The food of Montreal restaurants reflects the city’s early shifting alliances, with explorers and foreign governments all angling to take control of the lucrative fur trade operating along the shores of the Saint Lawrence River. The local cuisine is a melting pot of influences from indigenous, English, and French roots which has been reinventing itself for centuries.
The harsh winters meant that interlopers from Europe were ill-equipped to feed themselves and could not have survived without the help of the local inhabitants. From their intimate knowledge of land and environment, members of the local tribes educated the new arrivals on how to grow, preserve, prepare, and cook the foods that enabled a reasonable existence over the winter.
Montreal Restaurants — Our Four Best
So it’s no surprise that Montreal’s food culture is rich in Native Indian influence and very local-centric. A word that you hear often when talking with Montreal chefs is “terroir”. What does it mean? People who cook and eat terroir will always prefer to use ingredients that were produced in the region. It signifies that a place has a unique flavor which is cultivated by growing in situ, from the local dirt, breathing the local air. You hear this term bandied about in reference to wine but it can apply to anything grown or raised. Hearing it mentioned is a good sign that you are in the presence of someone with a fine-tuned sense of flavor and local culture, who’s going to whip up some great food!
Off we go then on our hunt for the four best Montreal restaurants that approach their menus with a strong emphasis on terroir.
It’s lunch time and we are heading to HÀO: Comptoir Asiatique (Asian Counter) in Plateau Mont-Royal, a former working class neighborhood famous for its colorful houses, and now the home to many young professional “Montrealers”.
Opened in 2016 by Rachelle Valle, William Valle and Charles Delluvio, the three siblings were familiar with the food business early, growing up around their parents’ family restaurant. After professional careers in design and business, the three decided to take the leap to create a place that serves the food of their childhood, inspired by their Filipino heritage.
Buns with braised pork shoulder or tofu, and mushroom and pepper, are on the menu daily. When we arrived, the bamboo dumpling steamers were stacked up high and heating up, filled with the first batch of buns for the line of customers.
The small room is designed sparingly with just the essentials: kitchen, counter and a sink for washing hands. But it’s all you need. The sink is a smart, unexpected addition that seems like a luxury in the otherwise spare environment. The simple room makes food the focus. Only the freshest local produce are used resulting in amazingly tasty buns!
The three siblings are constantly tweaking the menu, trying out different dishes to accompany the buns, and plotting the expansion of their enterprise. We expect great things to come from HÀO and its talented owners. www.epiceriehao.com
2 Le Fantome
The sun is starting to set over Griffintown, in the Southwest part of Montreal, where Irish immigrants made their first homes in the new world. Formerly a manufacturing center, Griffintown is transforming at a rapid pace, with old factories converting into condos and new restaurants.
Hidden in one of those small industrial buildings on William Street you’ll find the most exciting food and dining in Montreal.
These days new restaurants are often planned by savvy consultants according to a checklist of ingredients for success. Le Fantome plays by its own rules and does not care about decorative gimmicks. Preferring to concentrate the drama on the plate, the dining experience at Le Fantome is a delight.
The brains behind Le Fantome, maitre d’ Kabir Kapoor and chef Jason Morris, are quite new to the restaurant scene, but their strong vision makes it feel as if Le Fantome has been around for ages.
Kapoor’s parents owned a popular Indian restaurant in town so he is no stranger to hospitality, and Morris, who was raised in a family of artists and artisans, took his creativity in another direction, working his way up through the ranks at several well-known restaurants before striking out on his own.
With a nod to the family’s creative wellspring, much of the dinnerware has been handcrafted by Jason’s mother, and the combination with Jason’s food is curiously harmonious
The menu is just a small card, with no flowery descriptions. Dishes are described with just one or two words, “Potato”, “Lamb-Vanilla” or “Bass & Leek”. It’s usually enough, but the waiters are ready with more elaborate dish descriptions should you need more.
Another thing that’s less than you might expect is the bill. For such amazing food, it is quite affordable. That was important for Jason and Kapoor. Their ambition was for a grounded place full of locals that come regularly. They have hit upon a good balance and the steady stream of customers pouring in on a weeknight is a testament. But we did hear a rumor that Justin Trudeau’s mom is regular, so you could also end up brushing shoulders with both Griffintown locals the Canadian political class.
