Ils Se Souviennent: A Distinct Society
Lesley Chesterman / July 2013
First carved in stone beneath the Quebec coat of arms that sits above the main portal of the provincial Parliament building in Quebec City and for the last 35 years hammered into license plates as the province’s motto, Je Me Souviens—I Remember—has resonated with Quebecois as a profound expression of their French heritage and unique place in confederated Canada. An amalgam of French, First Nation, English, and increasingly immigrant cultures distilled in North America, the province and its largest city, Montreal, have been expressing its search for identity through rancorous politics and dazzling film, music, and art for decades. Now add food to that. Once touted as the closest thing to Paris in North America, Montreal is now just Montreal, and for the better. Lesley Chesterman traces the transformation of Montreal from a French food city to one that can stand on its own. She first looks at how the chef Normand Laprise made it happen, and then at the contemporary chefs and restaurants he engendered.
Together, They Remember.
Click to read part one of Ils Se Souviennent: In Search of California, He Discovered Quebec
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the two best restaurants in Montreal were Les Halles and Les Mignardises. They were both French, and their menus featured dishes like lobster bisque, venison en persillade, and nougat glacé. The chefs were from France, as were most of their brigades. The best ingredients were imported from the motherland, too, and, at the time, it wasn’t unheard of for such restaurants to hire newly arrived young Frenchmen devoid of any experience or formal training. Be it for ingredients, wine, service staff, or cooks, a French origin was prized above all others.
But in the summer of 1989, a restaurant called Citrus emerged to fire a salvo against the French fortress. More Californian in style than French, Citrus boasted a team of young cooks not from France, but from Quebec. Its 28 year old executive chef, Normand Laprise, hailed from a little town in Eastern Quebec called Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska. The brigade included two future stars: sous chef Riad Nasr, who went on to become co-executive chef at New York City’s Balthazar, Pastis, and Minetta Tavern, and commis Martin Picard, the future chef/owner of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon.
Citrus lasted but four years, yet its influence on the Montreal restaurant scene was phenomenal. Vibrant, colorful, relaxed, and with a definite emphasis on local products gathered from farmers and artisans, Laprise’s fare may have been rather Californian in style (with the occasional fusion accent; this was the ’90s after all), but the direction he was heading in was obvious: creating an authentic “cuisine Quebecoise.”
Though French chefs in Quebec had been quietly exploiting local ingredients, in the hands of Laprise they were given the spotlight. And once Montrealers got a taste for this more modern way, there was no turning back to truffle-drenched, technique-entrenched French fare. When the Quebec duck magret served with saffron-scented pear compote layered with beet chips hit the table at Citrus, that plate of duck à l’orange served across town in the stodgy temples of gastronomy seemed so utterly unhip.
Hip, meanwhile, was a key word on Boulevard St-Laurent—Montreal’s iconic “The Main,” the street that divides the city into east and west and has long been the home of some of its best restaurants. A new restaurant scene was sprouting up around fashionable bars and nightclubs. With restaurants like Buonanotte, opened in 1991, Montrealers began embracing a new kind of dining out. The city had been known since the ’50s as a nightlife destination, and now at these new dining dens on The Main, you could listen to music, ogle comely waitresses, and indulge in carpaccio, designer pizza, and that trendy rice dish, risotto, gussied up with everything from strawberries to butternut squash.
Other restaurants followed in Buonanotte’s happening-but-not-all-that-serious model, yet two emerged that merited serious attention: Mediterraneo, under chef Claude Pelletier, and Globe Restaurant, which at first was helmed by Matteo Yacoub, followed by David McMillan and Frédéric Morin. Today, these chefs, in addition to Picard, own three of Montreal’s top restaurants: Pelletier at Le Club Chasse et Pêche, Picard at Au Pied de Cochon, and McMillan and Morin at Joe Beef. And while all this partying was going on, sushi restaurants started to pop up, Laprise opened his celebrated restaurant Toqué! in 1993, and Les Mignardises served its last tasting menu in 1995. By then, most every acclaimed chef in Montreal at the time was a Quebecois. A new era had begun.
Looking back, the development of a new Quebec gastronomy occurred at a turning point in this Canadian province’s history. This transition from French-centric cuisine to Quebecois-centric cuisine came at a time when the province itself was forging its identity, or as it was known, its “distinct society.” The term, coined by former Quebec premier Jean Lesage and employed often during the Canadian constitutional debates, refers to the province’s unique language (French), culture (Gallic/North American), and religion (Roman Catholic) within Canada. No doubt, cuisine played a role in the cultural part of that equation. Twice the province held referendums, in 1980 and 1995, to separate from the rest of Canada, a sentiment still prevalent in some quarters today.
