Capsule Reviews of Expensive Restaurants (from a vegetarian perspective)

I promise that this isn’t going to turn into an annoying foodie blog. It’s just that my life has been consumed lately with matters that can’t be blogged about, like a search. But one of the plus sides of interviewing job candidates is the opportunity to go out to expensive restaurants that I might not otherwise frequent — with candidates and colleagues. Of course, I present an additional challenge for such places, since they are usually pretty meaty. Most of the good veggie stuff is a step or two down in terms of price, which suits me fine. The deal with all of these places is that at the time of booking a reservation, they were notified a vegetarian was coming and had affirmed that they were willing to accommodate a vegetarian.

Here’s a ranked review of 5 places we went over the last month or two:

1. La Montée du Lait. 4 plates, $44 dollars. Mix and match from appetizers, salads, mains and desserts. Each course comes with a matched wine. Of course that more than doubles the price of the meal. There were just enough veggie options on the menu to pull it off and they said that if I didn’t see anything I wanted on the menu, they would “come up with something else for me.” The food was beautifully presented and delectable with just a touch of molecular gastronomy flourish. Everyone at the table was delighted, and even though I’m not a big pair-your-wine-with-your-food kind of guy, they really know what they’re doing here. Now at the top of my Montreal fine dining line.

2. Chez l’Epicier. They used to be #1 on my list, and haven’t slipped at all; it’s just that La Montée is slight more amazing. Usually I had to request a special veggie dish ahead of time for a main course but this time they actually had a “fennel this way and that” dish and did quite nicely. They are perhaps a bit more avant-garde in presentation and in their use of molecular gastronomy techniques (my colleague’s “shrimp foam” was not entirely a hit but you’ve got to give them an A for effort). My amuse bouche was the conversation piece of the night. It was a cherry tomato encrusted with something tasty and stuck on the end of an eye dropper (for dramatic effect my colleagues prefer to call it a “syringe” — I can assure you that I’m not putting syringes in my mouth). Anyway, you eat the tomato and then squirt the contents of the syringe in your mouth. There was some combination of truffle oil and vinegar and the taste sensation is quite intense. I loved it, my colleagues laughed. It was totally worth it. Definitely a dining experience as much as it is a meal.

3. Cafe Ferreira. Basically, Portuguese is a cuisine to be avoided by vegetarians because at least as its prepared here, it’s mostly meat and fish dishes. However, this place, knowing their clientele, has come up with a main dish pasta that looked pretty good. Luckily I asked the server if they had anything else and the chef came up with a wonderful risotto that wasn’t on the menu and wasn’t like any other risotto I’ve had. I told them it should be on the menu. My colleagues absolutely loved the place. UPDATE: I went back with Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler when they were in town and got the porcini pasta. OMGWTFBBQ. I have had many porcini pastas in town and this was definitely the best.

4. Pintxo. Basque Tapas. The pintxos are smaller than regular tapas but beautifully presented. Everyone ordered a few plus a main dish. I got the vegetarian option (not on the menu) which included an excellent risotto and four vegetarian pintxos. This place might have been #3 except that it I accidentally ate a snail when one of the servers told us that the mushroom dish was vegetarian when it wasn’t (I’m sure he was either new or clueless and not malicious). On the upside, I’m not sure I would have known that I’d eaten a snail if I hadn’t been told by our main server. I just thought the mushrooms had an added weird texture, as mushrooms do. Chalk it up to experience. Now I know what snails are like. This place has the exquisite presentation of #s 1 and 2 above if you like your meals a little showy. It turned out to be a little less expensive, too.

5. Bistro Laloux. Definitely on my “not getting my money again” list. I called ahead to see if they do anything for vegetarians, they said yes. I arrive, and seeing nothing on the menu, alert my server that I’m the vegetarian they were warned about. The appetizer with yellow beets was delightful, but the main dish was pasta with vegetables and way too much oil. To add insult to insult (no injury was incurred), the meaty pasta dish contained truffles, but my veggie version did not. I didn’t notice a discount on the bill. I thought maybe my carnivore companions liked it better but the responses were lukewarm rather than ecstatic. Given that they were rude to me in 2005 when we went there with Lev Manovich (I’d forgotten that part until I got there), it’s off my list for good.

Honorable mention: the cafe at the Musée McCord. As chair, I took candidates there instead of the faculty club for the “lunch with the chair.” Why? Because the culinary world of the faculty club is the world of soft food of a bygone age, when steam tables reigned supreme and vegetarian cookbooks were handwritten, passed down from hippie to hippie, and had titles like TOFU! Miracle food of the East!. The McCord cafe was much nicer, the candidates liked it, and everyone was well-cared for. I wouldn’t be a regular otherwise (there are more fun and less fancy options downtown) but it’s good enough. That said, the faculty club is a charming building and certainly worth showing off for the architecture. And of course, the meal can be charged directly to a departmental account.

Special thanks to the existence of consumer credit. A colleague heard I was doing a search and said “I hope you have lots of room on your credit card. You’re going to need it.” Good lord was he right. Here’s to hoping the reimbursement comes through in time!

I am so done with fine dining for awhile. My preferences normally run much more towards ethnic, which is a few steps down the cost ladder.