AFTER FOUR MONTHS AWAY, IT IS WONDERFUL TO BE BACK HOME. PLENTY OF FOOD WRITING TO COME THIS SPRING AND SUMMER. -JRS
Mon Lapin is the fourth restaurant in the Joe Beef family (Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Vin Papillon), a team that has earned considerable success, as far as ambitious, independent restaurants go. By way of example: a total of ten stars from the Montreal Gazette (including four for Joe Beef in 2011); breaking the top 100 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015; three spots in the Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list for 2018, two of which were in the the top ten (Joe Beef 3, Vin Papillon 8, Liverpool House 33); a popular “Cookbook of Sorts”; a line of condiments. (For what it’s worth, I’ll add that my meal at Vin Papillon in 2017 was among the best I had that year; I loved it and would eat there any time.)
In any case, good reason to get excited about a new opening.
ML rests at the corner of St. Zotique and Casgrain, which makes for a clever location and a welcome addition to that neighbourhood. The space itself is compact, with a sparse, functional design. Tables run along one wall and several very comfortable-looking banquette seats sit opposite that. Bar seating and a few standing spaces line the open kitchen; a couple more bar seats also face the front window. Down the middle runs a service table for wine, stemware etc. Space is at a premium, but although the room can feel a little close and crowded when busy (and it is pretty much always busy), it is comfortable.
TANGENT: A WORD ON WAITING
Speaking of busy: ML, like many “casual-esque” restaurants nowadays (including Vin Papillon), does not take reservations. Walk-ins only. Not hard to see why businesses adopt this policy: no need to staff a phone (or have a phone—as the website for Larrys reads, “Pas de réservations. Pas de téléphone”); no need for a reservation system; no dealing with no-shows or cancellations or latecomers. In the exceptionally challenging and unforgiving world of the restaurant business, this is one of the few cards completely in the proprietor’s favour.
As a patron, however, it can prove a bit tiresome—particularly in places of ML’s calibre, where meals can last an hour or more, and prices can easily exceed $100 per person. Diners do not rush in restaurants like this, nor should they. Which means waits can last a while
Of course, there are ways around waiting. Show up early, or show up late. Don’t show up at all (i.e. make reservations somewhere else, e.g. Liverpool House or Joe Beef). And for their part, Mon Lapin does accommodate would-be diners well; while waiting, you can enjoy a glass of wine, for example—although, no matter how good the drink, standing in a small space for twenty-five or thirty minutes, staring enviously at people enjoying their food, doesn’t make for much fun. (And, conversely, once seated, you’ll have a few people lingering right behind your table, waiting their turn.)
SUB-TANGENT: BU$INESS OPPORTUNITY
Someone needs to open a small bar next or close to ML and serve wine, cocktails and beer to waiting customers. It’s ripe for the picking, people.
Whether or not ML is worth waiting for comes down to how much you like the food and wine. As for the latter, you would expect to drink well in a place called “Vin Mon Lapin”, and you will. They sell spectacular natural wines and have a helpful, competent staff capable of fielding requests and making recommendations. Over two visits, I tried one bottle (a stellar South African Chenin Blanc; steely, cool, bright) and six or seven wines by the glass (almost exclusively excellent). The wines are worth the wait, without question—and the money: bottles start around $50, and glasses range around the $15 mark (although half-glasses are available, a nice touch).
What about the food? In my two meals, the food was, at its best, marvellous; on average, however, plates fared OK or were, in some cases, forgettable or monotone. What follows is a sample of my meals there.
“Jambon de la Petite Italie”: slices of ham, served cold, with a tomato, brown butter and shaved white cheese. It is what it is: ham and cheese—and boiled ham at that, i.e not aged, not cured—but it is delicious. The clean, simple pork flavour pairs well with the more complex, umami-rich cheese. Great. (This course, as I understand it, is a transplant from Vin Papillon.) $14.
Whelks were another highlight; these the kitchen cooked in a ham butter made from scraps of the above jambon and served with breadcrumbs (browned in brown butter) and whole leaves of fresh sorrel. Plump, rich in flavour were the pieces of shellfish, while the breadcrumbs added satisfying texture and toasted taste, the sorel bright notes and freshness. Fantastic—“You had me at [ham butter]”. $14.
I also thought the “croque-céleri”, a play on the croque-madame and -monsieur, was interesting, creative. An extended strip of sandwich stuffed with celeriac and cheese, browned like a grilled cheese. $10. Same goes for the lamb with mustard and sunflower leaves: another very good dish. $24.
The smoked-eel carbonara was clever: squares of fatty eel, pan seared, had a texture akin to fatty pork, but with more smokiness than guanciale or bacon. The sauce held great, strong flavour, although thickly cracked pepper would be a welcome counterpoint to the rich cream. The sauce also seemed a little of the thin side, such that a lot it ended up on the plate, and not the pasta. All the same, a great idea and a good plate, with plenty of potential. $20.
The salade rose or “pink salad”: radicchio and red leaf lettuce dressed in a vinaigrette with pickled elderberries. This the kitchen topped with shavings of frozen foie gras. Conceptually exciting, but in the eating, the salad felt a little one-note, the dressing tasting somewhat conventional, i.e. store-bought balsamic. $17.
Radishes atop a butter blended with dulse—another good idea, although not easy to eat: The vegetables were very, very cold, which hardened the butter, making it impossible to spread. $7. In another vegetable course, fiddleheads were deep fried and paired with a lovage mayonnaise. Frying seemed an odd choice for the first fresh thing of the season; the texture ended up mushy, the taste uninteresting, like a run-of-the-mill finger food. (The lovage-based dip did taste great.) $7.
The “crevettes cocktail” was not really a shrimp cocktail in the classic sense (i.e. with a cocktail sauce), but shrimp in a cocktail glass, with butter for dipping. The small Northern shrimp had been slightly overcooked, making the texture of the meat stringy at times; a few shrimp in, the dish became monotonous. $8.
Closing with dessert: a buckwheat and honey cake. A beautiful course, this: a pretty little white cake presented atop a pretty white pedestal, the pastry covered in shards of a thin tuile the texture and taste of sponge toffee. Flavour-wise, the palette was deep and low, brown and buttery, burnt caramel-y, sweet. Very good—though a few bites in, you may long for a touch of brightness, some balance to counter that honey, brown-sugary, buckwheat taste (a layer of fruit or berries, for instance). $15.
Would I recommend Mon Lapin? Yes, I think it deserves a shot. The service is passionate and attentive, the wines top-notch, the kitchen clearly capable and clever. (It would be particularly interesting to see what they serve later in the year, with a few more months under their belt and an abundance of summer product.) I would suggest you skip the wait, tho—show up early, or show up late—try a plate or two, and take it from there.