The cutlery was literally freezing. Too cold to handle without gloves. Luckily, I’d brought a pair, thanks to an email I’d received from the restaurant a few days before that also advised me to wear “snow pants,” a “snow coat” and a “polo neck jumper.”
The two-page document put the fear of the freeze in me. I was bundled in a wool-knit skirt and carefully tied “toque” as I exited the warm Jean-Drapeau subway stop in Montréal and headed toward the Pommery Ice Restaurant.
The frozen restaurant is the first of its kind in North America. It’s the most popular destination at the Snow Village, a football-field-sized, winter-only, ticketed attraction that debuted last year. Guy Bélanger, president of the Snow Village corporation, says the idea for a frozen winter resort came from his own passion for winter camping. While Québec City has an Hôtel de Glace, Bélanger and business partner Carl Fugère wanted something substantially larger and more diverse in services. They made research visits to the Snow Villages of Norway and Finland, then got those establishments’ Scandinavian founders, Tomi and Rami Kurtakko, on board as investors and codirectors of construction.
Last year, their first foray into creating a polar destination in Québec attracted 95,312 visitors between January and March. More than 2000 people stayed in an igloo or room of the ice hotel during that time; in just 10 weeks, the 54-seat Pommery Ice Restaurant packed in 15,226 diners.
To meet the staggering demand, Bélanger and Fugère opened a second icy location, Amarula Ice Restaurant, in downtown Laval this year and put Michelin-starred Eric Gonzalez, last year’s Pommery chef, in charge. A new partnership with the InterContinental Montréal Hotel has brought its executive chef, a young southern Frenchman by the name of Matthieu Saunier, to head the kitchen at the now 96-seat Pommery.
When I visited on January 12, the Snow Village was still a week away from its official January 18 opening, though Bélanger said construction workers, landscapers and ice sculptors had been hard at work for nearly a month. What was clearly not yet complete was signage. It took us nearly half an hour to find the ticketing building where I would pick up the receipt proving I’d already tendered the required $70 down payment on dinner. Once the route was properly marked, I was told, that same walk would take about five minutes.
Although the hotel also remained in progress, walking down the steps from the ticket desk to the valley that housed the Snow Village was akin to crossing into the Technicolor premises of Oz. Just feet away, the only snow was brownish-gray slush; where I stood, a regiment of snow cannons and a local ice factory had created a shockingly white winter wonderland.
By the end of construction, the Village will boast between 25,000 and 30,000 square meters of snow constituting the hotel, Jägermeister Ice Bar and the Pommery Ice Restaurant. Colorful LED lighting spilled out from between the canvas curtains meant to protect the icy indoors from their surroundings. That night, that meant keeping the usually 23- to 32-degree Farenheit rooms as cold as possible in the face of an unseasonable thaw.
Once inside, we saw the futility of such efforts. Throughout the night, our table, made entirely of ice, dripped a puddle into our laps. Cold water bled through the faux furs that cushioned the frozen seats. If it made us colder, at least it also made the experience less surreal.
A manager told guests that, despite the melting ice, there was no risk of a structural upset in the tightly packed snow that composed the restaurant’s towering ceilings. When I spoke to him, Bélanger attributed the stability not only to the Kurtakkos’ 12 years of expertise but to research from his own Québecois architectural and engineering firms on the elasticity of snow and its reactions to changing temperatures.
We were grateful for the science behind the construction, because it would have been a shame to lose any of the detail work. Trompe l’oeil bricks peeked out from snow patches as if stucco had peeled to reveal them in an old taverna. Snow arches revealed the ends of snow “wine barrels,” while on the next wall, the larger-than-life bas-relief image of an ancient muse leaned against a giant wine glass. I was seated on a round ice couch topped with a gigantic carved ice bucket and a carefully inscribed bottle of Pommery champagne, the restaurant’s namesake and sponsor. Dramatic pink and blue LEDs lent theatricality to everything they illuminated. At the bar in the building next door, green ones gave the DJ spinning in an ice booth an air of otherworldly menace.
