One day in Montréal. Nearly 100 restaurants to choose from. I couldn’t have eaten everything I wanted to even if I had stayed in town for all 11 days of Taste MTL, the city’s inaugural Restaurant Week, but I took on the challenge of choosing a meal that would make the day trip memorable. I perused every menu in anticipation of my trip and winnowed my choices down to two. One was the $19 bill of fare at downtown’s Fourquet Fourchette, where one entrée included a seared Québec pig trotter, a mini meat pie, meatball stew and homemade ketchup. But I was also tempted by the four courses, including savory takes on dessert such as foie gras crème brûlée, at Bistro le Répertoire, a restaurant I’d never heard of.
Taste MTL is the brainchild of the city’s tourism board, although Patrizia Dri, director of membership for Tourism Montréal, says her staff never intended to run the program themselves. “We were hoping somebody was going to organize it,” she recalls. “We really felt we had to push the culinary tourism market. We said, ‘It’s time we have a Restaurant Week.’ No one was doing it, so we started putting it together for the industry. In a lot of the U.S. cities, it’s the tourism board that puts it together, so we said, ‘OK, this makes sense.’”
Dri began by approaching the 200 restaurants that were already members of Tourism Montréal. Presentations and additional emails to some 600 restaurants resulted in a total of nearly 100 participants, well beyond the 65 to 70 restaurants Dri and her team were shooting for.
Dri says she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the restaurants that signed on to offer discounted prix-fixe menus during November’s slow tourist season. Jérôme Ferrer of ultra-plush Europea, generally considered one of the best restaurants in the city, was one of the first restaurateurs on board. Dri recalls Ferrer telling her that he wanted to take part even though his business didn’t need the bump. “Right away, he said, ‘This is good for Montréal and good for the industry,’” she says. “He did a nice corporate move to join us in this adventure.”
Europea’s dinners for all 11 nights were sold out well before Taste MTL began. One diner lucky enough to snag a reservation was Ronald Poiré, who’s playing his own role in promoting stick-season Montréal food tourism. Each summer, Poiré guides culinary walks through neighborhoods across the city; this year, just for Taste MTL, he’s organized a fall series through agency VDM Global. “As far as food tours go in Montréal,” says the rotund culinary expert, “I invented them 15 years ago.”
Before heading to dinner, I joined Poiré and eight other souls hungry enough for knowledge to brave the cold rain on a cocktail-hour walk through Old Montréal. We met at the rue St. Jacques entrance to the Square Victoria metro station, where the genial guide explained that his Taste MTL tours are all bilingual, rather than split into French and English options like his summer walks. He hopped between the two languages seamlessly, sharing stories of French and Québécois food history and etymology on nearly every block.
For instance, Poiré told us the French word for turkey, dinde, has its origin in the disappointment of European explorers who arrived in Canada expecting to have reached Asia. The meaty fowl they discovered there got its name from a shortening of “poulet d’Indes” or “chicken of India.”
Another animal of the New World, the beaver, was a popular culinary discovery. Though conservation laws now protect the animals from hungry Québécois, they were much appreciated in the 17th century on Friday nights. The Bishop of Québec, François de Laval, obtained approval from theologians at the Sorbonne to call the amphibious mammal a fish, so Catholics could dig in even when consuming meat was forbidden.
Poiré shared more stories with the group over glasses of wine at Hotel Nelligan. Named for poet Émile Nelligan, the luxury hotel is a far more comfortable setting than the mental institutions where the psychotic writer spent much of his later life. At the Verses Bar, our group heard about his history while tucking into miniature risotto balls.
The tour ended with a stop in front of Marché Bonsecours, once one of Montréal’s largest markets, today a shopping and conference center. Poiré ducked into Chez L’Épicier across the street from the old market and emerged with a brown paper bag to offer a final lesson. “Food is fashion, and there’s always the trendy new thing. It was cupcakes; then Jérôme Ferrer brought in macarons,” he said. “Look for natural cotton candy next, but for now, it’s marshmallows.”
With that, Poiré presented each guest with a bag of fluffy vanilla marshmallow squares, popularized by L’Épicier’s chef, Laurent Godbout. After a good-bye handshake, I returned to my car for the 20-minute drive east to Bistro Le Répertoire.
I found it in the Rosemont neighborhood, between a tobacconist and a ladies’ hair salon that both looked like they’d changed little in the last 50 years. The 30-seat restaurant was unassuming inside, too — a hole in the wall that might easily have been home to poutine in canned chicken gravy. But there turned out to be nothing pre-fab about the tiny bistro whose chef is inspired by traditional Québécois cuisine and ingredients.
My $29 dinner began with the house cocktail, a combination of local hard cider and Fragoli, an Italian strawberry liqueur filled with tiny wild berries. It was intoxicating — not in an inspire-you-to-reveal-all-your-darkest-secrets sense, but in a way that transported me from the homey little restaurant to a fairy-tale castle. Or at least to a hidden gem of a modern Parisian bistro.
Our server presented the hot rolls individually with tongs, a high-end touch for a spot where most of the young diners were dressed in jeans. The first-course choices were two dishes of the day: chicken-liver mousse and onion-parsnip cream soup. Both made use of sweet caramelized onion to brighten a darker, earthier flavor.
While those dishes were delicious examples of the Québec terroir, the second course was where chef Franck Morant pulled out the big guns. A round panna cotta was made from bleu cheese created by Benedictine monks in nearby Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Québec. Beside it, a salad of arugula and toasted almonds was dressed in honey and served over toasted bread that exploded with the meaty flavor of baked-in bacon chunks.
Though the dessert-concept-turned-appetizer was a big-flavor bonanza, it couldn’t compare with another dish conceived along the same lines: crème brûlée made with foie gras. The thick custard had just enough cream to water down the mineral taste of the liver, offering a full-on assault of fatty, luscious pleasure. On top of the tureen’s sugar crust rested a shower of something described on the menu as “maple sugar sparkling.” It was homemade, maple-flavored Pop Rocks. And they did indeed sparkle, adding a hint of maple taste that literally popped alongside the soft crème brûlée.
One main-course option was bison short ribs in a chocolate and sesame sauce that burned like a slicker, French-influenced mole. Another was giant crispy ravioli that filled an entire plate. Stuffed with braised, savory guinea fowl, green beans, matchstick-cut root veggies and mashed parsnips, the huge pastry was covered in a sweet and tangy sauce made of local wild blueberries.
Though dessert was largely unnecessary after that meal, I was offered a choice between white-chocolate fondant and orange sauce with a crackling praline crisp; and a second crème brûlée, this one flavored with pistachio that packed a three-dimensional punch.
The meal was the perfect way for Morant, who opened Le Répertoire in 2009, to show his stuff to Montréal and its visitors. For this chef, Taste MTL is working. “Normally, this is a very quiet period for us,” Morant says. “This has been a great way to drive Montréalers and tourists to restaurants.”
In quiet little Rosemont, Bistro le Répertoire is now booked through next weekend, so Vermonters hoping to take advantage of the prix-fixe menus will have to choose another restaurant. An entrée at Répertoire normally costs nearly as much as four courses do this week, but Morant says he’ll definitely participate in the next Taste MTL.
As for Dri, she says next year’s fall Taste MTL is a done deal; her office is floating the idea of a spring session, as well. For chefs and culinary tourists, restaurant weeks are a win-win proposition: Popular spots and lesser-known restaurants such as Le Répertoire all get to promote their fabulous fare at a lean time. The rest of us get to taste it — and perhaps wish we’d arranged for a longer stay.
Taste MTL continues through Sunday, November 11. Menus and reservation information at tourismemontreal.org.