MY MEAL AT CANDIDE: DEFINITELY TOP TWO THUS FAR FOR 2018. THE OTHER WAS AT SPECERIET, IN STOCKHOLM (REVIEW HERE). -JRS
Candide’s location is anything but: They list their address as “551 Rue St-Martin”, but that street actually ends at Notre-Dame Ouest. The restaurant really resides on a footpath that runs between Notre-Dame and Lionel-Groulx; head north from the former, towards the latter, and you will find it on your right.
And find it you should, for Candide offers one of the city’s most interesting tasting menus and impressive wine pairings at a very modest price, as ambitious restaurants go—$51 for the four-course menu and $45 for the pairing. (Given my experience at Candide, I would even class it as underpriced.)
The space itself seats some forty people, mostly at four-tops, with about half-a-dozen chairs along the bar in front of the open kitchen. Visually, Candide’s aesthetic favours simplicity and a natural colour pallette, all whites and woods with accents here and there (e.g. the marble at the end of the tables). This conservative setting serves as an ideal canvas for Chef John Winter Russel’s food, which I will get into momentarily.
But first, my one and only knock against Candide: They do not serve butter with their bread. The idea being, obviously, to use that bread—on the night, a beautiful, dark rye, with wonderful crust and crumb—to mop up the remaining sauce on the plates. Unfortunately, that does not work with every course, and they serve the bread early, so you spend much of the time starting at these stunning slices of bread, wishing, willing, waiting for some butter appear. Candide, only you can prevent loaf loneliness: serve a condiment, please.
That marks the only fail—omission, really—in an otherwise flawless meal. What follows will be filled with some very high praise; I’ll do my best to keep the hyperbole to a hush.
While open kitchens are far from infrequent nowadays, Candide’s stands out in my memory, as I found it fascinating to watch Russell and his team work. Smartly attired in sharp aprons (which front of house staff also wear), the chef and his cooks move calmly, at a controlled, almost meditative pace. Granted, the place was half-full, but still: The kitchen radiates a cool, collected confidence. That impression, as it turns out, is reflected in the food.
The meal started with an optional snack: slices of grilled cucumber with pickled whelks, herring cream and fresh blackcurrants. This made for both an apt opener for the menu and an ideal introduction to Russell’s food: clean, distinct flavours; carefully selected, high-quality ingredients; skillful preparation and seasoning. The crisp cucumbers, touched with smoke, paired well with the herring emulsion, and the berries added bursts of bright acidity. Excellent.
Next came a salad of sorts: kohlrabi with yoghurt, puffed and roasted wild rice, green onion oil and a variety of herbs and flowers. This course recalled a classic celeriac remoulade, but made lighter, brighter, more interesting: the batons of kohlrabi, blended with the seasoned yogurt, provided the perfect backdrop for the the vivid and varied herbs. A beautiful dish that tasted as such.
Although a city chef, John Winter Russell clearly spends time in the countryside—and, as the next course made clear, at the seashore. The dish comprised a bowl of sweet peas, snap peas, and fava beans in a lobster and smoked-butter sauce, garnished with sea herbs. The smell alone evoked the ocean, powerfully so—a strong scent, shaded with smoke, shellfish and sea vegetation. Conversation at the table went quiet over this dish (maybe because we all grew up by the water?) as my companions and I savoured the intensely flavoured sauce, the verdant and briny notes of the herbs, the varied snap of the peas and beans. Less a plate than a poem, or a meditation on time and place, this ranks as one of the most fascinating dishes I’ve eaten in some time, and speaks to the kitchen’s capabilities and confidence. Perfect.
The choices for the course that followed included lamb or sturgeon. For the former, the chef grilled the meat over wood charcoal, then sliced and served it above a puree of peppers and below a fricassee of seasonal vegetables, namely bell pepper and summer squash with fresh mint. Though the menu is not candid about it (HA!), the puree hides some heat—my guess would be scotch bonnet, although I’m uncertain—a sensation that surprises, but never proves excessive. Superlative cooking here, and, I’m fairly certain, the best piece of lamb I’ve ever tasted, anywhere. Extraordinary.
The sturgeon soared to similar heights; like the lamb, the substantial slice of fish had been grilled, which lent the flesh an assertive, though not overwhelming, smoke flavour. Candide served the sturgeon on a puree of roasted cauliflower with macerated and grilled onion. Also exceptional, this course—in fact, among the mains, I fail to pick a favourite. Go with a friend; order both.
The menu ends with another choice, either a dessert or a composed cheese course. On the night, Candide prepared a zucchini flower for the latter, filled with Pont Blanc, a Quebec cheese which they had whipped like a ricotta. The flower they served on a bed of basil puree under a crisp tuile for texture. The bright basil and the powerful Pont Blanc paired well; if you care for distinctive cheeses, this dish will not disappoint. Very good.
Dessert: Rhubarb sorbet, surrounded by a blueberry cream, this punctuated with perfect, petite black raspberries and topped with pieces of maple cookie. Petals of some flower, gorgeously, deeply garnet in colour, garnished the dish like perfect strokes of paint. A delicious dessert, clean in flavour, bright with acidity, careful with the level of sweetness—both a fitting and fine end to the meal.
The wines at Candide merit some mention. To my experience, most wines in restaurants of this calibre are at least good—rarely, however, do they become memorable. That was the case for Candide. Selections that night included a Pinard et Filles 2017, aptly popular (and local!), a Populis Wabi Sabi 2016 from Mendocino County in California (a dry, yet balanced and sumptuous red blend), a fascinating white that had been fermented in amphorae (Loxarel, Xarel-lo Amfora; Penedes, Spain), and, for the cheese course, a French beer made by winemakers. All in all, the wines at Candide paralleled the food in the level of care, consideration and quality—no small feat, given the kitchen’s talent. If you have the means, and are into wine, opt for the pairing.
Service at Candide: skillful, prompt, friendly. Staff could speak at length about the wine selections and the food, and you could truly sense their enthusiasm. Enough said.
In closing, my meal at Candide was, without doubt, the best I’ve experienced in Montreal this year, and probably longer. This is an ambitious team, clear in its vision, distinct in its voice and capable of realizing its intentions—and it does so modestly, I might add, without the swagger or sense of self-importance that defines some of the restaurants in this price range. I cannot speak highly enough of Candide and wish them continued success. Had I stars to award, they would deserve four of them.