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Montreal Chefs Theme It Up

At themed dinners I’ve eaten tomatoes stuffed into so many courses that my face turned red. In cheese-centric meals I’ve downed enough burrata and mozzarella ice cream to raise cholesterol by 20 points. And really? Chickpeas in every course?


While visiting Montreal I experienced themed dinner dining at its best. Many chefs take time to be inspired during the long, cold winters. In the summer, tourists swarm restaurants after attending events such as the world’s largest jazz festival.


But in February the  Montréal en Lumière festival (Montréal in Lights) draws hungry visitors for food, art, music and world class light shows. This year I attended the 35th annual festival, and the city’s chefs were on their mark, competing to share the most original and flavorful meals.


The chefs evinced a technical yet imaginative way of presenting their native foods. After reflecting on the diverse gastronomic adventures I encountered during Montréal en Lumière, two chefs who crafted unusual themed dinners remain top of mind: André Loiseau of Restaurant Carte Blanche and Julien Robillard of  XO Restaurant. Both chefs imagined the dinner with creative frames. Loiseau in geographic terms and Robillard with a temporal theme. The masterful way they carried the themes through the dinner are applicable anywhere.


A Gourmet Stroll through Montréal


Carte Blanche, says General Manager Philippe Tuil, is all about bistronomy, what he calls a bistro with high gastronomy touches. The French-infused bistro is located in the Midtown-Ville Marie district not far from downtown. Chef Loiseau decided to take his guests on a tour of some of his favorite aspects of Montréal.


The first course of the gourmet stroll set the scene for a relaxing evening doing what Montréal does best—making the most of their city where people are active and interested in sports and the arts. The first course was “Bixi Riding on Mont Royal,” the historic high point of the city after which the city may have been named. Bixi Bixi refers to the public bicycle sharing system which is eco-friendly and popular. Loiseau imagined this activity as a seasonal green salad with Cortland apple wheels and duck foie gras petals, a graphic design of a bicycle wheel.

Salad with apple wheel



Next up, “Walking through Little Italy.” The carpaccio of raw swordfish with parmesan shavings and olive tapenade hit many Italian flavor points. The baguette crouton perched from the middle to the side of bowl in the “Navigating the St. Laurent River, view from the Champlain Bridge” course simulated a bridge over a basin (bowl) of sautéed shiitake ravioli in a fine broth with aromatic herbs.


Loiseau represented the “Casino,” a popular attraction in the city, with hearts of beef filet and a dice of buttered vegetables which evoked the poker table. “La Ronde” course refered to the famous Montéal amusement park and featured a “merry-go-round” of sautéed prawns, flambéed with whiskey. “Indian Summer” was a seletion of Quebec cheeses on a rustic board with nuts and fresh raisins and referenced the old-ways of the more traditionally French Quebec area where many Native Canadians still live. “Old Montréal Paving” featured a traditional maple and old rum pudding chomeur, a classic French Canadian dessert, aka “poor man’s pudding,” named for the chomeur, or unemployed. The “paving” referenced the cobblestone streets in the city’s historic section.


A Winter’s Day in Montréal


Chef Julien Robillard is the brilliant and unassuming 33-year-old executive chef at XO in the venerable Hotel le St-James, housed in a building from the 1870s in Old Montréal. Robillard attending cooking school and received a diploma in food science technology, took workshops at El Bulli under Ferran Adrià, and will soon receive a degree in psychology. His interest in psychology and mind games shows in the tricks he plays with food and the diner. Robillard prepared a menu which not only featured some molecular pairings, but also highlighted a whimsical day in Montréal during winter—translated into food.


The first course was “Shattered Breakfast on the Floor.”  The menu said, “Egg confit, truffle, mimosa and corn consommé.” What looked like the egg white was actually corn consommé fluid gel. The hard, edible eggshell was made with dehydrated egg white. An edible glass shard  was created from isomalt sugar. A fluid gel was composed from mimosa—the same drink, fancied up with Moscato d’Asti  and orange blossom—which happened to be the amuse bouche which arrived as one sat down. The only item on the plate not made in Robillard’s kitchen was the Portuguese corn bread which he grilled and spread with truffle butter.


The next course was a “Wake Up Call.” Robillard roasted pearl potatoes in coffee beans. He then made a “café au lait” from grilled king eringi puree, caramelized popcorn and nuts, coriander salad with a cappuccino of coffee and parmesan foam. The diverse flavors pulled together remarkably on the plate.


For a palate cleanser, Robillard served up “This is Not a Toothbrush.” He had some empty toothpaste tubes and small toothbrushes from another dinner and filled the tubes with Granny Smith apple and tarragon gellée.”  The purpose of this course, he said, was to “help refresh the palate.” And refreshing it was.


After brushing your teeth, you usually look in the mirror. Robillard’s next course was the “Mirror Effect. The white side featured confit scallop and white “caviar, a.k.a. coconut cream spherification, and a dark side with caramelized scallop topped with ultra-caramelized scallop jelly, black caviar and black sand of cocoa crumble—and many other ingredients on both sides. The jam-packed plate worked with an artist presentation and tiny amounts of compatible presentations of the same ingredient.


A complex “Nordic Landscape” featured caribou, a classic Nordic meat also found in Northern Canada and only hunted in special places. Evoking a fire on a winter’s night, a fuming plate contained parsley root roasted with fir tree and with fir tree steam. The intermezzo was “Indian Spring” with edible snow made with an infusion of maple wood, an edible “wood stick” (grissini) and maple taffy, a classic Canadian sweet, mixed with curry. The “official” dessert was “Winter Persists” with dots of citrus white chocolate yogurt gels, lemongrass pound cake, sea salt crumble and blood orange sorbet, made with liquid nitrogen.


But the “Winter” dish was followed by one more entitled “One Last Magic Trick.” Robillard’s  psychology and magic training came in handy here when what looked After Eight mints weren’t what they seemed to be. The dessert was incredibly spicy but yogurt dots calmed it down. The magic trick was an exciting way to wake one up from the busy gastronomic “day” for the nighttime journey home.


After visiting Montréal and spending imaginative evenings with these chefs, the seasonal-vegetable-themed dinners will never be the same. These Montréal chefs have spoiled me by making the theme came alive on each plate.


Photo credit: Deborah Grossman












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