Restaurant Le Serpent
Type of cuisine: Italian Brasserie according to what the staff tells me
(Italian-inspired cosmopolitan bistrot according to me)
Date and time of the dinner: January 3rd 2014, 18:00
Addr: 357 rue Prince, Montreal
***This is just a quick little report about my meal at Le Serpent. I am not a food journalist, not a food critic, not an insider, not even a real foodie (true foodies are more passionate about dining out than I am), do have zero interest in this industry, just a normal diner paying for his food with his hard earned money, sharing what he thinks of his meal with you for the sake of knowledge sharing and I am not even writing this post in my mother tongue (French), so please wait after the upcoming reports of those who are paid to do just that (writing reviews) for fully detailed and professional write-ups on everything you need to know about this restaurant. This is just a personal report free of any intent to entertain nor serve any purpose other than sharing about what I thought of this meal – Thanks ****
UPDATE: CLICK HERE FOR THE REPORT OF MY SECOND MEAL THERE, ON JANUARY 10TH 2014
IN FRENCH (Report in English will follow) – Ceux qui ont beaucoup apprécié le talent du Chef Mercuri (Bronté, XO Le restaurant) seront ravis: il est de retour avec sa belle technique et son excellent sens du travail des saveurs. Du beau travail de cuisine contemporaine aux influences Italiennes. Une cuisine qui sort du lot.
HE is back. HE is Chef Michele Mercuri, a Chef who was crafting some of Montreal finest dishes at his previous restaurants (Bronté, XO Le Restaurant). Under his tenure, both Bronté (now closed) and XO Le restaurant were comfortably of a solid 2 star Michelin European caliber (particular for what he was doing at XO Le Restaurant, since he was in full charge there ). BUT that was haute dining. NOW, he is back with a more relax/mainstream theme (bistrot I say, brasserie they say). I learnt about the opening of Chef Michele Mercuri’s new restaurant, Le Serpent, while perusing the restaurant’s entry on Urbanspoon.com, the entry leading to this link announcing their official opening on Dec 31st . I reserved a table for January 3rd by simply sending an email as it’s suggested on the later link.
The restaurant is located inside the Darling Foundry Art centre (http://www.fonderiedarling.org/) in Old Montreal. It’s usually better to wait a bit (for eg, couple of months after its opening) before visiting a new restaurant, but Chef Mercuri is talented so I knew the right skills would be on display regardless of the moment I’d chose to try his food. I simply made sure to have no particular expectation on my way to this meal: Italian restaurants abound in Montreal and I oftently find them limited by the generally average ingredients we have here (not meant to be mean here, it’s just that we obviously can’t expect the fruits and vegetables of our soil to compete with their peers of the Mediterranean coast, one of the reasons you should never start comparing what’s done in Italy to what’s done abroad). So not much miracle nor surprise effect to be expected, however skilled is the kitchen, but still, it’s always fun and interesting to have a taste of the latest offering of such a talented Chef. But as you’ll see later on, my pessimism was unfounded.
Couple of days before attending my dinner, I saw this first web review of Restaurant Le Serpent (http://www.lapaulee-enligne.com/t2838-restaurant-le-serpent), from which you can see how the décor looks like (a long narrow room with a minimalist chic industrial interior, very high ceilings, a stretching marble bar in the middle of the room) . The OP of that post had a ‘revised ceasar salad’, ‘octopus with a mousseline of potatoes’, and ‘artic char confit’, and found them all exceptional. I am mentioning this for two reasons (1) so that you can have varied opinions about the place (2)because at the moment of writing, there’s barely no report of their debuts.
FIND IT: As it’s mentioned on this Lapaulee-enligne’s post, you’ll need to carefully look for it. There’s no big sign with the name of the restaurant. just a barber’s pole sign (for now).
