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In terms of restaurant rumblings, 2010 has been quiet thus far. Openings have been few and far between, and a handful of our best restaurants have closed, including La Montée, Brontë, and Laval's Derrière les Fagots. But, looking back, 2010 might go down as the year haute cuisine took a beating. Save for a handful of cooks dedicated to white-tablecloth dining, the majority of Montreal chefs are favouring a more casual approach.

 

Seated at the ultra-posh restaurant XO on a Saturday night in late March, I was sad to see only a few tables occupied. Chef Michele Mercuri, visiting our table after we had enjoyed a pitch-perfect meal, looked utterly discouraged. Yet visit establishments with a more casual-upscale concept and you'll see crowds - I'm talking about restaurants like Au Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef/Liverpool House, Le St. Urbain, Garde Manger, M sur Masson, Monkland Tavern/Tavern on the Square, Mas Cuisine, Greasy Spoon, Macaroni Bar, BBQ, Kitchenette, Kitchen Galerie and the list goes on.

 

Some are turning out more sophisticated cuisine than others, but what they all have in common is that they are shunning the trappings of traditional fine-dining in favour of placemat- or paper-topped tables, relaxed waiters, large portions, outré wine choices, and food that ranges from French bistro, to nouvelle Québécois, to American comfort classics. And, as for ambience, bolstered by some pretty rockin' background tunes, these restaurants are buzzing - quite the contrast to the stuffy atmosphere associated with the old-school gourmet experience.

 

Toqué!'s chef-owner Normand Laprise doesn't attempt to hide the fact that business has dipped over the past year. "We have the image of being the once-a-year, big-event restaurant," he says. "We were selling a lot of tasting menus and big wines. Tourists came to Montreal specifically to eat here. But in last year's recession, we were walking too close to the line. So now we're working on getting our bar business moving, so people can come here and eat a few dishes after work or before going to the theatre. We want to be a restaurant not where people come just for occasions between 7 and 9:30 p.m., but also to eat and drink and relax."

 

Candid about the competition, Laprise confirms there's a boom in what he refers to as "the middle end" restaurants. "This city can't support eight high-end restaurants like Toqué!," he says. "Casual restaurants are what people are looking for now, but in the future, who knows what will happen. There will always be 'white tablecloth' (high end) restaurants. But hopefully good ones. Those tablecloths should be cotton, not polyester."

 

Laprise is opening a new restaurant next week in the Quartier des Spectacles. But don't expect tasting menus. It's going to be a high-volume brasserie.

 

In December of 2001, while dining at a brand new restaurant called Au Pied de Cochon, I was served a foie gras flan with a purée of figs and croutons. The foie had the requisite smooth texture and pleasant sweet flavour, but that's not what I remember about it. No, what stuck out about that flan was that it was served in a Mason jar. That may not sound unusual today, but this was a time when chefs were serving elaborate dishes like lobster strudel and parmentier de lapereau (a rabbit dish) on square white plates surrounded by gleaming cutlery and pricey stemware atop pristine white tablecloths.

 

At Au Pied, the table was bare, the kitchen was open, the sommelier was cool, and the chef, Martin Picard, was the definition of the term "unshaven."

 

Picard was also turning out some pretty original dishes. A veteran of Toqué!, he was a chef to be reckoned with. Yet instead of favouring the nouvelle Québécois cuisine popular at the time, Picard was reinventing old-school Québécois classics like cipaille (a game-meat pie), pork and beans, and pouding chômeur, as well as poutine and braised pig's feet adorned with plenty of foie gras.

 

And Picard wasn't the only chef giving casual food a makeover. In 2000, David McMillan at Globe (another Toqué! veteran) was serving anglo comfort food like dirty-mashed potatoes, brick-roasted Cornish hen, baby back ribs, and homemade alphabet soup. Ingredients were organic; meats and fowl were free range from local farmers. Plate presentations included neither tuiles nor marbled sauces. Portions were more in line with steak house fare than the tasting-menu-driven cuisine so popular at the time.

 

It wouldn't be a stretch to say these two enfants terribles of the Montreal restaurant scene would be instrumental in the way cooking has evolved in the city. For, as their style of laid-back restaurants and simplified high-end cuisine have become increasingly popular, haute cuisine options are dwindling.

 

"In Montreal, the high end just isn't working anymore," says Hugo Duchesne, co-owner of restaurant La Montée de Lait. Duchesne and chef Martin Juneau recently shut their Bishop St. restaurant, La Montée, after two years in business, after realizing the restaurant was destined to fail. "We weren't having any fun," says Duchesne. "The restaurant was too big, too stressful and too expensive. The downtown location turned us into a special-occasion restaurant and we always had to be full to break even, which meant we had to fill 85 seats. In two to three years we would have had to close for sure."

 

The duo moved into their other restaurant, a wine bar called Bouchonné in Mile End, which they rechristened La Montée de Lait after their first successful restaurant on the Plateau (and the name they took when they moved downtown in 2008). "Our goal now is to serve good food, made with excellent ingredients, in a room with a nice atmosphere. Nothing uppity, flashy or heavy, just simple food."

