Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Restaurant DNA

Months prior to actually venturing to Montreal, I knew that I wanted a reservation at Restaurant DNA, the brainchild of Derek Dammann and Alex Cruz. They specialize in produce, products and wine available from the different regions of Canada, apply a nose to tail eating philosophy, and some of the simpler, less fussy techniques most notably of a rustic Italian style. I'll admit, I hadn't heard of the place until seeing it on Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods. A good amount of this show is cringe-tastic, however, there are the few shining moments of fine dining or street food that leaves me with a puddle of drool scooting down my chin. The feature on Restaurant DNA did just that.
The dining room
Now, I'm not really one to give a damn regarding the design of a restaurant. Sure, I want the noise level to be low enough so that I can hear the unique jabberings of my own party, but that's about as far as my pickiness goes on the atmosphere of the room. I will say that DNA's look and feel has a little bit of magic inherent. It's going to throw you off. The clean, almost sterile/industrial, plexiglass-rific look of the dining room could prompt one to believe you are about to endeavor on a quirky, fussy tasting menu like that of WD50 in New York (extremely delicious, but also very delicately plated). The food that you are about to receive is not fussy. It's full frontal and in your face. For this reason, this contrast, I can fully appreciate the design of the restaurant. Plus, those chairs are plenty comfy.
Enough screwing around. Onto the big show. If you are an adventurous eater, bothered by no offal, order the tasting menu which will set you back $85 CAD. Tell your server that you love all things adventurous. Tell them that you submit, and you will be pleased. If you're scared of hearts, kidneys and the like, what the hell are you doing in Montreal?
Orofino Pinot Noir from BC
I've been told many a time that I don't make enough money to really know anything about wine. And I think that's true. Except that I've got a good wine guy out in Salem that has taught me, at very minimal prices, what good wine tastes like. And so I know a few good vineyards, my favorites styles, and definitely how to pair wine with food. However, one look at the wine menu here, and I had a bit of a moment. Many of the wines that they feature are Canadian, with over two pages of Canadian red wines, and then maybe a half page of wines "from other countries." Considering the emphasis on local products, it was only appropriate to call over the sommelier, mention that we had ordered the tasting menu, and would prefer a red wine, something medium-bodied. He suggested a Pinot Noir from BC, called Orofino. It was a little more than I wanted to spend at over $100, but I couldn't shrug the suggestion for something cheaper. If you're anything like me, then you go out to some of these incredible meals maybe a couple times per year, or maybe it's even once in a lifetime. Let me suggest to you, if its within your means, splurge on the wine when out for epic meals like this. A tasting menu, if you're not going for a pairing (which I admit is often a little too much wine for me), calls for a wonderful, complementary bottle of wine. And this Orofino was one of them. It was easily the finest Pinot Noir I've ever tasted, with a smooth, earthy, unfiltered flavor, and yet not a hint of aftertaste. I tasted cloves, and perhaps a little vanilla, but little beyond the classic flavor of a lovely red wine. If you see the Orofino Pinot Noir, please order it. It was a wonderful recommendation from the sommelier.
The Amuse
Amuse: A small round of meaty albacore tuna with a leaves of flat leaf parsley and mint, thin sliced shallot, a slice of radish, buckthorn berries, and buckthorn berry juice, with a touch of sea salt crystals adorning the tuna. This was a unique way to begin a meal. Have you ever had a tasting where the amuse was the best thing that you ate? It's a trap that I feel many restaurants fall into. Their best bite is the first bite, and all the rest are a let down. However, this was a very clean introduction into the rest of the flavor-punch dishes to come. The meaty tuna was perfectly complemented by the tart juice of a berry that we call sea berries back home. Each berry had a little seed that would crunch within your teeth, only met with the freshness of the herb adornments and that wonderful kiss of sea salt. But this would not be the best course of the night. Absolutely not. And therefore the chef succeeded in giving an opening band its due, but in no way allowing you to see a young Metallica open for a drunken over the hill Ozzy, if you get my meaning.
Antipasto course: House-made charcuterie galore! Speck - salty and smokey, yet not as chewy as other specks that I have had. Little rounds of salami and peperoni - salty, savory, and for the pepperoni, only giving way to a tiny bit of spiciness at the end. There were two slices of what looked like a very tender and slippery-in-the-best-way prosciutto, which was absolutely delicious, thoroughly penetrated by fat and pork richness. The capicola - again, two slices of charcuterie that are intensely porky on the first taste, and then only at the very end reveal the spiciness of a sophisticated use of smoked paprika. These slices were clearly the star of the plate. Then there was the headcheese made from the jowl of the pig, speckled with bits of gelatin and the thin slices of ears. Again, this was incredible, salty, texturally interesting, and we wish we had more. Finally, as an effective palate cleanser between bites of salty, perfect pork meats, there was a small pile of marinated vegetables, including eggplant, spicy, tangy peppers, pickles, and one of the most wonderful bites of briny, salty turnip I've ever had.
Goat Liver and Kidney
Fra Diavalo
Appetizer 1: Goat liver and kidney fra diavalo. There was nothing bashful about the spiciness level of this dish. It comes up and hits you, diminishing any gamy favor of the innards of a goat, which I hear can be a bit burly. The difference between these offal and those that you might see prepared elsewhere, is that they were all lightly seared and then saturated, somehow, some way with the red, peppery sauce. It was delicious. It awakened the palate, and gave way to that delicious, elastic chew of the kidneys and the melt in your mouth quality of the outer seared layer of liver, and then the bite of the lightly cooked center. What a delicious dish.
Liver and Mostarda Parfait
