Auberge Saint-Mathieu: nordic haute cuisine in the heart Mauricie

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At the entrance of the parc de la Mauricie, in the small village of Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, lies a hidden gem of a dining destination. At the helm of Auberge Saint-Mathieu, Chef Samy Benabed and his cheerful team shine a spotlight on local gastronomy in an enchanting and welcoming setting, all at a very accessible price point. A sublime table that certainly deserves all the praise it has received since its revival in 2023!

Behind this little gem are four very friendly young individuals: Samy Benabed, Nicholas Trottier-Lacourse, Étienne Prudhomme, and Florent Borrel. The partners, all in their early thirties, grew up in the region, except for Florent, a Frenchman who has been living in Quebec for several years and fell in love with the inn when he stayed there in 2022, to the point of becoming a partner. Each brings their expertise: for Nicolas, who grew up at the inn before studying economics, it’s administration and numbers; Samy (formerly of Hotel Herman, Mousso, and Relae in Copenhagen) is in charge of the kitchen; Étienne, who worked in the dining rooms of several establishments in Montreal (Garde-Manger, Liverpool House, Pastel) before venturing out to open cocktail bars in Australia and New Zealand, handles service, wine, and cocktails; finally, Florent, who managed cheese shops in France and here (Fromagerie Ruban Bleu in Chateaugay), oversees the bar-counter with chef Jana Larose.

The story of Auberge Saint-Mathieu du Lac began in the 1990s when Louise and Jean-Marcel, Nicholas’s parents, acquired a cottage and land on the shores of Lake Bellemare in Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, with the idea of turning it into a bed & breakfast. The project quickly grew into an inn with ten rooms and a restaurant, which for over a quarter of a century welcomed predominantly European tourists seeking to discover the vast openness of parc de la Mauricie. When, a few years ago, Louise and Jean-Marcel began to contemplate retirement, Nicholas and Samy proposed taking over the inn: “I’ve always wanted to have a kind of rustic table in a rural setting,” says Samy. “My family is still in Mauricie, so it was a great opportunity.”

After testing the waters by operating the restaurant for two summers, the childhood friends officially became owners, with Étienne and Florent joining them in the meantime, and started renovating of the restaurant and inn. In May 2023, Auberge Saint-Mathieu (without the “du Lac” to make it shorter) reopened in a new incarnation more in line with the young team.

From Hotel Herman to Auberge Saint-Mathieu

Samy Benabed honed his skills at Hotel Herman, then at restaurant Chez L’Épicier under the guidance of Laurent Godbout, at Mousso, and at the now-closed Relae, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen. It’s fair to say that he’s been on a winning streak for the past few years: he was a finalist for the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy in 2022, before being named Revelation of the Year at the Lauriers de la gastronomie the following year, and nominated in the categories of Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year in the 2024 edition. Our expectations were therefore very high when we sat down at his table.

Right away, we were charmed by the rustic and handmade charm of the decor. No white tablecloths or austere Scandinavian design here: the inn, built by Nicholas’s father (who incidentally left a few fingers there), retains its old-timey charm, with some improvements, including a brand-new kitchen and furniture and lighting created by Michel Rousseau, a local artisan who works with recycled wood. The dining room seats two dozen people and offers an incomparable view of the sunsets with its large windows overlooking Lake Bellemare.

The rooms, located in the same building as the restaurant, are not extravagantly luxurious, but they are clean and comfortable and boast a very nice view of the lake. Currently, only three of the ten rooms have been renovated, but the others will follow soon. (The inn will close its doors in April for some renovation work.)

In the adjacent building, you’ll find the Comptoir buvette et emplettes, a take-out counter by day and more laid-back restaurant by night, which operates during the high season, from June to October. “During the day, it’s a fine grocery store with sandwiches and small picnic boxes that you can take to the park. In the evening, it’s a more traditional restaurant with nice wines and good food,” explains Étienne. With room for about forty people, plus about thirty on the terrace, the bar is the playground of chef Jana Larose, until recently Samy’s sous-chef at the inn. An excellent alternative if you plan to stay several nights at the inn or if you’re traveling with children.

