Where to eat in Montreal
Chris Nuttall-Smith on dining in Canada's most inspiring culinary town
Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mai
Our server was shouting, and it was all about which rum goes best in a proper Haitian ti' ponch. Dark Barbancourt is good, he yelled in crisp, international French, but the taste of white Barbancourt, he urged, would balance better against the drink's fresh-pressed cane juice and lime. We couldn't hear much – maybe two or three of his every four words, just enough to make him out. Still, it was our first rum drink of the evening, in a restaurant that counts the drinking of rum as a raison d'être. It felt important to get this decision right.
My dinner mate took a moment to focus her thoughts amid the double-time throb of kompa music – amid the bobbing Haitian tide of drums and horns, keyboards and swift-fingered bass, and the clinking of glasses and the exuberant conversations and laughter that surged through Agrikol's second-storey mezzanine. Our server, named Julio, smiled. His shirt was damp with sweat from climbing the restaurant's grand staircase all evening, hoisting trays of spirits and superb Haitian cooking through the Thursday evening throng.
Across from where we sat, out past the cast-iron railings, a white-glass chandelier floated at the centre of the room, strung with green, glimmering carnival beads. People danced to the music where they were seated. Most of the tables were set with cut limes and little glasses, with buckets of ice and bottles of Haitian rum.
"Rhum blanc," my friend decided. Julio smiled again and took off through the crowd. And with that began a night at the new Montreal Haitian restaurant and madhouse that's owned by Régine Chassagne and Win Butler of Arcade Fire, and The Black Hoof restaurant empire's Jen Agg and Roland Jean. We ordered the deep-fried pork dish called griot, a bone-in goat stew, macaroni and cheese (a Haitian classic), conch ceviche, a plate of fried plantains, the crisp malanga-root fritters called accras and the slaw-like, scotch-bonnet-mined condiment called pikliz. By the time the night was over, we also somehow ordered, and consumed, the equivalent of half a bottle of Barbancourt rum.
Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail
That dinner was the final stop of a three-day Montreal eating tour: a food-, booze- and music-fuelled bacchanal through Canada's most inspiring culinary town. Though Agrikol, so-named for the cane-juice rum that's prevalent in the French Caribbean, was by far the rowdiest of the bunch, it is also to my mind one of Montreal's most vital new restaurants. Dinner there was a reminder of how the best Montreal chefs, servers and restaurateurs, not to mention their customers, do everything all the way in.
Agrikol's design and decor, largely conceived by Agg but with lovely touches from all four of the restaurant's partners, is the sum of a few thousand exquisite details. Jean, an artist who grew up in Port-au-Prince, painted a striking, two-storey portrait on one wall of a man with an accordion, and he also DJs on many evenings. Chassagne, whose parents emigrated from Haiti to Montreal, painted Creole proverbs around the room, including the gem Sa ki pa touye ou, li angrese ou! (translation: That which doesn't kill you makes you fat). True enough.
The cooking, based closely when I visited on the menu at Agg and Jean's Rhum Corner in Toronto (the menu is fast evolving into its own thing, Agg said recently), combines crunchy, voluptuous and bright, fresh flavours and textures that simultaneously snap and mesmerize.
Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail
That griot, which is traditionally served dry and chewy, gets an update here, with the pork pieces rendered meltingly tender inside crisp, caramelized-meat shells; paired with a bowl of Agrikol's creamy macaroni, the griot is one of the all-time-great drinking foods. But then, so are the fried plantains, which come soft and juicy inside, and seasoned hard; they all but grab you by the brainstem, urging more food and drink.
The ceviche was very good and the accras superb, especially when eaten with forks full of the fiery, vinegary pikliz. And the goat stew is a thing of beauty, silky and gamey, served properly on the bone, so you eat it slowly, leisurely, drinking a sip of rum, then eating a piece of meat and sucking the marrow from a shard-edged shin bone between bites of the satisfying Haitian polenta called maïs moulu.
You dance in your seat as you do all that, obviously; resistance to Agrikol's beat is futile.
The atmosphere at Hoogan et Beaufort, an airy new live-fire spot from the chef Marc-André Jetté and sommelier William Saulnier, is downright genteel by comparison. The restaurant is set in Rosemont, in the sprawling CPR Angus Shops complex that once housed North America's largest rail-car manufacturing and service facility.
That history is built into Hoogan et Beaufort's elegant, glass-shrouded room: Note the enormous wooden beams and steelworks, and the rolling overhead gantry that one presumes was once used for heaving rail stock. Yet the focus of the space is the glowing fire at the rear, where Jetté, who made his name at Les 400 Coups in Old Montreal, roasts, grills and smokes many of the elements on his refined and fresh-flavoured plates.
The chef did a lovely seared mackerel when I ate there, with a glimmer of wood smoke over the fish's lush maritime fat, and another main of hard-roasted pork belly was all sweet, decadent, fire-licked simplicity. But Jetté's appetizers and desserts left a more indelible mark. I loved his delicate crab bisque with fried ginger and coriander, as well as the Gaspé rock shrimp set with cucumbers, cresses, valentine radish slices and a softly poached egg on toast.
Mr. Saulnier's beverage list is equally fresh-faced, with superb small-batch beers and ciders from Quebec, France, Germany and Switzerland, and delicious, grape-based, by-the-glass oddities priced for easy drinking. For dessert, we had a cloud of cranberry charlotte that was all red-fruit tartness and sweet, creamy froth.