 

With three fewer cooks in the kitchen and 48 seats in the dining room, Duchesne says the plates may be less fussy, but that quality still rules. "For us it's about pleasure, not marks or stars. We want to relax, have fun. We want a more convivial atmosphere and food served on large platters. That whole gastronomic side of cooking doesn't work anymore. It's static, expensive. But on the flip side we don't want this to be a supper club where people dance on the tables."

 

Yet it would be false to think these restaurants are in casual territory when it comes to price. Plate presentations may be less elaborate, tableware less fancy, and the ambience more relaxed, but the one category no one seems to be cutting back on is quality of ingredients.

 

At Joe Beef, where McMillan and co-chef and partner Frédéric Morin create a new menu almost daily, the cuisine is rarely elaborate, but the food cost is always high. One of their signature dishes, a take on the traditional Canadian shore lunch, is made with locally-sourced trout, organic potatoes, homemade beans and home-smoked bacon.

 

"People complain that the food's expensive for what it is," says Morin, "only because there's a black line around the plate and Led Zeppelin playing in the background. But the bigger portions of more casual fare take a bite out of us. All of our ingredients are expensive, even the bread. I'm paying $6 a pound for butter and now we've stopped selling bottled water so we're losing money there. But our trout dish is still only $23, and chicken with morels is $30. Our lobster spaghetti is $48, but last week we were serving it with a 2-pound lobster, which many restaurants are selling at $33 per pound."

 

Their lack of formality, says Morin, originated at Globe where "there was comfortable food, paper on the tables, non-obtrusive wine service, and we were close to our customers. And lately there's been a backlash to all that cerebral, hyper-worked food. When you think about it, 'nouvelle cuisine' wasn't so much cooking as assembling, and that whole heaviness in the dining room dated from a time when you could pay a kid next to nothing to fold napkins."

 

The cost of running an upscale restaurant is also a burning issue. Rents are steep downtown, which explains why many high-end casual restaurants are located outside the city centre. And then there's the matter of staffing, as in the number of hands in the kitchen required to create those beautiful plates. Laprise says each of his dishes requires between seven to 12 steps to assemble, as in braise the leek, sauté the scallop, plate the polenta, add one or several sauces, top with micro arugula and so on. A table of four customers can require close to 50 steps for the main course, which explains why the Toqué! kitchen staff counts 16 cooks for the dinner service's 100 to 120 customers. Laprise predicts that at his new brasserie, each dish will count three to four steps, which will require only four cooks in the kitchen to cover 160 customers a night.

 

With more profit potential in the brasserie, one questions what keeps Laprise tied to the high end. "Our reputation is that of a 'Grand Restaurant,' " he says, "but when I was about to turn 50 I had a friend who said why not just turn Toqué! into a big bistro. But I didn't work this long to change everything because we weren't in fashion at the time."

 

Upscale casual may be à la mode right now, but not all restaurant- goers are so keen on the new genre. "People from New York and Boston get it," says Morin, "as do most Parisians, but we recently had a call from one of the city's top hotel concierges to up things a bit because their customers didn't want to eat in a boui-boui."

 

But the chefs are getting it, so much so that some once responsible for Montreal's fanciest food, have now drastically pared down their style.

 

Eric Gonzalez built his reputation as the chef of several of the city's most luxurious restaurants and hotel dining rooms including Le Lutétia, Cube and XO. Yet at his last two locations, Café Ferreira and Laloux, one could sense the French chef, who has worked for Michelin-star masters like Bernard Loiseau and Jacques Chibois, changing direction.

 

"I started to ask myself a lot of questions when I left Cube," says Gonzalez, who now works as executive chef at the Auberge Le Saint-Gabriel. "The image people had of me was not the way I wanted to be perceived. French, big ego, full of myself. Yes, I love haute gastronomie but it became my language and the way people sold me. So I'm trying to change my cuisine's image to be more convivial and accessible to all. I'm a simple but passionate person, who is not here to impress but share my point of view."

 

Having worked his way to the top, Gonzalez is well placed to defend haute cuisine. But that's hardly the case.

 

"People don't want that anymore," he says, "It's heavy going. They want to feel comfortable when they eat. No pretension. Yet we must respect the patrimony that was left behind, the great bases given to our generation. And anyway, all these labels we put on cooking are ridiculous. Gastro, bistro ... they're just expressions. Cooking is either good or not. Even a hamburger can be great."

 

Gonzalez says his new menu reflects a more humble approach. "I'll continue to serve foie gras, but in a terrine with bread toasted on the fireplace and rubbed with salted butter. It's simple, but it's still important that the food be well-cooked, properly seasoned and made with the best ingredients."

 

Morin concurs, saying, "We're not in the business of making a statement. We're here to make people happy. We had a fire marshal show up the other day. We thought he came because there was a problem. But, it turns out, he just wanted to try our ribs."

 

(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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je travail dans le domaine, et je peut vous dire que les modes y sont incroyablement ephemeres. c'est pour le mieux, surement, sauf que l'evidente consequence facheuse de tout ca est que beaucoup d'etablissements souffrent d'une aussi courte duree de vie que la mode a laquelle ils on choisi d'adherer ... ..

 

!

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