The FOOD: The menu is short, which I find to be a smart and very contemporary approach / practical too ..in regard to what most diners do expect nowadays. So, on one page, you have two offerings in the ‘crudo’ section (for eg, oysters mignonette at $15 or$29 depending on the quantity you chose, the second choice was the $18 starter of sea urchin/lardo which description you will see below), a section named ‘Anche’ with items such as ‘revised ceasar salad’, ‘octopus with a mousseline of potatoes’, and ‘artic char confit’ (around 15-20$ on this evening), the pasta section ($13 to $24), risotti (two choices, one at $20, the other at $17), a section called ‘marin’ (basically fishes) with items like branzino/moules/fregola/fenouil/tomate/bouillon saffranée ($29) or morue/haricot coco/artichaut/aubergine ($27), then the section ‘terrestre’ with gigue de cerf ($28), bajoue de porc ($23), a section called ‘à la broche‘ with changing offerings on each day. I basically went through the menu and skipped anything that sounded (to me) as not really putting the emphasis on Chef Mercuri’s skills- for eg, I knew his risotto would showcase his beautiful skills, whereas I was not too sure about the revised Cesar Salad (although, I saw the lady seating next to me ordering the revised ceasar salad and the colors of the leaves were vivid, the cheese smelling fresh and great, so I could indeed observe that even such basic item was executed with care. That Said, YES you need to put items like a salad on a menu, so that Ceasar salar deserves to be there). Regarding the risotto, whether you’ll find it special or not (I do not trade in terms of ‘special or not’, just in terms of ‘how great it is’) is left to your discretion, but having sampled Chef Mercuri’s risotti at both Bronte and XO Le Restaurant I found his to fare as great as the one of one of his previous mentors, Chef Alajmo at Le Calandre. And on Montreal food scene, you’ll have hard time convincing me that there’s better. As great, Yep, perhaps (I actually had a dazzling one at restaurant Lucca on Dante, a personal favourite in Montreal). Better, Nah. Well, not in my books ;p
Chef Michele Mercuri has the skills to cook at any level he wants (star Michelin, casual dining, etc), and his talent is such that he can make the food performance as great as he wants…or as his business partners will let him to. So, as expected, this strong performance (he was cooking on this evening) came as no surprise.
Started with the $18 starter of ‘oursin, lardo, confiture de bacon, bar rayé, gelée de gingembre, pollen de fenouil, maquereau, citron, amandes, olives séchés‘ — Chef Mercuri, if you remember him from XO Le Restaurant and Bronté, well…he loves assembling a huge array of items. Now, I am not optimistic when most Chefs do this, but he was there, onsite, so I knew I could chose this item with no worry. The presentation was just Ok –though, honestly, it would take master painters like Renoir or Cezanne to do something visually better, Lol just kidding — , which contrasted with his usual visually stunning dishes, but in mouth, I knew right away that Chef Mercuri’s touch was present: some serious work of the flavour, the seafood freshness and quality really high in comparison to what is usually found in town (even at the upscale restaurants). The sea urchin (atop a mini piece of brioche 7/10 – nothing wrong since this was quality sea urchin, but make sure you engulf the whole brioche/sea urchin and its toppings in one bite or else you’ll miss the point/fun, trust me ), the lardo, the ginger jelly, the mackerel (in sashimi style, its taste fabulous 9/10), each of the items were well sourced, their taste enhanced either by a genuine touch of appealing acidity or a simple touch of exciting seasoning (judicious seasoning was the key here, a feature that was remarkable because they have a good palate in this kitchen!!) , and more importantly the flavors worked well together. Strong stuff,by Montreal restaurant standards. 8/10
Followed by ‘Caille poélée, foie fouétté, rattes, moutarde $12 – I’ll be honest with you…I was afraid that Chef Mercuri’s Business partners (the folks of Le Club Chasse & Peche) would force him to slow down with his past creativity and offer something casual, mainstream. To my surprise, they did let him express whatever he wanted. Which is indeed the best way to approach such talented Chef. Even if this is less sophisticated than what he was doing at XO Le Restaurant or at Bronte, Chef Mercuri is not backing down: it’s simply hard to get better flavor than the quail (cooked sous vidé then fried to underline the quail’s delicious meaty flavor) he has just cooked. Delicious 9/10
Concluded with one last savoury dish , the ‘risotto de homard, betterave jaune, basilic, mascarpone” $22 – Chef Mercuri rissotti have always ranked among my favourite restaurant risotti, the type of food I am willing to leave the comfort of home for. On this evening, there was no exception to that rule: rich and creamy with proper bite (accurate al dente consistency), it was in itself a technical triumph. But it did more than that: it was deliciously …exciting. Here’s what I value as a benchmark risotto. One of the best ‘contemporary’ risotti I ever had was from Chef Alajmo’s at Le Calandre, the three star Michelin where Chef Mercuri spent some time. I personally think that Chef Mercuri is doing as great as his master…remember, Chef Mercuri is not in Italy, has not access to the stunning produce they have there…so it’s even more impressive. By Montreal standards, comfortably a benchmark one (eventhough I am not too happy to get to such conclusion since I did not want my last starling risotto at one of my favourite Italian restaurants in town, Lucca on Dante, to be surpassed…Lucca, I still love you, but Chef Mercuri is giving me some hard time here ;p ) 10/10
I took no desserts, rounding off the meal with some excellent espresso coffee (clearly, this house leaves no details uncovered).
