“WE ARE NOT IN LOVE”; DINING AT LOV IN OLD MONTREAL

I AM VERY MUCH A FAN OF VEGAN CUISINE: AS YOU WILL SEE, ALL THE RECIPES I POST ON THIS WEBSITE WILL BE VEGAN, AND I WILL BE WRITING MORE ABOUT VEGANISM IN GENERAL. IN SHORT: VEGANS ARE RIGHT (ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT, ETHICS, AND HEALTH) AND EVENTUALLY, I BELIEVE WE’LL CATCH UP (FOR MY PART, I STILL EAT MEAT/EGGS/DAIRY ONCE OR TWICE PER WEEK; I WON’T TRY TO MAKE ANY EXCUSE FOR THAT—NOR DO I EXPECT IT TO CHANGE ANY TIME SOON).

LOV RESTAURANT, though, I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH, AS MUCH AS I DO LIKE THE DECOR, DESIGN, AND CONCEPT.  (THE TITLE OF THIS POST COMES FROM A SONG BY ONE OF MY FAVOURITE BANDS, CRYSTAL CASTLES.) -JRS

Being in LOV is a beautiful thing: The restaurant has such class and style that it feels like you’re in London, or New York. Great is the attention to detail: Even the copper clips that pin the menu pages together fit the overall design and decor (matching, for instance, the heat lamps above the open pass). LOV is a gorgeous space, stunning: higher-end, but not in the least pretentious.

Table setting: thoughtful attention to detail.

The service suits that setting: friendly, attentive, prompt. Staff clear plates and utensils between courses and quickly replace empty bottles of water. Real, pretty flowers adorn the tabletops, along with napkins and glasses of quality. The drink menu lists custom cocktails, craft beers, a selection of wines. All very unusual—and welcome—for an (almost) vegan restaurant.

“Podular” design: In the back of the restaurant, some seats are hanging swings; avoid these, they make for a terrible seat from which to eat.

Problem is: LOV serves terrible, terrible food. On my visits to the McGill location (there are now two, the other being on de la Montagne), everything I ate ranged from essentially awful to barely mediocre at best. But more on that in a moment.

First though, a thought: How much of a chance should you give a restaurant? That is, as a critic, how many times should you eat there before you get a good sense of what the place is capable of? It’s a fair question, and my answer would be this: When you’ve spent enough time eating out (i.e. have had the financial privilege), as well as learning about and cooking food, you pretty quickly have an idea of what a kitchen can do. One or two goes can be enough.

By way of example: My first meal at Larry’s, the casual alter-ego of Lawrence, fell flat; everything was dull, uninteresting. However, having eaten at Lawrence dozens of times, I had a sense that it was merely an off night. This was confirmed by my subsequent visits: The food, without exception, was spectacular, the best of what Lawrence has to offer. (See my brief note on Larry’s here.)

There are other instances, however, in which the opposite is true: Upon eating only a few plates, it becomes abundantly clear that a kitchen does not care a great deal about food, and that an operation is focused more on making money (no shame there, I admit). And this is how I felt after my first visit to LOV. It wasn’t great, not in the least—but it is extremely popular, and busy. In light of this, I felt the place merited another meal, maybe two. So I went back, and spent more money.

One additional dinner proved to be enough, and here’s my conclusion: At the end of the day, and as clichéd as it may come across, it is love (i.e. care) that makes for well-prepared, well-seasoned food. At LOV, unfortunately, there’s no love in the food.

The brains behind the establishment I do not know, nor am I aware of its history (other than it opened last year, and now has two versions). Based on my meals there, however, I would wager the following: Behind LOV stand some deep pockets, well versed in restauration (judging by the stunning decor and design, the square footage, the locations). What LOV is not, however, is a chef-driven restaurant, which explains how the food could be so bad: I don’t sense a steady, skilled hand in the kitchen at all times, tasting the food for consistency and quality.

In any case, all bets aside, let’s move on to the food.

A dish of “Japanese Eggplant” highlights a theme at LOV: cold food. And by “cold” I don’t mean room temperature (I actually quite like food served more towards lukewarm), but rather, well, cold, as in fresh from the fridge. Long slices of braised eggplant are served with daikon, ginger, and green onion in a “sake broth”. My thoughts: The deliciousness—and difficulty—of certain styles of Asian cooking lie in their simplicity, the balance of sweet, salty, sour, savoury. This dish, in addition to being unpleasantly, tooth-painfully chilly, missed on all four counts. Bland. $9.

