Baby Duck, an elusive project from a gang of Pastel alumni, might just be the most interesting new restaurant in Montreal — and it doesn’t even have a location. The project is a series of slightly ephemeral pop-ups, that as form dictates pop up in the kitchens of various restaurants in town offering specific, concept-driven, one-night-only meals.
A Baby Duck pop-up is sort of like going to your favourite bar only to find that D’Angelo is there doing a show of Sade covers. Like, “I didn’t ask for this but goddamn if I’m not glad it’s happening.”
I learned about Baby Duck one night when I was working. Co-chef (along with Blake Hickerson) and Baby Duck ringleader Louie Deligianis was sitting at the bar at Nora Gray and told me about a thing that may or may not be happening in a garage or apartment or something. It was called Baby Duck, and he’d let me know when the next event was happening. There have only been two events under the Baby Duck name, but the crew has come together for nearly 15 events so far.
Make a night of it
The dinner I went to was held on a Sunday night at Marusan, an excellent Japanese spot in the Old Port). The menu was an eclectic mix of dishes that leaned Japanese, but honestly defy any type of traditional definition. But that’s the point. It’s a menu derived from the pure delight of cooking exactly what you want to cook.
The name Baby Duck refers to the cloyingly sweet, much-maligned sparkling wine that was beloved by broke Montreal party people in the ’80s and ’90s. The spirit of Baby Duck is that you make something great out of what you’ve got. You might only have $10, but that can get you a litre and a half of bubbly wine; though it might suck, you can make one hell of a night out of it. Louie and his crew embraced the idea of making the most of what circumstances offer — be that a catering situation at the Fleek Market, or the kitchen at one of Canada’s top 10 restaurants — and creating a beautiful evening out of it.
It might be a weird badge of honour, but it’s one I understand, with a nostalgia I really relate to. The style of the pop-up varies each time. “We get together and it’s like, ‘What do you want to cook?’ ‘Cause like a lot of the times at Pastel we’d be cooking duck so then we’d be like, ‘Okay let’s not cook duck.’ So because we’re working in a restaurant and then doing a pop-up, we would just always kind of offset the menu so that we weren’t cooking anything that we were already cooking [at Pastel],” explains Deligianis. And so the food might be Greek-Japanese one week, and an all-pasta tasting menu the next.
Personally, I’ve been having a hard time getting excited about the restaurant scene in Montreal lately. Maybe the stakes are too high, or maybe there’s just a lull until the next wave hits. Or maybe I’m jaded, but I feel that restaurants in town are playing it safe. Every other restaurant I see recently is some sort of mixed-Mediterranean small plates natural wine bar. That’s why I’m excited by Baby Duck: it’s a 100 per cent risk endeavour; it’s a statement to the status quo restaurant scene: “I have skill, I can cook, I have concept.”
The pop-up is unforgiving. It’s a concept that doesn’t get to have a bad night, or a slow night. It only has one shot to impress. In restaurants, the whole service and concept is rehearsed, it’s calculated, whereas the pop-up is emotional, passionate and unpredictable. I’m not elevating one over the other, and if I were forced to pick a side, unquestionably it would be on the brick and mortar restaurant side. But there’s a wonderful value to the one-night-only event that says, “I’m putting my money where my mouth is” and everything is laid bare for the world to see.
I’m not sure it’s worth going into detail about my particular experience. You’ll never have the chance to taste any of the food, because they’ll never do it again. If you trust my opinion, all you need to know is that it was exceptional. We tasted every dish, there were no misses. What you should know is that there are more to come, and perhaps best of all, Louie and his crew are actively looking for a restaurant location.
“I’m looking frantically,” he says. “There’s so many places shutting down and opening up, Baby Duck will turn into an actual restaurant. I always thought I wanted to open up a restaurant in my 20’s and now that I haven’t, I’m glad, because it’s given me a little bit of room to breathe and not be under a tremendous amount of stress before I’m ready. In my 30s now we’re looking toward [opening up a restaurant] and it’s going to make a lot more sense, now that we’re a bit older.” It’s that sensibility that says, I’ve felt the pressure, I’ve held the weight of time on my shoulders and the enthusiasm of starry-eyed youth has hardened into a steely focus, a balance of experience, fear and wisdom. ■
The next Baby Duck event is happening at Toronto restaurant Ten on March 29. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Follow @clownface_deligianis on Instagram for upcoming Montreal events.
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