Montreal: a foodie’s paradise?

Apart from being totally swayed by the fact it’s the city I grew up in and love, I really think Montreal deserves enormous props for its growing foodie-destination reputation. In fact, it has been undergoing a bit of a gastronomical face lift since I flew over the pond at Christmas.

In the next week, on top of attending the Maudits Soupers organized by Omnivore, I will be running right left and centre to test the new and not-so-new restaurants, shops and wine bars that give the city its exciting edge.

As I walked through what used to be my childhood neighbourhood, the Mile End, I couldn’t help but notice new businesses had popped up everywhere. The fact that Montreal isn’t a very expensive city and that quality of life is high really does encourage younger and let’s face it, probably poorer albeit gifted and ambitious young culinary talent to open their first ventures. What’s cool is that it’s also not limited to the little guy since restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud set up fancy shop at the glam Ritz Carlton Hotel and Jamie Oliver is investing in Derek Damman (ex-DNA) at Maison Publique to open shortly.

Here are a couple of places I love and want to share with you.

Restaurant Leméac

1045 Avenue Laurier Ouest, +1(514) 270-0999

Credit: Leméac website

Right, so I should disclose that I do have a particular fondness for this Outremont restaurant seeing as I worked there for over a year with an incredible female-rich team. A couple of things changed since I left: the wine program used to be ran by Stéphane Leroux (best sommelier of Quebec 2011) who has now been very competently replaced by the dynamic duo that comprises Julie Barrette and Sarah Deguire. The girls both graduated from ITHQ with sommelier degrees and have worked at the restaurant for years. Consequently, the wine list has grown in its french selection and particularly in the natural department as they are both fans of clean, delicious and interesting wine. Thierry Germain’s Saumur “Insolite” 2010  was vivid, mineral and grapefrui-ty and once it warmed down a little, it paired perfectly with the deliciously tender salmon tartar and the generous lobster salad. Food at Leméac is constant and delicious. The pain perdu is the best I’ve ever had because it just goes all out. Anyone who has ever tried it knows exactly what I’m talking about: the first time you have it, it’s always the same set of emotions in this order: shock, fear, courage, jubilation, happiness and satisfaction. The after 10pm set menu is 27$ and a real steal with generous portions and great choice. They also have incredible brunches on Saturday and Sunday: love those homemade donuts.

Spice Station

174A, West Bernard Street, +1(514) 274-1514

“I enjoy smells. I love spices, I enjoy looking at them. I don’t do any decoration, I let them decorate my shops.” – Peter Bahlawanian

Peter Bahlawanian and his wife opened their first Spice Station in Silverlake, Los Angeles. Since he was born and bread in Montreal, he returned home and opened two more stores. The concept is simple, he sources the best possible spices from all over the world in small quantities to retain freshness when necessary and puts them in beautiful jars that he places on shelves lacing the walls. He has fifty different kinds of salts, peppercorns from across the world, peppers, carobs, teas, herbs and all kinds of treasures lurking in the hundreds of  jars that naturally decorate the shop.

For a sommelier, discovering new smells is an incredible way to build up olfactory memory. So often when smelling a wine, you can discern herbaceous or spicy odours that are not always easy to define. Of course, Spice Station is equally interesting for chefs who are preparing a meal and want to add an edge. In fact, Peter told me that they sell to a lot of great restaurants both in L.A. and in Montreal. Sometimes, a chef can just smell a particularly interesting or unique herb or spice and that could inspire an entire dish. While we were chatting, Peter opened a couple of jars to the great joys of our noses.

The difference between Mexican and Turkish oregano was astounding, with one being more minty and the other more earthy. If that isn’t the definition of terroir, I don’t know what is!

He also had us smelling different salts: white truffle salt (garlicky), black truffle salt (honeyish), vintage Merlot salt (a little vinegary), smoked salt, and so on.

Because so little people exercise the sense that is smell in a very active way, I found Peter’s concept a great and exciting way to get the nose muscle going.

La Buvette Chez Simone

4869 Avenue du Parc  Montréal, +1(514) 750-6577

BUVETTE [byvet] n.f. - 1534 ; de boire. Petit local ou comptoir où l'on sert à boite. -> 1. bar, café, cafétéria. Tenir la buvette à une kermesse. 2008. Bar à vin sans façon situé au 4869 avenue du Parc. -> Ce soir, je vais chez Simone - Simone, c'est la nouvelle copine? - Non c'est la buvette.

When I lived in Montreal, Buvette was the designated after-shift lair and sitting around a table with five or six other sommeliers was a real treat: everyone orders a bottle and we just get into our semi-drunk blind-tasting mode. The first thing to do before this marathon however,  is to down a nice cold beer, it helps prepare the palate for what’s coming!

Every night, it is jammed pack. You go into the super loud crowded space, a DJ is spinning at the bar, you lose your voice after about twenty minutes of screaming into your friend’s ear about what to order, you eat little bits (cheese, charcuteries or the delicious accras de morue) or bigger ones ( a full roasted chicken) and you’re happy because Chez Simone, la vie est belle! The wine list is tightly edited with all kinds of great discoveries from all walks of natural to not so natural. Among the contenders last night, delicious Tavel rosé 2010 from the infamous Eric Pfifferling of course: it travels really well and has not lost its cool. Jean-François Ganevat’s Chalasse Vieilles Vignes 2009 was a little more tired from the trip and Marquis d’Angerville’s 2006 Volnay 1er Cru “Champans” was robust and too young but with great potential.

And that’s how the night ended: with me crazily riding home under the pouring rain on a Bixi which is basically the less efficient equivalent to the Parisian Velib’.

Montréal, je t’aime!