Chez Tousignant, a charming new neighbourhood spot in Little Italy, celebrates another part of Montreal's history, namely the city's beloved casse-croûtes: diners, effectively, but with thick joual-inflected accents. The chefs Yann Turcotte, Michele Forgione and Stefano Faita, all principals at nearby Impasto, wanted to open a casse-croûte where everything but the condiments was made in house and prepared to order. The result, with its homemade, cabbage-smothered hotdogs, its soft-serve custard machine and its countertop cake stand bearing fresh maple-glazed doughnuts, is an unabashed nostalgia project. It is also pretty much the diner of my dreams.
Not many diners do a burger as delicious as Chez Tousignant's, for instance. The meat is griddle-smashed to beefy juiciness; the bun is a soft, house-made potato roll, and the "bacon" here is homemade maple ham. (A terrific accompaniment: a can of the refreshing Quebec cider called Smac!) The hotdogs, too, are made entirely from scratch in house – they're top-quality charcuterie in place of the usual industrially processed lips and butts.
And Chez Tousignant's poutines, built on fresh-cut fries, are made with what I like to think of as "grandma gravy" instead of the commonplace fresh-from-the-tin abomination. Try the poutine selection's "galvaude" variation, which is smothered with chicken and peas as well as gravy and cheese curds. I'll take that over tradition every time.
I had a more difficult time falling in love with Montreal's best-reviewed new restaurant, a casual tasting-menu spot called Le Mousso, though I had no trouble appreciating the place. The best of chef Antonin Mousseau-Rivard's intricate dishes offered snippets of playful genius: the seared scallop slices that came interleaved with cool, crunchy rounds of daikon and set in a brown butter and dashi sauce; the quenelle of crab pasted all around with jewel-like slices of green strawberry; the tiny lamb bits dressed with what the menu called a chiée d'herbes; the foie gras torchon borne on a sharpened stick, like a campfire marshmallow, but wrapped in maple syrup cotton candy.
While I hope my experience was an exception instead of the rule, too much of Mousseau-Rivard's hard work was undone by sub-par service. The wine service was just slightly better than indifferent and the house cocktail fourth-rate; the seating (corner of the bar between the server station and the kitchen stairs, where you're jostled every minute by passing traffic – what a great place to send solo, out-of-town diners) was not what you expect when dinner for one, all in, can reach $200.
And Le Mousso's black truffle supplement, offered with what should have been a spectacular chicken-and-mushrooms course, was executed with such stunning amateurism (key props included a lemon zester and a dimebag dealer-style gram scale that the server had to bang against the counter several times before it would turn on) that I had to force myself to not look around for the hidden Juste Pour Rire! cameras and crew.
Far better to sit at the warmly lit counter at Hôtel Herman, a freshmarket-focused kitchen with incredible ingredients and sublime, lively cooking (highlights from a dinner there last year: roasted wild partridge with wild mushrooms, and extraordinarily delicious Quebec shrimp), a superb wine list and friendly service on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
Or if you're short on time to play the field, go with Le Vin Papillon, which might be one of the greatest wine bars on Earth. Vin Papillon is often called the lighter, vegetable-focused sibling to Joe Beef. The comparison is only halfway correct. Though it shares Joe Beef's exuberance and conviviality (as well as its chef, Marc-Olivier Frappier, who runs Joe Beef's kitchen as well, and its managing partner, Vanya Filipovic, who is Joe Beef's wine director), Vin Papillon manages to be its own place, with a deliciously avante-garde and food-friendly wine list and utterly original plates.
You might find razor clams shucked from their long, sharp-edged shells and chopped before being snugged back in, along with smoked apple vinaigrette, a few sheets of lardo, rhubarb and fresh green chickpeas; if you're smart, you'll order those clams with a few glasses of grower Champagne.
Or you'll find whole leeks stuffed with crab and bathed in an exquisitely maritime shellfish sauce that tastes like a deeply reduced bisque on a bender; another recent dish combined seared Quebec whelks with clear, smoky ham consommé that the kitchen enriched with Gaspé seaweed.
You should plan to go all-in not just on the food menu, but also into Le Vin Papillon's chalkboard wine list. If you have the budget for it, the best bet is to put yourself completely in the floor staff's care. Filipovic and server Max Campbell both run their own wine-import agencies, and spend much of their free time travelling in search of superlative bottlings. I've never met a more inspired – and inspiring – restaurant wine staff, and outside of France, I've never found a more enchanting list.
It should have been difficult afterward to recall everything that we'd consumed, but in a place this great, every sip and bite is memorable. We had quail stuffed with lobster sausage, an incredible Pacific oysters gratinée, smoked sturgeon, smelts and escabeche, a maple-flavoured Portuguese egg tart piled high with shaved farmhouse cheddar, and a Montreal smoked-meat sandwich – made with shaved carrots instead of beef, and set in an éclair shell made with rye flour – that may be the single most delicious and original dish I've eaten in a year.
Agrikol, 1844 Rue Amherst (at Rue Ontario Est), agrikol.ca
Hoogan et Beaufort, 4095 Rue Molson (at Rue William Tremblay), 514-903-1233, hooganetbeaufort.com
Chez Tousignant, 6956 Rue Drolet (at Rue Bélanger), 438-386-6368, cheztousignant.com
Le Mousso, 1023 Rue Ontario Est (at Rue Saint Timothée), 438-384-7410
Hôtel Herman, 5171 Boulevard St-Laurent, 514-278-7000, hotelherman.com
Le Vin Papillon, 2519 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest (at Rue Charlevoix), vinpapillon.com