1425 rue Jeanne-Mance
$120 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
5551 avenue du Parc
$200 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
The sad clown clawing at the window and rubbing his belly in feigned hunger was only an amuse bouche. Soon, costumed revellers bearing colourful torches paraded into view followed by stilted mummers in enormous gowns. It's festival season in Montreal and Le Grand Spectacle is in full effect outside the windows of Brasserie t!, Normand Laprise's ebullient new restaurant on the grounds of the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.
Chef Laprise will be familiar to readers of this newspaper for his frequent contributions to the Chef's Recipe column. His restaurant, Toque!, is entering its 17th year and remains one of Canada's culinary jewels. At t! he has eased up on many of the more challenging, labour-intensive and expensive dishes of the earlier establishment and created a classic brasserie menu that's affordable (nothing tops $20 and the amiable wine list has plenty of choices around the $40 mark) and often stunning.
The restaurant is housed in an unusual orange-accented glass rectangle that resembles an oversized bus shelter or an especially fancy airplane loading bridge. It is very bright and very loud inside in a way that you will find either festive or exhausting, depending on your appetite for rambunctious joie de vivre.
That playfulness extends to the menu, which opens with little snacks like fried cheese, fresh oysters and quite creamy devilled eggs - their luscious yolks are piped in in swirls, topped with finely chopped chives and a sprinkle of paprika. A less disciplined diner could make a meal of them.
Before the charcuterie arrives, tiny Mason jars of house-made gherkins and an incredibly thick honey mustard vinaigrette are deposited on the table. The zippy acidity of the former and the smooth, velvety sweetness of the latter act as worthy foils for the excellent cured meats. A dense, porky sausage inside a toasty little slice of brioche tastes like what happens to pigs in a blanket when they go to heaven. A version of pork cretons, the traditional Quebecois breakfast staple, is pretty much pure pork fat and therefore completely delicious.
Beyond the cured meats there are also some excellent raw dishes. The salmon tartare is particularly good thanks to the freshness of the fish and some expert seasoning. Your first taste is of herbs underpinned by an encroaching saltiness that is surpassed by the rich slickness of the salmon and finally a fading chili heat.
Not everything achieves such exalted levels, however. A goat cheese appetizer with roasted beets and a layer of mashed potatoes is oddly starchy and underwhelming, while the pork ribs - cooked as they should be: tender but not too tender - are saddled with an overly sweet barbecue sauce that lacks any real personality.
There was also some dissent at my table over the fries, which are cut a bit thicker than the gold standard (i.e., McDonald's) and cooked until really dark. Some thought they had a great homemade quality to them while the purists felt they were overdone. They reminded me of my French-Canadian grandmother's, so I loved them.
Laprise is not the only veteran Montreal chef to open a new restaurant this summer. Costas Spiliadis, the godfather of Greek cuisine in the city, has also launched Cava, a beguiling and beautiful new spot focusing on the earthy, robust food of the Greek mainland.
Beef is the star attraction at Cava, where primal cuts of Creekstone Farms Premium Angus are displayed like ancient amphorae in a tall, temperature-controlled aging cabinet, the focal point in a room spoiled for elegance. Great bouquets of tiger lilies add colour and a subtle, heady aroma. It is easy to imagine Don Draper and Prof. George Falconer sharing a scotch and divulging secrets at the handsome dark bar. Oval columns divide that space from the radiant duo-chromatic dining room with its thick layers of linen, tall ceiling and gorgeous tile floor salvaged from an old church and expertly refurbished.
A showstopper of a space, it is a suitable setting for Chef Spiliadis, who may be Canada's finest culinary export. His other restaurant, Milos, which has defined Greek food in Montreal for 30 years, has branches in New York and Athens. He is building a cooking school on the island of Kythira, is about to unveil restaurants in Las Vegas and Miami and has recently opened an upscale deli, Marketta, in Manhattan. And his private wine-import business supplies Cava's wine list, which includes such treasures as a vivacious Greek sparkling wine made from the moschofilero grape.
Clearly, though, Spiliadis has not lost sight of what's coming out of his kitchen, as evidenced by Cava's manitaria, a plate of meaty roasted spring mushrooms (portobello, oyster, king, shiitake) dressed with herbs and olive oil and paired with a grilled cube of springy, black-sesame-seed-crowned cheese. It is utterly simple, but deeply satisfying.
A low rumbling, by contrast, announces the arrival of the ham. Wheeled over on a tall butcher block, the Jamon Iberico de bellota gran reserva is the ne plus ultra of cured pork. Aged for 36 months, the black-hoofed leg is clamped in a vaguely S&M-evoking steel contraption and carved tableside. Veins of marbled, golden-hued fat running through the dark red muscle contribute to the sweet and nutty flavours that evolve slowly as the slices melt in the heat of your mouth. It may not be cooking, but it is flavourful beyond compare.
When the kitchen is at its best, as with paidakia (luscious grilled lamb chops piled high on a chopping board and served with definitive tzadsiki) and giouvetsi (supple veal shoulder and orzo slowly cooked together in a clay pot and topped with dry goat cheese shavings), it is sublime. Also transcendent is that righteous, sapid beef, cooked rare and sliced in thick, mouth-watering chunks.
There are times, though, when the kitchen's heart doesn't seem to be in it. A risotto of spinach with dill, feta and mint yogurt is flat and dull, while hortopites (thumb-sized pastries filled with herbs and feta) suffer from a tough phyllo casing. And where the loukaniko sausages should be gutsy and intense, they are dry and mealy.
The denim- and sneaker-sporting staff can also seem at odds with the formality of the room and their lapses in service can feel like neglect: Wineglasses sit empty, cutlery is not replaced before dishes arrive and, when a meal is long over, it's disheartening to have to wave down a server to get the bill.
Also, intriguing dishes such as gioulbasi (a milk-fed lamb cooked for seven hours en papillotte with garlic, pink pepper, throumbi and kefalograviera cheeses) and the seven-course tasting menu all need to be ordered in advance. Cava, though, doesn't have a website, so it's impossible for first-time visitors and out-of-towners to know that these options are available.
Nonetheless, it's a delight to spend an evening in such a lovely room and in the care of such a talented kitchen. For the past several years, Montreal's food scene has been driven largely by new young talents - Martin Picard at Au Pied du Cochon, Fred Morin and David McMillan at Joe Beef, Claude Pelletier at Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Mario Navarette at Raza, to name a few - so it's invigorating to know that the veterans can still teach the young turks some new tricks.
It is also worth mentioning that, since my visit, one of the city's finest chefs, Carlos Ferreira of the estimable Ferreira Café, has opened a new Portuguese brasserie, Bar F, just across from Brasserie t! I can't wait to see what this seasoned chef is doing.