In Montreal, up until a few years ago, an English chef was an oxymoron. When I was a child, all the fine restaurants served classical French food, with the exception of Moishes, an exuberant Jewish steakhouse. And there was the Murray’s chain, the ultimate WASP restaurant, where the food was bland and the waitresses unilingual. In the upper-middle-class private clubs, the food was modelled on British cuisine: overcooked lamb roast with mint sauce, poached salmon with béchamel and boiled potatoes.
Nowadays, the diversity of good restaurants in Montreal is mind-boggling. At the top of the pyramid are Normand Laprise’s Toqué and Jérôme Ferrer’s Europea, but dozens of chefs – some vastly experienced, some young and bold – are creating an extraordinary vibrant gastronomic scene, so much so that GQ’s celebrated food critic Alan Richman recently told La Presse that Montreal has become, with San Francisco, “the most promising city in North America.”
For years, there was a lone anglophone among the great Montreal chefs – James McGuire, the master bread maker who ran the delightful restaurant Le Passe-Partout for a while. But then a sort of revolution happened. A surprising number of young Quebec “anglos” embraced the career with gusto and began making their way up the busy and competitive gastronomic scene of Montreal. They’re all bilingual, of course, and their young well-styled servers often have the distinctive accent of kids schooled in French immersion classes.
As a rule, their restaurants are on the rustic side (forget French elegance), with a relaxed ambience (Liverpool House, for example, calls itself “barnyard friendly”). Their food is a take on traditional North American cuisine, with many innovative and irreverent twists, as if cooking should be all fun and no dogma.
The best-known “anglo” chef is David MacMillan, co-owner of Liverpool House and Joe Beef, both located in the working-class district of Little Burgundy. My first impression was that it was a place for sports buffs, with too much red meat, too much noise and too much booze – in sum, a guys’ place, with an unattractive name to boot. But as everyone was raving about it, we decided to go. Too late – now you have to call days ahead to get a table at Joe Beef, and then you’ll have to wait at the bar.
We settled for Nora Gray, an Italian restaurant whose chef is Emma Cardarelli, a pretty young woman who looks like a kid but is a former cook at Liverpool House. We had stuffed calamari and squash ravioli with pine nuts, then lamb with pistachios and milk-fed piglet with chestnuts – a delight from beginning to end.
In the slow days after Christmas, we managed to get a table at DNA, located in the grand décor of a former bank in Old Montreal. Our dinner was unbelievable – and the chef was, too, a red-haired, tattooed young guy who looks like your friendly parking attendant rather than the creator of such exquisite food as al dente pappardelle, with wild mushrooms in a mascarpone sauce and sweetbreads perfectly crunchy outside and perfectly tender inside.
DNA chef Derek Dammann buys his animals whole from selected producers and is a committed “locavore” – which is why he was recently invited to visit the experimental lab of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that succeeded elBulli of Catalonia as the most avant-garde restaurant in the world and where chef René Redzepi uses only ingredients grown in Scandinavia (an exploit in itself). Our young “anglo” chefs are now thriving on the international scene.