Éloge de la délicatesse

Il est environ 17h00 et le fond de la deuxième bouteille du déjeuner nous guette. D’ailleurs, c’est le seul inconvénient à la Villa Mas: les bouteilles s’enchaînent à la vitesse de la lumière qui reflète parfaitement l’azur de la mer à 25 mètres de nos Havaïanas et de nos verres Zalto légers comme l’air.

Sirotant allègrement, nous ne sommes pas les seuls à profiter d’une des plus belles carte des vins d’Europe: Lionel Gauby et Clotaire Michal, nos voisins, semblent avoir accumulé plus de flacons que nous en cette fin d’après-midi. Convivialité oblige, nous terminons le déjeuner pour mieux commencer l’apéro avec eux. La valse classique s’impose quand une carte des vins de cette ampleur est présentée à une ribambelle de personnages aussi amoureux du vin: les bouteilles déferlent et se retrouvent vite vides et en bonne compagnie.

Parfois on est juste au bon endroit au bon moment…

Lionel brandit soudain une bouteille et nous verse des verres successivement en déclarant “Ce vin n’existe pas“. En effet, c’est une production infime qu’il a baptisé “El Tuco” en l’honneur de son chien récemment décédé. C’est un moment un peu nostalgique mais beau.

L’homme assis à ma droite a un sourire timide et ému en goûtant “El Tuco”. Il évoque l’émotion, le sentiment, le ressenti et l’importance de ce qu’il y perçoit. Je le regarde avec tout l’émerveillement qu’il mérite. Cette première impression n’est que reconfirmée au fil des minutes et plus tard encore au restaurant étoilé qu’il a participé à hissé au rang du deuxième meilleur restaurant du monde selon le classement médiatisé de San Pellegrino (paru la journée avant notre repas).

La délicatesse de Josep Roca m’a profondément touchée. Il n’est pas toujours facile de rester sur la voie de la simplicité et de l’humilité. Parfois on est pressé, on a des rendez-vous, on oublie de prendre le temps d’écouter et de ressentir. On peut facilement s’éloigner de ce qui est important.

Credit: El Celler de Can Roca site web

Josep, lui, écoute attentivement afin de comprendre ce qui pourrait rendre heureux. Pour cela, bien sur, il faut du temps. Au Celler de Can Roca, ils en ont. Ils sont au-delà de vingt en salle et surement autant en cuisine. La valse est mesurée et paisible.

On le sent dès qu’on arrive: la conspiration du bonheur. C’est une séduction tranquille et calculée qui laisse toutefois place à la spontanéité. Chacun semble à l’aise dans cet environnement gentil et épuré ou faire plaisir et partager une cuisine inspirée, inspirante et étonnante donne vraiment, vraiment, vraiment envie d’y retourner. Et c’est exactement ce que je compte faire.

Restaurant Villa Mas.
San Feliu de Guixols (Girona)
Passeig San Pol 95
Téléphone 972 82 25 26

Gagnant: carte des vins incroyable à tous petits prix, produits frais du marché et de la pêche à Palamo, accueil connaisseur et sympathique, vue sur la mer imbattable.

El Celler de Can Roca
Can Suyer, 48
17007, Girona
Téléphone 972 222 157

Gagnant: menu exquis et étonnant, service attentionné et délicat, vins uniques et accords parfaits, décor paisible et comfortable.

Enter: Agapé Substance

Let’s be clear, there is nothing like it in the city right now and with reason: David Toutain and Laurent Lapaire are the gastronomical darlings of Paris.

There was so much talk around why Agapé Substance didn’t get the star(s) they seemed so predestined to receive in February just before the controversial red guide hit bookstores.

Did they deserve what they didn’t get? Who will ever know? More importantly, who cares? As I learned, stars don’t insure a stellar experience… Agapé Substance should definitely not feel cold-shouldered… They have no star to envy when all their clients leave the place with so many in their eyes.

The food is as precise as ever, the service dance is mastered, smiles everywhere, the bathroom has a warming seat and oscillating jets to massage your derrière, the bar stools are plush albeit reserved for those with no back problems, the iPad wine list is ecological. The selection is naturally oriented: Philippe Valette, Philippe Pacalet, Gianfranco Manca, Le Coste, Anselme Selosse, Emmannuel Lassaigne. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drink Gianfranco Manca’s Sardinian wine especially since they are virtually impossible to find and I had never tried the listed cuvée: Kussas Intrendu a Manu ‘eretta, 100% Cannonau (Grenache). The wine took a moment to open up but after half an hour in a carafe and a cool-down, it was splendid.

Agapé Substance is essentially a cooking lab where the patrons are lab rats and Toutain is the mad (super-talented) scientist. The knowledgeable waitstaff make their way around twenty or so happy and willing victims that crowd the tiny space. They pour clear and perfumed potatoe skin consommé out of test tubes onto perfectly tender gnocchi and seared foie gras. They place in front of you a sea urchin topped with a decadent coffee foam that tickles the tongue and enchants the senses. A Toutain classic that is one of the most poetic and genuine odes to mushrooms that has yet to hit my palate: his pieds bleus poêlé and chestnut crumble.

I will not list every bite I had because there were over twenty, but I will say this: rarely have I eaten so well and felt perfectly full and satisfied at the exit.

Notable is the return to the restaurant scene of Sofian Aït-Bouda who used to be the sommelier at Restaurant Spring. Considerably softened up and knowledgeable as ever, the wine pairings were spot on.

Some have said that Toutain‘s style is intellectual. I disagree. I think it is the perfect blend of a genuine emotional intelligence and refined technical ability.

The result is incredibly touching and the risk-taking is inspiring. A force to be reckoned with.

Agapé Substance

66 rue Mazarine 75006

Tel: 01 43 29 33 83

http://www.agapesubstance.com/

Open Tuesday to Saturday for Lunch and Dinner



if you dare