Cafe Holt's modern decor is accompanied by a thoroughly modern gourmet menu, which is in turn centered around a very traditional bread. This is the whole wheat sourdough boule (which, it turns out, is even more authentically French than the infamous baguette), flown in from Paris daily. (It might actually travel first class on the Concorde, judging from the menu prices: averaging about $20 a sandwich). The crust is crisp without being painful ( I have injured my soft palate on many a crusty loaf) while the interior remains moist and chewy, and slightly nutty in flavor. The bread is sliced as "thick as a finger" and this hand sized slice is then toasted and topped with various delicious combinations of ingredients to create a "tartine", the French take on the open-faced sandwich.
We tried a couple of these tartines, prefaced by a trio of tapenade appetizer served with the same hearty bread. Two of the three tapenades were very decent pastes of green and black olives respectively, but the third was so scrumptious and mysterious we could only guess that it contained sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese, and possibly some pulverized nuts and herbs.
As for our main courses, Alban had the steak and potato with horseradish and something else - I barely had a chance to see it as it disappeared so fast, and I had the caprese tartine. The tomatoes were roasted to juicy perfection, and the smooth mozzarella was just beginning to melt. My only complaint is that the very generous sprinkling of fresh basil on top had been cut with a knife instead of torn, thereby blackening the cut edges - a detail so minor but so avoidable. I can also attest to the character of the ahi tuna with wasabi mayo, lime and coriander, and the brunch tartine with poached eggs, salad, and mushrooms, which remains one of my favorites. The cafe also serves very good coffee, and their full bar includes some inventive drinks like rose soda and seasonal blended juices.
The food is delicious, but the cafe is also a very visually pleasing place. Designed with lunchers in mind, the soothing minimal whiteness is broken up by flashes of color from pink neon lights and bright yellow forsythias. Even the practical aspects such as the array of French sodas over the bar and the baby chair shaped like a recently hatched egg fit seamlessly into the decor. On a weekday afternoon, I was not surprised to see that diners were mostly old ladies with shopping bags, some well-dressed moms, and some business types, but I believe that Cafe Holt's audience should not be restricted to these categories. Whether you are in need of sustenance after a spending spree or you're just in the mood for a very tasty bite, Cafe Holt is in the perfect location.
Holt Renfrew Café
1300 rue Sherbrooke Ouest.
(Enter either through Holt Renfrew or by the side door on rue de la Montagne which takes you directly into the cafe.)