257, rue Prince, Montreal | 514.316.4666 | leserpent.ca
I’ve had good meals and, occasionally, I’ve had bad meals. Rarely do I have a beautiful meal.
Le Serpent, Montreal’s buzziest new restaurant, delivers not only beautiful meals: it delivers tasty beautiful meals.
I decide to dine at Le Serpent after a last-minute suggestion from an urbane, sophisticated colleague (are there any other kind of people in Montreal?). The only reason we get a reservation on such short notice is because it’s for 5:30 p.m. — I have an 8:30 flight, by the way — and dining while the sun is up is simply not done in Montreal.
Le Serpent is tough to find, marked only by a rusty mailbox with the restaurant’s street number on it. We push through the door into a dimly lit space, only to find we’ve stumbled into the opening night of an art installation — part of the visual arts gallery that makes its home here. After being re-directed by a gallery-goer, we discover that Le Serpent is back the way we came, behind an unmarked black door that’s easy to miss.
And you don’t want to miss it. Once through the door, you enter the long narrow space of Le Serpent. It retains the exposed brick, post-and-beam construction and lofty ceilings of the original foundry, and compliments them with funky 70s-feel lights and a suspended sculpture of vintage plumbing. The space is magnificent. The crowd is mixed, containing both gallery folks and suits — a great place to find artistic inspiration and to entertain clients.
The menu is brief. It’s a modernist distillation of chef Michele Mercuri’s talents. Le Serpent does not lurch from trend to trend: the cuisine is adventurous and self-assuredly innovative (oh, Toronto, I adore you, but why are you a constant apologist, embracing trend after trend — tacos, bourbon, BBQ — instead of having the confidence to go your own way?).
The wine list is a single page with a selection that ranges from the familiar to the esoteric with a good array of price points. It’s short, but there is depth.
We start with the lukewarm octopus with potato mousseline and salsa verde ($16). What arrive is an elegant frothy pouf flecked with chives, aromatic oil and spices. If Jackson Pollock had chosen potato foam as his medium, instead of canvas, this would have been the result.
But where is the octopus? We poke around in the foam and discover it underneath, nestled into the salsa verde. The tenderness of the octopus is perfect and its mild flavour is complimented nicely by the zing of the salsa verde and the starchy otherwordliness of the potato foam.
For the main, we pick challenging dishes. My dining companion opts for the skate — a fish many overlook because it is often difficult to prepare and, until recently, has been regarded as offal. Overcooked, skate becomes a fibrous chew-toy; undercooked, it’s a gelatinous mass. The trick is to sear it quickly on both sides to produce in a golden colour and a flesh that easily separates. Le Serpent executes the procedure perfectly.
Hanger steak, one of the daily rôtisserie specials, is my choice. Another unloved meat, hanger steak is fussy to prepare but lean and full of flavour. My hanger steak arrives rare, as it should, and is flavorful and tender. The reduction of Guinness gives an agreeable molasses-and-fig flavour to the sauce but the radicchio leaves on which the steak is plated leave unwelcome bitter notes.
By now, I really should be leaving for the airport. But we can’t resist dessert. This menu, too, is short but interesting. We try the Tournesol, with crostata, a citrus salad, iced kumquats and crème fraîche ($10). It’s sunshine on a plate. The sharp citrus contrasts with the freshness of the icy kumquats and the creaminess of the passionfruit sorbet.
My companion chooses La Belle et la Bête, a maple pudding with biscuit Breton and compressed apple ($10). It arrives in a jar, adorned with an elegant rose sculpted of paper-thin apple slices. It is, quite simply, the most exquisite thing I’ve ever tasted — creamy smooth, with a hint of maple playing off the sweetness of the apple. And this is coming from someone who, as a general rule, dislikes maple. Clearly I’ve been doing it wrong.
Now, at 8 p.m., a more fashionable dinner hour, the restaurant is packed and the staff has to shift gears to keep up. After multiple prompts, our server appears with the bill — a small blemish on otherwise good service and I hope nothing more than a symptom of success.
We pay, and I bolt for the airport. I hit security, only to get stuck behind 30 high school students on an exchange. Sprinting through the corridors, I hear my name announced, and that the airplane doors are closing. I make it, breathless and dishevelled, and other travellers already in their seats glare at me. It’s clear I’ll never be mistaken for the fashionable elite of Montreal. But I’m more than happy to eat their food.
Judge Foodie’s verdict
Highs: the space, the menu
Lows: tough to get a reservation, location not well marked
Kirsten Thompson is a Toronto-based research lawyer and commercial litigator. Since her call to the bar in 2000, she estimates that her restaurant to courtroom ratio has been approximately 14:1. Thoughts? Comments? Ideas for a review? Email her. Follow Judge Foodie on Twitter: @Judge_Foodie