What’s missing on the menu
My last few dining experiences (if I can call them that) in Montreal have let me down. And I know that it’s not that there is a lack of quality, variety, or even new hot spots in our dynamic city. Maybe there is just too much choice - always the latest places to check out, old haunts to revisit. So spoiled, it’s easy to become blasé, and have high expectations. It could be that I’m getting old and cranky too.
Because I am so busy all summer, I am constantly trying to play catch up on the Montreal scene, so when in town, I can’t help but be drawn to the buzz, forgetting the inherent risks attached. It’s not like anything ever really goes terribly wrong either, no Kitchen Nightmares, nothing to stop me from having a good time. Which I always do no matter what, when I’m out with friends and someone else is cooking. I do realize we eat relatively well in Montreal even on a bad night.
Still these last escapades left me with a minor ache - a lingering feeling of disappointment mixed with annoyance, that I mostly kept to myself in the name of fun, only to hash it out alone the next day. I see that there has been a pattern though, a theme to my dining out pangs.
I can only describe it as a lack of Identity and Authenticity in so many of these restaurants or kitchens. Something not ringing true. Like the concept and menu is a random combination of borrowed tricks and trends, something rigged, as opposed to an honest, unique expression of the person(s) behind the business. This translates into a lack of magic that might just leave me feeling blah, unimpressed and disillusioned, but passive. It is the regular side of cockiness that is grating, that leaves a bitter residue, making me inclined to rant days later.
What is going on? In some instances, the lack of authenticity might be because there is a business group behind it rather than a chef-owner or family. Marketing vs. soul. It also might be that the key players, well meaning or not, are frequently absent, over-extended with other projects and so the follow-through isn’t there. In other cases, I suspect it’s a whole other story, because there is some young chef and/or manager at the helm who hasn’t yet come into his/her own. However earnest and eager, they don’t have enough experience to have a real style carved out, with their own principles, or a real understanding of the business. So they are all over the map, and influenced not only by investors, but by what every other chef and restaurateur around is doing. Which might account for so many menus on the block reading the same?!
But it’s not even about look alike menus.. I do enjoy tartare after all. I try not to judge any place by the written menu alone anymore, letting the experience decide. I’m talking about delivery here, something successful overall for what it is, and harmonious - on the plate, in the ambiance, in the service, in the feel. Not necessarily seamless, but not all seams. No need for ten garnishes per dish. And what’s with the sweet salad dressing slathered all over? In the tartare too? Please. How about one solid tartare or ceviche or steak instead of ten stabs at a classic; try one kind of oyster, ultra fresh and by the dozen, as opposed to ten types. One good waiter can replace ten half-wits too.
Warm, courteous and honest goes a long way anywhere, by the way. So does hip and cool, I suppose, but if that’s your raison d’être, stick with that and don’t go all high falutin` fako fancy pants.
Don’t talk local, regional seasonal when you’re a city kid who has never stepped onto a farm, when you’re not a regular at the market, and just dial up a big purveyor every day.
If you can’t answer a few simple questions about the wine list, don’t come and pretend you are a sommelier and taste my wine to see if it’s ok. I love a good sommelier in house for expert wine advice or a lead on a wine to be discovered, but if that isn’t on offer, that’s fine. I usually know what I want if the list isn’t complex enough to have a sommelier anyway.
I’m happy to drink and eat whatever the house specialty is, if there is one. I can be as content with a poutine and a beer or a Cava and a salad, as with a multi-course wine pairing meal. I just like to know what I’m dealing with. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. It might impress the kids who don’t know better, but I know you’re full of it..
I might not mind amateur hour; I might even find it dear and refreshing, if inflected with a touch of naiveté or humility, without the pretence. It is the attitude, acting like you know it all and are big league when you clearly don’t and aren’t, while charging big league prices to boot.
When I think of the best places in Montreal, and they aren’t all grown-ups, I realize that an essential reason for their hold is that they are true, in fabric and wear; be it lace, leather or nylon, they resonate something you understand. These gems can be found on all ends of the spectrum - from the well known to your humble neighbourhood favourites. Say Toque or Chasse et Pêche or Cocagne or La Chronique or Joe Beef, or Pied de Cochon. Or L’Express, Sans Menu or Detour Bistro. And so many simpler places that are chef owned or Mom and Pop enterprises (as just about all the ‘ethnic’ restaurants are), including the best take out counters, cafés, breakfast joints and casse-croutes. It doesn’t mean any of them are perfect or suited to everyone, but they are authentic and ever evolving, in line with the vision and life experience of real people working hard behind the scenes. Often, they seek out local ingredients and go to lengths to be environmentally friendly without plastering it all over their menu or website, because it’s just a part of caring. And every little thing from the reservation desk to the table settings and the décor, to the meat, the wine and toilets, reflects that personality. You feel it, you taste it, and are happy to pay for it, whatever it is. This basic truth seems to elude businessmen jumping into the restaurant world, and young chefs in a rush to stardom.
With the recent economic climate, the importance of business sense in restaurant operations is omnipresent; but amidst the books, the cut backs, concept changes and creative marketing strategies, we mustn’t forget the rest either. Or to dare to be unique.
I think authenticity is more than instrumental, it is the crux. And it is hard to come by with all the talent and money in the world, but natural enough given the right people in the right place at the right time, who have passion and chemistry, and are backed up by a solid dose of life, blood sweat and tears. This might not be the only recipe for quality and longevity in a restaurant, surely not the easiest or most profitable – and obviously not what the jet set is after .. But I know it is the only kind I’m interested in.
I’m not ready to give up entirely on Old Montreal for food, or the prospect of fresh, exciting restaurants in general, but I might hedge my bets better next time. Actually, I think I’ll take a time out and go for something tried and true before I head out into ‘new’ territory again.