Now, close to two decades after Quebec’s last attempt at independence, the effects of this assertion of identity extend to Montreal’s restaurant scene. The classic French restaurant is all but dead in the city, and though you can still see and taste a definite French influence in the cooking of Picard, Morin, and McMillan, their choice to operate in more relaxed, anything-goes—one could almost say self-consciously dressed down—restaurants has revolutionized the scene as much as Laprise’s local ingredient-driven plates did 20 years ago. And now comes a third generation of Montreal chefs—Quebec-born and foreign—who have brought in influences from abroad while continuously striving to create a cuisine rooted in this terroir.
In 2013 Montreal, the emphasis on local ingredients is a given, so much so that some chefs are shunning such stereotypical Quebecois ones like blueberries and maple syrup in favor of products found by foragers or raised and grown by farmers and gardeners (though they won’t be foregoing foie gras and over 300 varieties of cheese any time soon). Some are turning to Société-Orignal, self-described as “a creative platform that makes a strategic link between farmers, activists, chefs, and grocers,” that was founded in 2011 by two restaurant veterans, Alex Cruz and Cyril Gonzales, who perceived a demand for products beyond the predictable or mass-produced: raw spring honey from the Gaspé, goat’s milk cheese from Saint-Angèle-de-Monnoir farm, apple cider vinegar from the Montérégie, sea buckthorn berries from the Quebec City region. Société-Orignal already has won over 150 customers in the United States to their unique products, as well as many of Canada’s top chefs.
As the Montreal restaurant scene evolves, what could have turned out to be a very insular style of cooking is instead brimming with outside influences. Ten years ago, the cast of young cooking school graduates would have all apprenticed in France. But today’s kids are looking everywhere, from Peru to Brooklyn, for inspiration. The signature in Montreal kitchens is less about regionality and more about personality. Now that the quest for a local identity is reaching fruition, it looks like the chef’s next aim is to create a distinct society on his or her plates.
A prime example is chef Derek Dammann. A native of Victoria, British Columbia, Dammann arrived in Montreal nine years ago and made his name at DNA Restaurant, working alongside Cruz and Gonzales before they founded Société-Orignal. His background includes stages at St. John and The Fat Duck in England, as well as two years as chef de cuisine at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. The Oliver connection came in handy when Dammann decided to open his own restaurant, Maison Publique, after DNA closed in 2012. His restaurant is an Oliver-backed gastropub—Montreal-style—located in the heart of the city’s hippest neighborhood, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. Here the emphasis is not only on Quebecois but Canadian ingredients, updated pub fare (Welsh rarebit, Eton mess), homemade charcuterie, and unfussy dishes like lingcod with braised lima beans and salsa verde.
In the shadow of Canada’s booming corporate capital, Toronto, Montreal is not a rich enough city to support even a handful of multi-Michelin starred-type restaurants. Instead of powerhouse restaurants with imported chefs and million dollar build-outs, this city has become the home of the chef-owned, 40 seat bistro. Neighborhoods have never played as key a role in the Montreal restaurant scene as they do right now. Though originally concentrated in the downtown core and Old Montreal back in the French era, the restaurant scene shifted to The Main and eventually the Plateau by the ’90s. Yet today, these areas are where you will find the least number of new restaurants, due to escalating rents and high taxes. Instead, chef/owners are forced to rent in the up-and-coming sections of the city, principally Little Burgundy, St-Henri, Little Italy, or even farther out of the city in neighborhoods like Rosemont, Villeray, and Ahuntsic.
And then there’s Mile-End. Easily the most hipster-dense ‘hood in the city, Mile-End is better known for its bagel shops and cafes than gastronomically inclined restaurants. But all that changed with the arrival of Lawrence. Located on the northern strip of The Main, this restaurant is one of many reviving Montreal’s most famous street. Chef Marc Cohen, a Londoner who followed his girlfriend to Montreal, started out at Le Club Chasse et Pêche before overseeing a casual eatery called The Sparrow, and then the more upscale Lawrence. Cohen’s menu is Brit-centric, yet the purity of plates like braised goat with potatoes, tarragon, fiddleheads, and bacon paired with the fantastic selection of natural wines, make a night at Lawrence seem like the city’s most modern dining experience. Interestingly enough, it’s situated right across the street from the original Citrus location.
Just down the street from Lawrence is Hôtel Herman, where appetizer-sized dishes dominate the menu. Executive chef/co-owner Marc-Alexandre Mercier’s style is bold and beautiful, and he plays with classic preparations boosted with all sorts of fun flavors and textures. His wide ribbons of marinated trout bring along enhancements like Irish moss greens, smoked sour cream, and sea snails. His seared foie gras arrives beside creamed corn and brioche to soak up all the juices. Not rocket science, mind you, just excellent simple cuisine ideal for pairing with the organic, bio-dynamic, or the now extremely sought-after vin nature or sulphur-free wines on the restaurant’s list.
