RESTAU­RANT LESSONS LEARNED

Lesley Ch­ester­man’s farewell, Part 2

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - LESLEY CH­ESTER­MAN

This is the sec­ond in­stal­ment of a three-part farewell by Mon­treal Gazette restau­rant critic Lesley Ch­ester­man, look­ing back at the peo­ple and places she en­coun­tered and lessons learned dur­ing 20 years on the beat. “This couldn’t be the right place,” I said in dis­be­lief. It was the spring of 2000, and the restau­rant I was stand­ing in front of was Tokyo Sukiyaki. “Oh yes it is,” said one of my din­ing com­pan­ions, who had rec­om­mended I re­view what was then Mon­treal’s old­est Ja­panese restau­rant. Cyn­i­cal as all get-out, I en­tered the old house, which had def­i­nitely seen bet­ter days. We were greeted by an el­derly, ki­mono-clad lady. She asked that we re­move our shoes, then handed us plas­tic slip­pers — red for me, black for the men — be­fore lead­ing us down a dark cor­ri­dor. Shuf­fling along, I mar­velled at the sur­round­ings, com­plete with lit­tle red bridges criss-cross­ing a rock-lined stream that me­an­dered through the room to­ward a small bar. We were shown into one of the 15 closed tatami rooms, where dark red lanterns lined the top of the walls. I couldn’t see any other din­ers, but I could hear faint chat­ting around me. Was this a restau­rant, I won­dered, or a Quentin Tarantino movie? Pre­dict­ing a bleak out­come, I or­dered a few dishes, rubbed my hands in a steam­ing towel and shot many an evil eye at my friend, be­fore storm­ing out to the pay phone in the cor­ri­dor to make a reser­va­tion at an­other restau­rant. While I was on hold, a ki­mono-clad wait­ress slipped past me car­ry­ing plat­ters of glis­ten­ing chicken yak­i­tori and golden shrimp tem­pura. Sud­denly op­ti­mistic, I hung up the phone and raced past the wait­ress to our cu­bi­cle, where we en­joyed a, shall we say, un­ex­pect­edly de­li­cious Ja­panese meal. If ever there was a case for not

Along with To­qué!, Ini­tiale was one of the first restau­rants to con­vince me that Que­bec gas­tron­omy had the po­ten­tial to be­come world-class.

judg­ing a book by its cover, it was Tokyo Sukiyaki, where the campy decor and top-qual­ity cui­sine were com­pletely at odds with the seedy im­pres­sion the restau­rant con­veyed from the out­side. Les­son learned! That epiphany hap­pened decades ago, and there have been count­less eye-open­ing meals since: many good, as many bad, some frus­trat­ing, oth­ers life-af­firm­ing, a few mind-blow­ing, sev­eral deathly dull, and more than I care to ad­mit that wiped out my bank bal­ance with the push of a but­ton. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve writ­ten more than 1,000 re­views. En­ter­ing with pre­con­ceived no­tions is the worst way a critic can ap­proach a restau­rant, and some of my best meals were en­joyed in restau­rants where I didn’t have a clue what to ex­pect. Two oc­ca­sions come to mind when I en­tered com­pletely neu­tral but ex­ited ut­terly floored. The first was at Que­bec City’s Ini­tiale in the fall of 2000. Chef/owner Yvan Le­brun and maître d’/co-owner Rolande Le­clerc served up what remains my most gas­tro­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence in Que­bec, fea­tur­ing pure, wellthought-out flavours, mas­ter­ful cook­ing tech­niques and a serene at­mos­phere. A high­light was the cheese course, which in­cluded some 15 spec­i­mens from this prov­ince. Along with To­qué!, Ini­tiale was one of the first restau­rants to con­vince me that Que­bec gas­tron­omy had the po­ten­tial to be­come world-class. Fif­teen years later, an­other un­ex­pected new­comer, Le Mousso, so­lid­i­fied that im­pres­sion. I en­tered Le Mousso ex­pect­ing sparks, but got fire­works — not only be­cause the food was so de­li­cious, but be­cause chef An­tonin Mousseau-Ri­vard had cho­sen the risky artis­tic route at a time when even Mon­treal’s top chefs were leaning ca­sual. I al­ways favour meals that pro­vide a rev­e­la­tion, which was the case at Le La­tini in 2000. While lap­ping up the restau­rant’s famed tomato, veal and porcini risotto, I fi­nally un­der­stood the great­ness of this clas­sic — and often poorly con­ceived — Ital­ian dish. Made from scratch and pre­sented in a large cop­per pot at the ta­ble, theirs was a tri­umph. The rice was firm yet creamy, the veal was ten­der, the tomato flavour was rich and the sea­son­ing was bang-on. To this day, it’s still the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. Restau­rant meals mark many mo­ments in our lives, and I cher­ish mem­o­ries of the first dates I en­joyed at Laloux and the count­less cel­e­bra­tions at L’Ex­press. Then there were all the birth­days — my fond­est mem­ory be­ing of my 30th birth­day at Les Caprices de Ni­co­las in 1997. I still re­call the late chef Ni­co­las Jon­gleux’s soigné plate pre­sen­ta­tions, daz­zling tech­nique and grasp of flavours.