Wine offerings: their list of wines is short (you’ll find it on the back of the single page menu)but this is not a reproach. To the contrary, plenty of thoughts went into building that small list as clearly demonstrated by wines that will cater to all sorts of budgets (couple of bubbles ranging from a $36 by the bottle/ $9 by the 5 oz glass Bisol Prosecco superiore creed 2012, a Franciacorta Essence Rosé Antica Fratta 2009 at $69 the bottle; $17 the glass), couple of whites from $32 to $210 (for eg, 2012 Domaine de la Pépière “Les Gras Moutons” Muscadet at $39 the bottle/$10 the glass; Gulfi Carjcanti 2010 @ 61$ the bottle, $15.5 the glass. The section of red wines range from a Vignemastre “Dardo” Rosso IGT Toscana 2010 ($29 the bottle, $7.5 the glass) to a 2003 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella ($585), but cool down, lol: there are plenty of other wines in between, such as a Murgo Etna Russo 2011 at $37, a Julien Sunier Fleurie 2012 ($59), and more ambitious wines like some Vosne-Romanée and Côte-Rôtie in the $100++. Anyways, this is a list that can change, so consider my examples as just that: an example of what they do offer. Their wine by the glass were not an afterthought on this evening, with a Cantina Filippi Vigne della Bra 2010 reminding that natural wines can be a hit, indeed. Cezanne, my main waitress (more accurately ‘bartender’ since I was seating at the bar) , found another thoughtful pairing: a glass of Comte rouge 2007 (Château de Mérande) which was an excellent choice of pairing with the quail.
Service: Young and nice looking staff, and yet experienced/professional and friendly. My main waitress of this evening being the painter Cezanne (Lol..just kidding, she is not a painter), a down to earth and very accomodating young woman. Cezanne knows her wine (ouf, finally a Montreal restaurant staff who knows what kind of natural wines to suggest to her customers!).
Pros: (1) Chef Mercuri beautiful skills (2) one of my few very best meals since a long time in Montreal (3) the trendy-ness of the place, in stark contrast with its exterior. Loved that contrast (4) Great service
Cons: Did I see a champagne on that list? I think I did, Lol. My problem with champagne?? Over-rated! Portugal, Spain , Italy, Luxembourg (say whatever you want but the very affordable Bernard-Massard Cuvée de L’Écusson Brut is one of the best value sparkling wines and alternatives to Champagne you might get in town at this moment) have better value bubbles to offer. But again, this is just my personal views of the matter and it goes without saying that Champagne deserves its place in a restaurant.
Price: They have no online menu, so I took the time to do a summary of the prices that featured on mine, while dining there, thus you have examples of the prices in the wine listing and food sections above. So it’s neither cheap, neither expensive, more accurately the kind of place where the bill will be as reasonable or as pricey as you’ll want it to be. In my view, for this level of skills, this is priced reasonably. For eg, take their risotto. I find it fairly priced at $22. I had plenty of laughable risotti in town priced at $27-$30, of which the only remarkable feature was that they were hugely portioned (I could not care about huge portions, I dine out to hit something executed really well, with plenty of thoughts invested in its refinement and the little details —in the case of this risotto, the judicious seasoning, the work of the flavor, the proper technique, the work of the stock, a great sense of timing — – that makes it great as it was the case of this risotto of lobster I have just sampled at Le Serpent).
Overall food performance: 10/10 Chef Michele Mercuri’s cooking (he was cooking on this evening) is strong by Montreal standards. Knowing Chef Mercuri’s cooking since Bronte, then XO Le Restaurant it was easy for me to pick the right choices that would better showcase his skills.
Conclusion: I remember Chef Michele Mercuri’s tenure with restaurant Bronte (now closed), thereafter with XO Le Restaurant. I do not know him personally but I recall finding his skills to be quite remarkable by Montreal restaurant standards, and people who knew him told me that he is more of an Artisan Chef, the kind of Chef who prefers working hard in his kitchen rather than cashing in on fame, which obviously explained the consistently good level of cooking that I kept experiencing whenever I was dining at Bronte and XO Le Restaurant. The type of cuisine he was crafting at Bronte (contemporary Italian fine dining) and XO Le restaurant (contemporary cosmopolitan fine dining ) , especially at XO Le Restaurant, proved that he was no ordinary Chef (by Montreal standards, his offerings went above and beyond the norms). I was just surprised that he’d keep those same high standards alive, now that he is working in a more casual environment. Again, this is food, not an attempt to land on the moon, therefore I hope you do not set surreal expectations based on my review. It’s food done better than what most are doing in town, food crafted by a talented Chef and that is all I was trying to explain here. So, for me, this meal was exactly what I was expecting it to be: the fruit of a talented Chef cooking some of Montreal finest Italian food within the limits of this sort of dining offering (it’s casual cooking / Italian ‘brasserie’, though still refined/elaborate). It’s tough to repeat such stellar performance (cooks are humans, not robots) , but I trust that this team can make this happen again.