1595 St Laurent Blvd, Montreal, H2X 2S9
It took me just one visit here, couple of years ago, to be impressed. So much so that it has been in my top 5 favourite dining destinations of Montreal, since then. It is always controversial to consider a restaurant as one of your city’s very best upon visiting it just once, but there was no surprise with my initial great impression of this restaurant: at its helm, one of Quebec’s most talented Chefs was in charge. Chef Francois Nadon was one of the most brilliant cooks of the Mercuris entourage, one of QC’s most gifted and legendary family of Chefs. He was cooking on that first visit, and what had to happen happened: it was a stunning meal by local standards.
On this evening (Tues Sept 3rd 2013, 20:00), I went back to see how his cooking has evolved. He is still the Exec Chef at Bouillon Bilk.
I sat at ‘the comptoir’, their bar if you prefer. The menu is typical Mercuri/Nadon style: a collection of ingredients (on average, 5 – 6 ingredients are used on each of the dishes, ) at the service of a contemporary refined bistrot cooking style that can be more accurately described as ‘eclectic’ and ‘cosmopolitan’. Chefs like Mercuri and Nadon do this really well, so I was excited to enjoy once again such a style that is not that common in Montreal (of course, as a foodie once wrote to me …it is déjà vu abroad. To which, I have to remind that 99% of what is cooked is déjà vu…no matter the greatness of who’s cooking it. I mean, apart Alinea, the Fat Duck, the Adrias, Redzépi, some few of the Spaniard Chefs and a handful others..a handful … not many are truely standing out in an exceptional way in relation to what is already established at the finest evels of world dining. Let alone at the standard of dining found in a city like Montreal (Montreal is not a top dining destination as far as I know…). But Bouillon Bilk has always been for me a favourite by comparison to local Montreal restaurant standards.
On this evening, an amuse bouche of poached shrimp (Nordic shrimps) in a dashi bouillon. A far cry from the stunning savory umami flavor of the dashi bouillon I had once at restaurant Park. Notice that I keep the comparisons local, here. In a nutshell, a bouillon that was way too subtle (There is not just one way to make a dashi stock, but regardless of the form that it takes, a dashi stock requires very precise umami kick, or else it’s pointless to make one. There are of course some subtle versions of the dashi stock, but this evening’s version has nothing to do with those) to be exciting and Nordic shrimps….like it or not, do not come with the bold shrimp flavor that can mark souvenirs. I am not saying they are bad. I am just saying that they brought nothing to this amuse. And if you are going to make me pay for an amuse ($5) — a first for me and surely something that can be potentially unpopular (the only reason I offer no resistance to things like those is because I always want to give the kitchen some momentum so that they express themselves fully with not one single contradiction…but of course, if you do not seize the momentum I am offering to you, then…well….my patience has its limits ) ———- , I am still fine with that…but make it amusing, because amused I was not! 5/10
Then beef tataki (again, the beefy kick too subtle despite a decent ginger/soya flavor that served as seasoning), urchin (irrelevant on this dish, to the point that even a great fan of urchin like me did not even notice its presence), radish, salicornia and fried corn. The fried corn was memorable for its impact in mouth (a great caramel kick to remember for a while), but the overall was underwhelming for me. No particular palatable excitement, but the thought that few Chefs can indeed transform this array of ingredients into something cohesive and memorable. Chefs like Nadon, Mercuri do just that: they are among the few who, in town, can make such collection of ingredients somehow great in all aspects (technical cohesion, palatability, etc). The beef tataki could not testify to that. 5/10
