I have heard somewhere that the money in the restaurant business is in the appetisers, the desserts and the booze. The main was often a loss leader, a distraction to be sold at low margin to lead to the consumption of the other parts.
I've thus always seen the small plates movement as the result of a smart alec deciding to do away with the mains and succeeding in convincing everybody that doing the whole "lets eat nothing but apps" idea was a great thing since you could "share it" and "taste more of the menu".
I always stayed away from Le Vin Papillon because I wasn't really interested in that small plates concept. I was curious of the wine list, sure, but I wanted to go at a bar, not at a restaurant.
That was until a night at Larry's where something clicked: I could reverse the role of food and wine in a small plate wine bar. I didn't have to pair my wine with my food; I could pair my food with my wine... I'd have a small plates of something, steak or greens, lying around as an amuse bouche while I drank my way through the winelist like an obsessed new world explorer. There was no apps, no mains, no dessert... it would be a cubist rendition of supper, an abstract bacchanal where the nectar of the vine would be the main course.
Ok... its not a healthy concept and it makes for a hellishly expensive evening but what a night!
And that's how I finally approached Le vin papillon.
I have known of Vanya Filipovic for a while. The friend I was with at Larry had told me years ago of an obsessed pusher of natural wine at Joe Beef who took it as her mission to get her to "like" the style. Please understand, Amélie is very french and traditional where her wine is concerned and she swears by sulfites. She is actually half convinced she cannot like any wine that doesn't have the stuff and doesn't really care if the drink she's having is the oenological equivalent of a russian olympian... what counts is the final taste. Anyways... it made for a good story.
Now that natural wine is all the rage and that Vanya is in the business of importing, making her own stuff in collaboration with producers and being on the front page of wine spectator, I decided it would be the time to see what that fuss was all about.
I came to the restaurant on a hellish friday night on a serious mission to forget my week. It was 9pm, I was walking home from work and found a place instantly at the bar as a walk-in.
The space is pretty large and the bar is comfortable. The menu is on a blackboard right behind you and forces you to turn your back constantly or get up and consider your next option. I start at the top of the wine menu and ask the bartender to just pour the next one one after the other until there are no more wines to taste. I have no sense of the food menu because it is too far from me so I ask her to bring me *something*. There is no wifi so I am bound to forget most of what I taste (if I don't take notes I tend to remember very little).
The place is jam packed. I was very lucky to find space at all. Everybody is pretty hurried and the service is efficient but rushed. There's nobody to leisurely shoot the breeze behind the bar... the service is low key but distant. Efficient but cool. There is the image of warmth, the mirage of friendliness; light but little heat.
The first dish is celery root with lobster sauce. If you had the joe beef's spaghetti lobster you know how this taste. The celeri root has a very interesting presentation: its mandolined in small thin sheets.
The second dish was beef tartare with tomato. In the dim lights, the tomato tends to blend with the beef and it makes for a very nice experience.
My neighbour had an éclair filled with carrots treated like smoked meat. He swore that the dish was incredible.
The kitchen of Marc-Olivier Frappier is inventive and fun. Its delicious, surprising and worth all that buzz. Its not novelty for novelty's sake and can be simple but smart. Its not Joe Beef and Liverpool House's grande bouffe, is somewhat tamer but full of character. It is still a small plates place, most of the stuff are around 15$ for what amounts to an app and its still very expensive but... its good.
Vanya's wine card is impressive. Trying to sample everything is... a challenge. I loved her white, rosé and even her orange wine. I had a very hard time with her red wines. They were so full of tannin I swore I was drinking velvet drapes. I was lucky enough to try vin jaune au verre (!). It is unfortunately very similar to Xeres and I'm not a fan of Xeres. There was a 750ml bottle of basque cider for the very low price of 20$. It was a "natural" cider I guess. Very opaque but interesting none the less. Cloudy and spicy in a way? I've had better but didn't know the basque had the stuff.
As the night was winding down I kept asking if the place was closing soon (I was starting to prioritise the list in my head knowing I could not get at all of it). I was told not to worry and that there were plenty of people on the terrasse I could not see and was told as a joke "we never close... ever". I became a bit worried when the bartender bade me goodbye. I noticed that the staff were sitting on around a table chatting: I was indeed the last guy in the place.
I must admit I prefer to be one guy lost in the crowd to that guy who's everybody is waiting to be finished. I quickly paid and left. I would have preferred to be given an accurate portrait of the situation...
I will be back. The food is just too good and there are stuff on Vanya's wine card you won't find anywhere else. It might be the best small plates restaurant in Montreal but it is still, to me, a restaurant: not a wine bar.
I didn't get the connection I get at Loic or Pullman. The staff felt less... authentic. I had no connection like I get at those places to anybody.
I guess the place to beat for me is still Loic. Pullman comes second because it is pretty far from where I live and it doesn't have a full alcohol licence. Larry's was fun but the wine selection by the glass was more limited.
I still have rouge gorge to discover and there is probably plenty of new wine bars to come. The competition is stiff but it makes for good drinking!