Appetizer 2: This was my favorite dish of the evening. A parfait of veal and duck liver with a mostarda of squash. I've of the opinion that chefs at their best are so playful. They make a play on something from their childhood, like an ice cream or a corn dog or something. Here we had a generous scoop of foie gras mousse, this time a mix of veal and duck liver, is presented on the plate as if it is a wholesome scoop of your favorite sugary ice cream. Next to it, there is a little pile of what could be some sort of fruity sauce to top the frozen treat. But instead it is a mostarda, a pile of candied squash touched with hints of mustard tang. The huge scoop of liver mousse is to be spread on two lovely toasted slices of rustic bread. A heaping spread of this and a few toppings of the sweet squash and my bigger half said that my eyes opened widely to reveal those little dimples that only the most genuine sentiments of glee can produce. I didn't know that the squash was candied. I didn't know how rich the mousse would be. I didn't know. It looked like a little scoop of ice cream with some kind of peach sauce. And it was so much more. I think this was nothing short of culinary genius in a very sentimental, clever way: playful, and producing great flavors, with the additional bonus of not skimping on the quantity of a great thing.
Pasta Course on Steroids
Pasta course: Homemade spaghetti-like pasta, heaped into a huge bowl, sprinkled with fine olive oil and adorned with dried black currants that look like raisins, generous amounts of shaved Pecorino, thin slices of melt in your mouth garlic, grated veal heart, and a single golden yellow duck egg yolk. We were instructed to break the egg yolk and mix it with the entire dish, ultimately producing a sort of carbonara on steroids. The sweetness of those little dried currants, rehydrated with olive oil and the richness of the egg yolk, that salty cheese, the earthy nature of offal throughout every little speck of grated veal heart, and then the luxury of a house made pasta. This was an excellent pasta dish from the wow factor of the presentation, and then the full on richness on richness flavor of interesting ingredients. (Seriously? Who thinks to grate veal heart over pasta? It's pretty darn amazing.)
The Big Show: Now a while back when we had disclosed to our most gracious server that we were adventurous eaters, he got a little glimmer in his eye. After collecting the clean plate from our antipasto course, he leaned over our table and dropped a huge teaser on us: "The chef is preparing something very interesting for your main. I don't think you've ever had it before." All of the possibilities of this revelation started to dance within our brains, and oh the possibilities it could be... but at the same time also giving way to thoughts of "well, we've really hit just about everything, this could also be a huge let down." We were not let down. 
A few minutes and a few more sips of wine after the pasta course was but a memory, and the clues continued to come. First, an empty bowl on the table. Is it lobster? Is that really the "I bet you've never had this before" item? No. Too easy. Another item appears. It's a little bowl with two little steaming disposable towels. "For your fingers," says the server. What the hell? Is it clams? Is it lobster? Is it porgy? Perhaps we were to disembowel our own rabbit, which certainly would require clean up but much more so than anything could be accomplished with two little finger towels. 
Grilled Halibut Head
And then it appeared out of no where. Our server approached with a big white plate. And on top of that plate, was the grilled, lightly salted head of a halibut. Oh yes, the chef has delivered. A halibut head. Have you ever eaten such a thing in a restaurant? Because I hadn't. And we received both looks of disgust and quivering envy from other diners. A perfectly grilled, succulent, whole halibut head, left for us to pick to the bone. Every bit of flesh, from the cheeks, to the meat from the top of the head, to all those flaky bits around the collar were so tender, and so juicy, and so incredibly rich and buttery, I couldn't but feel that this may have been the least fussed over, most in your face, and absolute best-tasting ironic fine dining moment of my entire life. The head, with all of its crispy salty, and gelatinous skin, was presented over a bed of grains, cooked in the risotto style, with sweet slices of local beets. A little bit of fish, a little bit of skin, and then a little bit of beet and grains to add all sorts of interesting textural dimensions to the dish. Yes, it was messy. But it was fun. And it was a most astonishing surprise.
Pre-dessert: Caramel and mushroom ice cream. Again, didn't see this coming. It's a delicious combination of sweet caramel matched with the earthy undertones of mastutake mushrooms grown in BC. The ice cream was subtly sweet, but more notably, it was also just so smooth and creamy, with every bite melting away to reveal those tiny little bits of mushroom.
Apple Pie
Dessert 1: Apple pie and poached apples with more buckthorn berries and sauce, topped with what looked like a little scoop of vanilla speckled ice cream. While the pie was delicious, with a flaky, sweet crust, especially combined with the tartness of those local berries, the real surprise was the little dollop of what we had thought was ice cream. This was another little bit of trickery from the kitchen. The ice cream substance was really more of what I think was a mascapone vanilla mousse. Genius combination.
Hazelnut Tart
Dessert 2: Hazelnut tart with ginger ice cream and olive oil. Whole hazelnuts are filed in a single layer on a crispy tart shell, and drizzled with a caramel sauce. It had the flavor of roasted holidays, and the sweetness of a sticky tart was brought to life by the slight spiciness of the ginger ice cream, and the mellow unctuous flavor of a fine olive oil. This dessert lasted only mere seconds at our table, and was a fine "fight your other diners" for the last bite dessert.
I can't say enough how much I enjoyed Restaurant DNA from the local product philosophy, to the wonderful wine, to the fantastic and flawless service, and, of course, dish after dish adding up to one of the most memorable meals I've had to date. It was playful. It leaves an impression. They had a little bit of trickery from start to finish, guiding your eyes and what you think might be coming to one conclusion, only to reveal surprise after surprise on your palate. It's this quality that makes DNA unique, and a restaurant that I hope to come back to again and again. Please put it on your list for at least one of your dinners in Montreal, and expect to be astonished and delighted.

Restaurant DNA
355 rue Marguerite D'Youville
Vieux-Montréal, QC

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