Being back in my beloved Montreal means that I have a long, almost overwhelming, list of restaurants I plan to try. Some are well-established favourites, some are hidden gems I’ve heard whispers about, and some are new and hot on the scene. Andrew and I embarked on this momentous task last weekend when we checked out the brand new FoodLab.
FoodLab opened in November, and it is a restaurant, but it’s not like other restaurants you’ve been to before. It is housed in Montreal’s Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), an organization focused on research, and was created partly to help the society become more well-known in the city. What makes FoodLab so unique is that it is not-for-profit. This means that chefs Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek (formerly of Laloux) get to experiment, take risks, and make the food they want without having to worry about the bottom line. It also means that they can charge as little as $6 (and no more than $12) a plate for this top-quality fare.
Although it is located on St. Laurent, in the Quartier des Spectacles, a prime restaurant spot, you won’t stumble upon FoodLab unless you already know it’s there. The restaurant is inside the SAT building, a rather institutional-looking structure. Andrew and I entered the glass doors to a large, empty echoing space. There is a reception desk, though, and the person sitting at it seemed to know right away what we were looking for, and instructed us to go to the third storey. So, up three flights of concrete stairs we went, and that is where we found FoodLab.
The restaurant is located in another large, echoing space, but this one is far more inviting than the reception area. The room is dimly lit, and sparsely furnished with simple high tables and metal stools. A bar takes up space on the back wall of the room, and the open kitchen takes up about a quarter of the restaurant. Separated from the rest of the room by a counter that diners can sit at, the kitchen is very simple with minimal equipment. Andrew and I could watch Gabrielse and Marek work with one other assistant on the large island taking up the centre of the kitchen, and the two household-grade stoves on the back wall. It didn’t look anything like any restaurant kitchen I’ve been in. I kind of felt like I was at someone’s house and they were cooking dinner for me. And I liked that.
We took our seats and quickly learned that ordering is all done at the bar. The menu changes every week, and this week, the theme was French Winter. As for libations, a nice selection of wine is available, as well as a few beers and ciders.
We started with the French onion soup.
There is so much that was good about this soup: the broth was rich and flavourful, and had a unique quality that I hadn’t tasted before in onion soup. The taste was deeper and more complex than other onion soups I had had in the past. The bread was chewy and delicious soaked in the broth and topped with melted Gruyere. There was one thing that was not so good about this soup, though: the temperature. Unfortunately, the soup was tepid when it was delivered to us, and as much as I can understand how easily this can happen when working with the equipment and manpower FoodLab has, it really took away from my enjoyment of the dish.
Next, Andrew and I split the salad with apples and walnuts.
This salad was simple and unassuming and I really liked it. It consisted of a mix of lettuces, sliced endive, toasted walnuts, and apples, all tossed in a sweet and slightly tangy vinaigrette. The apples had been cooked and cooled, and were soft and sweet and velvety. I would have happily eaten a serving of them alone.
We each ordered the main dish, Cornish hen with buttered cabbage and acidulated apples.
This dish was absolutely the star of the show. The hen was cooked sous vide, and then the skin was lightly seasoned and crisped in a pan. It was wonderful: the flesh was juicy and tender, and the skin was perfectly crisped and deliciously seasoned. The buttered cabbage was a winner as well, an unctuous mound of rich, buttered goodness, and the tart apple provided a refreshing contrast to the heavier components of the dish.
We also split the Potatoes boulangère.
This is a classic French dish in which thinly sliced potatoes and onions are alternately layered in a shallow baking dish, covered in stock, and then baked until soft inside and golden on top. These were excellent, and I suspect some butter was involved in making these potatoes so creamy. I wasn’t complaining though: I just vowed to do a few extra sit-ups at the gym the next day.
At this point, Andrew and I were completely stuffed and decided that we would have to miss out on the remaining three items on the menu: marinated house made goat cheese, far Breton (dessert), and the baguette. I had hoped that we would still have room to sample these, but it seemed like a bad idea to be ordering more food when we were already full.
Our experience at FoodLab wasn’t perfect, but I definitely hope to go back. The venture is still very new, and I know that some kinks in the system still need to be worked out. Also, with a menu that changes every week, it seems criminal to not go back and see what else they come up with.
1201 boul. St-Laurent (3rd floor)
1201 boul. St-Laurent (3rd floor)