As the concerns of food sourcing and ecological responsibility continue to rightfully mount, it’s only logical that we look elsewhere for sources of food, be it history or across today’s oceans. Insects are now seeing increased attention in North America, and whether or not we’re staunchly opposed to it, dogs are still being consumed in South Korea. When it comes to Canada, however, we’ve had another kind of dog nipping at our heels and heartstrings: seals, the puppies of the sea. Surprise: Montreal’s Phoque Fest has been in full swing since March 22.
Organized in part by the restaurant curation app Resto Mania, the ‘festival’ is a combination of 13 restaurants — eight of them here and five in Quebec City — who are highlighting the seal meat on their menu in whichever way they please. Unless you visited one of its participating locations, it seems you’d otherwise never know it was happening.
Maybe no one really wanted to shout it from the rooftops in the first place? Seal hunting has a strongly contested history to fight if it’s to enter mainstream menus. On one hand, we think they’re adorable (except that one time) and listened closely to Paul McCartney debate protecting them against Newfoundland’s premier in 2006 on Larry King Live. Since then, when restaurants (Montreal’s own Manitoba included) tried serving it, the public’s face would scrunch up from time to time. It’s been arguably nothing to be proud of. Activists have even tried to go after the Inuit for their traditional practice, with Anthony Bourdain voicing his opinion in that din. Shouting matches aside, there’s no doubt that poaching animals solely for their skins is a stupid and shitty thing to do. My question is: Why not incentivize hunters who are killing them regardless of others’ emotions to at least harvest the whole carcass?
Considering that human beings have had a rough go of using their resources wisely, I’d hoped that Phoque Fest would put effort into their attempts to sell its’ distributors Seadna or Carino’s products with wisdom and ethics at the forefront. I saw scant evidence of either, more of a mess of social media across the board, and they didn’t bother to respond to my requests for an interview. The most you’ll find when visiting the event’s website are the statistics on seals: Fisheries Canada says there’s a quota to hunt and keep populations of both harp and grey seals in check, and it’s arguably more nutritious and delicious than chicken, pork or beef.
Lack of informational aspects aside, Phoque Fest is a great opportunity Having never tried seal, I submitted myself to a full day of nothing but the stuff. The TL;DR here? Go for it: Its deep, purple hue might throw you off at first, but the taste of seal is not entirely dissimilar to beef with a faint uptake in iron, and it’s been said that only a bad cut would taste of fish.
Let’s Get Phoque’d Up!
Le Comptoir Rhubarbe, 12 p.m.
Chef Julien Joré’s savoury companion location to Stéphanie Labelle’s pastry shop is a small daytime-to-early-evening bistro with a good selection of wines and beers to accompany a short menu. The restaurant opted to prepare their seal as a tataki, with slightly seared cuts of meat rolled in a light vinaigrette, laid on thin cucumber slices and topped with crunchy quinoa, alfalfa and pickled onion, as well as bruinoised smoked meat and pear. The freshest option I had for the day, the meat was most certainly flavourful, as were each of its parts. It was a clumsy construction to poke at, however beautiful it was when it arrived. All of this being said, it did well to highlight the main ingredient while incorporating a bit of salt of the smoked meat and sugar from the pear. $15, 3.5/5 Arfs.
Pastaga, 5:30 p.m.
This Little Italy restaurant helmed by chef Martin Juneau is, according to many, one of the city’s essential places to dine. Don’t allow connotations of the name and neighbourhood to fool you, as their menu often reaches out in curious and delicious ways, and that extends to the seal. Rubbed with Montreal steak spice and grilled rare, topped with a knob of seaweed butter, served with a chipotle-parsnip purée and crispy fingerling potatoes. While the steak rub overwhelmed any lingering distinctiveness that seal meat might have, I took that as the main point. If prepared in the same fashion as the meats we’re used to, it’s hard to tell the difference in a blind test. While the butter gave it a boost of umami, the fingerling potatoes seemed more of a crispy extra treat and the purée was, while still delicious, more parsnip than chipotle. Within minutes, I gobbled up that seal right quick. $19.50, 5/5 Arfs.
Grumman ’78, 9 p.m.
One of the OG St-Henri restaurants, Gaëlle Cerf and Hilary McGown have built a Mexican-inspired mecca that’s been around since 2011 (and the food truck for longer). True to form, Grumman prepared their seal as a tostada: Chops of seal were laid on leaves of romaine within a crispy tortilla cup, and topped with corn, chives, slaw and bacon bits. Bites were brightened by lime, and would release a seasoning that coalesced into a delicious flavour you could find elsewhere in a tender, flavourful carne asada version. Much like my meal at Pastaga, the kitchen did well to treat this meat as any other, though the seal was slightly hidden in appearance and flavour by its accompaniments. $10, 4/5 Arfs.
Phoque Fest continues through Sunday, April 1 (website).
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