Pastel Rita, café by design

We checked out Gabriel Malenfant’s design studio, café and wine bar.

Perhaps it’s the warm coffee at my lips, or the cheeriness of the colour-blasted interior; most likely it’s owner Gabriel Malenfant’s warm and welcoming attitude that’s dampening any sense of winter cynicism I might otherwise be feeling on a gloomy Tuesday morning. Part design studio, part café, part natural wine bar, Pastel Rita is a beautiful concoction that reminds me of that good old DIY Montreal business.

It goes without saying that the design of this café with restaurant ambitions is the star attraction — and with good reason. The interior features an audacious and vivid colour scheme featuring an emerald green central bar (which is also the kitchen), a wall in the hue of a summer-peach and a bubblegum pink bench that provides both seating and a showcase for co-owner Veronique Orban’s handbag company Bouquet, as well as Montreal knife-maker Smith and Spathis’s Japanese-style knives. Opposite the kitchen is Orban’s studio, with inlaid arched mantles that act as a home for a smattering of ceramics from Pascale Girardin. Perhaps the cherry on top is an incredibly Instagrammable pink monochrome wall and banquette. The whole vibe reminds me of Milan’s Bar Luce (the Wes Anderson-designed bar at the Prada Institute) and Malenfant is the first to admit that the filmmaker’s style was an inspiration for the design. That high-minded yet playful design really resonates with me as the day-to-night, café-cum-wine bar is as Milanese as it is Montréalaise. Pastel Rita could easily be your first stop for an espresso in the morning, where you come for a drink and a snack after work, and for your nightcap before heading home.

Design aside, I should say that, to me, this isn’t a restaurant, or at least not yet. Usually, I have criticisms of places that try and do it all, but at Pastel Rita, they’re taking a thoughtful approach. They keep the menu simple (it’s not a gastronome’s paradise by any means) but effective, and they focus on sourcing good products. The Viennoiseries come from Guillaume, charcuteries and cold cuts from Aliments Viens and salads from Montreal Plaza-affiliated Foodchain. Carrying work by local artisans is fitting for a space which was formerly a gallery. Although we all love a café or restaurant that makes everything 100% from scratch, I personally have no problem with businesses that opt to outsource. Just because you made it in house doesn’t necessarily make it good, or better than what’s available, and I give full credit to Malenfant for recognizing that there are great artisans down the street making wonderful products; rather than trying to best them, he embraced them and made their products part of his vision. Local business that supports local business — hard not to like that.

As for my experience, I had a cortado made from beans roasted by Toronto’s Pilot Coffee Roasters, along with an avocado toast that appears on both the brunch and all-day menu. The toast was exactly as expected: creamy, well-seasoned avocado generously slathered on warm and crisp toast and garnished with salty and fragrant feta, tomatoes, radish and radish shoots. Though it was nothing really new or remarkable to speak of, the presentation was nice and thoughtful without veering into over-complication, but that’s what you want from an avocado toast — good fruit, good seasoning and just enough garnish to make it pop.

The café is ambitiously attempting to branch into the wine bar scene with a short but effective wine list and is currently developing a small evening menu that aims to go alongside your glass of Friulian orange wine. For now, there is a bagna cauda-esque plate of crudité with aioli, a selection of cured meats from Aliments Viens and a Matane shrimp salad. A good start, but with Larrys just down the street and Boxermans just on the other side of Parc, there’s simply not enough to be a contender. However, Malefant recently teamed up with Charles Antoine Crète of Montreal Plaza and, in keeping with the Italian theme, they are offering a special aperitivo menu on Thursday and Friday nights. In the traditional Milanese style, snacks come free with the purchase of a libation. Now we’re talking.

As a restaurant, I think Pastel Rita is still finding its groove, but it’s heading in the right direction. I for one prefer that restaurants take it slow and try to perfect the things they offer well before venturing further into new domains. And when they to do expand, they should proceed with cautious and purposeful vision. Here’s hoping that this team doubles down on the aperitivo angle for nights as the Milanese counterpart to neighbouring Cicchetti’s Venetian approach. Really making a go of the 5 à 7 is something that we’re not doing enough of in town; we don’t really need another small-plates joint, but I for one wouldn’t mind a great spot for aperitivo. As for the day program, feel no trepidation to stop by for a good cup of coffee and a simple, well-executed plate. You will not be disappointed. ■

Pastel Rita
5761 St-Laurent