A dis­ci­ple of nou­velle cui­sine leg­ends Ge­orges Blanc and Alain Chapel, Jon­gleux turned out the most so­phis­ti­cated menu that night, in­clud­ing a choux pas­try ap­pe­tizer, a dreamy Béar­naise with the meat main and pommes Pont-Neuf (think over­sized french fries) gin­gerly stacked with silver tongs by the waiter into a small tower on my plate. This was prob­a­bly the last time I saw tuxe­doed wait­ers in a Mon­treal din­ing room. And there were all the lit­tle de­tails: beau­ti­ful bread bas­kets, cushy wash­rooms, tapestry pil­lows lining the ban­quettes. What a treat it was to dine at that restau­rant, un­matched to this day for class and el­e­gance. Les Caprices was never haughty, which was hardly the sit­u­a­tion at the many Miche­lin-starred restau­rants I’ve fre­quented. More often than not at these es­tab­lish­ments, the wait­ers are un­friendly, som­me­liers are pa­tron­iz­ing, and the food — seem­ingly as­sem­bled by elves hold­ing rulers to make sure ev­ery sculpted vegetable is sym­met­ri­cal — makes me long for a sloppy joe. As much as I ad­mire the mad cook­ing skills on dis­play, the tension and snob­bish­ness of such in­sti­tu­tions tend to wear down one’s en­thu­si­asm — es­pe­cially when the bill ar­rives, be­cause when you eat at the world’s top restau­rants, you re­ally (re­ally!) pay for it. Though I’ve been one of the few who are lucky enough to have the cost of re­view meals cov­ered by my em­ploy­ers, when I was off-duty at those lofty restau­rants, I picked up the tab. And more often than not, I walked away feel­ing dumb for hav­ing paid so much for noth­ing more than — let’s be hon­est here — din­ner. I re­mem­ber the over­whelm­ing dread when re­ceiv­ing bills at places like As­trance in Paris, re­puted to be one of the more af­ford­able three-star Miche­lin restau­rants. We ate and drank like roy­alty, but when the bill rang in at $450 per per­son, the mood shifted from cel­e­bra­tory to mo­rose. And that’s just one of many such ex­am­ples. (The les­son, ob­vi­ously, has yet to be learned!) Truth is, even though restau­rant re­view­ing was my cho­sen ca­reer, I couldn’t af­ford to eat at the world’s best restau­rants that to­day are re­served for the su­per wealthy. I re­call stand­ing out­side Anne-So­phie Pic’s restau­rant in Va­lence, France, read­ing the menu, do­ing the math and fig­ur­ing the bill for two would eas­ily amount to $1,000. We headed to her far cheaper — and still ex­cel­lent — bistro next door. I also be­gan to no­tice that as ex­cit­ing as those lux­u­ri­ous, multi-course menus read, they had be­come harder and harder to han­dle phys­i­cally. A few years back, I ate a mind-blow­ing omakase menu at Park, with each dish pre­pared by An­to­nio Park right in front of me. I think I ate ev­ery fish un­der the sun that night, and when I was ready to keel over, Park was just get­ting go­ing, fol­low­ing up with foie gras, aged beef loin and a med­ley of toro of­fer­ings. The man was on fire, and ev­ery­thing was so good I could hardly ask him to stop. It took me three days to re­cover from that feast, as was the case with ev­ery visit to Ca­bane à su­cre Au Pied de Co­chon, where I never man­aged to get through even half the meal. Dur­ing a marathon din­ner at La Chronique, I had to get up at the mid­point of my five­hour meal to go for a walk. When I re­viewed Le Vin Papil­lon in the com­pany of two wine writ­ers, the eat­ing and drink­ing lasted for six hours. When the meal ended, I ac­tu­ally couldn’t stand up. For all I re­mem­ber, I may have crawled out the door on all fours. Din­ing one-on-one with vis­it­ing food writ­ers has al­ways been a treat, but there is some­thing about eat­ing with a table­ful of them that brings out the ugly. I was once in­vited by Tourism Mon­treal to dine with a group of Euro­pean jour­nal­ists at Au Pied de Co­chon. When chef Martin Pi­card came to greet the ta­ble, a woman blurted out: “We want to eat light!” Pi­card smiled and replied: “Then you’re at the wrong restau­rant.”

