Le Virunga (Addr: 851 Rue Rachel E, Montréal; Phone: (514) 504-8642 ; http://www.levirungarestaurant.ca/) opened 8 months ago on Le Plateau. As/per their web site, their cooking is influenced by both Quebec and Africa. My waitress explained that the owners, both Mom (the Chef) and daughter are Congolese/Portuguese, who have travelled through Africa and have decided to share their appreciation of African cuisine. Whatever the script, as you will find out later on, this Mom is not just about the talk. She also walks the walk… a miracle on the local restaurant scene, believe me!
Africa, mon dieu, justement…. to Africa, I owe my passion for food. That is where it all started for me: 6 yrs old, yes … 6 yrs old, learning to cook, by observing my grandma cooking. Then, throughout the years, learning from my Mom. Newer generations may associate this with folklore, but back in the days, we had no iphone, no TV. After school, I was grating coconut exactly like on this video, fishing and watching grandma butchering poultry, rabbits, etc. There are things we were eating back then and that the newer generations would not eat nowadays, even in Africa, such as the hedgehog (the best meat I ever enjoyed in my life. In comparison, whatever they are trying to sell you as the most memorable meats, nowadays, whatever the BS…wagyu, etc… it is just some boring joke in comparison). That is where, my foodie adventure started. Plenty of nostalgia. And more: no meat, no vegetable, no seafood ever came close to their dazzling renditions of my childhood in Africa. When I went visiting Japan, they were very proud of their exceptional tuna and world famous wagyu BS beef. When I went to France, their poulet de bresse was all the rage. I won’t argue with that, but inside of me, deep inside…. I knew that there was far better. Far, far better. And I had the priviledge to have sampled that, because of you, my beloved Africa!
Africa, taught me to trust my palate. It started with a strong Bantu influence (culinary-wise, Bantu-based cuisines were my very first steps into cooking, the flavors I was born with, if you prefer), but this beautiful continent had so much to reveal, so I went on studying, savoring, understanding the flavors of all the corners of the continent. Africa, if I am passionate about food, today, that is because of you! It may mean nothing to the rest of us, but what matters is that it means a lot to me. Flourishes aside, the truth is that I hate reviewing African food. It is the food that I love the most (yeah I know, there is an incredible variety of African cuisines) therefore the food that I am the most picky about. Does that makes of me a better judge of African cuisine than someone else? Absolutely NOT! It is food. A subjective topic, as one should know better! Your palate is your sole judge.
The state of African cuisine, right now, in Montreal – No African restaurant has managed to better the best African restaurant that Montreal ever had, Souvenirs d’Afrique (closed since a long time). But Le Virunga is now my preferred African restaurant in town. Le Nil Bleu is as great as your Ethiopian food will taste in Montreal. And it is a beautiful restaurant. Hot Africa can surprise you with some of the best local homey African food, when it is in its prime, eventhough I am not a fan of their sauce of goat (a matter of personal taste). Their braised fish is the best in town, right now. But they badly need to take care of the interior decor. Diolo has, currently, one of the best thieboudienne in Montreal and its Chef is a charismatic and very friendly cook. However, as it is the case at plenty of ethnic restaurants in town, the first days of the week (Monday, Tues, Wed) will come with its share of re-heated food that they coud not sell the prior weekend. So, on a quiet Tuesday at Diolo, I recall having a perfectly fine thieboudienne (actually freshly made) that came right after a reheated starter of pastel. Pastel is a disaster when served reheated….! The “first days of the week” issue was also my main quip with a recent meal at Gracia Afrika – click here for that review (Still, I think GA deserves a second chance, so I will go back there on a friday or saturday). Near Jean Talon, La référence was doing a tolerable job until the day they took the risk of serving me beef instead of goat while insisting that it was goat. Big mistake! … you cannot take such risk with a foodie, who, on top of that, has Bantu cooking (the very same cooking that they offer at La référence) as the cuisine he grew up with. Consequently, the food he knows and loves the best. I never went back to La référence, but it seems closed. But then a Congolese foodie had recommended Petite Ya Quartier to me, and when I went visiting PYQ, I saw some of the people who were behind La référence at PYQ and this time, things were far better with a grilled goat that dazzled. I haven’t tried East Africa , Restaut Bar le 30 Juin, Marmite Africaine and Le Bled, yet.
Le Virunga has an interior decor that’s tastefully decorated, simple and yet classy with appealing warm earthy tones. It is, right now, one of the very rare local African restaurants that’s taking care of its aesthetic (sorry Petite Ya quartier and Hot Africa, I love your food, especially you Petite Ya Quartier, but Le Virunga, as well as Le Nil Bleu, despite their masculine names, are the true African “hotties” in town ;p ).
On the evening of my visit, the Pan-African (Sub-Saharan Africa in this case) concise menu (the menu will change regularly, according to the staff) featured 5 starters (velouté d’Antananarivo, beignets de tilapia, Sosaties brochettes de faux-filet, mini poutine de chèvre — their take on the Quebecois poutine, blending tropical ingredients such as plantain bananas/cassava with smoked cheese, bacon, a sautée of vegetables–, gateau de foie de volaille/crème de champignons/crostini de banane plantain ) and six main courses (Poulet grillé, mijoté d’haricots, darnes de Malangwa, mijoté d’agneau, ragout de chèvre and poulet mijoté en sauce à la crème de noix de palme), served alongside a variety of tropical ingredients of good quality, using varied cooking techniques, priced fairly.
