On a recent visit to Le Canard Enchainé, I ordered the shrimp Indochine, one of the day’s specials, on a lark. As I normally gravitate toward the trustworthy classics at Le Canard—duck confit, snails in garlic butter, omelets—I was unsure what to expect from the bistro’s fusion cuisine. Displaying a lot of height, with petite breadsticks and a spring of thyme, the butterflied shrimp on skewers were decorated with nasturtiums, strawberries, and pickled ginger atop a bed of sweet, sticky rice and outlying sauce pools with notes of plum, coconut, wasabi, soy, and orange.
At a neighboring table, a woman I just had been introduced to by the restaurant’s gregarious owner, Jean-Jacques Carquillat, marveled at the composition, then mock-complained that she had ordered the same dish earlier in the week, but it had been served sans flowers. Without skipping a beat,Carquillat reassured her in his rough-accented English, “But of course, you were the flower.” The woman, a Lebanese breast surgeon who told me she was moving to Las Vegas to helm its first breast-surgery clinic, then asked me if she could take a picture of my food with her cell phone.
Welcome to Le Canard Enchainé (literal translation: “the chained duck”), where the owner prowls the floor like a jovial French bear throwing a never-ending dinner party. Carquillat constantly greets the faithful, making sure the plates come out of the kitchen in perfect form (when he’s not cooking; Carquillat is also the executive chef), pouring wine, working the room, and introducing diners across tables. While some French restaurants tend toward austerity in food, service, and décor, (a rigor that can lead to rigor mortis), Le Canard is a decidedly unfussy place, casual in its manners but not its food. You can order a salad as an entrée and not be looked at askance, as if you were a cheapskate squatting on prime real estate. No meal I’ve had at Le Canard has ever been rushed—even when dining late on a Sunday night—and I’ve been made to feel as welcome in shorts as in a suit. Le Canard is a prêt-à-porter kind of place—nothing too daring or fancy, but always in fashion.
One of the defining features of a meal at Le Canard is the service. While some of the younger waiters can be a bit shaky on the particulars of the wine list—intimidating if you don’t know French wine—the attitude of the staff is helpful and charming, a quality Carquillat says he demands from his staff. “When you walk in the place, you feel like you’re welcome, like you become a friend,” he said. “You’re not just a number. To me, that’s the number-one issue, and it’s what I teach my staff. That’s why my key asset is my mother-in-law, Elisabeth.”
(Ah, Elisabeth. Anyone who’s ever been to Le Canard more than once knows the smiling short-haired blond who is Carquillat’s mother-in-law. If you’ve been there once, she’ll recognize you the second time around and greet you with a lively bonjour and a kiss on both cheeks.)
But back to the shrimp Indochine: As a longtime crustacean lover who has lost his religion after years of flaccid, watery, flavorless shrimp, I found a reason to believe in this dish. (Carquillat later told me it was his best-seller.) The shrimp were snappy in texture, and had a fresh and vibrant taste that rendered the accompanying sauces almost superfluous…but not quite. The mix of hot and sweet in the sauce was as delicate as the taste of the nasturtium; the strawberries, pickled ginger, and wasabi combined in a unified shrimp sauce theory of France and Asia.
They don’t skimp on the serving size at Le Canard either. The shrimp Indochine featured six large, fleshy shrimp, enough for dinner for two with a shared appetizer. When I asked Carquillat about this, he said he wanted to counter the stereotypical idea of a French restaurant: “Everything in the check, nothing on the plate,” he said, adding, “the portions are not small here.”
Another fusion dish, the grilled Atlantic salmon, crusted in black pepper and glazed with honey mustard over a fennel and red cabbage ragout, sounds at first like a six-flavor pile-up. But as with the shrimp Indochine, subtlety carried the dish. The glaze was applied to the salmon with probity, not as a mask for frozen product, but as a soft complement to the flaky fish and the ragout, composed of an incredible lightness I did not know red cabbage possessed.
The traditional French dishes are the real draw at Le Canard, however. (Garlic snails in butter are a big seller according to Carquillat.) Take the Coquilles Saint-Jacques, for instance. Scallops are almost a secondary concern in traditional Coquilles Saint-Jacques; it’s the sauce you’re after. Ordering Coquilles Saint-Jacques because you love the taste of scallops is like drinking gin because you enjoy the medicinal qualities of juniper berries. The two concepts are related, but not in a family way. Served in a crock with Gruyere cheese slightly charred on top, the scallops were floating in a béchamel with mushrooms that would not have been out of place on the dessert menu. Take your Lipitor and dig in. Creamy, savory scallop custard like maman never made.
The trout almondine is also a winning throwback: two thin filets nestled atop a mound of rice, not fried but lightly sautéed with a crisp lemony zing. The calves liver in balsamic reduction, an exercise in contrast between sweet and mineral tones, is a simple preparation, but perfectly so. On my last visit, I enjoyed a sublime tomato-basil soup, a silky purée with an unexpected spike of sultry heat that charged the dish with extra body.
The wine list at Le Canard tilts toward the expensive on the French side, but there are New World bargains to be had, as well as some affordable French wines, including the refreshing Tavel Longival rosé ($36), and the crisp Louis Michel and Fils Petit Chablis ($36).
Carquillat spent 20 years working in top-tier restaurants in France and New York before he opened Le Canard. When I asked him why he hung out his shingle in Kingston in 1995, Carquillat told me that when he first visited the space, he pushed through the drop panels of the deli then occupying the space and found a tin ceiling above it. He took this as a good omen. But Carquillat was really sold on the place when he returned later that night and took in the view from inside. “With the buildings and the [Old Dutch] church all lit up, at night, you feel like you’re in a little village in the south of France,” he said, describing the evening repose of Uptown Kingston.
Walking out of Le Canard on a recent Sunday after a kiss bon nuit for each cheek from Elisabeth, French pop music trailing out the door, trout almondine and Chablis still on my tongue, the church bells ringing the hour, if I squinted, I thought I might just be able to see the Mediterranean in the distance. Le Canard inspires the most pleasant illusions.
Le Canard Enchainé
276 Fair Street, Kingston
Open from noon to 10pm, Sunday to Thursday, until 11pm on Friday and Saturday.
Lunch: A la carte entrées vary in price from $8 to $16. The two-course prix fixe lunch is $14.95, $10 on Mondays.
Dinner: Appetizers range from $6 to $16. Entrées run from $22 to $38. There are prix fixe dinner specials throughout the week.
Endive salad with walnuts and Roquefort, duck confit, trout almondine, French onion soup, calves liver, grilled salmon over fennel-cabbage ragout, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, sautéed sweetbreads, shrimp Indochine.
The wine list is a well-balanced tip through the regions of France, with half of the 75 bottles under $40, and a number of New World wines for under $30. Ten wines available by the glass. Twelve imported and domestic beers. Full liquor license.
Le Canard takes reservations, but they are not usually necessary.
Classic Parisian bistro: cabaret tables along a banquette, an exposed brick wall, tin ceiling, wood appointments, large windows onto the street. The bar is cozy chic, with a baby grand piano.