Waves of white ham roll beneath curls of cheese and drizzled butter at Le Vin Papillon, making an indulgently perfect snack to accompany a glass of pét-nat, a draw for diners familiar with the food of the resto's world-famous sibling spot Joe Beef. As they wash down sea urchin in white gazpacho with a funky orange or pair a meaty mozzarella with an earthy red, the decadent, exceptional food serves as a second entry point into Montreal’s vast natural wine landscape.
Montreal’s food scene earned its fame from lavish spreads of local foie gras, heaping piles of gravy-laden poutine, and dense, rich smoked meat. The city’s combination of French heritage and chilly climate steered it toward a cuisine famous for all things over the top. But at the city’s newest crop of natural wine bars, that legacy combines with a lighter, sweeter side, one that embraces the local seafood bounty, the seasonal vegetables of the region, and the immigrant-influenced foods newer to this diverse city.
Focusing on light, bright natural wines makes it easy for bars to experiment with ambitious and exciting menus, ranging from lamb and seaweed dumplings to midnight servings of whelk. All over Montreal, the symbiotic relationship of natural wine and innovative cooking breeds a class of restaurants that are wine bars first, but still manage to keep culinary ambitions soaring and sensational. Here are a few of the best.
Le Vin Papillon
When the team behind Joe Beef, arguably Montreal’s most famous restaurant, and its partner restaurant Liverpool House readied to open their third spot, they changed things up a little: Joe Beef sommelier Vanya Filipovic was brought on as a co-owner and given some freedom to create a space that kept her selections front and center. Chalkboards holding both the wine list and the menu get erased and re-written often, with the list of small-production wines rotating in and out daily, and the menu staying finely tuned to what’s fresh.
While the waves of ham I mentioned above might be the restaurant's most famous dish, its true strengths come in the vegetable plates. A smoked carrot éclair rolls ribbons into a light sandwich, celery root dresses up in bagna càuda, and thin-sliced radishes bed down on mozzarella. Seafood plays backup on many of the dishes, but occasionally takes a starring role, as in the smoked sturgeon with fried gnocchi, or the simply-served local specialties such as Quebec sea urchin.
The space began tiny, but has slowly expanded, including a large terrace in the back—but arrive on the early side (opens at 3 p.m., no reservations) or expect to wait a bit.
Vin Pap, as it's called, opened in 2013, but this year the same team followed up with this sophomore natural wine bar effort in burgeoning Mile-Ex. Another hallway of a space, Mon Lapin exudes comfort and coziness, with a few larger, stuffed booths, a tiny five-seat bar, and the steady chitter-chatter of folks crowded into the entranceway as they wait for a table (again, no reservations, so aiming early or late works well). The same team is behind both restaurants, but here, from around the cart full of chilling bubbles in the center of the room, things skew just a little homier, meatier, duskier.
Ham takes a starring role here, too, this time with a slathering of tomato. Radishes here are served with liver, and the seafood—in this case halibut brandade—comes encased in tortelli. Jerusalem artichoke bread with sunflower seed butter hits nearly every table, and the menu skews meatier, including, of course, the namesake rabbit, when it shows up—as sausage, with purslane.
Combining two trends into one, Bar Suzanne bills itself as a speakeasy, but the cocktail menu is simple and the natural wine selection vast. And the enormous space with a marked door seems to qualify as a speakeasy only by virtue of being upstairs. Still, the high-minded design, skylights, lush plant life, and garage-style doors to the patio lend an unexpected beauty. The greenhouse ambience gives Bar Suzanne the feel of the perfect place to indulge in funky, earthy wines, even if the music can be a little loud and intrusive.
The food menu, however, gets interesting: using dumplings as a conveyance of little flavors and bites more than anything else, the menu skews only moderately toward Chinese food—the style of dumplings these seem to emulate. Raw oysters, octopus over polenta, artichokes, and a salad round out the rest of the menu. The dumplings themselves include some Chinese flavors—the shrimp and pork one is fairly traditional—while others lean more Montrealais, like lobster and dill or rabbit and carrot. And, as the bar intends, each order of a half-dozen dumplings makes an excellent bar-snack nibble.
Like a diner designed by Wes Anderson, this wine bar and restaurant wraps the quirky and absurd in a coating of beauty. By the front door, a wooden sign hangs, about the size of a coffee table book. “Greetings” reads the wood border, then a gilded frame holds the logo, a set of snow crab legs attached to the body of a nude woman. Huh? Don’t worry about it, order the snow crab.
The vibe is classy, pendant lights giving off elegant, low shine, the ambience bubbly but demure, and the wine list wonderfully long. The bar runs the length of the room, but booths line the far wall, better for digging into the menu (offered until 2 a.m.). Seasonal snow crab—as advertised by the logo—horse tartare, a foot-long hot dog, and quinoa salad pepper the menu, as eclectic as the signs around the room.
At first, Majestique seems like it might be trying too hard to be everything to everyone—bar, restaurant, elegant, casual—but within a few minutes of sitting down, it becomes clear: it’s uniquely, defiantly its own wonderful self.
Natural wine bars and all-day cafes share the same affinity for small, flavorful plates of intriguing and exciting food, so it makes sense that the folks behind higher-end restaurant next door, Lawrence, opened this adorable mini-me of a spot. Plates are small, as if designed for picking at while sipping glasses of wine for hours—or for stopping in for a bite or two on the way to somewhere else, which adds to the casual attitude exemplified by the childlike scrawl of the name in the logo—impulsive, playful, and of-the-moment—just like the restaurant itself.
The painted brick walls are nearly empty but for the menu chalkboards. Most of the seating faces the big, metal-topped bar and the minimalist shelves behind it that hold wine glasses, coffee, and a relatively spare assortment of spirits. The low-key attitude extends to the food, which is simple and unadorned but still unafraid of big flavor. Pink and blue tile chevrons frame the small kitchen, which turns out dishes like nduja with white anchovies, turnips with pesto, and flammkuchen—an apple and bacon tart.
A sparse, cement-floored and cool-colored space, this spot operates as a coffee shop with a small menu of soup, salad, and sandwich during the day, but transforms into a natural wine bar at night. There’s not a ton of table seating, but a few long bars and plenty of space to set down glasses and plates as you gab. Which is good for the wine list, which leans in on affordable bottles.
The stylish counter, light wood tables, and ceramic plates evoke thoughts of Scandinavian-style coffee shop, but the wine list keeps it smart and the service is warm and inviting. The bar runs along the kitchen, giving a full view of the chefs’ work as you drink, as they create everything from okonomiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancake) to lobster cavatelli with morels and asparagus. The menu changes with the seasons, even on standards like foie gras terrine—which features rhubarb and sweet peas in spring.
As each new natural wine bar in Montreal opened with their own spin on the culinary scene, owners of Italian eatery Nora Gray went with the obvious choice, given their background: pizza. Dominated by a big marble bar, an open kitchen with wood-burning oven, and modernist features—slim, metallic lights, purple padded banquettes, wide floorboards, and yellow stools, the restaurant is a visual playground. And orange shows up on banquettes, but also heavily on the wine menu.
But while the restaurant expressly seems to not take itself seriously (see the punny “charred char with chard”), the food is serious like the heart attack you’ll suffer if you eat too many of the suppli al telefono. The “Kale Caesar” boasts a garlicky tahini dressing, pizzas in basic standards or, like “M. Fun-guy” with chef-y toppings: mushrooms, celery root, and taleggio. Just remember: the real fun guys stick around for desserts like ricotta cannoli and rice cake.
Elena photo courtesy of Dominique Lafond.