Montreal’s High Lights Festival centers heavily on food, as dozens of guest chefs descend on the city to show off their skills at different host restaurants. This year, Belgium has been chosen as the main theme and the chef representing his countrymen as the festival’s honorary president is Yves Mattagne, who owns the two-Michelin-star Seagrill, in Brussels, among other restaurants…
As is customary, the High Lights’ leading man was invited to serve multi-course tasting menus showcasing his cuisine at Toqué!, the city’s top fine cuisine address. After two consecutive nights of intense work, on Saturday both the visitting and the hosting teams seemed happy with what they’d accomplished and with how quickly they’d synched. “He’s one of the best ones we’ve ever hosted,” says Toqué! chef Charles-Antoine Crête. “Super nice, but also super professional and hard-working.”
On his end, chef Mattagne confessed he was surprised to find such an enthusiastic brigade and extraordinary ingredients in Montreal, a city he’d never visited before. Unable to source things like langoustines or sole locally, or to import his own caviar, endives or carrots, Mattagne relied on Toqué’s chef-proprietor Normand Laprise to find suitable replacements. Laprise’s carrots, which he deemed “exceptional”, were puréed and spiced with pepper then paired with a perfectly seared slice of foie gras. What did Mattagne think of the duck liver, also from Québec? Equally exceptional.
The best of the night’s dishes was a delicate layering of raw shrimp especially flown in from British Columbia, the jellied reduction of a broth made with their heads, and caviar. You might guess how the chef rated these sweet-fleshed wild shrimp: “extraordinaires!”. Served in a faux caviar tin, it was paired with a wonderfully crisp waffle flavoured with lime zest – a play on a Brussels classic, the gaufre de Bruxelles.
Thrilled to get his hand on top-notch scallops (“which are very rare where I come from”), Mattagne kept them raw, juxtaposing their sweet flesh with Japanese flavours: a squid ink meringue, yuzu, sake. Another winner, although as far from Belgium as a dish can get.
The Mattagne dinners being the headliners of the festival, it was no surprise to see flourishes such as sauces being poured tableside. Waiters made the rounds with bowls of “thai mousseline”, to be spooned next to the lobster tails they accompanied, following that with a drizzle of “chlorophyll” sauce. The over-the-top factor? Tiny mushrooms brushed with gold.
The Nova Scotia halibut, cut thinly and pan-seared for a minute too long, paled in comparison to the other five courses containing fish or seafood, even if it was paired with the chef’s famous oyster béarnaise sauce (too soupy). It was one of very few bumps on the seafood-centric menu which only included one meat course: deliciously tender and ruby-fleshed Québec venison with a confit of endives, another Belgium specialty.
By far the most lively course was a play on the European après-ski classic fondue savoyarde. A bowl of melted cheese was spiked tableside with Kirsch out of an eyedropper, and came with toasted bread cubes on wooden sticks, for dipping. It beat, by far, the dessert that followed, which mixed dissonant flavours: mojito, coffee, lemon and nougat.
Overall, the Yves Mattagne menu was a success, even if short-lived. More importantly, these dinners were very much representative of the everyday Toqué! experience – co-owner Christine Lamarche greeting guests at the entrance, eager and well-trained young servers, expert wine advice from the sommelier Samuel Chevalier-Savaria and elaborate food prepared with the best and most carefully-sourced Canadian ingredients that money can buy.
Hight Lights Festival, February 16-26, 2012
Restaurant Toqué!, 900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, (514) 499-2084