Bucatini. Photos by Clayton Sandhu
A rectangle of signage stuffed full of pastel-coloured corks juts out of the side of one of the many imposing Art Deco buildings of McGill Street in Old Montreal. The sign draws attention, but in a playful “aren’t I cute?” kind of way. I’ve come to Old Montreal today for lunch, not something I can say I do often, but with a number of good restaurants and bars reclaiming the neighbourhood from tourists, it’s something I’m coming around to doing more often.
Pastel is run by the same team behind Fantôme, and like its celebrated Griffintown sister restaurant, it also features a tasting-menu for dinner. Pastel’s lunch is less of a tasting menu and more a table d’hôte: A choice between two entreés and two mains for $30 with an optional desert. Simple, yet effective.
Upon entering the space, I am charmed. The ceilings are high and natural light pours into the room, casting a soft light on the violet linen table cloths, and making the flecks in the bar shimmer. Francis, my server for the afternoon, greets me kindly and leads me to the bar where he suggests I sit on the pastel pink bar stool. The restaurant is a bit like a telephone receiver in shape: A corridor that holds the bar and open kitchen connects two small but distinct dining areas, all linked by a rustic exposed brick wall rubbed with various colours of pastel chalk in an artistically haphazard way. The wine list, curated by Caroline Rossignol, is smart and straightforward — Chablis and Sancerre are easily found on the list but are sandwiched between natural cuvées from Quebec’s Négondos, Australia’s Patrick Sullivan and Loire Valley superstar Alexandre Bain. I opt for a glass of bubbles from Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge, a Canadian producer making Méthode Classique bubbles to rival the best of Champagne, and at $13 a glass, it’s a steal.
As the last drops of wine are poured into my glass, an amuse-bouche is promptly placed in front of me: carrot filled with emulsified carrot juice, rolled in a powder of nori and panko. It looks a bit like a nub broken off of a weathered cactus, but the taste is sublime. The hollowed-out carrot is gently blanched and has a good crunch when bitten into. Imagine this dish as a sort of carrot and seaweed gusher, bursting in your mouth with the umami character of nori and the sweetness of a summer carrot.
Francis and his supporting server Chris are dynamic, working the room with poise and grace, but never crossing into the region of austere. They are warm, knowledgeable, and most notably they are inviting, a quality often missing from the ultra-serious tone of the old town dining scene. My dish is collected and a plate of sourdough bread and sumac butter is set down.
Bucatini, an extruded pasta with a hole through the centre, is served in a wonderfully simple form. Tossed in a delightfully tart tomato sauce and adorned with a few blistered cherry tomatoes, sweet from roasting, the pasta is airy, but retains a perfect firm texture — there’s whistling as I slurp the noodles. The dish is finished with a healthy drizzle of olive oil adding lustre and fat to the dish, perfectly mellowing the acidity of the sauce. This is how pasta should be.
For my main course I am served a chicken breast. I like chicken as much as the next guy, but I’m not likely to order it at a restaurant, and if I do I definitely won’t order the breast. At Pastel, to forgo the poultry is a missed opportunity. This dish of chicken and zucchini demonstrates to me the skill and understanding of products that the team at Pastel have. Seared chicken breast is served on a light and fluffy potato purée and dressed with lightly seasoned zucchini flower petals and long strands of grilled green onion. The star of the dish, despite the chicken being so well prepared, is the niçoise zucchini. Plump and round, they look more like a cross between a pomello and tomatillo than a zucchini. It’s rare to say, but these zucchini are indulgent, evoking the childlike experience of biting into a ripe peach and letting the juices run down your chin. The dish is gently sprayed with a yuzu mist moments before leaving the kitchen and, in one of my favourite, seemingly forgotten service techniques, is sauced table-side with a savoury jus de volaille. This is an example of the seemingly simple being elevated to the extraordinary. In short: A delightful dish.
And now for dessert. A savoury goat milk ice cream is dressed with strawberries two ways. The first is the classic Seascape strawberry, ever so gently grilled on white oak charcoal. The second is Malwina strawberries served unaltered as to preserve their natural jammy-sweetness. The entire dessert is then finished with a caramel made from salted goat butter which balances the sweet and savoury aspects of the dessert with grace. This is strawberries and cream unlike any you have had before.
At Pastel, there is a playfulness and elegance, there is nuance and a respect for the classics. The kitchen team are thoughtful and masterful in their executions and turn what seems so simple into something greater. The service is genuine, warm and casual while remaining professional.
At $30 for lunch, I suspect you would be hard pressed to dine anywhere better in town, let alone near the Old Port. If you find yourself there, however, pass by Pastel. As my server Francis so eloquently put it, “There are moments in life where the food is good and the wine is right; maybe everything in life isn’t perfect, but for that moment there is peace. Food can do that.” And to me, that’s worth the metro ride. ■