Farther north on St-Laurent lies Montreal’s Little Italy, a crowded neighborhood filled more with token pasta and pizza joints than chef-driven establishments. But even that’s now changing, thanks to several chefs flocking to this neighborhood primarily because it’s so close to the city’s best open-air market (in season, of course; indoors year-round), the famous Marché Jean-Talon. Martin Juneau opened his restaurant, Pastaga, in this neighborhood two years ago. Named after a Marseillaise slang word for pastis, Pastaga not only features Juneau’s upscale/casual, small-plate cuisine, but more of those sought-after natural wines selected by his sommelier, David Ward. As for the food, Juneau references Montreal’s classic smoked meat sandwich with thinly-sliced smoked bison meat between mustard-heavy rye bread with dill-marinated cucumbers. Pork belly has long been a Juneau standout, especially when he serves it lacquered with brown sugar and set atop parsnip pancakes scattered with slices of braised white turnips.
Though Montreal is reputed to be a Rabelaisian city where oysters, meat (pork, in particular) and foie gras hold sway, there’s recently been a return to more restrained plates, especially those emanating from the kitchens of two superb restaurants, Bouillon Bilk and Les 400 Coups. Located again on Boulevard St-Laurent, but in a grungy strip near Chinatown and several vintage clothing stores and camera shops, Bouillon Bilk seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when it hit the scene in 2011. The only meaning behind the restaurant’s odd name is that the two words sounded good to the owners. And yet chef/co-owner François Nadon was already known for his glorious plates when he worked at Globe Restaurant, located one block north. At Bouillion Bilk, the space is just plain white walls and banquette seating, the room noisy, cramped, and usually crowded. All the color arrives via Nadon’s perfect plates, like his rabbit trio (kidneys, braised shoulder, and parfait) with cabbage, his guinea hen with foie gras polenta and porcini, and his lime cake with ginger, white wine jelly, and pistachios.
Executive chef Marc-André Jetté and pastry chef Patrice Demers, co-owners along with sommelier Marie-Josée Beaudoin of Les 400 Coups in Old Montreal, mine a similar vein. The restaurant is usually packed to the rafters, especially on Friday at lunch, when the three course menu costs just $28. Beaudoin has compiled an exemplary wine list to match Jetté’s dishes, like wild spot prawns with white asparagus, lemon, and bottarga, or Gaspor Farm suckling pig with black trumpet mushrooms, turnips, apricot puree, and mustard.
Demers has captured Montrealers with her version of chocolate pot de crème, constructed of contrasting layers of cream, ganache, crumble, caramel, and sea salt; a plate of candy cap mushrooms, spice cake, and apples; and a dish of lychee granité, white chocolate/yogurt cream, grapefruit, and Campari.
The latest wave of talented Montreal chefs seems endless when you consider the likes of Antonio Park, the terrific Korean chef who is making Montreal’s long-suffering sushi scene fashionable once again with a style that’s partly Japanese, partly Korean, partly French, and partly North American. In the same vein, there’s been an uptick of chef-run ethnic restaurants, something that had been lacking in the city. Mezcla, located on a side street just off Ste-Catherine in Montreal’s Gay Village, offers nuevo Latino food made with Quebecois ingredients. In a warm space, complete with high ceilings, low lights, sexy background tunes, and an open kitchen, the talent behind the stoves belongs to two gentlemen, Georges-Étienne Tremblay and Marcel Larrea, who trained at Cordon Bleu in Peru. In this endearing little restaurant one can devour dishes like clams with chimichurri sauce, yuca-wrapped grilled shrimp with avocado cream, or grilled duck hearts with yellow potatoes and black corn.
And then there’s Tasso Bar à Mezze, a restaurant that epitomizes much about what’s exciting in Montreal right now. Chef Nicholas Mentzas, who came out of Laprise’s Toqué!, presents Greek food in a more contemporary light: melting minced rabbit confit served with sheets of baked phyllo, stuffed quails flavored with honey and bursting with forcemeat made with pork and pistachios, and grilled lamb chops doused with ouzo foam.
Working from a coupling of classic and modern techniques with a wide assortment of Quebecois ingredients, Montreal chefs are now eager to incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into the mix to create food imbued with vision and identity. So far is the city from the French fare of 30 years ago that if anyone were really willing to stake out new territory, they would be advised to go French—the more traditional, the more radical!
Click to read part one of Ils Se Souviennent: In Search of California, He Discovered Quebec