Place Carmin steak montreal restaurant review

Bouillon Bilk offshoot Place Carmin is a prime 21st century steakhouse

“It’s a study in classic hospitality and a return to formal dining that’s genderless and void of machismo — and it’s a great place to get a cut of beef.”

This past spring I was taking a walk down in Old Montreal and I made a stop by Mélisse to speak to a friend of mine working in the kitchen. The particular area around Mélisse is sort of the point of intersection between the scenic old town and Griffintown’s sprawling condo towers, save for one industrial, rather beautiful red-brick building. I asked my friend about it. “Oh, you don’t know?” he replied, surprised I wasn’t already aware. “That’s going to be the new Bouillon Bilk restaurant, they’re doing a steakhouse I think.” 

A steakhouse in Old Montreal is just about as far from a novel concept as one could get in this city, and yet it’s one of the few classic restaurant concepts that has yet to be properly revisited. With the way we’ve seen a return to the French bistro being embraced and experimental tasting menus being replaced by conventional à la carte menus, doing a contemporary take on the steakhouse strikes me as a logical next step. If you think about it, steakhouses are sort of the archetypal fine-dining restaurant of North America and, as an institution, it’s certainly owed its due. 

This particular project, which goes by the name Place Carmin, is a joint venture from Bouillon Bilk co-owners Mélanie Blanchette and François Nadon and newly minted partner and executive chef Émile Colette. That information alone should be enough to pique some interest given that this team is behind one of the most lauded and most loved restaurants in town. I have to say that I found it a bit of a surprise that they would be the ones to take this project on, given that they’re best known for their intricate and finessed tasting menus. With that said, in my time working in kitchens in Montreal, the cooks who had passed through Bouillon Bilk at some point in their careers were invariably some of the most skilled cooks I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Suffice to say this team has the chops to cook a steak. 

Place Carmin by day

Now to be clear, the restaurant at no point calls itself a steakhouse; it’s billed as a brasserie. Call me obtuse, but besides the “Frenchness” of the whole thing, we’re talking about quite similar dining experiences. After all, aren’t shrimp cocktail, oysters and a properly cooked steak emblematic of both institutions? For the purposes of the article, I have chosen to think of this restaurant like a steakhouse, and if the owners take offence to this, well they shouldn’t — steakhouses are great and Place Carmin stands to be one of the best anywhere. 

That said, I’m not an expert on the subject of red meat. I mean, I think I can tell a good steak from a poor one, but for the purposes of speaking about Place Carmin as a steakhouse, I enlisted the help of a dear friend of mine who spent many years manning the grill at Joe Beef. He’s a guy who knows his way around a piece of meat and is no stranger to a good old-fashioned steakhouse.

The building as mentioned before is industrial but not in a warehouse-y way. It’s more like a brickyard. In fact, if you’ve even been to the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto then you know exactly what I’m speaking about. It’s striking, if a bit imposing, which is rather the opposite of Bouillon Bilk’s understated facade. Upon entering, however, the space abandons all imposition, giving way to a light and airy room full of creams and autumnal pastels — it’s miles away from the archetypal broody, masculine dining rooms of the classic high-end steakhouse. 

I’m greeted by a charming, neatly suited maître d’hôtel at the reception (no crowded hovering around a hostess with an iPad here). After a swift check-in, we were promptly escorted to our table, a high-top bistro table that, to me, felt like it was a bit of an afterthought. To my left, there’s a massive and sturdy-looking bar made of Carrara marble that could easily seat 24 but was set for 12, making it a proper bar for eating. Opposite the bar is an elegant dining room, with a handful of white-oak tables and a cognac-coloured leather banquette. To my right, there’s the massive open kitchen, where the scintillating scent of smoke from the grill lingers in the air. Opposite the kitchen is a long tufted banquette (very steakhouse) which seats another 20 or so diners. Our table, however, was one of three that seemed propped up in the passageway between the two distinct seating areas. I’m not usually one to complain about a table, but these tables sure feel like the cheap seats and definitely undermine the peak-of-hospitality vibe that Place Carmin is clearly trying to give off. 

We began our meal, as is tradition when eating at a steakhouse, with a round of martinis. My guest complained that he found his drink a bit weak but he’s also the type to ask for his martini so dry that the bartender should hardly even glance at the vermouth let alone put a drop in his drink. I, on the other hand, found my martini to be more than adequate. We perused the menu while sipping on our libations. It’s a very classic menu that’s imbued with this wonderfully rich Old-European language that is both evocative of the classic fine-dining and a hallmark of the trends of the day. We’re strangely living in an era where the cool 20-year-olds are going out to get drunk on Gamay wine while eating pâté en croûte and truite mi-cuite. Bizarre but also totally rad, if you’re asking me. The menu opens with a selection of three canapés and then moves into the entrées, which, true to form, are very classic (and very French). I skipped right over them though and put my attention on the cold bar, for what would a night at the steakhouse be without a shrimp cocktail? Lion’s head bowls of sweetbreads topped with a dome of puff pastry circled around the dining room but our waiter suggested we try the Tarte Tatin de Boudin, which we ordered as the suite to our chilled crustaceans. 

