When I was younger I remember being seated at Bronte on Sherbrooke Street West with a few friends, knowing that I may not be able to afford breakfast the next morning. It’s happened more often than not, over the last 15 years in Montreal, that I’ve spent my last dime in a restaurant. It may have been irresponsible of me at the time but I had my reasons. First of all, the desire to be out with fantastic people in a beautiful restaurant, eating delicious food is too attractive to say no. Second to that, hearing about a great night I’ve missed, for whatever reason, has always made me a little jealous, so I try not to let that happen often. For 6 years, the man behind the magic at Bronte was Joe Mercuri. After taking some time away from the culinary spotlight after the closing of Bronte, he returned to restaurant scene with much deserved fanfare with Mercuri, a one-two punch of a restaurant in Old Montreal. A friend and I recently took up a table at Mercuri to try out the menu. Read on to see how that night went and to see how they recently upped the ante with a new wood fired oven.
First of all, Mercuri is subtly divided in two distinct yet equally tempting dining experiences. Though I knew the food would be something worth talking about, I had no idea what to expect before walking in. I’ve seen the pictures on the Internet and read rave reviews by critics and bloggers but seeing a restaurant first hand is a bigger deal than reading about it (after reading this, I mean). My friend had already arrived when I walked up the stairs to go inside. The muted tranquility was astounding. There were no boisterous crowds or over the top music.
The setting was elegant and mature, a pleasant surprise. The fine dining side of the restaurant is demure and very sophisticated. The leather chairs are softer than anything I’ve ever seen and come with a fur backing. The exposed brick walls are softly lit while the ceiling is lowered with cream coloured, squarely cut panels. One wall is decorated in a colourful mural that feels like a fall day in the forest. The décor has elements that we’ve all seen before but put together in a unique way. The lighting is soft and the chatter amongst the patrons elevates the restaurants atmosphere. The bar on this side of the restaurant looks into a vast chrome kitchen where you get to see the food come together. We started with a customary cocktail, I had an old fashioned while she had a glass of bubbly. We scanned the carefully curated menu and tried to decide what to order. We were offered a chance to try the tasting menu but instead chose to share a few plates instead. I went with an exquisite beef tartar to start and followed up by ravioli stuffed with ricotta, served with wild mushrooms and topped off with delicious pancetta. She chose the buttery rabbit papardelle to start and followed up with a mouthwatering filet mignon that came accompanied by red peppers, oyster mushrooms and Yukon gold potatoes. For those who appreciate five star service, Mercuri is one of the most exquisite experiences I’ve ever had. The waiters are highly professional with ours being especially stoic. They worked as a team, bringing the dishes out on large plates as soon as they were ready. I loved the experience. After the meal I got to meet Mr. Mercuri himself who had come out of the kitchen for a quick break. At the time, he showed me his new, not yet functional wood-fired oven where he will be preparing ingredients in his dishes and showed me around the newly renovated section of the restaurant. Both ssections of Mercuri are housed in the same space but while one side is quite sophisticated, the other section (with the glorious fire pit) is urban and hip. The theme of warmth plays through out the entire space with honey colored wooden seating and exposed brick and wooden posts. Each section is subtly divided by panes of clear and frosted glass. Just last week, Montreal’s media was invited back to the restaurant for a special event; the wood fed fire pit was fired up and ready to roast. For the last year Mercuri has been working to install his wood fired oven, which required more work than you think. Modifications to the building, including the addition of a special chimney for aeration, took the most time but now it is ready and what they served was nothing short of amazing. Roasting and grilling food over the smouldering embers of maple doesn’t just make for delicious food; it brings the ambiance to a whole other level. The warmth of a wood fire can’t be compared to anything else. It’s cozy and inviting and the flames licking off the crackling wood creates a layered and active atmosphere where shadows dance in the light. The food we tried came fresh out of the fire. While wine and bubbly poured through the night, we nibbled on delicious roasted chicken, flavourful and crisp pork tacos, grilled vegetables and mushrooms and even a sweet sampling of smores. I’m now torn on what I liked more, the fine dining or the fire pit. Mercuri was a well-rounded, extraordinary culinary experience with an incredible atmosphere, out of this world service and some of the best food I’ve had in Montreal. I enjoyed Joe Mercuri’s food when I didn’t even know who he was back in the day. 15 years later he continues to push himself beyond the everyday with food that’s simply extraordinary.
Photo credit: David Major-Lapierre