I’m through the door at 5:30 p.m. sharp to beat the walk-ins-only crowd. My date’s not here yet – typical Montreal – so I chat up the line chefs for the lowdown on what to order. Get the scallops, says a bearded cook with an elaborate fish-and-lemon tattoo, as I sip from a glass of bone-dry melon de bourgogne nature. And don’t miss the shaved-foie-gras salad. Noted.
The team behind Joe Beef, helmed by David McMillan, Frédéric Morin and Allison Cunningham, is no stranger to this list: Their last venture, Le Vin Papillon, appeared here in 2014. Led by Marc-Olivier Frappier, Jessica Noël and sommelier Vanya Filipovic, Vin Mon Lapin – the name a nod to “my rabbit,” the preferred term of endearment used by a winemaker friend in France – brings that same joie de vivre and obsession with natural wines to a cozy room in Little Italy. Actually, cozy is an understatement. There’s barely room for 25 here, among the tables arranged around a distressed bar cart that bears a bottle-stuffed, grape-studded punch bowl.
Those silky raw scallops and Tokyo turnips are slicked with Gaspésie wakame and yogurt vinaigrette, an elegant study in white. Massachusetts razor clams, barely cooked and tasting of the ocean, are topped with peppery sea purslane. Both dishes shine brighter under the softly acidic influence of a biodynamic François de Nicolay Côte de Beaune La Grande Châtelaine.
By now, the tipsy conversation is getting loud, and I can barely hear the electronic music and old-school R&B weaving through the room. At last! Our brioche mini-loaf, which had somehow gone astray, arrives. Nutty, fine-grained and delicious, it’s made with Jerusalem artichoke flour, topped with crumbled sunflower seeds and comes with a cold-pressed sunflower-oil margarine – yes, margarine – so high-tech, it took help from Université Laval to make it.
And that crunchy, tart-sweet, rich and pink salad? The one with endive, caramelized sunflower seeds and pickled elderberry, topped with shaved foie gras? These chefs know how to pick ’em.