, French-country style". There is no doubt that Chef Brennan's dishes are French in their concept and execution, but that are inspired by ingredients that he finds in his own backyard. It is rare to find a restaurant with a menu that changes EVERYDAY and this shows how dedicated this chef is to providing his guests with the freshest possible ingredients. Local hospitality at its best!
I rarely return to restaurants a second time, even when I have a great experience. With so many places on my to-go list, I just need to keep branching out!
Recently however, I made an exception to this rule. While in Victoria working for a month, I had the great fortune of dining at Ecole Brasserie and felt that I could not leave the city without experiencing it a second time. It was just THAT good.
I first visited Ecole on a Saturday night with my mother who was visiting all the way from Newfoundland, while on the return visit, I brought Hubby along to show him what all the fuss was about.
Brasserie L'Ecole is a converted Chinese schoolhouse located right on the edge on Victoria's Chinatown (corner of Fisgard and Government). The bright sign will hopefully beckon you toward this small yet cozy restaurant. Although you may initially be taken aback by the rather long wait for a table (1-2 hours is fairly standard, especially on the weekend), I highly recommend that you stick it out. I promise- it will be worth it! While you wait, I suggest checking out Veneto Tapas Lounge, located a short walk away at Pandora and Douglas. Here you will find great cocktails and a fun atmosphere that is sure to start off the evening well. One tip- if you plan for an 8:30-9 arrival to Brasserie L'Ecole, the wait will likely be shorter.
The decor at Ecole is casual and rather eclectic. The red walls are covered in large pieces of french art that give it European flair. The bare wooden tables and classic bar make it feel very "homey". The overall vibe is casual and unpretentious, a place where you can put your feet up and let your hair down.
Overall, service was exceptional. On both nights, we were cordially greeted by the front of house staff who were genuinely apologetic about the wait. They were more than happy to take our phone number to call us when our table was ready so that we could go elsewhere and grab a drink while we waited. All of the servers on both visits were great, especially the very knowledgeable, charismatic server on our first night. I will be forever grateful for this recommendation of mussels as an appie which I would never have ordered otherwise (see below) and I was very impressed by how much detail he was able to give us about the various cuts of meat on the menu. My mother also appreciated his wine suggestion which really hit the mark in terms of both taste and price (only $7/glass!). By the time we were done our meal, it was 10pm and he told us we could "hang out and chat" for as long as we wanted, and even after we paid the bill, he repeatedly came over to fill up our water glasses and ensure that we did not need anything else. He really went above and beyond!
As previously mentioned, the menu changes daily and is updated on the website. There are usually only a few small tweaks such as the types of fish being swapped out or a vegetable being replaced by something more seasonal. The menu consists of mostly traditional french fare, with a bit of Pacific Northwest flair. It is fairly meat heavy with a few fish options (no vegetarian entrees when we visited). You will always find a steak frites option (their specialty) and a few different preparations of their local mussels.
Here is what we enjoyed, with pics for our dishes on the second night (unfortunate camera malfunction on the first night!):
Mussels with tomato, pancetta, garlic-fried breadcrumbs- This was one of the main reasons why I just HAD to return to Ecole a second time. I actually find this amusing as I do not usually like mussels that much, nor do I typically eat pork. So the fact that I am still raving about this dish is a testament to how amazing it really is! While I am sure that the other mussel preparations are also good (there are 3 options), you must try this one with its to-die-for sauce and the fried breadcrumbs. Fortunately, you are given complimentary bread to soak up every last drop of sauce. Or if you run out, you can use a spoon and get right in there like I did. It would be a sacrilege to leave even a drop!
On my first visit, I enjoyed the sooke trout, warm farro, kale salad and serrano almond brown butter which I could swear was made just for me. It combined some of my favourite things on one plate, including beautifully cooked trout, kale and sundried tomatoes. All of the elements were perfectly executed and presented beautifully and simply, just as any good French dish should be. This was without a doubt one of the best fish entrees I have had in some time. My mother ordered the beef Paleron, parsnip purée, kale, melted garlic, chanterelle sauce. This very generously sized portion of braised beef shoulder was tender and moist, and served with a bold mushroom sauce that could hold its own with the meat. Another winner, especially combined with all of the fresh, local vegetables.
On my second visit, I had the only other fish dish on the menu- ling cod, carrot puree, lentils, ginger vinaigrette, watercress. Although I enjoyed the trout dish more, this was undoubtably great. The cod was moist and cooked to perfection and I loved how the texture of the lentils contrasted with the flavourful and creamy puree. Again, simple and wonderfully French.
Hubby had the house specialty, the steak frites. There was an impressive 4 different cuts of meat to choose from including an 8oz bavette, both a 8 and 10oz angus sirloin and and 10oz New York Striploin (Hubby had the latter). The top quality cut of meat, cooked medium rare (at the chef's discretion), was served with a red wine shallot sauce and topped with a "slice" of Roquefort butter. Hubby upgraded to the "fancy frites", which came with parmesan, garlic, parsley and truffle oil. As I can attest (I definitely "sampled" a few!), they were perfectly crispy and oh so delicious, especially when I dipped them in the rest of the sauce from the mussels. A combo straight from heaven!
Ecole Brasserie exceeded my expectations on all fronts. I have eaten at a variety of places in Victoria over the past 3 years when I have lived there periodically for work and this is by far the best quality food that I have had. In fact, it is probably the best French food I have eaten period.
To sum it up, Brasserie L'Ecole has mastered the art of unpretentious french cuisine made with fresh, local produce that is accessible to all, from the most passionate foodie to the casual diner. Anyone who loves good food is guaranteed to love it!