It all started when I couldn’t figure out what to call LOV. When the original location of the vegan restaurant opened in Montreal’s Old Port, it was so sleek and delicious that I ignored the downscale vegan burger and poutine on the menu and focused on the exquisite roasted carrots and parsnips with pomegranate molasses and warm chickpea purée – to me, this was fine dining. Vegan or not, I thought the long wait for reservations justified, thanks to the aforementioned Middle Eastern-inspired creativity, gorgeous cocktail menu and natural/biodynamic wine list.
But then LOV started offering take-out. Fine dining places just don’t do that. Why go to all that trouble decorating a place with a vaulted ceiling, white brick walls, high tables and cozy, romantic seating if you want to sell onion rings to-go? Chef Stephanie Audet’s food deserved better than that, I felt, though I understood that the restaurant could make more money from time-pressed vegetarians and omnivores scarfing down burgers and salads than those who wanted an occasional night out at a decent price (this ain’t Europea, after all).
But fair enough, let’s call the restaurant “casual upscale,” I thought. The oxymoron irks me – how can something be both casual and upscale, I wondered – but I remembered those roasted carrots and sucked in my frown.
The problem, though, is when a restaurant experience suffers in the name of faster service and lower prices.
Take, for example, the fact that at the second location of LOV on rue de la montagne (yes, there’s a second location – another non-fine dining trait), the servers were pretty much running through the restaurant, racing to the kitchen for dishes, then to the high powered blenders for smoothies located just behind the end of the bar (conversation in the sprawling restaurant died for a solid minute every time strawberries, maca or brazil nut milk got whizzed together). And they gave me very frustrated looks when I said I just needed a little more time to look at the cocktail and wine menus. It’s not like I was waiting in line at the counter and there were a dozen hungry diners behind me waiting for their double macchiato.
The disconnect was in the kind of dining experience I was expecting and the kind of service they were taught to give. I’d come for a relaxing evening – no rush choosing my appetizer and main course, maybe a glass of wine. They were making minimum wage, getting my food to me as fast as possible and getting me out the door, or at least fed and left to sit, sated, with my dining companion while they rushed around for another guest. They were turning tables. I was another tip.
But even if you’re stressed as a server, you can’t show it. That’s part of the challenge of your job. Maybe some of that comes from inexperience, but it also comes from understaffing and under-training. I’ve been there. I was an awful server. I can see it in others.
At first I thought it was just a busy night. But when my server described a white wine as “kind of sweet” and “Italian,” I knew something was wrong. There’s no sommelier at LOV (at least my server didn’t offer to bring him or her over), so I expected my server would be able to at least tell me where in Italy the wine came from. She couldn’t. Another wine was “dry” and “French.” I could hear natural wine forefather Jules Chauvet rolling in his grave. I think I bit my tongue and tried really hard to keep my brow unwrinkled. She also didn’t offer me a taste of either wine. And I didn’t ask, because she obviously wanted to get away from me as quickly as possible to help another table.
And that’s a shame when a restaurant spends a ton of money on a beautiful wine list (LOV’s was put together by Steve Beauséjour of import agency Rézin). Instead, I went with a sake, fernet-branca, miso and pineapple cocktail, which was, admittedly, very well made (I was relieved after the wine hiccup). The cocktail was a strange combo with the trilogy of daily dehydrated vegetable chips: house-made beets and parsnips plus non-house-made kale. Why they’re not making their own kale chips, I’m not sure. But it was nice of the busy server to take the time to check who made them when I asked.
“Do you want your sweet potato fries before or with your oyster mushroom main course?” my server asked.
Whenever they’re ready, I said, trying to make her job easier. Half glancing at another table, she said she’d put the order into the system whenever I was ready for them. In that case, I’d take them before, I answered. Make her life a little easier, I thought. And she rushed off.
The slim fries were, I think, coated in tapioca starch to give them a crunchier exterior. Unfortunately, the starch also sucks up most of the flavour, so you need to salt them to within an inch of their lives if you want them to taste like anything. The vegan mayo didn’t help. Just adding bland fat to fat. While nibbling some well-textured fries, however, I glanced around at other tables, where people seemed happy enough eating burgers, vegan mac ‘n’ cheese and gluten free gnocchi (except when the blender was turned on, when everyone seemed a bit lost).
But I still couldn’t figure out what the restaurant was trying to be: maybe a vegan bistro? My oyster mushroom dish, however, was shouting fine dining:
The squash seed milk was so savoury with the sweet, perfectly blanched peas; charred, hand-peeled,zucchini; pea tendrils; caramelized onion purée; and sweet pearl onions (one of the least fun kitchen prep tasks, in my experience, but so important). At $18, it’s too expensive for a bistro given the size of the plate, and it’s even on the high end for fine dining. Maybe L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon would charge that much. Maybe.
I guess my point is that the restaurant isn’t consistent. The pan-Asian “Hero 2.0” plate with sweet-and-salty marinated tempeh, sesame seeds, konjac noodles (the low-cal root tuber pasta that carb-phobic and gluten free diners are into) and squishy eggplant would fit right in at Aux Vivres (though the char wouldn’t be as nice on the broccoli, and it’d probably be sprouts instead of baby chard leaves on top). But then I took a bite of the way too acidic kimchi and me, lover and maker of kimchi, pushed the ferment to the side. It needed dried mushrooms for some of the earthiness and natural sweetness that was so abundant in the oyster mushroom dish.
What did I decide about restaurant genre naming?
I think we need them. Whether we want to or not, we usually have expectations about the level of cuisine, service and experience we’ll get at a restaurant. That naming sets a bar for those expectations, which generally helps us to not be disappointed. I don’t expect table service at La Panthere Verte. I do expect linen napkins at Robuchon. That’s why the menus and decor at LOV are misleading. Because I expect a server who knows that the dry white wine is 100% biodynamically grown chenin blanc grapes and so awesome because it was hand-harvested with just a trace of sulfites. If you’re going to make a point of having a natural and organic list, you should probably try to sell it.
Was training the servers too expensive? Did you spend too much on construction, decor and menus? Or did you just not care?
Should this restaurant have made enRoute Magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants this year?
I used to think so. A beautiful, upscale restaurant in the Old Port that just happened to be vegan. It was novel. But now, I don’t think it’s that special. It’s a pretty nice vegan date night chain with takeout for the business lunchers and “Netflix and chill” crowds. I’m not sure it’s really one of the 30 best new places from coast to coast, when competing with places like Battuto, Canis and Bar von der Fels.
My love to Chef Audet and to Steve Beauséjour (as well as Roman Cavalier for the exceptional cocktail menu), but I’m not pre-booking my next dinner at LOV. No matter how good the food is. I don’t need my ears assaulted by a blender outside of my own kitchen. And I don’t need to feel rushed to eat when I’m staring at a single exquisite oyster mushroom. I also don’t want to think about how much to tip a server, because I’m conflicted between feeling bad for how stressed out she is and feeling like I’m helping her out by being less troublesome as a customer. A customer should never feel like trouble, even if she (I) is (am).
But my hat’s also off to LOV’s owners. They have a good business model that appeals to casual omnivorous and vegetarian diners, plus vegans for whom fine dining doesn’t get any better than this. At least for now.
At least as a gluten free, dairy free, but not vegetarian person, I can eat at most restaurants where the chef has some skill and a little free time to replace the mashed potatoes or butter sauce on a dish or two. But here, most people (besides those allergic to nuts and soy, I’d wager) can eat almost everything on the menu. Date night can come with a little better ambiance than Aux Vivres. So I’m sure LOV is making a lot of money.
Again, at least for now.