Within hours of touching down in Montreal I was comfortably esconsed in Restaurant Toqué!, one of Canada’s most-respected and highly awarded restaurants.
The name amuses me greatly – a ‘toque de cuisinier’ is a chef’s hat but ‘toqué’ means goofy, crazy, loopy, mad… Perhaps the implication is that wearing one indicates the other?
When Toqué! first opened back in 1993, its focus on seasonal, market-fresh, locally-sourced products was a rare notion rather than the industry norm it has become today in high end restaurants. Chef proprietors Normand Laprise and Christine Lamarche also took a risk by opening a high end gastronomic restaurant at a time when the city was in the grips of a fierce recession. But the quality of their cooking, the warmth of their welcome and the strong relationships they developed with local producers proved to be a winning formula and the restaurant has been a huge success ever since.
In 2004 they moved from their original location (right by Jean-Talon Market) to new premises in the city’s International District, an address handily just across the road from my hotel, the InterContinental Montreal – an superbly situated hotel, by the way, for exploring both new and Old Montreal.
Although it meant fighting the jet lag during the last couple of courses, I ordered the Tasting Menu to enjoy a wider range of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Despite a desperation to get to bed by the last course, I was hugely glad I did.
The space is large but broken up into smaller, cosier areas. My spot was not too far from the floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the free-standing bar within the unusually shaped room. The restaurant is often fully booked, so the restaurant offers last-minute diners a place at the bar, should they wish.
The amuse bouche was tuna confit covered in a glossy white dome of tomato water foam. Beneath the aerated blanket tiny shards of crisply toasted bread provided textural contrast. The flavours were surprisingly classic for just a modern-looking dish. A lovely start.
Princess scallops with chervil mousse, lime and physalis were fresh and sweet, the combination of fruit, herb and citrus complemented them well.
The halibut was a surprising dish and I could not entirely decide whether I liked the combination of white fish, melon, black sesame seeds, kohlrabi , coriander, cucumber, radish and yuzu gel – it felt a little random on the plate and especially so on the palate. That said, each element was delicious, the fish wonderfully fresh and delicate and I’m a sucker for yuzu!
Foie gras was served with curried candied pistachios, argan oil and brioche. The foie was perfectly cooked – not easy to achieve such caramelisation on the surface without melting away most of the substance – and the candied pistachios delightful with it but the brioche was an enormous dry slab, providing neither crunch nor softness.
For those who prefer not to eat foie gras, or simply don’t enjoy it, the tasting menu offered an alternative choice of sea urchin and mushrooms.
This unassuming dish was one of my two favourites of the evening – the dish I went away dreaming about! A thick slice of tuna loin was cooked rare, its meatiness enhanced by a bone marrow sauce. Served with white beans, fresh cherry tomatoes, a few tiny pieces of lightly pickled courgette and a thyme and lemon sauce, the combination sounds almost nondescript and yet this dish was anything but.
A juicy venison steak was served with a dense venison sausage, yellow beetroot, a fiery pink chilli sauce and a cherry sauce. The flavour of the meat was excellent and the sauces balanced each other nicely, and yet I found it a rather forgettable dish.
The tasting menu offered a choice of two dishes for the cheese course. I struggled to pick between the two, asking my waitress for advice before eventually choosing the polenta and almond cake with caramelised goat’s milk, sweetcorn mousse, chilli oil and roasted peach sorbet.
To my surprise, I really didn’t like this dish – neither the component parts nor the whole. I did like the roasted peach sorbet though it was a little too subtle to stand up to the rest. The sweetcorn mousse was a thing of fascinating strangeness. The caramelised goat’s milk was OK. All the flavours seemed to clash; this was too discordant a dish for me and I left most of it uneaten.
Luckily for me, and without knowing my reaction to the first cheese course, my waitress had already decided to serve me both!
Out came this delightful glass bowl cupping a stunning soft, fresh curd cheese – made from sheep’s milk I think – with melon granita and rocket granita spooned over, a dribble of lemon and thyme sauce and a pair of tiny grissini. Gosh, this was fantastic; even against the ice-cold punchiness of the two granitas the fresh cheese held its own. I adored this dish and it was my other favourite of the night, and the other dish I dream of tasting again.
Confit strawberries were served with a strawberry gel, caramelised black garlic, a creme fraiche ice cream and lemon balm syrup, tiny flat shards of meringue finished the dish. The sticky black garlic caramel was the surprise star of the dish, working amazingly well with the red fruit – much like balsamic vinegar does, but with a wholly different flavour profile. The lemon balm provided a balancing freshness and in this case, all the elements came together perfectly.
Just in case there was any corner of me left unsatiated a beautiful plate of petits fours were served. The teeny tiny blueberry financiers were moist and delicious and there were cubes of the softest fudge, its texture quite unlike any I’ve tried before, it dissolved on the tongue into a pool of liquid sugar.
I’d love to dine here again, perhaps for a regular three course meal from the a la carte menu. Creative, delicious cooking makes the best of high quality ingredients; the setting is comfortable, attractive and welcoming and the service is attentive, friendly and professional.
That said, the Tasting Menu is priced at CAD$122 per person; that’s just £61 based on the exchange rate on the date of my visit, which makes Toqué! a must-visit restaurant for British visitors. But do make sure to book a table – the locals know they’ve got a good thing going!
More on great restaurants in Montreal.
Kavey Eats visited Montreal courtesy of Destination Canada.