Kabinet montreal caviar cocktail review bar

Montreal caviar and cocktail hotspot Kabinet oozes Old World opulence

“The revamped Mile End establishment is convivial, beautiful and accessible, such a welcome departure from the typical restaurant design in town.”

Kabinet, the pint-sized cocktail bar attached by the hip to Mile End’s favourite nightclub, Datcha, has undergone a major conceptual transformation. The former Russian watering-hole has left its cocktail club roots behind in favour of becoming a restaurant with a mid-century European identity. The key figures behind the transformation are the local architecture and design firm ADHOC in conjunction with former Tripes et Caviar head-chef Jean Michel Leblond. Having tripled in size during the renovation, the striking dining room bears almost no resemblance to its former self despite having been structured around some key pieces of the original design. 

The interior design features an abundance of classic restaurant tropes: ornate art deco floor tiling, a tufted banquette upholstered in burgundy velvet — even a lavish crystal chandelier hangs in the charming bay-window alcove. It oozes Old World opulence verging on austerity but manages to avoid crossing the line into gaudiness. The idea, as it was explained to me when I first heard about the redesign, was that Kabinet was being transformed into a restaurant inspired by Paris in the ’70s. While there is an undeniable neoclassical bistro thing going on, the design language speaks with a heavy Slavic accent. The room is an artful assemblage of bold geometric shapes and richly hued primary colours. Perhaps the best examples are the dual domed banquettes, upholstered in a deep sapphire blue velvet, which frame either side of the neatly tiled open kitchen. It’s a taste of the encroaching return to maximalism and is archetypal mid-century Eastern European design. For me, it’s an absolute homerun.

On to the food. Conceptually, the menu is cleverly composed and reasonably affordable (if you skip the caviar, that is), which is appreciated at a time when food costs are sky-high. Oscillating between a full-fledged restaurant and a snack bar, the menu is broken up into a handful of distinct categories: small plates, salads, seafood, desserts and an entire section devoted to caviar service. It feels European in its construction and the dishes were clearly devised by a chef with an intimate understanding of restaurant culture. It’s worth clarifying, given that “European” as a descriptor is relatively benign, that the specific Europeanness I describe is a combination of France and a hearty mix of Central and Eastern Europe with an emphasis on Russia and Poland. Which is to say, its attitude is decidedly Parisian but its soul is Slavic. 

Kabinet Montreal restaurant bar review
Leek vinaigrette with whelks from Kabinet

The caviar service features fish eggs from different provenances (equally country of export as species of fish) and begins at a paltry $40 for Spanish Herring roe (Caviar de Müjjol) and quickly shoots up to $183 for the good stuff: Antonius Oscietra Caviar from Poland (by way of Russia). I might have liked to see some Acadian Sturgeon Caviar from New Brunswick on offer, but it wouldn’t have altered my decision given that it happened to be nearly 40 degrees on the day I visited. We gave the caviar a miss. 

Instead, my companion and I went for a selection of varied cold dishes to go with a well-chilled bottle of wine. We ordered the leek vinaigrette with whelks, the Hermitage salad, beef tartare, and a classic shrimp cocktail for good measure. The wine list, I am pleased to say, is excellent and filled with a wide array of great producers making wine in classic and unconventional styles and at prices that nearly any budget can accommodate. Since the theme of the night seemed to be something along the lines of an Eastern European revival, I opted for a bottle of 2020 Rizling from Strekov1075 in Slovakia: a perplexingly full-bodied white wine with powerful yet well-integrated acidity and plenty of savoury notes that allow it to carry itself between dishes without getting lost. The wine, much like Kabinet itself, was surprisingly elegant, flamboyant in some ways and restrained in others, and ultimately an authentic representation of its roots and influences.  

The meal led off with the two seafood dishes. The leeks came served on antique china and were cut in roughly two-inch sections and topped with a scattering a halved whelks (a type of sea-snail, for the unfamiliar) under a blanket of “vinaigrette,” which I was told was made of a reduction of clam juice. For a dish whose components could be described as shades of beige, it had a wonderfully appetizing appearance. A special point of appreciation goes to a dusting of what I thought was leek ash but what turned out to actually be sumac, which provided a nice touch of acidity from an unexpected source. Though the leeks were tender and the sauce, which was reminiscent of clam chowder, was surprisingly good, the whelks were far too rubbery and the dish as a whole lacked seasoning. It was a clever rendition in some respects but not entirely successful in its execution.