Finally, there are plenty of options to make vegetarians happy, and be sure to try the daily-baked sourdough. I have been researching and seeking out handcrafted sourdough bread of late and have not eaten better than Jason’s. It’s just heavenly. www.restofantome.ca
The next day sees the first snowfall of the season. People tell us it’s just a “drizzle” and with temperatures dropping quickly we learn that this part of the world needs more vocabulary than the standard four words to describe the seasons. So they call this time of year “late fall” but to most of us from under the 49th parallel, when it’s this cold it’s winter. Time to find some good friends and a nice cozy fire to gather around.
Foxy, another Griffintown dining destination, was founded by Dyan Solomon and Éric Girard, who met while working at the renowned Toque. The 23-year-old Toque comes close to culinary royalty in Montreal and is the wellspring of a bevy of talented chefs who have ventured out to open their own Montreal restaurants.
The restaurant is named after their dog “Foxy”, whose black and white photographs are built into the interior design. As we arrive we are greeted by Chef Leigh Roper who is knee deep in firewood getting the massive wood burning oven warmed up. The open kitchen with open fire oven is the centerpiece of the room. The warm glow, fragrant smoky odor and cracking fire give you the feeling that you have arrived at a hut far up in the mountains. The frosty air and falling snow outside add to the impression.
Leigh gathers her team of Vanessa Laberge and Vincent Russell around the fire to discuss the menu for the night. Fitting with the cozy atmosphere, the menu features many comfort food options, but not the expected ones. Each has an element that’s familiar but Leigh’s interpretation is always a surprise. For me that’s a winning strategy, a familiar dish imbued with surprising innovation. And with the menu all emanating from the restaurant’s hearth, so to speak, Leigh’s open-fire dishes can’t help but delight.
Come for the food but enjoy hanging out with plenty of cool locals in one of the coziest of Montreal restaurants. www.foxy.restaurant
4 Montreal Plaza
Over on Plaza Hubert we visit the restaurant of long-time collaborators, Charles-Antoine Crete and Cheryl Johnson. After working together for many years at Toque they combined their talents to create a new dining experience, Montreal Plaza.
Charles and Cheryl have a totally clear vision for what a restaurant’s atmosphere should be. Amazing food is the foundation, but built on that is a dining experience guaranteed to bring a smile to everyone that walks through the doors. To pull that off they have fine tuned every visual and audible element at their disposal to bring maximum joy to their guests. The resulting experience elicits nothing less than broad smiles all around, and there’s a good chance of experiencing howls of laughter during your evening out.
The decor takes you by surprise. It’s eclectic but like nothing you’ve seen in a restaurant before. First impressions: is it a museum, an antique shop? Old clocks, a flower room, an upside-down wooden house spins above a dining table. Have you stumbled into an Alice in Wonderland tea party? It’s all too much to absorb and puts you a bit off balance. Just in time a maitre d’ steps in to steady you. He’s warm, a bit cheeky, exuding fun. Two minutes in and I’m already smiling.
It’s early in the night’s service but the room is filling up quickly. True to their ambition of catering to the most diverse of crowds, arriving with us are families, couples, young hipsters, and a group of celebrating coworkers. And somehow, food, decor, and an engaging staff combine to inspire a joyous, party-like atmosphere.
Our tasting started with a plate of soft, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, locally sourced and accompanied by a happy band of smurf figurines. Prosciutto with a smile. Next, fried Brussels sprouts on the stem with melted cheese–a most unusual but oh so tasty dish. The food keeps coming …
Charles and Cheryl take a break from the kitchen to work the room, checking in with guests as the dining room fills up. A birthday party is taking place a few tables away. Suddenly the lights dim and the Star Wars theme blasts through the speakers. A waiter bursts out of the kitchen and parades around the room carrying a giant metal tube over his head outfitted with sparklers. With the whole restaurant joining in, the extravaganza leaves you speechless. It’s delicious, fun, unexpected, and a fantastic night out.
We wanted to wrap up our Montreal Restaurants tour with a bang. And I have to say, we nailed it! Thanks to Charles, Cheryl and the rest of the Montreal Plaza crew. www.montrealplaza.com
For hours, menus and more information about our picks for the best Montreal Restaurants follow these links:
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