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The Maître d’ of Montreal

Laurie Connor

I meet David McMillan on a crisp Montreal morning. Tall and broad-shouldered, with an intricate floral tattoo that covers much of his left arm, the 33-year-old chef and restaurateur is an imposing presence. Yet shortly after extending an enormous hand to greet me, McMillan charms me with his easy wit and disarming candor—and dispels any notion I had of spending the day discussing the finer points of chanterelles or the ineffable essence of anise in the aspic. "Wine is a beverage made from grapes," he starts, "and food is food. Cooking is not an art. You can roast, grill, braise, boil, or broil a chicken, but in the end it’s still just a chicken."

 

 

After transforming the once-struggling Globe into one of Montreal’s most revered restaurants, chef David McMillan launched Rosalie, where his minimalist sensibilities are evident in everything from the simple decor to the straightforward—yet delectable—bistro fare.

Many in Montreal may respectfully disagree. McMillan has risen early on this morning to take me on a personal chef’s tour of his hometown, a city whose recent surge in exceptional eateries has placed it among the finest dining destinations in North America. McMillan and three of his contemporaries and close friends—Joe Mercuri of Ristorante Brontë, Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, and Stelio Perombelon of Les Chèvres—are largely responsible for Montreal’s elevated gastronomic status. All four of the chefs have worked together in local kitchens over the years, and they are now friendly competitors, each with a popular restaurant that offers a unique interpretation of the region’s culinary traditions.


McMillan has been at the top of the cuisine heap in Montreal since the age of 22, when he took charge of his first kitchen at the bistro Globe. He transformed the once-struggling establishment into a chic institution, which he now owns along with his thriving year-old bistro Rosalie. At Rosalie, McMillan spends more time in the dining room than the kitchen, engaging in friendly give-and-take with his regulars. "I see customers looking in a glass of wine for what doesn’t exist. Eclectic conversation makes a great meal," he asserts, "not the hint of blackberries or whatever in the Beaujolais."

Though McMillan may want his customers to look beyond the ends of their forks, he gives them ample reason to take note of what is on their plates. A master of bistro fare, McMillan serves his onion soup with a delectably crisp grilled Gruyère sandwich on the side rather than floating soggily in the broth. His roasted wild salmon rests on a bed of lentils and spinach, each component accented with a drizzle of honey mustard and carrot sauce. "Over the past 14 years, I’ve come to realize that the simplest way to cook is the way I want to cook," he says. "I know I’ll never stuff another chicken breast." 

McMillan’s straightforward style has enabled him to carve his own niche in the competitive Montreal culinary scene. As a whole, he, Mercuri, Picard, and Perombelon represent the diversity of fine dining options in the city. "We’ve grown up together as chefs," says McMillan. "Our foundations are sound, and we all draw on Montreal’s strengths as an international community."


Montreal is the world’s second-largest French-speaking city, but it exudes a small-town charm not unlike that of many European capitals. Broad avenues and modern office buildings coexist harmoniously with the meandering streets and alleyways of 19th-century neighborhoods. Originally colonized by the French, Montreal fell under British rule in 1760 and was even occupied temporarily by American revolutionary forces in 1775. Tensions between the city’s English- and French-speaking sectors have persisted throughout much of its history, intensifying with the enforcement of French language laws in the 1970s and, in 1995, the narrow defeat of a Quebec secession bill. Today, however, Gallic and English influences blend delightfully—if not always willingly—in Montreal’s cosmopolitan culture and, of course, its cuisine.

For David McMillan, cuisine presents the perfect introduction to his beloved hometown. "I’ve had big success making clean, simple bistro fare for 10 years," he says. "It’s important to me now to nurture the vibrant food community we’ve built here, so that people can get to know and love Montreal the way I do."


The first stop on our tour is Olive et Gourmando boulangerie, a tiny corner bakery and café in the hip and crowded Vieux Montreal district. Crusty fresh-baked bread, focaccia piled with grilled vegetables, smoked-trout sandwiches, and scones and delicate pastries decorate the counter; an espresso machine perfumes the air. "This place is part of the renaissance of the neighborhood," says McMillan, grabbing a shiny round loaf branded with four bold-faced Rs. (Rosalie’s signature bread is baked on the premises.) "It used to be uninteresting around here during the day and dead at night. Now people live in great lofts and can eat at good restaurants on every street."

The grand colonnaded building of the Marché Atwater is McMillan’s first stop for ingredients and inspiration: “When I need inspiration for a new menu, I take a long, slow stroll here.” 

Fueled by a couple of espressos, we head to the fashionable Saint-Henri to visit the Marché Atwater, one of Montreal’s three major public marketplaces. The Atwater anchors a neighborhood that was once dominated by light industry. Many of the old factories have been converted to townhouses, and well-heeled residents throng the market every weekend in search of the perfect cheese or heirloom tomato for Sunday-night dinner. "When I need inspiration for a new menu, I take a long, slow stroll here," McMillan says. "The amount of produce available now shocks me. I used to know all the Quebecois cheeses on the market; now there are too many to count."

