Ooh la la.
Nanaimo has been missing a proper French restaurant for a long time since Le Café Français shut its doors a few years back. French cuisine is not something we normally get too excited about – we’re more about bold and creative flavours than delicate and traditional – but we were still excited to see what was being served up by Black Rabbit Kitchen, now occupying the old train station on Selby Street.
We’ve eaten in this building a number of times over the years as it has changed hands. The previous occupants were dim and cozy pub-style eateries. Black Rabbit has instead brightened the dining room up with white paint, but has left the original floor. There’s not much in the way of décor in there (yet?) which meant one of us was essentially facing a bare white wall while eating, but we expect this might change in time. If there was any music playing, we couldn’t hear it. The overall feel of the dining room was bright, cool, and a bit noisy – not quite as cozy at we’d expected.
We were quickly seated by a pleasant hostess. Water awaited us at the table. Our server, who we believe was also an owner, was very promptly with us to take drink orders. She also asked us if we had any questions about the menu. This is a small, but really important touch particularly if you are serving up a menu that might be new or challenging for local palettes (i.e. foreign food). Setting your diners at ease with this simple gesture is huge and we always appreciate it.
A side note about the service – when we attend restaurants soon after opening, we are often served by the owners themselves. They’re prompt, friendly, and knowledgeable about the menu and drinks. This can sometimes lead to initial impressions of the service being unrealistically good. At some point hired waitstaff will replace the owner and this can often mean that extra effort is lost. We hope that the excellent service we received at Black Rabbit remains for our next visit.
So anyway, how about those drinks?! Black Rabbit has an extensive drinks list, including a wide variety of cocktails, aperitifs and digestifs, hard pours, and obviously plenty of wines. We ordered a Mai Tai (for fun!) and a Momisette because what is that. (It’s a Pernod and lemon sparkling aperitif cocktail and it’s divine.) Both drinks were well-crafted and attractive looking. The Mai Tai took us right back to Hawaii and wasn’t skimpy on the rum, perhaps justifying its $15 price tag. Black Rabbit nails the drinks game to the point that we would consider coming back just to lever les coudes, so to speak.
Black Rabbit offers a la carte ordering, but we were also offered a prix fixe (set menu) option as well. Longtime readers will know we cannot resist that. Virtually all the menu items are traditional French cuisine, although with some curious omissions, like French onion soup, bouillabaisse, or what is often the main attraction, beef bourguignon. Still, lots to choose from here.
Only minutes after locking in our orders, our appetizers arrived; ratatouille and chicken liver paté, both served with baguette slices. The ratatouille was not the plain peasant stew you might imagine and was instead a rich and luxurious one, with plenty of fat making for silky eating. Quite surprising! We thought we knew what ratatouille could be and this dish inspired us to look for a different recipe for use at home.
The paté was similarly impressive. Most people (including us) are probably more familiar with pork liver patés like you can buy in tubes at the grocery store. The chicken has a very similar flavour, but has been moussed, making it super smooth. Frickin’ fabulous stuff.
Our next course was a mushroom consommé. Consommé is essentially broth and this was served with local foraged mushrooms (including a morel, which we’ve never eaten before). This was a nice dish with a strong mushroom flavour, but we did find it a bit too salty. A palate cleanser might have been a good option afterward too, as that bold mushroom flavour lingered into our next dishes (and beyond).
After the soup, our main dish arrived – Duck L’orange. This beautiful duck breast was perfectly cooked to a medium-rare (as it should be – it’s red meat!) It had just the right amount of fat still on it to be both moist and deliciously rich. The orange sauce was not too sweet and there was enough of it for dipping the fries in after. This was a pro dish and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The fries and salad we each received individual portions of were fine (although if you don’t like arugula or other peppery greens you’re not going to like the salad).
Finally, our set menu provided for us each to have dessert. We received an orange sponge cake and a lemon tart. The lemon tart was super tangy and creamy and served on a generous graham base. The sponge cake was sweet and almost impossibly moist. These two desserts were both exquisite in their own rights but also played off each other nicely too. We were surprised to learn they were baked in house rather than brought in. That’s a busy kitchen!
Our bill for the multi-course set menu, with a couple of cocktails and a modest tip was $138, which we find to be good value. A la carte ordering will set you back something more, so be aware of that if there is no prix fixe option when you visit.
Black Rabbit Kitchen is off to a very strong start. We had minor quibbles with the dining room, and there were some omissions from the menu. There was also a slight miss on the soup. However, the excellent service, and quite delicious food more than made up for these small drawbacks. Considering the restaurant has only been open a few weeks, they’re in great shape to establish themselves as Nanaimo’s premier French restaurant. We look forward to vising again. Check them out and let them know we sent you!