Given that we happened to be in Montreal for our wedding anniversary, visiting Toqué! was something Dr W and I didn’t stop very long to think about. The restaurant twinkles with a positive galaxy of stars from a number of awarding bodies, and has a reputation as one of Canada’s very best, specialising in Quebecois market cuisine – and you’ve already seen here just what kind of magic goes on at Quebecois markets. Toqué! only uses ingredients from passionate local suppliers (foragers feature here as much as farmers do), and something in the local character, water and weather in Quebec makes for some extraordinary produce. This is a serious fine-dining restaurant, with a wine list to die for, utterly gorgeous arrangements on the plate, service that falls over itself to make sure you have everything you want, and a wonderfully romantic dining room. Great company, too: Dr W is my far and away my favourite dining companion.
If you’re planning on one of those special-occasion, intimate-conversation-type meals, I don’t think you could do a lot better than this lovely soft grey and mauve room, where you’re seated a good long way from neighbouring tables, ensuring privacy and quiet. The decor works with you here – gentle light comes from glass globes hung around the space, and the generous upholstery damps any noise from other diners, so your table sits in cocoon of quiet. Service excels too, attentive but not pushy, and my usual barrage of questions about cooking methods and sourcing met with grins and some excited conversation. I love it when the servers are as into the food as the people making it.
It being a special occasion, we started with a tasting of two sparkling wines each (a starry Saumur and some toasty Champagne) before launching into the menu proper. I’d expected a couple of fizzy drizzles in small glasses, given the word ‘tasting’, but we ended up with two full flutes each – much joyful aniversary clinking ensued. The wine list is a fascinating selection from all over the world, ranging from those wines open only to those with fantasy expense accounts, to delicious but affordable bottles from the sort of small producer we barely get to hear about in Europe, let alone taste. When I’m in North America I try to order the kinds of wine that don’t get exported to the UK – here was a 2005 Chardonnay Village Reserve from Niagara (Clos Jordanne, for those of you who can get your hands on it), and it was a great contrast to lighter, Californian Chardonnays, so heavily oaked it was like drinking a buttery syrup.
We decided against the tasting menu simply because some of what was on offer on the à la carte sounded too good to miss. Amuse bouches were a chilled shot glass of red pepper soup (again, have a look at the peppers produced in the area and weep for the plumpness and concentration of sunshine) topped off with a herb foam. El Bulli has a lot to answer for – these days foams, mostly insipid, pop up in all kinds of undistinguished places trying for the haute thing – but this was a densely flavoured, complicated and rich example, packed with herbs. We detected dill, chervil, mint, basil (at least – I’m sure there was plenty more going on in there) in this stuff, marrying gorgeously with the explosion of flavour in the soup.
Dr W’s heirloom tomato salad was achingly sweet, full of that Quebec sunshine again. It arrived with a quenelle of white maize ice-cream, gorgeously smooth and tasting like distilled summer, razor-thin slices of sourdough fried in olive oil, and baby coriander leaves. I’d asked for the squash soup with shavings of foie gras. These were not so much shavings as a gargantuan heap, mi-cuit, butter-soft, and perfectly seasoned. Under the foie were wilted sorrel leaves, adding acidity to the smooth gloss of the soup and foie; hidden right at the bottom was a buttery, truffly cache of hedgehog mushrooms.
You’ll notice that everything we ate was perfectly seasonal. In the hot, maple-orange Canadian autumn, these are all ingredients which are at their peak. (I’m told that in the spring, fiddlehead ferns appear at the table, and that these are so good you’ll never want to eat another vegetable again.)
Both of us had asked for suckling pig. Moist flesh with a crisp skin was surrounded by more seasonal ingredients – here were mousseron (fairy ring) mushrooms which seemed to have absorbed their own weight in butter; confit garlic; more of those sunshine-packed peppers (this time yellow and puréed); tiny, sugary champagne grapes; and something I didn’t recognise. Amazement. This is something that very seldom happens. The mystery objects were tiny, delicious buds, longer than capers and shaped like four-sided torpedoes, pickled in a sweet, spiced vinegar. I called over a waiter – what were these lovely things?
Day lily buds. Things I frequently have in a vase at home, but had not considered eating. Chef Normand Laprise matches them perfectly with the rich and fatty pork. This is a preserve I really have to try making myself some time.
Dr W went for cheeses rather than a dessert, each of which came with a different fruit preparation – a prune jelly on the Brie, pineapple membrillo on the Comte-ish Canadian cheese, strawberry leather on the Fourme d’Ambert and a piment d’Espelet in argan oil on the Gruyere-ish one. (My notes, as usual, become less helpful as the meal went on and I, like the lily buds, became more pickled – apologies for not being able to pin down the names of the two Canadian cheeses.) My poached pear came with a swirl of fruity, aromatic pistachio oil, which seemed to somehow insinuate its delicious self into every corner of your mouth. Pears, of course, are at their best at this time of year, and the accompanying foam and sorbet were so platonically pearsome that I found myself unusually speechless.
Meals this good – from food, to decor, to service, to sheer style – are not, of course, cheap. But we left agreeing that in ten years of dining out together (this meal marked the fact that we have now been married for precisely four of them), this was unquestionably one of the very best experiences we’d had. (“Top two or three, for sure,” said Dr W.) I’m unlikely to be able to return to Montreal for a few years now, but I look forward to our next visit – in a week there, we packed in a slew of the most enjoyable eating we’ve done in quite some time.