Four plump and luscious shrimp came served atop a mound of perfectly clear crushed ice in a glorious crystal bowl and next to a small ceramic ramekin of house cocktail sauce. Generally, there’s not much to say when it comes to shrimp cocktail but this particular version is precisely what you’d want it to be, if not a bit more. The shrimp was perfectly cooked; firm yet succulent but it’s the cocktail sauce that stands out. A classic tomato (read ketchup) and horseradish base is topped with a layer of horseradish cream and finished with a crispy mix of fried garlic, breadcrumbs and, I believe, rice. It’s sort of like the seven-layer dip of cocktail sauces and it is absolutely fantastic. For me, it worked, somewhat paradoxically, as a way to elevate the simple shrimp cocktail while also leaning into the kitschiness of the dish itself. Clever and delicious. 

Next to arrive was the Tarte Tatin au boudin. I was a bit hesitant about this dish. Boudin and apples are a winning combination but it’s been done so often that I’ve kind of come to find it boring. The best version that I’ve ever had was at Lawrence back in 2015 where an exquisitely puffed and layered tarte crowned with thick-cut, caramelized apples was served with a generous slab of seared boudin and topped with a fried egg. For me, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than that. Sadly, this dish didn’t do it. Place Carmin’s tarte came in the form of a generous tranche with a thin, slightly undercooked puff pastry crust topped with a thick layer of pork fat-studded boudin sauced with an apple gastrique. As a small accompaniment, there was a bit of spiced crème fraiche and a slight pile of vinegary mesclun and hazelnuts. The dish was just a bit clumsy to me, decadent for sure but a bit bashful. When I think of Tarte Tatin, I think of deeply caramelized apples and multifold paper-thin layers of golden, flaky puff pastry. This just wasn’t that. The undercooked pastry was really the big let-down but I felt that the salad was unnecessary and the boudin itself was so heavily spiced that tasting it blind you’d think you were having a slice of pumpkin pie. 

But hey, you don’t judge a steakhouse by its blood pudding pies. You judge it by its steak. The cuts available that particular evening were a hanger steak, a filet, veal rib (côte de veau) and a massive bone-in rib steak for two. Additionally, Place Carmin has a beautiful à la carte menu filled with all types of main courses that would satisfy, if not delight, any diner, such as Cavatelli with pancetta and mushrooms or seabass with lobster bisque. But I came to eat beef. If you want to test the mettle of a grill cook, have them cook a rib steak at mid-service on a Friday night. I asked my guest about the challenges of cooking this particular cut of meat. For him, it’s not the challenge of getting the right cuisson — anyone cooking steak professionally should be able to do that. It’s in timing the cuisson perfectly to allow the ample fat enough time to properly render and while leaving plenty (a good 30 minutes) of time to rest the meat before serving. 

Steaks come served with fries and a choice of sauce (two if you order the rib steak). Rest assured, you can choose to add potatoes with sour cream and bacon if you’re the baked potato type. We opted for a side dish of mushrooms en persillade and for sauces, the béarnaise and chimichurri — something rich and something bright, you know? The massive steak (about 1kg on the bone) came on a genuine silver platter with a mound of fries that would humble even the most voracious of eaters. For me, this was the first big departure from the finesse and ultra refinement of Bouillon Bilk. Though it was an abundant and enticing plate of food, I wished that there had been a bit more intentionality to it. Rather than doing the BBQ-joint style of dumping all the food out on the platter, they could perhaps serve the fries in two lions-head bowls and an invitation or order more as needed. The sauciers were fairly drab as well, little ceramic triangles that were more reminiscent of Dollarama dinnerware than anything evoking a sense of grandeur or class. A bit of a shame, really. Surely at this price point, a proper saucier could have been afforded? I also wouldn’t have minded if my server had plated and sauced the first bit of steak. I’m perfectly capable of serving myself, but that little bit of restaurant pageantry goes a long way. I mean, if le Roi Du Smoked meat can manage table-side pizza service, I’m sure Place Carmin can figure out saucing some steak. But I digress.

Grandeur and elevation aside, the steak was utterly perfect. My guest, picking up a slice with his fork, proclaimed almost instantly, “You couldn’t cook it any better than that!” The fat, which was abundant on our cut, was tender and melt-in-your-mouth soft. It was the kind of fat you’d want everyone who throws their fat away to try because you’d make a convert out of every last one. The steak was beautifully rested and seasoned to perfection. I’d have happily eaten that steak alone on the curb outside and still declared Place Carmin one of the best steak joints in town. The fries, humble as they may be, were phenomenal as well. A fry is a fry is a fry… but a great fry? Well, that’s something worth writing about. The chimichurri was good, although my guest remarked that his former boss Ari Schor (now of Beba), who is considered Montreal’s leading expert on chimichurri, wouldn’t have liked it. I thought it was quite good — acidic and pleasantly mint-forward, which in this application was welcome. The béarnaise was exemplary and as textbook as they come. Silky smooth, rich but balanced with plenty of lemon and flecked with fragrant bits of bright tarragon. A bad béarnaise can be a bit bland and weighty but when done right, like this one, it actually serves to enliven red meat rather than simply adding a blanket of fatty sauce. 

By the end of this meal, I didn’t have any room left for dessert, which is a shame because there was a beautiful dessert card. The lemon tart called to me as did the crémeux au chocolat but ultimately it was a calvados from Roger Groult that brought the evening to a close. 

My goal when I set out was to come up with an answer to the question, “What is a steakhouse in 2021?” I’m not sure I know the definitive answer but based on this experience, it’s a study in classic hospitality, it’s a return to formal dining and old-world elegance, it’s genderless and void of machismo and it is as it always has been: a great place to get a cut of beef. ■

This review originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on Place Carmin (740 William), please visit the restaurant’s website.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.