As enamoured as Canadians are with foreign fashion, culture and convenience foods, we’ve never been kind, exactly, to foreign-based chefs. Gordon Ramsay was all but run out of Montreal last spring after a six-month involvement with Laurier BBQ, a venerated city chicken joint; the celebrity chef Scott Conant reportedly likened his reception from critics in Toronto, where in 2010 he opened a branch of his hit Manhattan restaurant, Scarpetta, to “being clubbed like a baby seal.”
Daniel Boulud, the Lyons-raised, 14-restaurant superchef whose Manhattan flagship, called Daniel, holds three Michelin stars, lasted just two years in Vancouver before his pair of rooms there closed in 2011. Boulud, in particular, was accused (somewhat unfairly) of being an out-of-town interloper: a culinary carpetbagger without any real ties to the city. He brushed himself off, and announced a new, 150-seat Toronto venture, his first in the city, called Café Boulud. It is expected to open next week.
And in Montreal this spring he launched a sumptuous – and so far very busy – new restaurant and lounge called Maison Boulud, in the refurbished Ritz-Carlton Hotel. So far, the city has seemed happy to dispense with the parochialism that’s bedevilled other foreign-based chefs.
Where Boulud was an outsider to Vancouverites, in Montreal he has history, and is seen as an honorary local: He attends the F1 Grand Prix each spring, counts several of the province’s farmers and boutique food companies as key suppliers, and is close friends with many of the city’s top toques. When he turned up at the launch party for the Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon cookbook last winter, Boulud carved a suckling pig at the bar, even hand-feeding a few of the pieces to the maple-syrup and champagne-fuelled crowd.
Maison Boulud doesn’t feel like it’s been airlifted in, even if it is a synthesis of Boulud’s other places. The chef and his team have judged Montreal and the mood there perfectly. His place is elegant without the old fine-dining rectitude; it’s fancy without being pretentious, moderately expensive without ever going over the top. It’s also the first restaurant he’s ever owned in a French-speaking city. It fits.
There are deep, paisley-upholstered club chairs, light wood walls and a modernist, gas-burning fireplace in the dining room and lounge up front, from where diners can peer into the open, copper-clad kitchen; farther along you pass a small private dining room on the way to the sun house that’s the restaurant’s prime space. The tables are large and cut from pale teak, slatted like (very high-end) garden furniture and covered with fine cotton runners; the chairs are deep-backed and set with overstuffed pillows.
It feels Mediterranean, like being on a sun-soaked terrace in Nice or Boulouris-sur-Mer. The servers say “Bonjour” here instead of the usual “Bonjour, hello,” but because it’s a French restaurant, and not because of Pauline Marois. One night a table of American tourists sang Happy Birthday in the lounge. The place is an escape from the city as much as a part of it, which is what you want in Montreal.
And it’s jammed with diners: tourists, lawyers, bankers, political handlers; locals from nearby McGill and Westmount; worldly twentysomethings in skinny jeans who speak French with North African accents, families in ball gowns and bow ties. The cooking here is very, very good.
The menu, executed by chef-de-cuisine Riccardo Bertolino, is light, and built around flavours you might find in Southern European markets. A tasting menu last week started with a pair of little arancini stuffed with cheese and fennel, and then a rustic gazpacho made with local tomatoes, cucumber and feta gratings. There was a dish of arctic char, seared to crispy, but melting and almost creamy on its inside – executed absolutely perfectly – over hand-cut zucchini “noodles” and a deep green basil pistou. Nestled to the side was a cube of polenta just bigger than a die, perfectly square and browned all around. It was pale, milky yellow when you cut it open, filled with the memory of fresh, high-summer corn.
The duo of beef brought a wobbling hunk of port and wine-braised short rib and good seared tenderloin, and a miniature flan that tasted like four-hour polenta but had the texture of satin. For dessert, there were sugared local strawberries with a pine-nut biscuit; it was a kiss on the mouth on the last day of camp.
On another day, at lunch, we had superb cured salmon, excellent pâté de campagne with cornichons and crusty grilled bread, milk-fed Quebec pork over thick, whipped apple sauce, and credible, if uninspiring panzanella salad (it was a little too stiff, too pretty for panzanella; an androgynous waifling in a double-breasted Prada jacket when Monica Bellucci wearing nothing would have done). A thick fillet of halibut was another misstep: it was overcooked to dry, a little less fish than leather. And the madeleines that arrived after dinner one night were strangely misshapen – they had risen, weirdly, way up, on their tops, and tasted more of packaged pancake batter than sweet hot butter.
But these were exceptions in otherwise outstanding meals, and Boulud likely has a little more room for mistakes than he did out west. In Montreal, his ties to the city will buy him time to perfect his restaurant.
In Toronto, where Boulud has much less history, he has nonetheless been wise enough to tiptoe in – the city’s blue-blood establishment, rarely keen on ideas that didn’t come from here, likes its outsiders humble. Rather than boast about how great the place will be, Boulud and his Toronto team seem eager to let the restaurant speak for itself; they’ve also pledged that their menu will feature plenty of takes on local dishes.
David Chang, the New York chef whose three-restaurant Toronto launch is now complete with Tuesday’s opening of Momofuku Daisho, has been similarly circumspect. He’s gone to great pains to understand the city and its culture, and to pull many of its leading cooks and servers onto his team. His wine lists in at least two of the new rooms are all-Ontario. And it’s hard not to contrast the early cocktails lists at Scarpetta with Momofuku’s. Scarpetta’s management hired one of the city’s most creative bartenders, then had her stick to the company’s “signature” drinks from New York. Now that same bartender, Michelle Tham, is a manager at Momofuku. On the list: cocktails called “The Toronto,” and “The Hotel Georgia.” A little local love goes a very long way.
But Boulud, like Chang, no doubt also understands that the audience for great cooking has grown, and for the better. The forces that upended high-end dining and democratized the restaurant experience in the last few years have also created legions of young and moneyed diners who don’t particularly care where the ideas on their plates originated. They want great food and authentic service. And for the most part, Maison Boulud has those nailed.
Editor's note: Daniel Boulud owns 14 restaurants. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.