City Bites

IN DIGESTION: Discovering “Modern Montreal”—highlights from Ottawa Magazine’s Foodlab dinner

Chef Marek plates the black bass dish designed to evoke the lightness of spring

On Saturday night, I hosted a sold-out City Bites Live event at Urban Element that featured celebrated Montreal chefs Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek, the creative due behind Foodlab.

The name Foodlab can be misleading — is it futuristic food? Experimental? Test tube food? On the contrary. It’s revolutionary, even radical, raison d’etre is to be a place driven by a creative mandate, not a financial one — a restaurant built upon the  love of food, a deep respect for ingredients, and food producers, not profit.

If you think about it, pretty much everything we eat has been made with profit in mind. I have often wondered how chefs would cook if they weren’t under the enormous pressure imposed on them by thin profit margins and high-stakes stress of the food business. Foodlab gives us a taste of that.

Chef Seth Gabrielse slices and plates tiny cubes of ramp royale

Foodlab has been alternately described as an intersection between food and performance; a network of exchange between rural and urban; and a platform for the production, exploration, and sharing of ideas surrounding gastronomy. On the one hand you could call it a restaurant, but that doesn’t capture its uniqueness. How many restaurants do you know that share space with a huge dome and a 360-degree 3-D immersive cinema?

Foodlab is situated among the boarded-up buildings and peep shows of a historic downtown neighbourhood on the cusp of major change. It is on the top floor of the government-funded avant-guard Society of Arts and Technology (SAT), a research centre, school, and gathering place for digital geeks. SAT is known for DJs, multimedia, and experimental dance — and for some of the finest cooking in town. Through word-of-mouth and an early plug in The New York Times, Foodlab has quickly become HQ for Food Geeks — both the locals and culinary tourists.

The menu changes completely and radically every two weeks (up to four) and consists of creative small plates that are unified by a theme dreamed up by the chefs. A few of the themes from the last year were: Expo 67, Vienna, Grand Aioli, Richard Olney, My Chinatown, Fou de Kamouraska, Alsace, and Japanese Izakaya. The restaurant is an after-work destination rather than a late-night or weekend venue: it’s open only Tuesday to Friday from 5pm-10pm.

As it turns out, none of the attendees of the Ottawa dinner had ever been to Foodlab in Montreal. Some people had heard about it or read about it, but for everyone who came, it was a leap of faith. And we were greatly rewarded. Not only was every course of the meal drop-dead delicious, but we got some pretty interesting insight into how things are evolving in Montreal’s food scene. As Chef Marek puts it: people are getting tired of eating in restaurants where they are facing their own death by the end of the meal. Out with heavy food and in with a lighter touch — Marek says Foodlab’s approach to the plate is to make sure guests leave feeling great.

Mission accomplished.

Here’s what we ate: