On Friday, I took the train to Montreal to take part in a symposium on food writing at McGill University, a joint – and bilingual – venture of the French and English Departments. The venue was the Faculty Club Dining Room, a delightfully eccentric Victorian salon resplendent with stained glass and mock-Gothic columns. There were to have been five of us on the panel, including master baker and author Marcy Goldman, chef and veteran restaurant critic of the Montreal Gazette Lesley Chesterman, and anthropologist and food writer Robert Beauchemin. Robert is an old friend who is also Senior Judge of Gold Medal Plates’s Montreal jury but, hélas, he was stricken with a cold and forced to make his excuses. Instead, we were joined by Catherine Turgeon-Guin, a rather brilliant graduate student working on historical aspects of food writing, so the academic side of the subject was well represented. Our moderator was Professor Nathalie Cooke, renowned culinarian and also editor in chief of CuiZine, the Journal of Canadian Food Cultures. I believe the proceedings of the day will be fully reported there, so I won’t go on about them. Suffice it to say, I hope the audience had as much fun as the panelists. Time sped by. By way of self-introduction, each of us was invited to name our favourite piece of food writing. To my surprise and delight, Lesley Chesterman nominated the Jeeves stories of P.G.Wodehouse, especially those tales dealing with Anatole, the brilliant French chef employed by Bertie’s Aunt Agatha and coveted by every other household in the brittle but endearingly innocent world of Wooster. Her father read them to her when she was a child, she explained, and she remembers being deeply impressed by the power and influence the great chef exercised over aristocratic society. It was a good start to an afternoon that gave much pleasure and food for thought.
The organizers of the event, Professors Frédéric Charbonneau and Paul Yachnin, had also invited another panelist who had been unable to join us – Hugo Duchesne, co-owner and sommelier of La Montée de Lait, the excellent little restaurant on St-Laurent. He has been too busy since the recent departure of chef and co-owner Martin Juneau to take part in the discussion. Juneau, if you recall, won the Gold Medal Plates Tour de Montréal in the fall and will be competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next week. Meanwhile, he has moved to a new kitchen – Newtown, on Crescent Street. Taking over at La Montée is a 25-year-old chef called Jonathan Lapierre. My friends Frédo (the same Professor Charbonneau), his wife, Marie-Pierre and their pal, Andy Paras, and I were eager to taste his work and see if La Montée is still one of Montreal’s finest, so off we went there for dinner.
La Montée is a cosy and merrily informal spot with an open kitchen at the back. A tall red banquette runs down the centre of the room creating a partition between the bar area and the dining area. The décor is cheerful – a high ceiling covered in dark blue pressed tin, walls of open brick or white clapboard, black wooden tables set very close together. It’s a little bit scruffy, very serious about wine and food and always full.
We began with oysters – some from St-Simon in New Brunswick (briney with a fine minerally, metallic finish) and others from Summerside in P.E.I. (creamier, sweeter) served with their mignonette on long, rough-hewn wooden boards. A glass of Cadel Vispo Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2008 was an almost perfect match. The wine list here is mostly French, jewelled with interesting producers from small appellations, but a blackboard of other wines by the glass changes frequently.
From there, I pursued a nautical theme with a plank of seared mackerel – very intense, salty and densely textured under its crispy skin. Chef Lapierre had cut it into bite-sized pieces and arranged them into three mounds with fresh, crunchy shaved fennel and radish, pungent chives and whole segments of tangerine. There were dots of thick tangerine curd on the board and a puddle of smooth white caillé de vache, which Google translates as “cow quail” but which is really a separated dairy product somewhere between buttermilk, crème fraîche and green cheese. Its cool creaminess was a perfect foil to the mackerel.
For my main course I chose sweetbreads – a single good-sized lobe perfectly cooked, tender and creamy inside its browned and fairly crispy surface. Surrounding it were wands of firm roasted parsnip with their uniquely aromatic, sweet, rooty flavour, and little slices of cooked apple that had been pickled in vinegar with a slightly too heavy hand. Chewy lardons of smoked bacon, a delectable cauliflower purée and a sticky brown reduction of pan juices completed a scrumptious dish. Frédo chose a great wine to sashay down the gastronomic aisle with it – a limpid, elegantly oxidated, altogether seductive 2003 Savagnin from Jacques Puffenay of Arbois in Jura that tasted of walnuts and an autumn walk through the woods. After that, he still had room for a beautifully moist financier cake with fresh orange and citrus sorbet but I declined (for some reason I don’t now remember) and regretted it for the rest of the evening.
“We must go to La Brasserie T next time,” suggested Marie-Pierre. It’s Normand Laprise’s new casual spot next to the Museum of Modern Art, inexpensive and open for lunch. He gets his beef from Cumbrae Farms in Toronto (only Laprise could get away with that in Montreal) – beef of such quality that he can cook his bavette rare and it’s still tender. So that will be a date, next time in Montreal.
La Montée de Lait can be found at 5171 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal. 514 273 8846. www.lamonteedelait.com.