An­other night found me din­ing with Parisian jour­nal­ists at To­qué! dur­ing the Montréal en lu­mière fes­ti­val. In­vited by fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers to cover the event, the Parisians had spent a few days tour­ing the Mon­treal food scene, of which they en­joyed noth­ing. They told me our smoked meat wasn’t au­then­tic, our restau­rants were medi­ocre and the won­der­ful choco­late shop they vis­ited was “ba­nal.” Hold­ing my­self back from leap­ing at them across the ta­ble, I ar­gued, rolled my eyes hard and even­tu­ally threw in the towel. Dur­ing an­other edi­tion of Montréal en lu­mière, I joined a group of Québé­cois jour­nal­ists at To­qué! to en­joy a tast­ing menu by Span­ish chef Xavier Pel­licer. There was no miss­ing the ex­cess salti­ness in dish af­ter dish. At the height of the meal, one es­pe­cially pompous man clinked his glass, stood up and de­clared in all se­ri­ous­ness: “Messieurs, mes­dames, tonight we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a great culi­nary ex­per­i­ment: salt used as an in­gre­di­ent in­stead of a condi­ment!” I was sur­prised, yet they all ap­plauded. When the meal was over, I asked Pel­licer about the salt­ing. He an­swered: “Was it re­ally? When I get ner­vous, I tend to over-salt.” So many flash­backs come from nights at To­qué!, the epi­cen­tre of high gas­tron­omy in Mon­treal for decades. For its 10th an­niver­sary in 2003, I was in­vited to a six­course ex­trav­a­ganza paired with some of the world’s costli­est bub­bly from the house of Dom Pérignon. Seated at a ta­ble of lo­cal wine writ­ers, we were treated to an un­be­liev­able menu fea­tur­ing lux­u­ri­ous in­gre­di­ents like oys­ters, foie gras, princess scal­lops, lob­ster and Os­se­tra caviar. While I sat there mar­vel­ling over a plate of sautéed spring straw­ber­ries with rhubarb, the wine writ­ers ram­bled on end­lessly about the 1992 rosé Cham­pagne with which it was served. I couldn’t be­lieve what I was hear­ing: not one of them men­tioned the food! Some of my reg­u­lar din­ing com­pan­ions could also wreak havoc. For the most part, ev­ery­one be­haved, but there were ex­cep­tions — like the time two friends were ar­gu­ing and one even­tu­ally snapped, stood up and clocked the other one over the head with a menu. I was mor­ti­fied and sug­gested he take a taxi home. The only prob­lem: the restau­rant was in Oka, and the fare came close to $100. While re­view­ing, I’ve wit­nessed fights, tears, breakups and con­fes­sions, and not just at my ta­ble. At a much-loved Outremont restau­rant, I saw the chef storm out of the kitchen and right out the front door. Forty-five min­utes later, the owner emerged to serve our meal, which I fig­ure he pre­pared. Chaotic mo­ments aside, restau­rant meals can also pro­vide great com­fort. When my first son was born, he was kept in the in­ten­sive care unit for two weeks, where I spent most of my time in the par­ents’ room sleep­ing on a couch. Since I didn’t take ma­ter­nity leave, I em­braced the dis­trac­tion of go­ing out on a re­view din­ner, and chose to drown my sor­rows in rich French food at Les Halles for a few hours be­fore head­ing back to the NICU. When my fa­ther passed away two years ago, we planned a fam­ily din­ner af­ter his fu­neral at Moishes. De­spite our pro­found sad­ness, we feasted hard that night — in an ef­fort, I be­lieve, to fill the deep­est of voids. Dur­ing the 1998 ice storm, my then-hus­band and I moved from friend’s house to friend’s house in search of elec­tric­ity and com­pany. One dark night while walk­ing down the icy streets of the Main, we were sur­prised to see the lights on at Globe and went in­side for din­ner. I re­call a very young and far less fa­mous David McMil­lan show­ing us to a ban­quette and serv­ing us a per­fect meal of roasted chicken with mashed pota­toes, dish­ing up the food him­self at our ta­ble. That cheered us up no end, as did sev­eral break­fasts at Beau­tys dur­ing those grim Jan­uary weeks. When­ever I hear the term “com­fort food,” those meals al­ways come to mind. So, with all those din­ners un­der my belt, you might won­der whether one ranks as the best. The critic in me would say din­ner at the Joël Robu­chon restau­rant at the MGM Grand in Las Ve­gas back in 2009, which fea­tured a plethora of sub­lime in­gre­di­ents trans­formed by some of the most skilled chefs on the planet. It was ut­terly flaw­less, and I re­call tak­ing notes and pic­tures be­tween ev­ery jaw-drop­ping sip and bite. And yet, when it comes to sheer de­li­cious­ness, a meal en­joyed dur­ing a press trip to Greece in 2014 quashed the nou­velle cui­sine per­fec­tion at ev­ery turn. The feast be­gan at 11 p.m. at the Gavrilis Tav­ern in the vil­lage of Kou­varas, a 40-minute drive south of Athens. Along with a few som­me­liers and wine writ­ers, I was seated with wine­maker Vas­sili Pa­pa­gian­nakos and his wife, To­nia, of Do­maine Pa­pa­gian­nakos. Our din­ner be­gan with a flurry of small plates, in­clud­ing grilled pep­pers, stuffed vine leaves, Greek salad and oliveoil-fried french fries. We dipped pieces of crusty bread into tzatziki. We sipped the tav­erna’s home­made retsina. Mid-meal, we gath­ered around a butcher block in the open kitchen, where we mar­velled as a lamb, reared by the tav­ern’s own­ers, was ex­pertly sec­tioned into chops, legs and shoul­der cuts, which were then salted and grilled in a metal bas­ket over open coals. As in­structed, we picked up the long and del­i­cate lamb chops with our fin­gers and munched our way through to the bone. The com­bi­na­tion of grilled lamb fat, salty meat, dried oregano and the gar­licky side dishes with the retsina was in­tox­i­cat­ing. It was a pro­foundly au­then­tic meal, and never have I seen peo­ple so proud of what they were serv­ing. In a word: heaven. Hon­estly, ei­ther of those meals would rank as the best. But choos­ing the ul­ti­mate din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is a fu­tile ex­er­cise: as any true restau­rant lover knows, there’s al­ways some­thing new on the hori­zon. Next week: Lesley Ch­ester­man’s fi­nal Mon­treal Gazette col­umn.

