Old Montreal restaurant Mélisse offers what might be the ideal dining experience

“A beautiful space, warm and attentive service and delicious food by chef Tom Allain.”

Dining is back! Damn, doesn’t it feel good to say that? I’ve been out to eat at a few of my favourite spots and, maybe the old adage is true, maybe absence does make the heart grow fonder — or maybe, just maybe, restaurants are better? It’s hard not to view these experiences through rose-coloured glasses but hospitality, in my experience, is at an all-time high lately and perhaps nowhere more so than at Mélisse, a new restaurant — or at least new to me, in Old Montreal. 

Through the winter I started keeping a journal of some of my favourite meals: a late-summer tomato sandwich on white bread from Orford’s Chez Dora bakery, thickly cut tonkatsu from Butagumi in Tokyo, the first snow crab of the year with nothing more than a squeeze of fresh lemon. My list was long and varied — equal parts travel journal and tasty bits compendium and yet, for the most part, everything had one major characteristic in common: they were wholly uncomplicated. And when I say uncomplicated, I don’t mean devoid of technique — we tend to call this “simple” food but that in itself is overly reductive. Uncomplicated food is thoughtful, deliberate and unburdened by all the unnecessary elements that serve no more purpose than to add a splash of pomp and pretension.

Halibut crudo at Old Montreal restaurant Mélisse, by Tom Allain

It’s exactly the kind of food that I’ve come to expect from chef Tom Allain, who took over the kitchen at Mélisse roughly two years ago. For some reason I had been putting off going to Mélisse. I’ve tasted Allain’s food countless times, and I had no reason to expect anything other than a delicious meal — something about the location or the vaguely Mediteranean identity that is adopted by so many mediocre restaurants had me pushing back my reservation time after time. 

Last week, however, I bit the bullet and made the journey down to the corner of William and Queen. It’s strange to say, but the sprawling, roughly 50-seat outdoor terrasse felt intimate and oddly private tucked away beneath the towers of condo buildings surrounding Square William. Though it lacks the objective charm of European town squares, the resulting effect was not altogether dissimilar. We were guided to our table, a spacious two-top on the terrasse. We were greeted by the endlessly charming Salomé Médam, daughter of owner Caroline Desgagne and resident sommelier, who presented us with the menu and the wine list. The menu is short and sweet — nine dishes that range in portion size along with oysters by the half-dozen or dozen, and daily crudo and pasta specials.

Falafel at Old Montreal restaurant Mélisse, by Tom Allain

We began with a half dozen oysters served with mignonette and lemon — a standard affair with two choices of some PEI favourites (Casumpec and Salt Grass Point) along with the crudo of the day: halibut with labneh, garlic scape salsa verde, fresno chiles and potato chips. Following the advice of Médam, we opted for a glass of sparkling Chenin Blanc from Testalonga, a favourite South-African producer. The oysters were briny, plump and appropriately celebratory for a return to restaurant dining but it was the crudo, unexpected and so clever, that would end up being the dish of the night. Halibut, a delicately flavoured fish, is really all about texture when served raw. In his preparation, Allain serves the fish in meaty slices placed atop a thick smear of creamy and acidic labneh — the lot is dressed with the aforementioned garnishes which make for a very pretty plate of food. For me, a good crudo celebrates the fish and accentuates it with a balance of fat and acidity. Generally speaking we’re talking about olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar. Allain’s crudo cleverly adds the fat and acidity in his crudo by way of yogurt — a lovely combination. The richness of the yogurt is bolstered by the garlicky depth of the salsa verde and gets a pointed vibrancy from the gentle heat of the fresno chile — and who doesn’t love a crispy potato chip?

As we finished the raw course, we perused Médam’s beautifully composed wine list. A strictly natural selection, for me, it read like a greatest hits list: Alexandre Filaine, Château de Béru, Denavolo, Courault, Souhaut, the list goes on. We landed on a bottle of 2018 Poulsard from Domaine des Marnes Blanches and settled in for the next course. Four impossibly crisp balls of falafel arrived with their herbed mayo. Topped with some basil leaves and coriander (which I found a bit superfluous), the falafel themselves were as good as any I’ve had. They mayo offered little in terms of accompaniment — I thought it could have been herbier, but it was more than made up for by the vibrancy of the bright-green falafel themselves. Though I never ordered take-out from Mélisse over the course of the pandemic, I can assume that a falafel sandwich could have easily carried them through those tough times.

Tagliatelle Carbonara by Tom Allain

Our main course was a very generous portion of the pasta of the day: Tagliatelle Carbonara. Far from a traditional carbonara, Allain’s version featured crispy bacon, sweetbreads, green peas and beautiful Quebec morels. The pasta itself was perfectly cooked and served as an excellent vehicle for the other elements. It goes without saying, however, that the star of the dish were the beautiful plump morels. In my opinion, the pasta served with peas and morels alone would have been more than sufficient, although the dish as composed by Allain was certainly delicious as well. 

For dessert, we enjoyed a slice of coffee cake topped with a beautifully glazed rhubarb lattice and crumbly streusel. Alongside the quite tasty cake were one scoop each of rhubarb and pistachio ice cream, which were fine but nothing to write home about. 

My job is to be critical of restaurants and their food but I admit that, seated on the tastefully decorated terrasse at Mélisse, it was hard to feel anything other than delight. For me, the evening was everything you could want when you go out to dinner. A beautiful space, warm and attentive service and delicious food — the ideal restaurant experience. ■

For more on Mélisse (719 William), please visit the restaurant’s website. This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.