When omnivores, carnivores and vegetarians alike are talking about a new restaurant in Montreal, it’s a big deal. Because depending on your love of marinated tempeh, nutritional yeast-seasoned rice bowls and turmeric-tinged scrambled tofu, your opinion of vegan cuisine may coalesce around a point where healthy meets bland.
But at LOV on rue McGill in Old Montreal, the excitement following the fine dining restaurant’s launch has been akin to that of other upscale restaurants’ openings – e.g. Chef John Winter Russell’s Candide or Marc-André Jetté’s – the only difference being that Stephanie Audet’s card is 100% vegetarian, mostly vegan, mostly gluten free, mostly organic and just as delicious.
Which means that, for once, fine dining vegan cuisine isn’t a misnomer. You’ll just have to google LOV-McGill if you want to find the restaurant online.
Her menu, divided into snacks, appetizers and mains, is a mix of foods vegans often can’t eat and stylized platings of original creations. Take the poutine ($8): golden, crispy skinny fries topped with cubes of vegan cheese (or real squeaky cheese curds for non-vegans), housemade kale chips and a miso-mushroom gravy. Like a French mother sauce (think velouté, béchamel or hollandaise), Audet makes a roux with gluten free flour and Earth Balance vegan margarine and adds depth of flavour with onions, mushrooms and a generous kick of organic, locally made Massawippi miso.
It’s labour intensive (and expensive, thanks to the miso), but makes it impossible to stop digging deeper into the cast iron mini-casserole in search of the most gravy-drenched fries. Vegetarians are better off than vegans with the real cheese version rather than the vegan cheese cubes that taste like nothing and have a less-than-appealing chalky texture, but you come to this dish for the gravy. When the gravy’s this good, it’s hard to convince yourself to order the kimchi fries ($8), despite that fact that the kimchi is gluten free, which is a hard thing to find in Montreal since most are made with soy sauce, wheat flour or fish sauce that may contain wheat.
Other dishes on the menu that vegans usually can’t get include mac ‘n’ cheese ($7), a Caesar salad ($6), a smoked meat sandwich ($8), gnocchi ($12), ceviche ($13) and risotto ($16). Throw in gluten free options for all of those not already naturally gluten free, and you’d think it’d be all Celiacs knocking down the doors. Instead, it’s diners of all ilks. Because more than the comforting richness of the sweet potato gnocchi and its nutty basil-and-hemp pesto; the grilled oyster mushrooms reminiscent of scallops on a silken horseradish purée ($22); or the Ottolenghi-inspired roasted cauliflower with curry, tahini, pomegranate and confit lemon ($8), anyone can appreciate the beauty of the dishes themselves.
Avocado comes fanned out carpaccio-style with black truffle oil and marinated shiitake mushrooms ($12). The croutons are 100% buckwheat (gluten free).
The typical French croquettes ($8) are golden fried mouthfuls of creamy-on-the-inside hearts of palm, jack fruit, quinoa and celery root, topped with a pineapple and pungent ginger salsa.
The only obvious differences between LOV and other fine dining restaurants in Montreal’s Old Port are the lower prices, the more generous servings and the higher quality of the ingredients. Mains go for $8 to $22 (the risotto clocks in at $16 thanks to the food cost of mushrooms and the cashew cream). And good luck making it through a dish of poutine and a mac ‘n’ cheese or gnocchi.
But if you order lighter, you can take advantage of the lower prices and order more dishes, or make a meal of appetizers, including the most beautiful plating of root vegetables I’ve seen since HVOR.
The sweetness of pomegranate molasses plays up the sugars in the roasted carrots and parsnips, softened and balances the pistachio and sesame dukkah and vegan harissa yogurt ($12).
In a city where vegan means rice bowls, the question is how Audet came up with such a unique menu: roasted beets – ubiquitous and boring – come with cashew cheese, sunflower seeds and a Pastis vinaigrette ($12); the ceviche is young coconut and celery root with goji berries, coriander and plantain chips ($12); and the seasonal tartine ($6) is sweet with local honey-kissed parsnip purée, arugula, walnuts and poached pear. What has moments of feeling Middle Eastern takes a right at the Marseille and hops a boat to South America.
Yet somehow it works. Even the “fake” dishes: gluten free pasta with cheese-free sauce, meat-free smoked beet sandwiches, celery root steak (ok, fine, that one’s pushing it, but the carnivore among our group said he liked it).
The wine list, cocktail list and decor also have a big role to play in the desirability of the restaurant. It took two weeks to get a reservation, and there aren’t enough vegans in the city to make that happen by themselves. You don’t need to be a designer, fashionista, architect or artist to appreciate the vaulted ceilings, the marble table tops and the woven basket lightbulb coverings and the white birdcage chairs in the back (yes you can eat at them).
The green flowered wallpaper mixed with stone walls creates a rustic elegance. It’s the kind of place you want to sit at the bar and stare into the open kitchen while sipping a glass of the almost sparkling La Bohème from natural winemaker Marc Pesnot. No, it’s not cheap, but a steal at $47 a bottle.
You’ll also notice the rare occurrence that the menu is credited to the chef, Audet, while the wine list is signed by Steve Beauséjour, one of Montreal’s best-known wine consultant and agent of Rézin specializing in natural, organic, biodynamic and small production wines. The bottles he chose match the restaurant’s dedication to quality (there’s plenty for vegans) and start at $39 while topping out at $83 (that’s ridiculously cheap). And if you don’t know Marc Pesnot, buy a case of any of the beautiful bottles bottles he makes through private import from Glou.
Similarly, the cocktail list is credited to another Montreal slugger, Romain Cavalier. He won the National MadeWithLove cocktail competition in 2015, becoming the top mixologist in Canada and subsequently appearing all over television. He also recently published a book. He even thoughtfully added a mocktail for any non-drinkers: a Pina Koala made with organic coconut milk, pineapple juice, eucalyptus, Rise Kombucha and mint/chlorophyl.
Word has it the menu was shortened last week, minimizing prep and food waste for the tiny but overachieving kitchen. Think of it as refinement, which in this case (but all too infrequently) is synonymous with vegetarian cuisine.
Something for everyone, just enough variety, mostly plants. Good luck getting a reservation.
464 rue McGill
Mon-Wed 11:30am-10pm, Thurs-Sat 11:30am-11pm
Price: $20-$40 per person ($15 with tax and tip at lunch)