Next up: ceviche of young coconut meat, goji berry, radish, lime, cilantro and, according to the menu, “cancha”. (The only reference I could find for cancha was a Peruvian dish of roasted kernels of corn, often served as a garnish for ceviche; this dish contained no corn.) Once again: cold—of course, coldness one can forgive a ceviche, given that it’s normally made with fish. The compensation is, however, deliciousness, which this dish lacked. $12.

Beet salad, with the addition of thick cubes of tempeh, came recommended by the server, evidently their favorite (and, I’ll admit, mine too, the bar being so low). A mix of greens sat atop a relatively well-seasoned vinaigrette. Not terrible, not memorable. Other than a two-dollar supplement, the tempeh added nothing to the dish, apart from—you guessed it—a frigid temperature component. $17.

“Tomatina” is LOV’s name for a dish of organic cherry tomatoes, artisanal ricotta, balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, and olive oil powder. To my knowledge, tomatoes are best kept at room temperature. Not here, nope: briskly cold. The “artisanal” ricotta offered little flavour, but the balsamic vinegar was the worst offender, so terribly bitter and unpleasant that it—quite literally—left a bad, lingering taste in the mouth. This was the opposite of delicious—and cost $14, to boot.

The “Tomatina”, the macaroni and cheese.

Ah, “Mac’n’Cheese”, the good-old, vegan go-to. (By the way: Can we agree on something? Nutritional yeast does not taste of cheese.) LOV serves theirs with casarecce pasta (one of my favourite cuts), butternut squash and sweet potato “cheese” sauce, kale, and “LOV parmesan” (vegan). It’s a plate of overcooked pasta with a much-too-earthy (read: dirty-tasting) sauce that disappoints—although the price, at least, does not offend. $7.

I have a dream, a wish for a finer vegan restaurant confident enough not to serve a vegetarian burger. Not the case here: The “Big LOV Burger” consists of a homemade patty with vegan cheese (organic, actual cheese is available for a supplement of $1), onion, organic tomato, pickles and “big LOV sauce”. The best I can say of this burger is that it is not terrible, neither by its own standard nor against the backdrop of the other, bad dishes. $11.

On to the main courses (it’s almost over, bear with me another moment). First, the “Gnocchi di Casa”, which is buckwheat and sweet potato gnocchi served with hemp-basil pesto, arugula, and “LOV parmesan”. I’ll say this: It is rare—extremely rare—that I don’t finish a dish in a restaurant. This is, after all, food, and there are, after all, far too many folks who don’t get enough of it. I feel embarrassment and shame sending something back to a kitchen, half-eaten. In this case, however, those feelings won out over having to finish the dish. Odd in texture (well, rubber in texture) were the gnocchi, muddy in flavour was the pesto. Disgusting: a word I hate to use when writing about a restaurant. $14.

Finally (finally!) the “Urban Mushrooms”: local oyster mushrooms, zucchini, pearl onions, green peas, squash seed milk, chili oil. This dish I don’t think was good in concept or execution. It felt like a flailing and failing grasp at “fancy food”: soft mushrooms, soft summer squash, soft roasted onions, soft and shriveled peas. Need I say more? $18.

“Urban Mushrooms”. Tip: Don’t be fooled by food photography.

There you go. Neither pleasant to eat, nor write about. Would I recommend LOV? No, obviously not. But, look: Vegans have few choices in this city (apart from endlessly chewing on overpriced plates of grated vegetables at Aux Vivres, for example). Here, at least, they can bring their non-vegan and non-vegetarian friends, parents, and partners, and have a night out, a higher-level restaurant experience (as far as the space and service goes). Where else can they get a curated cocktail list, for instance? And for many, who’ve maybe forgotten the admittedly sinful pleasures of an omnivorous diet, this food will be satisfactory, or even delicious.

So, simply stated. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, LOV might be a welcome card in your deck. And I do hope it marks a trend, and that more restaurants like this (with more capable kitchens) follow. In general, however, the food I can’t recommend. Were it on the level of the service, the stunning space, the concept, we would, without doubt, have a winner. But, unfortunately, and decidedly, we do not.

POSTSCRIPT: SOME INTERESTING COMMENTS FROM READERS OF THIS ARTICLE. TURNS OUT MY IMPRESSION WAS RIGHT. -JRS