Whenever I’m asked about restaurants in Montreal — and I mean not where to go, but what defines a Montreal restaurant — I struggle to find an answer. I suppose in many ways there isn’t a good answer because to define our restaurant scene with any sort of rigidity is to completely miss the point. Our scene is one that is in part defined by its lack of definable qualities. I recently visited Clairon, a new restaurant in the Plateau that in the most Montreal of ways is classically iconoclastic.
On the charming if slightly sleepy side of Rachel, just east of St-Denis, is Clairon’s long white storefront. It stands out, but in a way that is subtly stylish. The toppling lettering that marks the big front window suggests a playfulness but also an understanding of the branding and design that is paramount in the restaurant business these days. Immediately, the restaurant’s clean black and white, quasi-utilitarian look reminds me of the great London restaurant St. John Bread & Wine, and making our approach to the restaurant under umbrellas on a misty and cool June evening, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the U.K.’s finest restaurant town.
Design aside, the comparisons with St. John end here. Clairon has no defined regional cooking style, the food is more dressed up and the ethos steadfastly dedicated to championing local ingredients. Call me cynical, but I’m tired of restaurants promoting their preference toward local products. Duh, we all prefer Quebec asparagus when it’s in season. It’s not a concept anymore, it’s the expectation. The other thing this restaurant is about is small plates, another trend that I hope to see on its way out. To their credit, the menu doesn’t list à la carte prices and instead gets right to the point and suggests three plates for $50. I for one, having worked in a few small-plate restaurants, appreciate that they skip the awkward “How much should I order?” conversation, and just tell you how to do the menu right.
Good, comfortable seating in restaurants is often hard to come by — there’s always the great looking banquette that everyone wants to sit at — and at Clairon, everyone can because all but a few seats are banquettes. The wine list is short and sweet, a half-dozen or so red and another half-dozen whites, a few bubbles, a few rosés and of course something orange, mostly priced between $50 and $75. For cocktails, there are three simple spirit-forward drinks that I think would please most palates. As for beer, put something local on tap. There are a million exceptional beers you could choose from, and at a restaurant supposedly focused on Quebec products, it’s unacceptable to be serving Grolsch on tap. Our waiter, to his credit, listened attentively to my description of what I was looking for in a wine and brought us a bottle, off list, of Seyval-Chardonnay from Les Pervenches — a truly wonderful wine.
As for the menu, we opted for the proposed formula — three plates apiece for a total of six. We decided to choose octopus, buffalo mozzarella and a Ssäm-style strip loin, and for the remaining three dishes we gave the kitchen carte blanche. I strongly believe that in restaurants like this, where the plates are small and ambiguously described, it’s best to let the kitchen sort out your meal for you. They know what works best with what, and they know that the squash you ordered is actually a soup and might be weird alongside your scallop crudo.
Rather than describe at length each of the dishes we ate (it’s possible they’ll be off the menu by the time you’re reading this), I’ll describe the pros and cons of the dinner. Stylistically, the menu bounces from Japan, to France, to Italy and to India without much of a linear link, which to me was a major flaw. Seasonality can’t be the only unifying quality of a menu — it’s the gustatory equivalent of filling a cup will all of sodas at the soda fountain. Alone, the dishes are good, but travelling the world over the span of a few plates is the kind of juvenile menu planning that shows a great love for food, but a lack of understanding in regards to the dining experience. On the surface, abandoning limitations when it comes to cooking seems easier and freer, but in order to be great, it demands a deep understanding of regional cooking from all over the world, and an innate ability to tether together diverse flavours cohesively. It would be a daunting task for a chef of any calibre.
The star dish of the night was also the most simple preparation: oyster mushrooms, skewered like yakitori and glazed with honey and shiitake. I could have eaten 100. We also thoroughly enjoyed a plate of perfectly grilled asparagus dressed with brined sunflower sprouts, sourdough crumble and a dollop of lacto-fermented asparagus puree. We also ate perfectly cooked monkfish wrapped in cabbage and a very lacklustre striploin Ssäm that was far too subtle.
The most disappointing dish of the night was octopus served with ‘nduja and potato puree —disappointing because essentially we were being served pulpo a la Gallega, the classic Spanish dish of octopus with potatoes and smoked paprika, so the work has already been done — it’s tried and true. This preparation just fell short, it lacked depth. The ‘nduja was imported from Italy, which is confusing considering Phil Viens at Aliments Viens makes Quebec ‘nduja that is some of the best I have ever tasted, and he makes it a stone’s throw away. The octopus was cooked perfectly, but the potato puree was under seasoned and could have been warmer. A little acidity would also have done wonders for the dish.
Clairon’s space is nicely put together, and it’s clear to me that the team behind this restaurant has a knowledge of what makes for a great restaurant, and they did it all on what I have to assume was a modest budget. My date and I ate well for the most part, and the restaurant shows promise, there’s no doubt, but unless the beverage program gets refined and the kitchen really buckles down and focuses hard on their identity, this will always be a hit and miss kind of spot, and hit and miss spots are never great restaurants. ■
432 Rachel E.
*UPDATE: Clairon will be shutting its doors permanently due to forces outside their control.