Then tomatoes, zucchini flower, burrata, melon. Zucchini flowers were certainly not bad, their stuffing of burrata logical, but I had far better textured zucchini flowers at many bistrots here and in France, ones that had perfect light and crunchy shapes I failed to get with the zucchini flowers I was having on this evening. Little detail..perhaps, but details that set ordinary fried zucchini flowers from better ones. Fried zucchini blossoms are nowadays popular in most home kitchens, so easy and fun to make, so restaurants have just one way out: offering a version that is out of the ordinary. It is doable, many bistrots are doing it. On top of the ordinary zucchini flowers, I was left with not much to feast on : tomatoes were fine, the fleshy melon interesting, but at the end of the round, it was an ordinary overall dish 5/10
Pieuvres, poulet fumé, pomme de terre, citron, chilli – The pieces of octopus tenderized properly, their taste decent. Octopus, if it’s not going to blow your tastebud with deep marine robust flavor and a kick of great grilling, forget it! It’s not worthy of the efforts of cooking it. I was frustrated for …them: they have tenderized it properly, which in itself is great effort, but marine robust and great grilling flavor were nowhere to be found. Even worst: what was the smoked chicken flesh doing there? I mean, do this: take a piece of braised octopus and match it with, say, turkey ham (the smoked chicken tasted exactly like turkey ham)…. 5/10
It is at this moment that I decided to have a look at the kitchen (it’s an open kitchen, so easy to spot from the bar) and realized that Chef Nadon was not present on this evening. My main waiter at the bar, Monsieur Nicolas, realizing that I was not enthused, came to the rescue. He explained that Chef Nadon was absent due to an injury. That is life, I do appreciate Monsieur Nicolas classy move and do understand that all tables have indeed ups and downs. So perhaps just a bad night, but I have principles that I insist on standing by: if a meal seems underwhelming to me, then it is. No matter the reasons.
I concluded with a dish that was available on the ‘menu of the evening’: crab tempura fried with coppa, burrata, celeriac, sea lettuce, samphire, sea purslane plant. Definitely better than the previous items, the crab tempura seasoned properly. Still, this was just a standard / normal crab tempura. Also, cold cuts like coppa, with a tempura, that can be interesting in the hands of geniuses like Nadon or Mercuri. Few cooks can really make this kind of pairing working. Few. On this evening, It was frankly as coherent as fire and water…. Should I say more?? 6/10
Pros: (1)The admirable service (Monsieur Nicolas showing outstanding hospitality standards. Same could be said of the tall lady who was welcoming the diners at the entrance, on this evening). (2) The fun wine pairing, except that I found the Bio wine from Alsace to be interesting on its own — I am educating my palate to appreciate this kind of wine — though not suitable for any sort of pairing to food, any type of food actually.. . As usual, a matter of personal taste.
Cons: (1) Well, obviously the entire text is clear about what went wrong on this evening. But I’ll add this: We have plenty of talented cooks in this city, so it is important that they express their own skills. Yes, respect Chef Nadon’s guidelines. After all, he is a gifted Chef. But hey..use his guidelines, add your own touch and have fun! Unleash it all!! Lol. As we say in French: Lachez votre fou, Lol! Après tout, cuisiner est bien plus le fun de meme ;p (2)Being charged $5 for the amuse bouche of poached Nordic shrimp in a dashi bouillon. Why calling it an amuse if you are going to charge it? Call it an appetizer, then.
Overall score for this meal: 5/10 All in all, my second visit here was disappointing, performing far behind the stunning first meal I had here at Bouillon Bilk. With the circumstances that I now know (Chef Nadon was injured, so absent on this evening), it makes sense. I have no doubt that his assistants are talented, and perhaps this is a style that’s too personal to Chef Nadon for them to really exploit Chef Nadon cooking”s full potential. In which case, I’d suggest that they adapt this cooking style to their own inspiration when Chef Nadon is not around. I have been cooking for enoughly long to understand that it is never an easy task to fill the shoes of giants like Chefs Michele Mercuri or Francois Nadon. Better build on what such geniuses teach you and have fun your own way. This is one of the rare places in Montreal in which I have full trust, since the main Chef is talented and the owners and staff are serious/reliable. All that is left is just that: when the big Chef is not around, the kitchen needs to find a way to be exciting in ………its own way. That’s all.