ALLEN McINNIS/FILES

Les Caprices de Ni­co­las, where Lesley Ch­ester­man re­calls spend­ing a mem­o­rable 30th birth­day, remains un­matched for class and el­e­gance.

A fam­ily din­ner at Moishes was in­tensely ther­a­peu­tic, with a siz­able feast to try to fill the un­fil­l­able void fol­low­ing the fu­neral of Lesley Ch­ester­man’s fa­ther.

DARIO AYALA/FILES

The artis­tic route paid off for An­tonin Mousseau-Ri­vard, pic­tured at Le Mousso in 2015.

CLéMENT AL­LARD/FILES

Ini­tiale was the site of an early rev­e­la­tion.

PIERRE OBENDRaUF/FILES

Looks were de­ceiv­ing at Tokyo Sukiyaki.

JOHN MA­HONEY/FILES

A mind-blow­ing menu pre­pared by An­to­nio Park left Lesley Ch­ester­man reel­ing in more ways than one.

TEDD CHURCH/FILES

Le La­tini made an im­pres­sion with a re­ju­ve­nated Ital­ian clas­sic: tomato, veal and porcini risotto, re­called by Lesley Ch­ester­man as the best risotto she’s ever tasted.

ALLEN McINNIS/FILES

To­qué! has been the epi­cen­tre of high gas­tron­omy in Mon­treal for decades.

PIERRE OBENDRaUF/FILES

Martin Pi­card at Ca­bane à su­cre Au Pied de Co­chon: look else­where for light eat­ing.

JOHN MA­HONEY/FILES

A pre-fame David McMil­lan at Globe in 1998: a light in the dark­ness and the very def­i­ni­tion of com­fort food.

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