Lighting was also key to the ambiance of the hotel, where ice beds (topped with high-tech warming sleeping bags) filled rooms decorated with a New York City theme. Rooms and suites featured Big Apple icons ranging from images of the Bronx Zoo and Statue of Liberty to a somewhat less realistic gathering of Marvel superheroes the Avengers. The lobby was carved with a 360-degree depiction of Central Park.
Back at the restaurant, the menu was smartly abbreviated to contrast with the opulent surroundings. It featured just two appetizers, two main courses and one dessert, making it easy for my party of two to try everything offered. Food was placed on thick wooden boards to keep it from melting holes in the table.
This measure was certainly necessary for my steaming bowl of thick, creamy Jerusalem-artichoke-and-cauliflower soup. Fried artichoke chunks floating on top were crisp and slightly tangy, a delicious foil to the single, giant ravioli filled with braised wild boar at the bottom of the bowl.
A quick trip to the kitchen revealed how the food got to the table in such fine form. Saunier and his team cooked everything in a small trailer parked several feet from the back of the restaurant, like the crew of a hyper-upscale food truck.
This arrangement gave hot food no time to get cold. But preparing the eye-appealing dishes in such close quarters was a feat, said Saunier. He noted that almost all prep was done in the trailer and not at the InterContinental, where he remains chef at Provençal restaurant Osco! The double commitment forced him to commute between Parc Jean-Drapeau and the downtown hotel several times a day. Somehow, though, he still found the time to meet and greet guests.
Saunier’s attention to detail was clear in the other appetizer, a duet of fresh and maple-smoked sea trout tartares. Topped with artfully arranged matchsticks of candy-cane-striped Chioggia beets and perfectly round blini, the dish was like a grown-up, fine-dining take on Kraft Lunchables. The real fun lay in spreading the blini with a Day-Glo-pink yuzu mayo that crackled and popped with tobiko.
Despite a packed house, the staff brought the food out quickly, presumably both to make room for other diners (even preseason, the $69-a-person dinner was sold out early in the week) and to keep guests from freezing.
Of course, chilly diners could always retreat to the heated bathroom trailer, sponsored by Cascades Tissue Group. It was a welcome, bun-warming respite at dinner, but guests who make the trek from the hotel in the middle of the night may find the amenities slightly less romantic.
The main course brought heavy, red, brimstone-hot Dutch ovens to the tables. They held stewed ballotines of Cornish game hen, stuffed with a mushroom-flecked forcemeat in a tomato-based sauce thick with zucchini and onions. It tasted like a hearty winter version of ratatouille, an odd choice given the spot-on seasonality of the starters. The vegetarian entrée made more sense: a hearty stew of carrot and sweet potato over quinoa. I found that combining the two entrées yielded the most satisfying dish of all.
My favorite part of the meal was not on the menu: bread, which arrived not at the start but at the end, just before dessert. Saunier’s staff presented crusty slices of wheat bread and toasted fingers of white along with a miniature pot of fondue. The hot, melty Emmentaler was just what we needed for a comforting food hug as our circulation moved from appendages to stomach.
But we knew not to overindulge. The finale was still on the way: slabs of dense cake topped with pear slices, crunchy maple pecans and caramel sauce flavored with sweet Amarula, the same creamy South African liquor that lends its name to the restaurant in Laval. The focus of my attention, however, was the hot chocolate sauce that came on the side, as black as the evening’s new-moon sky. I could have drunk every drop of the stuff, though it was better combined with the pears and pecans.
If I hadn’t been stuffed, I might have been tempted by some of the “street food” on offer outside at the Snow Village. Just behind the open field where a mother pulled her small child on a dog-team-style sled, a vendor sold maple delicacies, including sugar on snow and apple-filled beignets. In keeping with the New York theme, a hot-dog cart fed those not looking to break the bank on an icy dinner.
I walked up the steps and back into the park, returning to the brownish-gray, slushy city. Once on the subway, I shed the armor of anonymity afforded by a thick wrapping of hat, coat and gloves. Back to reality I went, leaving behind a real-life winter wonderland.
Pommery Ice Restaurant, Snow Village, 130 chemin Tour-de-l’Isle, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montréal, Québec, 855-788-2181. Season ends March 21. snowvillagecanada.com
The print version of this article was headlined "Dinner on the Rocks".