Paloma Montreal Nice

Renowned Montreal restaurant Paloma is an authentic love letter to Nice

“Simple on the surface yet powerfully complex, Niçoise food combines the riches of the Mediterranean with Provençal produce and olive oil. Nice’s influences and resources make for one of Europe’s most singular and interesting cuisines.”

The first time I visited Paloma, just a few weeks after the restaurant opened its doors in 2019, I felt like I was uncovering a secret.

Co-owners Rosalie Forcherio and her father Armand were unknown to me, despite possessing over 50 years of collective restaurant experience. I had heard of this little Niçoise restaurant in Villeray and I loved the idea of a place that combined the cuisine of France and Italy using the Mediterranean as the tangential link. My experience, however, wasn’t exceptional. That isn’t to say it was bad, but it felt somewhat stifled. There were moments of brilliance, dishes that underwhelmed and a disappointing cake named after a cartoon monkey. Again, it’s not that it was bad, I just wanted to love this restaurant and it failed to delight in the way I hoped it would. 

Fast-forward four years and a lot has changed. Paloma is no longer an unknown restaurant tucked away on the industrial strip of St-Laurent that meets the 40 — it’s a sought-after destination that ranked 48th on the list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants this year. Last week, I had the opportunity to revisit Paloma and I am overjoyed to say that not only has it become the restaurant I hoped it would be — it’s even better. 

Paloma restaurant Montreal
Paloma. Photos by Dominique Lafond

In order to understand what Paloma does so well, you need to understand Nice. The coastal city and capital of the French Riviera, Nice was originally a Greek settlement that was conquered by the Romans and belonged to Italy until it was officially ceded to France in the 1860s. Nice is very old and is an amalgam of cultures and traditions, and those characteristics show up in the food. Niçoise food combines the riches of the Mediterranean with Provençal produce and olive oil. It is simple on the surface yet powerfully complex — just like good Roman food — and it borrows recipes and techniques from Liguria and Piedmont, which lie directly on the other side of the border. Nice’s influences and resources make it one of Europe’s most singular and interesting cuisines.

Take, for example, the ravioli. My first time around, it was a mediocre sage and pumpkin affair — very underwhelming. This visit: ravioli Niçois, a perfectly cooked packet of braised beef studded with Swiss chard and parmesan and dressed in a silky sauce of beef jus mounted with plenty of butter. It was absolutely incredible. Flavourful and rich while managing to stave off weightiness, it’s a dish that reminds me of all of Nice’s influences while remaining unique. 

Paloma restaurant Montreal

We also enjoyed a rendition of Vitello Tonnato, rosy veal sliced thin, served cold and topped with a condiment made of tuna, mayo and capers. Perhaps Turin’s most well-known dish, Paloma’s Vitello Tonnato rivals the best I’ve had anywhere. The same goes for the tripe. Braised in a chilli-flecked tomato sauce, it is reminiscent of Trippa alla Romana, one of Rome’s most storied dishes, but remains distinct somehow. Maybe it’s the sauce, which feels lighter, or the absence of breadcrumbs and pecorino — in any case, it’s deliciously tender and flavourful. Around the table, heaving spoonfuls are being spread on grilled bread and devoured with glee.

We ate a beautifully cooked piece of onglet dressed in sauce vièrge, a quintessential Provençal sauce made of chopped tomatoes, shallots, vinegar and herbs that’s typically used as a sauce for fish. It’s a fantastic piece of meat and the sauce, which works a lot like a chimichurri, feels both familiar and entirely iconoclastic at the same time. The Poisson Mystère, as it’s billed on the menu, was halibut served with chanterelles (foraged by the chef himself) and a jus de viande. While I thought that the fish was just slightly overcooked, the dish came together beautifully. The halibut and mushrooms were a spectacular combination and the richness of the sauce, which I worried might overpower the fish, actually served to highlight its overall meatiness. The real surprise was that the wine: Dolceacqua from Ligurian producer Testalonga, which was ordered to complement the beef, also worked beautifully with the fish.

Paloma restaurant Montreal

The dish of the night, however, was the one of which I was most apprehensive: calf’s brain in lemon butter. I have eaten brain a few times before and I’ve cooked it a few times, too, back in my Lawrence days, but it’s always felt like a bridge too far. It’s a mental hurdle (no pun intended) to eat brain — it just feels wrong in some way. And yet the brain at Paloma looks pleasantly appetizing. Flattened, dusted in flour and seared in butter until it develops a golden crust, it looks a lot like sweetbreads. Sitting in a pool of soft-yellow lemon butter, I’d go as far as to say that it was inviting. Texture is the gift and curse of brain; unsurprisingly, it’s very soft. Luckily for me, Armand Forcherio’s version is the best I’ve had. The crispy crust gives way to a custard-liked brain that is incredibly delicate, and with the flavour of butter-basted veal. If you’re brave enough to seek out brain, you will be rewarded by this preparation. What elevated this dish, however, was Rosalie’s excellent choice of wine: 2021 Mustagno from Roussillon producer Domaine de la Nouvelle Donne. Elaborated in a Burgundian style, this blend of Grenache blanc, Grenache gris and Carignan brings acidity to the dish while matching and amplifying the texture of the butter and the presence of the lemon. Since my dinner, I can’t stop thinking or talking about this pairing. 

Rosalie’s service and superior wine knowledge have always been high points for Paloma — nothing’s changed there. It’s worth mentioning that her wine list is much deeper than it was last time, and full of lesser-known references and producers. Of the three wines we drank, the two chosen by Rosalie were the most interesting. Suffice it to say that when it comes to the wine list, you’re in incredibly good hands. 

The major difference at Paloma, in my opinion, isn’t the food, wine list or service. It’s the confidence and assuredness with which each of these elements is rendered. The stifled feeling I got when I first visited — it’s completely gone. Now, the food feels confident and self-assured — exactly what you need to serve a plate of brains in butter — and it feels reflective of real Niçoise cooking. More than that, I feel like I’m seeing the real expression of Armand, a chef who has spent the last 47 years working in kitchens. On my first visit, I felt I was seeing someone in conflict with what they wanted to cook and what they expected people at restaurants wanted to eat. Now, I see a menu with personality, depth and authenticity. I’m interpolating a bit here but I’ve always believed that this father-daughter-run love letter to Nice wasn’t about opening a great restaurant — it was about encapsulating the feeling of meals shared together in a part of the world that was so meaningful to the Forcherio family. It’s a powerful feeling and it comes across. 

I want to end with a disclaimer. After nearly five decades behind the stove, Armand Forcherio will be stepping away from the kitchen. There was a rumour that Paloma was scheduled to close but, according to Rosalie, that is untrue. With that said, if you want to experience Paloma as it was always meant to be, I urge you to book a table before the end of summer — you’ll be glad you did. ■

For more on Paloma, please visit their website. This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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