Kabinet Montreal restaurant bar review
Shrimp cocktail from Kabinet

The shrimp cocktail was about as classic a presentation as you could ask for: six plump shrimp arranged around the rim of a short-stemmed coupe filled with a horseradish-flecked cocktail sauce and a lemon cheek. The shrimp were cooked quite nicely but the cocktail sauce had a bit too much going on. The ketchup-based sauce is a strange concoction to begin with, but it’s a sauce that’s far more than the sum of its parts. Kabinet’s version, as far as I can tell, made an attempt to improve or elevate the sauce by adding lemon zest and capers, and by its hue, I would guess additional tomato as well (though I could be wrong). In any case, the capers and lemon zest threw the balance off for me by making it slightly briny and overly perfumed. My advice: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Next to arrive was a beef tartare made with 90-day dry-aged beef, and it was a certified hit. In its essence, it’s a very classic tartare — with mustard, Worcestershire, hot sauce and cornichons — but it’s been prepared with a level of subtlety and restraint that it feels very light. Without the fat of mayonnaise or richness of egg yolk, the flavour of the beef really comes through. I also quite liked the substitution of hearty endive leaves for toast on a hot summer day; had it been winter I might have said otherwise, but on that day it was perfect. It was also the first dish of the night for which the seasoning was spot-on.

Accompanying the tartare was the Hermitage salad, which is also known as Salade Olivier or Russian salad. The iconic dish traces its roots back to 1860’s Russia where Belgian-born chef Lucien Oliver created the dish for Moscow’s famed Hermitage restaurant. Throughout its history, the dish has gone through countless permutations and might include everything from lobster to bologna. Most, however, would agree the essential ingredients are potato, peas and a good helping of mayonnaise. Kabinet’s version of the salad leans toward a traditional potato salad, combining Yukon Gold potatoes with smoked duck, fresh green peas, capers, green olives and dill all somethered in delightfully creamy mayo and topped with a hefty dollop of Müjjol caviar.

Montreal Mile End restaurant bar Kabinet
Hermitage salad from Kabinet

The dish is a success aside from two small complaints. The first: the potatoes were mealy. It’s a shame, really and despite not severely detracting from the overall success of the dish, the famously buttery texture of Yukon Golds were lost to a potato that tasted like it had been in the fridge just a bit too long. The second: the cuts were too big. For some of the ingredients, like the potato and duck, a large cut makes sense. You get to enjoy the texture of the duck and tenderness of a well-cooked potato, but the massive chunks of briny olives and jarring acidity of the near half-inch cubes of dill pickles weren’t just pops of acidity, they brought you out of the dish. Despite liking all the ingredients and knowing that they work very well together, I found the preparation to be too rustic. It’s worth remembering the the origins of this dish are of finesse and sophistication. While Russian salad might be kitsch today, it was once a dish of grand repute. I think the same ingredients treated with a bit more technique and a bit more reverence would yield a truly sensational dish.

To finish, we opted for the ricotta crème brulée. I have to admit that after we ordered it, I was convinced it would be bad — not every dish needs an alteration. There is beauty in tradition and skill in restraint. In this instance, however, I ate my words. Underneath the golden brulée was a beautifully flavoured ricotta whipped until it had all the texture of the silkiest custard. It was fragrant, balanced and utterly delicious. I’ll resist saying it was an improvement on the original but it was certainly a very good version and easily the dish of the night.

Though not everything was perfect at Kabinet that evening, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The room is exquisite, such a welcome departure from the typical restaurant design in town; the cocktails remain good; the wine list is excellent; the food, though not amazing, is still very decent and shows plenty of potential — I have no doubt that it will only improve over time. It opens early (4 p.m. most days) and stays open late (1 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on weekends) and it has a bar licence, which means you’re as welcome to come for a drink as you are for a meal. It’s convivial, beautiful and accessible, and for those reasons alone, Kabinet firmly gets my stamp of approval. ■

This article was originally published in the August issue of Cult MTL.

For more on Kabinet (98 Laurier W.), please visit their website.

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