Too little too late, a fine meal at Anise
February 15, 2007
The commercial non-sense of Valentine’s Day aside, I’ll take any excuse to go out for a nice dinner, even if we all know it is probably the worst day of the year to sample a new restaurant. But in my case, the clock was ticking, because my restaurant of choice was Anise, Racha Bassoul’s renowned restaurant on Laurier.
Yes, I am one of those horrible people who let Anise down. Even if I am a foodie and lover of restaurants, who was highly interested in Anise, having only heard good things for years, I never actually made it there. I almost missed the boat. Despite the highest acclaim, a classy, innovative chef, and a central location, the doors are soon closing after a mere five years. Some Montreal foodies are scratching their heads, especially on the heel of another top Montreal restaurant (Les Chevres) shutting down last month. Much has been said in the media since on the state of the Montreal restaurant scene, with the blame slammed on everyone from the out of touch restaurateurs to the harsh economy, to the fickle or ignorant clients.
Most people in the industry only find it very disheartening. Others have been unabashedly critical, claiming that it’s high time chefs wake up to the fact that restaurants are businesses. It's a bit of all these things for sure. Of course, a restaurant concept has to have a market and be informed by it in order to survive. We all know success in the restaurant business requires more than raw talent, and that dining is about much more than just food. Nonetheless, I still think that Montreal, widely considered to be a food-centric city, should be able to support a wide variety of restaurants, and at least a handful of these high end ones. Maybe there are too many restaurants in Montreal for the size of the clientele, but it maddens me to see so many lack-lustre restaurants survive while the cream of the crop are struggling. There are obviously not enough foodies in Montreal who put their money where their mouth is, for whatever reason.
Some of us just don’t have the money to spend on fine dining too often. Others just don’t value this kind of experience enough to pay the price even if they can afford to. Haut de gamme restaurants like this suffer from a stigma that they are stiff and expensive, sometimes deservedly so; in any case, people either save them for special occasions or shun them altogether, choosing a restaurant that offers a livelier ambiance, less stuffy food and service, more bang for the buck.
That brings up another issue, the perception of value. Most Quebeckers don’t get it. Canadians in general typically spend less on food than in other developed countries. Having being brought up on industrial food, we have a skewed notion of what real food costs, thinking that organic and artisanal products are expensive and elitist, that the less we spend on food, the more sensible we are. We generally prefer to spend a larger percentage of our income on Ipods, satellite dishes, nice homes and cars, fashionable clothes or spa treatments. We choose fast food over a fine meal more often. And when we go out to dinner, we go to bistros or steakhouses, some good, some not so good, we aren’t all that selective.
The truth is that a restaurant like les Chevres or Anise cooks with quality ingredients from small local producers, they cook à la minute and artfully, in a way that requires a number of talented, qualified cooks whom they also need to pay a fair wage. They use modern design, fine linens and table ware; they have wine cellars and sommeliers, they serve amuse bouches and mignardises, and hand out keep-sake menus for you to take home, all extras, details to enhance your dining experience. All this costs money, so evidently this type of operation has higher costs, and a lower profit margin than your average restaurant. The prices are high, but relatively speaking, they aren’t.
No matter, unless you see and value that difference, you will only find it expensive. If you know the difference between mass produced New Zealand lamb and Quebec lamb from a small producer, and you can tell a local heirloom tomato grown organically with creativity and care, from a plastic-looking one shipped from miles away, you will find value there. North American tastes are evolving, and Quebeckers have always led the way, priding themselves in their appreciative, discerning palates, yet it doesn’t seem that all that many of us are tasting the difference, or caring about it enough to select it. Some people clearly care more about other things like quantity or show, pretty waitresses, or loud music.
Certainly, the trend is away from formal fine dining, favouring more casual places that still put out good food. Most of us are eating out more often, but choosing to go around the corner to a neighbourhood restaurant for a steak-frites or big salad and a glass of wine a few times a month, rather than out for a tasting menu once a month. I’m one of them. But I also know that I rarely get to taste the best in a bistro. They might be able to pass on some savings by not having crisp linens and Riedels, by serving simpler food with less staff and serving more booze, but it’s not always something you see on the plate.
Although the quality of bistro fare has been steadily rising, still few match the level of cooking of the two restaurants mentioned above, in terms of finesse, integrity and talent. Despite all the talk of terroir, even fewer are actually supporting small, local artisanal producers across the board. Chefs can't charge enough to serve the quality or pay their employees what they would like to. The ones that do well necessarily have tight management, but also have some way of subsidizing the high costs, either with a sister business, or by doing high volume (which makes quality difficult), or skimping on quality, or they cheat in some way. The fact is that without a bit of luck and boundless strength, it is increasingly difficult for high end restaurants who do things right to survive, no matter how hard they work day in day out. And for that reason, I can’t help but get a little mad when I hear people loosely criticize one of these restaurateurs, or judge them when the going gets tough.
Back to my meal at Anise.. I still feel guilty for not having been sooner because if food fanatics like me aren’t going, then I can’t help but wonder what chance fine dining in Montreal has. I certainly value the kind of food Rasha Bassoul is putting out. The thing is, like most people, I am not rich, although I do spend a disproportionate amount of my income on food and wine. And like most Quebeckers, on my nights off, I generally crave casual comfort, no fuss. When I did feel like dressing up, I couldn’t find someone to go with.. This was a ‘couples’ place, too formal, too expensive, too fancy or too subdued for most of my friends.. More accessible places won out, and the years went by, other new and exciting restaurants opened, I got distracted.
When the dinner finally happened, it was fabulous. Not mind blowing, but solid, and even after one visit, I can assure you that Anise is deserving of all the accolades. She definitely has a unique, refined style. The food is elegant, flavour forward, with all the musts of an haute cuisine carte (foie gras, oysters, lobster, lamb..) all done in an original way with Middle Eastern accents and an exotic touch, rich with fragrant spices and floral aromas. I found some bites surprising; it was refreshing to taste something new. For example, I was thrown off by the absence of sauces, I'm a sauce girl you see, but this is not a criticism, because nothing was lacking, it was just different. The seasoning was always there, and nothing was dry due to juice enhancing techniques like crepinette or moist accompaniements like purées. The setting is serene and luxurious, but in an understated, feminine way. Her good taste is obvious in the décor, the custom designed plates, the beautiful bathroom, the menu, the many details. I hardly want to judge the service or anything too severely on Valentine’s Day when everyone is in the juice, but I will say that it was professional and pleasant, if a tad on the stiff side (as in European), and the wine pairing was excellent.
All in all, our dinner at Anise was a treat, not to mention a big chunk of my weekly salary, but without hesitation, worth it, and I recommend it highly. If only more Montrealers could share another taste of Racha Bassoul and the exquisite, unique contribution she has made to our culinary landscape. It is not good for anyone that this gem of a restaurant is closing.
Restaurant Anise, 104 Laurier O., Montreal 514-276-6999