Mont-Brise is one of Montreal’s best Japanese restaurants… and it’s in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue

“Yu’s food is both delicious and theatrical — a combination I usually find annoying but is successful here because of the genuine delight behind each of Yu’s decorations, including my favourite: a hand-carved lantern made from a paper-thin sheet of carrot. Brilliant.”

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, a small village on the island of Montreal’s westernmost tip, isn’t a place you’d peg for having one of the city’s best Japanese restaurants. And yet, Mont-Brise, a restaurant run by two Chinese expats and certified Japanophiles, is just that.

Better known as the home of John Abbott College, McGill’s Macdonald campus and its bustling waterfront boardwalk, Sainte-Anne’s culinary claim to fame is the Halle Berry-approved chicken wings at Cunningham’s Pub — which are great, for the record. Over the last few years, as the West Island’s population demographics have become increasingly diverse, several great restaurants have popped up. From Taiwanese dumplings to Korean barbecue, Szechuan noodle soups and Birria tacos — there are a lot of good things to eat in the West. But where fast-casual joints have flourished, Mont-Brise takes a decidedly more finessed approach and represents one of the few restaurants in the region tackling a finer dining experience.

If you’ve never been to Sainte-Anne, let me say it’s a lovely little village. It’s got a maritime feel to it with its small winding streets lined with clapboard cottages and 1800s stone farmhouses — all of which converge on a picture-perfect waterfront promenade. It’s the kind of place where you might expect to get a half-decent plate of fish and chips by the water, but sashimi of seasonal buri (Japanese amberjack) flown in fresh from Taoyama, or a Chirashi bowl with immaculate Bluefin tuna and Hokkaido uni is something entirely unexpected. 

Chef Bingran Yu and his partner Jia Liu (who manages the front of house) opened Mont-Brise back in March of 2022. Originally from Tianjin, China, their relocation to Montreal was a sort of leap of faith. Yu had worked as a chef cooking traditional Chinese fare at hotels in Tianjin while fostering a growing love for Japanese food. After a few years of apprenticing in Japanese restaurants in China, the couple uprooted their lives to join friends already living in Montreal. The choice to open up shop in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue was also a leap of faith and one based almost exclusively on the charm of the boardwalk promenade in the summer.

After arriving in Montreal, Yu took a job working for True World Foods, an importer of high-quality Japanese fish, seafood and sundries. During his time there, he learned bluefin tuna butchery and would go on to butcher whole tuna for the premiere sushi restaurants in Montreal including Park, Okeya Kyujiro and Hidden Fish. A self-described fish obsessive, in his own restaurant, Yu works with the very finest seasonal Japanese seafood available (except for the Ora King Salmon imported from New Zealand) which he selects for its quality, texture and taste. 

Mont-Brise Montreal review Restaurant Guide

I have eaten at Mont-Brise a half-dozen times to date and each time I have the pleasure of enjoying something different. Invariably I have found the food to be thoughtfully prepared, entirely authentic (at least to my limited experience of spending six weeks in Japan) and delicious. What sets Mont-Brise apart, for me, is Yu’s dedication to his craft. On my first visit, early in the spring, I enjoyed an incredible chawanmushi (a steamed savoury egg custard made with dashi), which was topped with a generous portion of fresh snow crab. During the season, snow crab shows up on just about every menu worth a damn, but here, the crab was treated with exceptional consideration. Rather than being smothered in mayo and lemon, the sweetness of the crab was met with the subtle sweetness of the warm custard and accentuated by the lingering smokiness of the bonito-flaked dashi used to make the mixture.

On another occasion, I opted for the Unadon. Served in a lacquered wooden box, a bed of perfectly steamed rice was topped with two ample filets of grilled freshwater eel glazed with tare (a sauce of soy, mirin and sake) and an artfully rolled tamago omelette. While this is something extremely common in Japan, I have never encountered it on any menu in Montreal. Yu’s preparation, as in all of his food, seems devoid of ego or self-congratulation. Rather than trying to put his imprint on a dish, his measure of success seems derived from how faithfully he can execute the recipes he’s so closely studied. On any given day, you can enjoy seasonal grilled fish — in other visits, I had beautiful black cod from B.C. or the head of an Ora King Salmon, which instantly transported me to a very memorable dinner I had at a Ryokan in Kyoto some years ago.

The star of the show, as you might expect, is the raw seafood — this is where Yu’s talents and passion shine most. Watching Yu work, you get an immediate feel for this appreciation of the ingredient. From the way each fish is portioned and processed to the meticulous choice of crockery and the intricate way in which each element is positioned on the plate, everything is done with great care and intention. On the particular plate of sashimi I’m envisioning as I write this, I think very fondly of the chutoro and otoro (the fattiest and most prized cuts of tuna), which melted on the palate and offered a richness and depth of flavour I have not experienced elsewhere in the city. On the same plate, a crystalline jar was filled with a generous pile of sweet and fragrant Hokkaido Uni, which I spooned onto some shari (vinegared rice) and wrapped the morsel in an envelope of high-quality nori. Yu’s food is both delicious and theatrical — a combination I usually find annoying but is successful here because of the genuine delight behind each of Yu’s decorations, including my favourite: a hand-carved lantern made from a paper-thin sheet of carrot. Brilliant. Even seemingly simple things like the wasabi, which is grated fresh from the root to order, or the miso soup, which is filled with tender tofu, sweet clams and plump shrimp, are rendered exceptional here.

But despite all that Mont-Brise offers, in the many times I’ve visited the restaurant, I have never seen it full. I mention this only because I believe it is a criminally under-appreciated restaurant. In some ways, I am writing this review to give Yu and Liu the credit they so clearly deserve but I’m also writing in praise of a restaurant I worry may not last. While Mont-Brise isn’t cheap, it’s comparable to an average night out at a good restaurant in the city and significantly cheaper than Park, Okeya Kujiro, Hidden Fish and Marcus, which offer seafood of comparable quality. I believe that it languishes a bit in Sainte-Anne, where it’s only appreciated by a small few.

For that exact reason, however, I believe Mont-Brise offers a rare and coveted opportunity for the curious diner: the opportunity to uncover a truly hidden gem. So many Montreal epicureans have made the pilgrimage to Parcelles in the Eastern Townships and to Bika Farm in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Why not make the short trip to Sainte-Anne for one of the better Japanese meals you’re likely to have in town? ■

For more on Mont-Brise (130 Sainte-Anne), please visit their Instagram.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Cult MTL. 

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