Catherine and I have a lot to celebrate. Her recent offer from Austin, her less recent doctoral defense, ten years of living together… We had promised ourselves one truly good restaurant meal. In fact, this promise was made several times over the past year or so but we had never been able to fulfill it.
L’Express was supposed to be the place where we would get that meal. The first time we went, a few years ago, we had one of the best possible meals we could have. Sometimes, ambiance plays a role. It was just such a great meal that we wanted to renew the pleasure we had then.
Catherine was coming to Montreal for the weekend (she had organised a conference presentation at her alma mater). She asked me to make reservations at l’Express. Montreal isn’t a city where reservations are usually needed and I thought I could make the reservations 24 hours in advance. Turns out, I was wrong and the restaurant only had room at 10 p.m., yesterday (Saturday). Because Catherine was leaving Montreal early in the morning today (Sunday), 10 p.m. was too late.
So we started thinking about other places to fulfill our desire for a dream date. Montreal is full of great restaurants and we wanted this night to be special. We eventually began to think about places where we hadn’t been but were likely to be good.
Catherine and I had seen chef Ian Perreault on a tv show (which should remain nameless). What struck us was the way he talked and thought about food. He made a lasting impression on me specifically because his perspective on food seemed quite compatible with mine. A passion for flavour which encompasses creativity and technique. An open attitude to sensory experience which could overcome snobbish preconceptions. Originality and personality in a meal. The kind of guy who, like a real Chowhound, appreciates a snack at a diner as much as a homecooked meal.
So we made reservations and prepared ourselves to a unique meal at Restaurant AREA (or “Rest Area,” as they playfully call it).
My expectations were high. Catherine and I had spent a remarkable couple of days and we wanted this to work. This restaurant carries a rather good reputation and we expected the best.
As it turns out, we were not disappointed. Ian Perreault does know what he’s doing. But, more than that, he’s doing what he wants. He’s playing with culinary principles. Not to dazzle foodies but to satisfy his own taste for life and food.
We savoured the whole meal, taking our time, and thinking about the food. The details are a bit hard to remember but the general idea was striking: this is food for food lovers. Catherine had the Valentine’s Day table d’hôte. I had the shrimp tempura appetizer and the pork hock entrée.
One common theme through the meal (and obvious on the Rest Area website, in French) is that you can recognise your mother’s cooking in these fancy-schmancy dishes. While the sauces were both flavourful and delicate, they didn’t detract from the qualities of what they were meant to accompany. For instance, the slow-cooked pork hock was elegant and refined yet still tasted like homecooked pork hock, at least in part. Food that transports you to different parts of the world (mostly Asia and Europe) with unique flavours yet brings you back home with the nostalgia of mom’s Québécois cooking. Another meaning for “fusion” cuisine.
Ian Perreault’s predilection for certain dimensions of cuisine are obvious. The dishes we had weren’t necessarily meant for just anyone and did seem to represent the kind of food Perreault would like for himself. For instance, he really seems to enjoy unusual combinations of the basic five tastes (salty, savoury, sweet, bitter, and sour). In fact, some of the food we had went rather far on the salty side of things, which may be less pleasurable to some people. Catherine, who loves salty food, even thought the flageolet beans served with her lamb were just a bit too salty for her.
Perreault also loves to play with texture, and it shows. Which might explain why the shrimp might have been a bit undercooked for my favourite seafood expert (Catherine comes from the seashore). Not that any of this detracted us from the quality of the food. But it’s interesting to notice how obvious some of Perreault’s choices are. Playing with Maillard-heavy braisé flavours and crunchy textures coupled with enrobing richness and creaminess. The analogies with other forms of art were quite direct, IMHO.
Catherine’s favourite part of the meal was the very first one: a butternut squash milk, made to accompany some tempura snails. The milk itself was precisely this kind of sophisticated concoction that still reminds one of deceivingly simple homecooking. Her least favourite part of the evening was… the music. Even to me, the music was a bit overbearing. I can understand the concept but it clearly didn’t enhance our pleasure of the meal.
So, AREA isn’t meant for everyone but because Perreault’s preferences happen to correlate fairly well with ours, we were quite satisfied with our experience there.
What I’m trying to get across, apart from the fact that “restaurant reviews” should assume their subjectivity, is that food as art implies attitude as much as proficiency.
Much is said, these days, about star chefs, especially among Euro-American English-speaking food lovers. Perreault himself plays that kind of a role: the restaurant’s website has videos of him, he has appeared on several tv shows, and his restaurant is clearly his “baby.” Yet Perreault has been able to maintain is “regular guy” persona. He’s still quite young and his tv show presence seems realistic enough in his anti-snobbery stance. The restaurant’s website links to some well-known food and cooking institutions (including Laguiole knifemaker Michel Bras) as well as some sports institutions like the NHL and PGA (with the implication that Perreault or others at AREA are fans of hockey and golf).
These elements exist in other chef-centred presentations, such as in interviews with well-known chefs on food podcasts like Food Philosophy. What makes Perreault different, in my mind, is how much of Québécois cultural specificity is obvious in his attitude and cuisine. Quebec, these days, is pretty big on «terroir» foods, which typically imply fruits we can only find in Quebec or a typical Québécois way to prepare things. But Perreault doesn’t need to use these items to remain a true Québécois. If nothing else, Perreault’s passion for non-snobbish cooking is quite typical of Québécois values.
Cultural identity is a neat concept, especially when it’s coupled with open-mindedness.