You might easily overlook Chez Michel if you were on a whirlwind visit to Victoria. It's not in the bustling restaurant scene downtown, but tucked into a cozy space in the largely retirement-age neighborhood of Oak Bay, on a section of Oak Bay Avenue which isn't teeming with pedestrians unless they're headed to or from a bus stop. A glance in the window at the unabashedly old-school decor or a caught strain of the French muzak might suggest to you a pedestrian menu and stodginess.
You would be wrong.
This is not a place to go for trendy "beet tasting" appetizers or mystery compotes, granted. The menu here is traditional French food, and its preparation reminds you why it became traditional to begin with. My lobster bisque starter arrived in a bowl too hot to touch, a flavourful garlic crouton floating in the creamy broth flecked with tender lobster bits and perfumed with cognac. My husband's pate, served rustic-style with generous portions of toast and cornichons, disappeared quickly.
The mains were even better: my duck confit was perfectly prepared, skin crispy and meat fall-off-the-bone delicious, tender but still moist. Husband's rare steak, generously sized, also did not disappoint. We opted for the pommes frites - always available on request - instead of the potato of the day and were glad we did. With perhaps only one exception I can think of, they were the best frites we've had in town. (Our server told us Chef had offered additional frites if we liked, and it only took a few bites for us to respond, "Yes, please!") Sides were nothing exotic - a half tomato provencale and green beans - but arrived piping hot, full of flavour, and beautifully seasoned.
Dessert led us to the crepe "french connection," filled with vanilla ice cream and drenched in chocolate sauce, whipped cream and almonds, and the profiteroles. Save the space: it's worth waiting for.
Is a meal here cheap? No, but you get everything you pay for: portions are extremely generous (at least 2/3 of my duck came home with us). For the same investment at many another Victoria establishment, your results will be much less in both quality and quantity.
Our server was attentive without being overpowering. And, since we were the only party in the restaurant this evening, we frankly wouldn't have expected anything less. We've been here before during Dine Around (a period of local discounts at participating restaurants) and had a less successful server experience, which we attribute to the extra temporary staff needed to cope with the additional volume. The moral of the story is not to wait for the Dine Around frenzy with its tightly-booked tables and limited menu. Pick an off-season weeknight instead to sample Michel's food - you'll have a larger selection and a much more leisurely experience.
Has the ambiance changed much over the years? Not really. But our meals out are more about the food than about granite-and-chrome glitz or the latest lighting fads. Real table linens and a little candlelight are all that Michel's food needs as a frame.
Chez Michel is a hidden local treasure. Come with an appetite on a quiet evening and you will leave impressed and satisfied.