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Laurie Raphaël and José Avillez, A Montreal Highlights Festival gala supper

The Montreal Highlights Festival is nearing its end, dinner at Laurie Raphaël last Friday, here's how the menu read:

-Penne with sea urchin and seaweed pesto, tapioca powder, coconut and lime. (The penne were actually razorback clams, the tapioca powder disappeared on the tongue)

-Mirage of petrified oysters in the desert, fennel cream with madras curry. (The oyster was dipped in pure cocoa butter, frozen in liquid nitrogen and coated with gold and silver powder.)

-The garden of "the hen that laid golden eggs", low temperature cooked egg with earthy aromas. (Best dish of the night hands down, the egg, which was wrapped in goldleaf, was enhanced by the brilliant use of truffle paste, mushrooms and leeks.  If only eggs in Quebec were as good as the European baubles.)

-Atlantic Salmon with horseradish cream, Greek yogurt and sprout. (The salmon was slowly cooked sous-vide in an immersion circulator, then crusted over with a blow torch.)

-Venison loin with North Shore lobster, coco beans and black truffle. (The steak was expertly cooked and had a pleasant taste of organ meat, the lobster was moist and fresh; and, based on the smell, the truffles were sliced right over the meat.)

-Quince ice cream with marmalade and cocoa powder (The very notion and existence of a pre-desert made my wife extremely happy.)

-Hazelnut sponge cake, banana and chocolate. (Even though this dessert looked like someone sneezed over a Jackson Pollack, it was the most rustic flavoured dish of the night.)

The chef behind this menu is José Avillez.  At 30 years old, Avillez is the executive chef at Portugal's oldest restaurant, Tavares, where he has skilfully maintained the restaurant's Michelin star status.  Avillez worked for many years at El Bulli in Spain, where he no doubt learned much in the way of experimentation and molecular gastronomy. 

I had the chance to speak with Avillez, the soft spoken Lisbon chef marveled at how readily available ingredients were in Montreal, and especially with how accommodating and gracious host, chef Daniel Vézina was, "whatever I ask for, (Vézina) finds, and they're always helping in the kitchen, it wasn't just me, it was the whole team." 

Vézina's wife and co-owner Suzanne Gagnon told me that Avillez doesn't leave the kitchen,"(Avillez) gets here early and goes straight into the kitchen, he watches over everything", Gagnon says, "he takes his time and really explains his methods to our kitchen staff."  Indeed, one look in the kitchen during the supper rush revealed the opposite of what one would expect a kitchen in full rush to look like: Vézina's kitchen, with Avillez at the helm, was a picture of serenity, the focus toward the food was calm and attentive.  Each cook in the line seemed to know thier role, Avillez watched, sometimes corrected, but always calm and seemigly in charge. 

In the front of the house the service was impeccable with Maitre D' Hotel Nicolas Babin Gendreau watching over the dining room.  Sommelier, Marc-Alexandre Goupil did Avillez's creations proud with his choice of Portuguese wines; Goupil's passion and knowledge for wine became evident with every grape and appellation explanation.  And owners Suzanne Gagnon and Daniel Vézina made it a point to visit each table and chat a bit about the food, a gesture rarely seen these days. 

Elaborately created meals like this do not appeal to everyone.  Many diners and critics alike feel that the molecular gastronomic realm lacks heart and soul.  Whatever side of the culinary fence you eat on, one thing is for sure, there's no denying that plenty of talent is needed to make the type of food Avillez is making, and that the heart of the food is often found in the attention and passion the chef gives to his creations.

Laurie Raphaël, 2050 Rue Mansfield (Inside L'Hotel Germain) Montreal, 514.985.6072

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