I started with:
Gboma Dessi – Mijoté d’agneau, sauce épinards à la togolaise servis avec duo de quenelles d’igname, et patate douce. The lamb as tender and as delicious as it gets in skilled hands, with a flawless spinach sauce (the genuine flavor of the Gboma Dessi , a classic spinach-based sauce from Togo, is there, indeed) + sweet potato and yam elevated to fine dining quality (meaning, not just your average pieces of yam and sweet potato, but ones that are flavored and executed with finesse). Again and again, the flavor profile is genuinely African while reaching out to western sensibilities. It takes skills to do that this well, btw! 8/10
To finish my lamb, I did ask for the chikwangue to test the Congolese roots of the Chef, but I was served a plantain puree instead (as the chikwangue was going to be too filling). Not to worry: the plantain puree was packed with exciting taste and boasted a perfected smooth texture. A plantain puree that’s a benchmark of its kind. Again and again, the African in me did connect with the flavor profile on display. 10/10
As an ultimate test, I asked for some chilli. When the chilli arrived, there was no doubt about how genuinely African its aromas stood. One exciting rendition of a genuinely African chilli sauce. 10/10
There were several desserts available. Some more “African” than others, but they materialized exactly what they have advertised: African cuisine with Quebecois accents.
So, I chose their Pudding chomeur Africain, creme whisky Quebecois – This is a perfect clin d’oeil to a popular Quebecois dessert. I have spent 20 yrs in Quebec, and did therefore have plenty of time to understand what a fine Pudding chomeur should taste, smell and look like. This was a perfectly well executed Pudding chomeur. When I asked who made it, the waitress replied that it was the very same African Mom that did cook the rest of my meal. So clearly, when she says that she can deliver both Quebecois and African flavors, that was not just some talking. The waitress explained that for this pudding chomeur, the Chef was inspired by both the Quebecois pudding chomeur, naturally, but also by the South African Malva pudding. The Quebecois part was defining, in this case, and I am not going to complain about it! Superb dessert. 8/10
PROS: So thoughtful – it is African where it needs to be, Quebecois when it has to. Both are dazzling cuisines on their own rights, and yet, here they work under the same roof. It works because the Chef is talented. The proof that with talent, you can cook whatever you want and it will make sense.
CONS: Some imported wines, perhaps (??). My waitress told me that they are working on this. What to think about that? Well, it is a luxury that only the big gunz in town can afford because of their endless means. I would be Le Virunga, I would wait a bit on that one. On the day of my visit, the wine list was composed of 5 red wines (Kumala Western Cape / Petit cabernet sauvignon, Ken forrester/ Secateurs 2014 Badenhorst / Ke Pinot noir 2015, Klein constantia/The brew master 2013 , Nederburg) and white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Klein Constantia/Hartenberg 2013 Bottelary Hills, Boschendal 2015 Groot Drakenstein, Old vine reserve 2015 Ken Forrester) as well as a bottle of MCC Brut 2012 Klein Constantia.
Overall food rating: 8/10 “My Mom is the best cook, but your Mom ain’t no joke! “”” …that would be my message to the daughter. Lol! I will go back. Next time I will eat there, I will try the chikwangue. I really want to test their chikwangue. It’s an item that is very technical. One of the most important items you need a Congolese Mom to nail. In light of this evening’s performance I have no doubt that she would not fail the test. Chikwangue or not, I would, had I met the Chef, tell her — very honestly — as we say between Bantu Africans “Maman, respect, vous etes talentueuse! “. I know I am sometimes severe with the Montreal restaurant scene, but that is because many of the local restaurateurs rest on their laurels… and that is – — rightly so — infuriating, especially with the ridiculous pricetag that most restaurateurs are charging in Montreal (prices that you generally find in world class foodie destinations like London, New York or Paris). Le Virunga does not rest on anything… they cook, and they cook some of the most inspiring food I ever ate in this city. And it is not nostalgia that led me to such conclusion. It’s the powerful argument of their cooking skills.
My thoughts, days later: My (other) coup de coeur, so far, this year in Montreal (the other one is Marconi). Classy little restaurant, with a gifted Chef, great service and superb food. As a diner, just remember that no Chef, as talented as he or she is, will be able to execute stellar after stellar versions of food, especially when embracing such ambitious project as cooking food from the vast swathes of land of Sub-Saharan Africa. Inevitably, their Chef will have some food items with which she will be at ease, others, a bit less and that is normal. Other limitations of this ambitious program: she will have to stick to African food that can please western palates without losing its original flavors (which she is doing really well, right now), so I doubt the Chef will cook food that’s more of an acquired taste (for eg a dish like The Romazava made with brède mafana from Madagascar, which is in my top 3 all time favourite dishes, will unlikely fit in the formula). Having said that, this is a Chef who can live up to the challenge.