Provided you've done a minimal amount of homework, finding a good meal in Montreal is no difficult task. With an abundance of solid restaurant choices and a flourishing community of people supporting great food and talented chefs, so long as you're prepared to take people's suggestions with prudence, you should be able to isolate this month's hype from the legit eater's spots. Finding a great meal on the other hand, remains a little more thorny. The greatness of a meal is nearly always a subjective issue, but at other times there's simply no room for debate. The meal we recently enjoyed sitting at the bar at Nora Gray was a triumph not open to debate.
Nora Gray is owned and operated by the front and back-of-house all-star team of Emma Cardarelli and Ryan Gray, a duo of alumni from the school of Liverpool House where for several years, Emma held position as chef while Ryan was responsible for a fantastic wine program and managing the dining room. The two of them branched out to open their own endeavor nearly a year ago. Nora Gray was met with great anticipation, praise, and support from restaurant industry types and serious eaters alike, along with the heartfelt blessing of their former employers, and mentors David McMillan and Frederic Morin. The restaurant is on the north side of a low-key, primarily residential portion of Saint-Jacques street between Guy and rue de la Montagne in Little Burgundy. It sits within earshot of the Bell Center and with food this good it's no wonder that the place tends to fill up quick after Habs games with patrons and players alike.
The restaurant's capacity is about 50 people or so. A hand-full of tables are set up in the front by the windows, but the majority of the seating is in the form of large, gold riveted, black leather booths that appear to be able to accommodate considerably large groups. The walls are covered in wood paneling adorned with the odd black and white photo, minimalist and classy with a young crowd and fun music keeping the vibe contemporary. The concept is Italian with a trilingual (Italian, French & English) menu that changes seasonally. It's divided into the classic Italian style meal progression: antipasto (appetizers), primi (generally pasta and risotto), and secondi (proteins like meat and fish).
With Ryan's zeal for making cocktails and savvy wine selection this is not the sort of place you forgo the drinks; leave the car at home, take a cab, enjoy. Mixing, blending, and always tasting his creations, Ryan is likely to have you rethinking drinks you might have thought you weren't fond of thanks to an inferior bartender someplace else - he makes the best negroni in town in our opinion, that's what we started our night with. As far as the food goes, although on this night our menu selections practically made themselves, if you're unsure you'll always do well here taking the staff's advice on what to choose, they're friendly, well briefed and knowledgeable. Also, don't forget to ask about nightly specials.
We began our meal with an appetizer of calf's brain fritters. If you've never eaten brain before, let us be the first to tell you that you're missing out - big time. For those who are uninitiated into the wonderful world of brain, imagine if you will, the texture of sweetbreads (the introductory offal) only creamier. There really is nothing to be fearful about, brain is very mild in flavor and frying it, as was done in this case lends a crisp contrasting texture to the soft and unctuous morsels sealed within. They were served in an ornate china bowl embellished with gold leaf, garnished with the bright orange punch of sweet and acidic tangerine mostarda and a sprinkling of briny, salty, fried capers and parsley. If it's on the menu when you visit, do not miss this dish.
Fried Calf's Brain, Homemade Mostarda - 14$
Our second appetizer was a special of the day. One of spring's most beautiful gifts, hollow, woodsy morel mushrooms were stuffed with a rabbit and ricotta filling, garnished with pea shoots and fresh fava beans. Although we enjoyed the dish, it ending up being our least favorite of the evening. Perhaps with such ritzy components we expected the sum of its parts to deliver a knockout punch, but instead for some reason the first two morels on our plate lacked the flavor intensity of the third causing the dish to fall slightly short of wowing. It was good, but not as impressive as every other dish we ate that night. To that effect allow us to provide the following analogy: The least successful player on any given day at a PGA event is still a professional golfer. This was by no means a bad dish - the others were just so good that this one fell below par for the course that night, a perspective gained only once the entire meal had been completed. It also didn't come especially cheap at 18$ for 3 stuffed morels, representing less value than the other dishes we had that night.
Morels, Ricotta, Rabbit, Favas - 18$
The snow crab tagliatelle was outrageously good, so good we regretted not getting a full portion despite how large our porchetta turned out to be. Plenty of sweet snow crab was tossed in a brightly flavored tomato sauce with parsley and tagliatelle that had fantastic texture. We can't say enough good things about this dish, it's too bad the end of snow crab season in Quebec is just around the corner; usually finishing around the end of June or beginning of July. Take advantage of it while you still can, this dish is a must-have!
1/2 Portion Snow Crab Tagliatelle - 16$
The porchetta, pork flank rolled around a seasoned mixture of ground veal and pork was everything we had hoped it would be. Our tremendous end-piece was served with the foot still attached, presented on a chopping block with a side-car of sauce and a big pile of fresh spring peas and pea shoots. The skin surrounding the exterior was the best kind of crisp that only pig skin (honorable mention to duck) can achieve. The interior was super-moist, fatty in the best sense, and studded with pistachios, a nice touch that provided another textural component. The foot that came attached was fatty, grisly, and tasted vaguely funky in a great way, you were eating a foot and you knew it. No exaggeration necessary, the portion turned out to be so large that we ended up sharing a slice with the guy at the bar next to us, making friends is easy with pig. We would've had more than enough to take home for a lunch the following day but it was just too good to stop eating. The fresh peas and pea shoots were an absolutely necessary portion of veggies to accompany the richness of the dish. From what we understand the porchetta is a perennial menu item at Nora Gray enduring the menu-changes every few months, it's adjusted seasonally by changing sides and filling components (ie: chestnuts rather than pistachios and squash rather than peas in the winter time).
Porchetta & Spring Peas For Two - 42$
Almond Tart, Sour Cherries, Ice Cream - 8$