In the press
“ Laloux… je t’aime. ”
Fine Dining: Laloux
Despite a seemingly revolving door of chefs, one of the city’s best destinations offers gorgeous setting and spiffy food
By Lesley Chesterman, Gazette Fine-Dining Critic
Laloux's lineup (from left): Geneviève Hamel (maitre d'), Marie-Ève Savard Brulotte (sommelière), Fanny Alaizeau (manager-maitre d'), Jonathan Lapierre-Réhayem (chef) and Stéphanie Labelle (chef de pâtisserie) are continuing the restaurant's tradition of delectable food and great service.
Photograph by: Dave Sidaway, THE GAZETTE
MONTREAL - As anyone who reads this column regularly is aware, Laloux has been written up often. This is my sixth review of this establishment, and considering the frequency at which the chefs come and go – averaging a new one every two years – chances are I'll be back again.
This was hardly the case in the restaurant's early days. After the initial chef, Philippe Laloux (for whom the restaurant was named), departed after less than a year, the second chef, André Besson, remained for almost 17.
Of the 25 years Laloux has been a darling of sophisticated Montreal diners, the Besson years stood out to me as the most magnificent. Though his elegant cuisine evolved little over the years, when dishes like his tourte de gibier and foie de veau à la vinaigre de framboise were on the menu, Laloux seemed the epitome of fine French dining. Coupled with the restaurant's outstanding wine list, chock full of private imports before anyone knew what the term meant, dinner here was a guaranteed treat.
And there has always been the setting itself. Entering this beautiful dining room – with its pale bright yellow walls and dark-green-framed mirrors, which loom over white-linen-topped tables – is always a thrill. No contest, this is my favourite dining room in Montreal. Chefs may change at Laloux, but the decor does not, and for that I am eternally grateful.
When Besson left and various chefs were hired to rethink the concept, scathing reviews followed. Yet soon after, the dynamic chef duo of Danny St-Pierre and pastry chef Patrice Demers were brought on board, followed by a bevy of other talented cooks and pastry chefs including Marc-André Jetté, Eric Gonzales, Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek.
When Gabrielse and Marek exited stage left for the SAT Foodlab last fall, I feared for Laloux all over again. And when I heard the terrific maitre d' Francis Archambault was also leaving for Daniel Boulud's coming restaurant at the Ritz, I was downright worried. Amid the changes behind the stoves, Archambault had been the one consistent factor in the dining room. With him gone, could Laloux maintain its magic?
The new chef is Jonathan Lapierre-Réhayem, and having reviewed his food at the now-defunct La Montée de Lait, I knew what to expect. Despite the many highs of that meal, I felt his food was trying too hard; it was fussy. Lapierre-Réhayem started at Laloux last fall, and I have been hoping he finds his groove – one less convoluted.
I entered Laloux, or should I say re-entered Laloux, fearing the worst. And you know what? I need not have worried. Laloux is still a great restaurant. It's not the same restaurant as in the Besson days or the St-Pierre days, or any of the other former chef days, but there is such a great level of friendliness and good intentions that I was happy for the four lovely hours I dined there. And you know what else? Lapierre-Rehayem's food has relaxed greatly and is just as filled with joy and love as that of Laloux's previous chefs. It's not all perfect, but, gosh, there is a heck of a lot to like here.
After an amuse-bouche featuring a raw scallop paired with cucumber jelly served with a small glass of Austrian gruner veltliner by the oh-so-sharp sommelière Marie-Ève Savard-Brulotte, we jumped right into the starters. The first was a large marrow bone. Served with green apple, kohlrabi and a juniper crumble, the unctuous marrow was perfectly poached, and the acidity of the apple and bitterness of the juniper uplifted the richness of the dish, with the crumble and kohlrabi slices providing a much-need bit of crunch. I also enjoyed the beef tartare. The outside of the beef filet was first grilled to boost the flavour, and then chopped, seasoned, mixed with tiny croutons and served with some marinated mustard seeds, cherry tomatoes and a buttermilk dressing. Not only gorgeous to look at, this dish was also delicious tasting, with several textures and flavours at play. Nice.
My only slight hesitation was with an appetizer made up of a hemp seed-sprinkled pastry square paired with a fried quail's egg, caramelized onion purée, seared king eryngii mushrooms and homemade ricotta. The prettiest dish of the evening, this mélange of ingredients didn't quite come together. Everything was good, mind you, but I felt there was an element lacking to tie it all together.
Main courses did pretty well, though, the best being the calf's liver. This luxurious "foie" was served in three thick slices, with an accompaniment of roasted-garlic polenta, carrots and bresaola. The liver was superb, as was the velvety polenta. The carrots were good and the shiny brown sauce beneath it all was a success. The leathery bresaola didn't have much of a purpose on this plate, but I was too taken with the liver to care. A scrumptious dish, and for $18 a steal.
I also enjoyed the duck, a duo of magret and a brined and roasted duck leg described on the menu as a "jambonneau," which actually did have a ham-like colour, texture and even flavour. The breast was pink and only slightly chewy, and the braised endive, white bean purée and sautéed rice lettuce (laitue de riz, which looks a lot like romaine) all played along nicely.
However, the third main course left me wanting. Surrounding a delectable filet of pickerel (doré du lac), the elements here included cherry tomatoes, Nordic shrimp, bitter greens and homemade ketchup. This was the only dish that reminded me of the overkill I had experienced in Lapierre-Rehayem's food of the past. There were at least one or two items that added nothing to the dish, and the ketchup was too strong for such delicate fish. Keep the bitter greens ... add a more elegant sauce ... ditch the tomatoes ... whatever. Just resist the temptation to crowd the bejesus out of it all.
Before dessert, I couldn't resist a few slices of cheese to polish off the delicious Sicilian Sp 68 by Arianna Occhipinti sold for a reasonable $49. Laloux has always done the cheese course well, and two of the three Quebec cheeses we sampled were new to me, which is always a treat to discover.
And speaking of treats, dessert is not to be missed. Pastry chef Stéphanie Labelle, best known as the owner of the superb Plateau pastry shop Rhubarbe, makes desserts that are copious, bold in flavour and simple in style.
Served with a pitcher of caramel sauce, her profiteroles are filled with swirls of light custard cream and surrounded by a macadamia nut crumble. What's not to like?
I also relished her chocolate dessert, made up of a chocolate meringue dome filled with a light chocolate mousse and passion fruit. The only off note here is a wasabi ice cream, which overwhelmed all the other flavours.
The last dessert, a mix of poppyseed cake, lemon cream, lemon jelly and white chocolate crumble, could use something red (fraises des bois?) in the presentation to brighten it up. As is, the pallid yellow-and-white colour scheme verges on depressing, and shouldn't dessert be fun?
One thing that surprised me about dinner at Laloux was that the room wasn't full. That should change. Laloux offers excellent service (our waiter, Martin, was swell), a superb selection of well-priced wines, a gorgeous setting and some pretty spiffy food. And prices are more reasonable than ever.
Sure, there are newer restaurants out there to explore. But I also like to support the city's older restaurants, which work hard to keep things fresh. There's no denying Laloux management may be hogging reviewers' attention by changing chefs so often. A couple of grumbling chefs have even whispered to me that this may indeed be a brilliant ploy.
Well, ploy, shmoy. I will always be happy to return to this restaurant. Simply put: Laloux ... je t'aime.
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