Now Serving: Thoughts and Opinions
Candide || Montreal, Canada
I’m from Montreal originally but moved to the US when I was six-ish
I’d go back to visit family once or twice a year. Certain experiences made it feel like home and so a loose routine was established. First things first, a poutine, a hot dog (grillée, moutard, oignon) and a jus de pêche ASAP after passing customs and entering the city limits whether by train, plane or automobile. Bagels from St. Viateur. A couple to eat right away, probably standing up, still hot from their ovens and lightly singeing my fingers, then a few dozen to bring home and eat too greedily and too quickly at first, and then at treasured and measured intervals as the stash becomes numbered. Chicken at Laurier BBQ (because they had the best sauce and the waitresses still recognized my sister and I no matter how long it had been) plying meat away from bones with my hands and cracking thin and crisped skin with my back molars. Dipping fingers sticky with chicken grease and brown sauce in warm water with lemon and starting all over. Finishing it all with their mocha cake covered in a faulty coffee buttercream whose sugar hadn’t completely dissolved which made it perfect somehow. Spending a couple of days dusting off my rarely-used French, rolling words I thought I’d forgotten around in my mouth just so I’d feel confident enough to order a smoked meat properly at Schwartz’s or Snowden Deli.
This routine felt good and comfortable. But as time passed, I kept hearing about this other Montreal. A city whose food and wine scene far transcended the ever uninspired SAQ selections of shelves and shelves of industrial wine and booze to pair with stuff on fries. So, on this last trip, I made a point to stay just a little bit longer, dig just a little deeper and try to experience at least a little bit of this version of Montreal I was so unfamiliar with.
On my last night in town, I end up at Restaurant Candide on a whim and stumble into exactly what I’ve been looking for. This restaurant, its food, wine, service and setting surprises me in a way that disrupts my nostalgia for this city. It’s fresh and honest, it lacks pretension. It’s simple in its ingredients but thoughtful in its preparation. It does that thing that only truly excellent food does whether bought in the street or among table-clothed dining rooms with crystal glasses: satisfies you down to your bones while challenging a bit what you thought you knew and edging you away slightly from where your boundaries might have been just a bite before.
The prix fixe menu reads simply. A few ingredients highlighted from each dish and then on to the next. The dishes eat much like the menu reads: simply but with a bit of mystery. Radishes and garlic flower snap and bite together at your tongue fresh from the gardens surrounding the restaurant set in the rectory of a 19th century church. Asparagus are earthy but sharply astringent and still lightly crunchy in the center while mussels are silky and rich but with a racy brininess. A smoky yogurt softens the edges of both elements but not so much they disappear. Lovage, with its powerful celery flavor pops in and out of bites of meaty grilled sturgeon and peas that pop between your teeth they’re so newly picked from their plants.
Each plate is dropped with a few lines from chef John Winter Russell, just enough to offer a bit of insight: how something was prepared, how long exactly they’ve been excited to use these zucchini flowers, how stubborn the asparagus might have been this season. The wine is poured in similar fashion. We learn from Wine Director Emily Campeau about the farmers in the vines, their relationship to the fruit on their land and how that comes through in the wine in the glass. Things are surprising but comforting.
I’m reminded of a conversation earlier in the week with one of my more jaded family members and his assertions that French Canadiens, “les Quebecois”, are a largely culture-less people, that “poutine is not culture”. At Candide I find a strong argument against that. The soul of this place has very much to do with the what is in part the essence of French Canadiens. The language (and it’s cadence )that is down to earth, warm and often times self deprecating does so much here to give priority to ingredients on the plate or wine in the glass, the farming and the effort of the earth that got it there. This couldn’t happen in Paris I don’t think. And definitely not in New York. It’s important and almost necessary that this restaurant is in Montreal. The chef, the staff and all the trappings of this restaurant are humble and good humored shepherds of hospitality. It feels familial and fundamentally Quebecois and I leave better understanding the city I come from, my nostalgia intact but changed.