Seasonal cuisine and exceptional products

But let’s get back to the food, as that’s what particularly interests us here. Although the “Nordic cuisine” label has often been attached to his name, Samy Benabed doesn’t limit his imagination in the kitchen. “It’s a cuisine of the moment, in terms of both product and inspiration. We’re not strict locavores; we allow ourselves to seek out exceptional products when it makes sense, both in the kitchen and for the wines,” he explains.

Étienne, who handles the wine list with the help of sommelier Alexandre Gagnon (Montréal Plaza, Hoogan & Beaufort), agrees: “We stick to organic, but we’re not limited to just natural wine. We try to play with wines that are more gastronomic for pairings,” he continues. The bar also offers a short selection of excellent signature cocktails, which, it is worth noting, contain no citrus. “It really stands out. We use verjus, rhubarb juice, summer fruits instead,” the mixologist rejoices.

After sipping our drink at the bar, we’re ready to sit down for the meal. The inn offers two options: the Gourmet Package, a four-course meal, and the Gastronomic Package, an eight-course tasting menu, with wine pairings available for both. We obviously chose the latter option. For under 200$ per person, including overnight stay and breakfast, it’s a real bargain.

The meal begins with an amuse-bouche, a crispy tartlet with Îles-de-la-Madeleine whelk and celeriac. A very nice start! Next comes the “coleslaw” (“Creamy and traditional,” a nod to Samy’s father, a deliveryman at Ti-Coq in Trois-Rivières, specifies the chef, as he personally lays the dish on our table): thin slices of fermented cabbage with wasabi peas and ash walnut from the Prendre Racine farm, hidden under a chive foam that melts on the tongue like cotton candy. A wonderfully perplexing play of textures. The scallop crudo, served in a delicate dashi with rutabaga from Coop La Charrette, hancho chili oil, fresh Quebec ginger, and pumpkin seeds, is equally exquisite. We continue with a lovely beet rose with haskap berry juice, sarsaparilla, elderberry capers, and dune pepper, which pairs beautifully with the Polish pinot noir offered as a pairing.

As an interlude, our friendly server then places on the table two thick slices of 72-hour fermented sourdough bread from Des pains et des roses bakery in Trois-Rivières, with beurre-noisette and honey from Étienne’s uncle’s personal production. Friendly advice: resist the temptation to chomp it all down and save some to scrape the sauce from the dishes that follow.

We move on to the halibut, cooked to perfection in a kombu papillote. Hidden under a shiso, nori, and sesame cracker and thin melting slices of potato, then placed on a creamy nantais butter, it’s undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. The pork loin that follows comes from Au Pignon Vert butcher shop in Saint-Liguori and is accompanied by a trio of purees and a three-meat (guinea fowl, deer, and veal) mirin and butter glaze. Impeccable once again.

Then, to conclude, two desserts: a pavlova stuffed with white chocolate and sweet clover, with marigold shoots, lemon balm, sea buckthorn, and hancho chili, followed by a “baklava-style” phyllo dough sugar pie with ash walnut and pecan crumble, black garlic powder, and yogurt ice cream. We’ll let you guess if we liked it.

Throughout the meal, the team in the dining room navigates from table to table with enthusiasm. Not a stiff waiter in white coat in sight, just busy young people clearly delighted to make our evening enjoyable. Don’t be surprised to see the chef or the maître d’ chatting with customers in the foyer after the meal. It’s part of the experience. “We’ve implemented a style of service that’s very rigorous, very professional, but at the same time, we’re friendly where it matters,” assures Étienne. “It’s not just a restaurant, it’s a destination that people come to visit. We try to offer a complete experience, so that people feel good when they arrive and when they leave.”

It was certainly a mission accomplished as far as we’re concerned. We were delighted from start to finish of our stay at Auberge Saint-Mathieu. We hope you’ll be just as delighted!

Photography by Lea Souligny et Ariane Samson

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