After spending the weekend in Montreal, I thought I would write a series of posts about my experience. Perhaps it will be useful for future visitors from out of town.
This first message will be about Toque - arguably Montreal's most renowned dining destination. In my posts, and especially with regard to Toque, I will try to discuss factors which a visitor could consider in determining whether or not to make a stop at the particular restaurant being discussed.
Now, Toque . . .
For those of you who don't know, Toque is considered THE Montreal fine dining destination among "foodies" (in the bad sense), many critics, etc.. If it is important to you that you dine at the Montreal restaurant most recognized on the global food scene, then go to Toque. In other words, if you are the type of person who would find value in being able to say (truthfully) "I've been to Toque", then, by all means go. It is THE place for name recognition.
If you're like most hounds, of course, then you probably skipped the item titled Reputation. After all, who cares? The food! The food!
For the most part, Toque's food was very impressive. Chef Normand Laprise's lofty reputation is well-deserved. Although the gourmet menu of five "suprise dishes" included one or two merely decent dishes, there were some truly memorable highlights. For one, the seared mackerel is a dish I will not soon forget. Also, the truffle ice cream was a taste I had never experienced and one that will linger favorably as long as taste bud memories allow. The squab, too, was the equal of the finest poultry/game dishes I've ever had. The foie gras is justifiably acclaimed (although no better than a simialr version I had at Hugo's in Porltland, ME last month).
On the other hand, I didn't detect much about the food that was distinctly Montreal. I mean, Toque would not at all seem out of place among the NYC gems like Grammercy Tavern, Gotham Bar & Grill, etc. So, if you come from somewhere with frequent access to gems of that caliber, there may be little point in going to yet another.
I was a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed the food given that the evening began with what I perceived to be several bad signs before our first bite.
First, your company will not be typical Montreal diners. On the night we ate there, almost EVERYONE was American. Montreal, as I understand, is not a fine dining town. Rather, it excels at the notch just below the international cream of the crop. Montreal diners generally don't seem to seek to maximimze the number of Michelin stars on their helmets. Goood for them. If the night we dined is any indication, then, at Toque you are not likely to dine with many typical Montreal folks. You are not likely to experience a typical Montreal dinner -- whatever that means.
SECOND, the room is very sterile. It feels like a hotel lobby. It doesn't even hint at the brilliant things about to emerge from the kitchen. Also, as with the food, nothing about the room seems to say "Montreal", at least not in a good way.
Toque will not blow you away with charm. We had fairly cold service from several waiters, and friendly service from a few other folks. But, if you're coming from out of town, service is hardly going to be a big deal-maker or deal-breaker. Non-factor.
Given the fact that Toque is one of the most expensive restaurants in town, it may seem odd that I count this factor in Toque's favor. Entrees at Toque range from about $25 to $34. If you are coming from the United States, this converts to roughly $16 to $24. Of course, if Toque were in a major US city (like New York for example), its entrees would probably average between $35 and $40. If you are visiting from a major U.S. City like New York, and your budget typically forbids you from eating at restaurants with $35 or $40 entrees, your trip to Montreal might be a good opportunity to experience a very level of culinary sophistication without the extortionate price tag.
If I knew last week what I know now, would I have still gone to Toque? Probably. Just barely, yes. The stand-out dishes were just good enough that it would have been a shame to miss them. Of course, I come with all of my own preferences, particularities, etc. Because I consider it a close call, if the factors above seem to weigh against a visit to Toque from your view of the world, skip it. And, go to a BYOB.