Warm lime donuts and stellar coffee were all it took for Café Sardine to begin building its reputation as a Mile-End destination since opening in February of this year. Soon after, hungry hordes of office workers looking for a quick but high-quality meal swarmed the cozy boîte, indulging in carnitas and duck egg and bacon sandwiches.
But once Chef Aaron Langille got going with his nightly card of ultra-local small plates, lovers of salt and sugar-poached mackerel from all over Montreal flocked to the Fairmount café for creamy squash flan with hazelnut butter and beef cheeks so tender they melt into puddles of flesh at a glance.
Mile-End locals are loath to relinquish coveted booth and bar space near the open kitchen to the out-of-neighbourhood crowd come suppertime, lest they miss out on the unique amalgam of Langille’s kitchen experiences. That includes on-the-job schooling in Montreal bistro fare at L’Express, fine dining at Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Le Filet, pickling and preserving in San Francisco and foraging on his way to work as a stagiaire at the world’s official best restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen.
Despite his Noma-esque appreciation for lait de poule de mer caviar, wild greens, bitter berries and homemade ashes, he credits Joel Chapoulie and Bruno Le Foll from L’Express with teaching him to work in a busy restaurant and Claude Pelletier from Chasse et Pêche with showing him how to appreciate fine cuisine and the business side of food.
“My brief time with René Redzepi [at Noma] completely changed the game for me, as far as what I could put on a plate, but I wouldn’t have had an understanding of balance and flavour without Claude and Bruno,” says Langille.
During his pickling days in California, he got into lacto-fermentation — that is, letting bacteria develop complex flavours in foods including cucumbers, carrots, and cabbages. But he’s not above a vinegar pickle, either, using them to boost acidity or saltiness and create composed, balanced plates.
Langille says lacto-fermentation has been linked to stomach and other digestive system cancers, “but to jump and say that pickles kill isn’t paying attention to how people eat. You’re hopefully eating things that are offsetting the negative aspects of an otherwise great product. Moderation is key!” he says.
Langille also credits his parents with teaching him the importance of the social dining experience and cooking for people. They insisted on eating dinner as a family. That sensibility is reflected in Sardine, where you’re expected to share tapas-sized dishes such as a single mackerel fillet with pickled cucumber, seaweed-like cucumber skins and grainy mustard.
“The fried cucumber skins are a play off seeing the Noma team grilling cucumber skins for an ash, which was fantastic. I thought it would add texture if we threw on a crispy charred bit to accentuate the [crispness] of the mackerel’s skin,” he says. It was also a way to not waste all the cucumber skins left over from making Sardine’s homemade cucumber soda.
Supporting sustainable practices in food production is also on the menu — the sea bream (aka “porgy” or “daurade” in French) is a prime example. Sourced from Nova Scotia land-based fish farm Sustainable Blue, Langille serves the sashimi-grade seafood with crunchy chips made from tapioca flour and an arugula and watercress purée.
“The process is a fairly long one of mixing the purée and tapioca, steaming it until cooked, cooling it, slicing it thinly, dehydrating it and then frying,” he says. “But they’re delicious and worth it.”
The addictive beef fat-roasted potatoes that come with bursting tiny, white lait de poule de mer caviar and crème fraiche are swimming in richness — perhaps all that beef fat helps make sure you don’t overdo it on pickles. When it comes to the age-old question of meat or vegetables, however, Langille says he’s recently been drawn to lighter dishes. “Often vegetables with a meaty element are the dishes that get me most excited,” Langille says.
Then there’s booze, of which Langille is a bit of a connoisseur.
“Quebec beers tend to be heavier in flavour or feel, so I’m starting to enjoy wine more — white wines, especially. But beers can be just as interesting, and paired just as well,” he says.
Though he had no say in the restaurant’s cocktail list or its mostly organic or biodynamic wine offerings, he knows his way around an old-fashioned mixed drink. Lost in the late ‘70s, when ad men started keeling over from alcoholism, cocktails recently re-grew balls, transforming into bourbon-pummeling lychee liqueur and passionfruit purées.
“Nothing should be called a martini or end in ‘tini’ unless it’s gin, vermouth and little else.”
What free time he has (Café Sardine is open every day) goes to bouldering at nearby Shakti Rock Gym, reading and eating at other restaurants. But lately he’s been spending most of his time at his own restaurant, feeling uncomfortable at the onslaught of compliments.
“Someone sat at the bar and had the mackerel, followed by the squash. They took a few bites out of the squash, turned to the kitchen and exclaimed that it was quite possibly the best thing they’d ever eaten in their life. I wondered what was wrong with the mackerel,” he recounts.
So is there a way to show appreciation without causing anxiety? “I guess the best compliment is a short and sweet, ‘Thanks. That was delicious.’”
9 Fairmount E.
Mon-Fri: Coffee, donuts, soda and sandwiches 8 a.m.–5 p.m.; Dinner 6:30 p.m.–midnight; Sat-Sun Café 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Dinner 6:30 p.m.–1 a.m.