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Montreal cuisine lightens up (but can we still get foie-gras poutine?)

From left, co-owners Dominic Goyet and Ariane Lacombe, and chef Marc-Alexandre Mercier, of Hotel Herman in Montreal.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Over the past decade, Montreal has gained a global reputation as a meat lovers' playground. Manly-man restaurants like Au Pied de Cochon ballooned to success on groaning platters of lard-soaked, foie-gras-topped carnivorous excess. The city's top chefs often seemed to be vying to out-fat each other. And while there's nothing wrong with the occasional gout-inducing night of overindulgence, a soupçon of collective gluttony-fatigue may be setting in.

The most vital new restaurant in Montreal right now is Hotel Herman, open since July. They are audacious enough to serve manageable portions of food that put vegetables at the forefront. There's no shortage of offal, cuts of bloody game or butter in their dishes (in fact, they might be the only kitchen in town that churns its own butter), but rather than lumberjack gargantuanism, the overall effect is refined, elegant, and – dare I say it? – feminine.

"When I opened this place, I wanted it to be reactionary against the 'big plates' mentality," admits co-owner Dominic Goyet. "As much as I love a huge meal, well, maybe I'm getting older, but I like a nice meal even more. I want people who come here to feel like they can actually finish what's on their plate."

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What makes that statement all the more radical is that Goyet is still the co-owner of La Salle À Manger, an excellent restaurant in the eastern Plateau known to dabble in massive helpings. Their menu has evolved since it opened in 2008, but the masculine dining room is still dominated by a glass meat locker full of hanging animal carcasses and the decor favours visible industrial ventilation ducts. It's a far cry from Hotel Herman's cozy Art Deco chic. Together, the two restaurants shed light on where Montreal's culinary culture is coming from – and where it's headed.

A shift is certainly under way, with exciting new places like Bouillon Bilk, Labo Culinaire, Le Filet, Nora Gray and Café Sardine also focusing on smaller portions, wild ingredients and unexpected combinations. In a city famed for its manic-depressive high-low collisions like the foie gras poutine, it's nice to have places where you can eat a world-class meal without getting a stomachache.

All these new restaurants feature biodynamic wine lists and emphasize seasonal products from local producers, but it's particularly interesting to see how Hotel Herman has grown from Salle À Manger's beginnings. Neither place is particularly hipstery, but they're both definitely branché in an unpretentious way. "If there's a difference between us, it's that dudes hang out at Salle À Manger and ladies hang out here," laughs Goyet.

"Some people say that my portions are too generous, but I don't want anyone to stay hungry at the end of a meal," explains Salle À Manger chef Samuel Pinard, 34. His trademark is his shared platters, advertised as being for two diners, but easily large enough for four. One example on offer recently was a rabbit served with a blood-thickening mélange of gnocchi in cream sauce, bacon, foie gras au torchon, and Haut Richelieu cheese.

"Having plates to share and eating very well together is something super important to me," adds Pinard. "It's like with your family when you were a kid, you'd go to your grandma's house in the suburbs and everyone would eat the same dish and you'd all drink the same wine."

But Goyet and co-owner Ariane Lacombe took a different approach. "Sam and I are all about supporting local farmers, and our goal is to minimize waste and do whatever's best for the environment, so something in the equation of giving people massive portions wasn't making sense to Ariane and I on an ethical level."

Their solution was 28-year-old chef Marc-Alexandre Mercier, who got his start cooking under Pinard. "Marc-Alexandre is more introspective, sensitive and inquisitive than most chefs, which is part of the reason I love his style so much," explains Goyet. "His dishes are just so delicate and precise." A year before opening Hotel Herman, Mercier did a stint at NOMA in Denmark to learn more about Rene Redzepi's use of foraged ingredients.

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As a result, Mercier's dishes are truffled with wild ingredients like crosnes, sea buckthorn berries, and ox-eye daisy capers. They also bake their own bread and do things like smoke their own crème fraiche and make their own goat cheese. "We want to stay true to history and to this terroir, but we also want to help it blossom, to encourage it to explode," adds Lacombe, who presides over the room with style and grace.

The menu at both restaurants is strictly seasonal, so right now there are lots of roots, onions and potatoes. "Restrictions make you be more creative," notes Goyet.

One dish, called "topinambours" has just two ingredients: duck and sunchokes. But the raw materials are prepared and transformed in a multitude of ways – dried, raw, roasted, puréed, smoked, fried. "I don't like to do vegetarian dishes, but I like to show off what vegetables can do and they are really present in my cooking," explains Mercier. Instead of using vegetables as a garnish, he often uses offal – a dash of kidneys here, some duck heart and gizzard there.

The use of offal at Salle À Manger isn't quite so feathery. But the menu is lightening up a bit. I recently tried a cream-and cheese-topped tarte alsacienne, shockingly good, but so rich I could only eat about a tenth of it. Luckily, my friends and I had also ordered a number of lighter dishes: finely balanced ceviches and tartares. A lovely main consisted of salmon with parsnip cream, herbs, cucumbers and Brussel sprouts.

Wherever inspiration is coming from, Pinard is adamant that Montreal is developing its own cuisine. "It's great to see a vision for what our food can be emerging," he says.

How would he describe that vision? "It's hard to say exactly," he says. "Maybe we have our feet in our roots and our heads in our dreams?"

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One Hotel Herman dish exemplifies this desire. It is called, simply, "pommes de terre" ("potatoes"). It consists of a bone marrow bursting from Joel Robuchon-style mashed potatoes topped with a smattering of roasted new potatoes and mullet caviar. "That dish is like a swimming pool to me," Goyet says. "You just dive right in." He's right: Unexpected though it may seem, the bone marrow plays off the tubers and the briny pearls of caviar in the most refreshing, dazzling way. It tastes like eating someone's dream.

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