The Atwater’s grand colonnaded building, constructed in 1933, once hosted political, social, and sporting events. Today, in good weather, flower, vegetable, and fruit merchants sell from stalls outside the structure. During Montreal’s long winters, everything for a well-stocked pantry can be purchased from the more than two dozen suppliers indoors. At the Fromagerie Atwater, McMillan points out Chèvre Noir (a Quebecois 2-year-old goat’s milk cheddar) and a couple of locally brewed beverages: St-Ambroise apricot wheat ale and Marco spruce beer, which is made from the twigs of spruce trees. "It was the first Quebecois soft drink," he explains, "and it tastes like a Christmas tree smells."

The diner-style decor at McMillan’s Rosalie contrasts with the sleek interiors of his friendly competitors. 

When we arrive at Rosalie, in the lull before lunch, it is immediately clear that McMillan’s back-to-the-basics attitude extends to interior design. "I always wanted a restaurant with plain wooden tables," he says. And that is exactly what he has at Rosalie—along with a broad, bright, high-ceilinged dining room; wood paneling; leather and steel chairs; and banquettes that run the length of the room. Though anything but bland, Rosa-lie’s menu—highlighted by selections such as frisée salad with bacon, lentils, and egg cooked sunny-side up, and lamb loin steak with creamed potatoes and ratatouille—also reflects McMillan’s minimalist sensibility, which, he claims, is a hereditary trait: "My father basically likes soup and green apples," he explains. "A lot of the food that’s on menus today doesn’t make any sense to him."


Not far from Rosalie, and just a few blocks from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, is Ristorante Brontë. Presided over by Joe Mercuri, Brontë opened its doors last year to rave reviews. Though Mercuri has worked in several of the city’s finest restaurants, Brontë marks his first solo venture. His enthusiasm infuses everything from the food to the interior design of this ultramodern yet surprisingly intimate environment, where elegant ivory leather booths and warm orange-hued lights accent glass-encased interior columns. Mercuri’s dishes are intricate assemblages of textures and flavors, each presented with a contemporary flair. A typical Brontë menu might include seared milk-fed veal served with lobster tail, cauli-flower puree, asparagus, and red-wine sauce; or charred octopus with sun-dried tomatoes, Bulgarian feta, and Yukon gold potatoes.

At the other end of the cuisine—and decor—spectrum lies the earthy restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. Crowded, noisy, and fragrant with the scent of wood smoke from the brick oven that dominates the minuscule kitchen, Au Pied de Cochon is in Plateau Mont-Royal, an old Francophone working-class neighborhood that is also the now-trendy home to an increasing number of young professionals. The brainchild of Martin Picard, the bistro-style eatery opened in 2001 and is, in McMillan’s words, "already legendary."


Specializing in all manner of pork and game dishes in the winter and seafood in the warmer months, Picard offers Montrealers the sort of comfort foods they wish their grandmothers made. The winter menu features creations such as marinated deer tongue and sharp new versions of old favorites like poutine, a quintessential Quebecois dish that blends French fries with curd cheese and gravy, and which Picard dolls up with seared foie gras. Summertime brings a massive raw platter overflowing with 18 different kinds of seafood, and fish flown in daily from select suppliers in the Îles de la Madeleine and tucked whole into the glowing brick oven. Though Picard is a bit of an eccentric—he has seasonal business cards, one depicting his caricature astride a jolly pig and the other of him riding a shrimp—he is also a chef of undeniable passion and originality. "This is a place where you can taste the love in the food," claims McMillan.

 

In between our restaurant and market visits, McMillan and I stop by Le Petit Milos, a beguiling Greek food shop that is a satellite of Milos, the Greek cuisine mecca owned by Costas Spiliadis. "Milos is the best Greek restaurant in North America," McMillan says as we sidle along shelves laden with imported olive oils, artisanal pastas, and bottled sauces and dried fruits, "and Le Petit Milos is just more evidence of Costas’ love of Greek products. He carries things here I’ve never seen anywhere else."

Our last stop is the Outremont district, home to market gardens in the 17th and 18th centuries and now an apt location for chef Stelio Perombelon’s year-old vegetarian restaurant, Les Chèvres. Despite its billing, Les Chèvres is no temple to alfalfa sprouts and soy sausages. Carnivores can select from one fish and two meat plates every day, but they also find it easy to eat virtuously with menu selections such as avocado soup with lime, fennel, orange, and Australian olive oil; wild mushroom and salsify risotto with parsley root juice; and an eight-course vegetarian tasting menu. Les Chèvres’ atmosphere, like its food, is fresh and delicate. Wide windows fill the spring green room with light, while a photograph of the restaurant’s mascot, Lyson the goat, gazes benignly over diners.

McMillan and I end our gastronomic tour only when it is time for him to begin his evening’s labor back at Rosalie. That night, he will mingle with his customers, initiate compelling conversation, and, undoubtedly, downplay the intricacies of his restaurant’s extraordinary cuisine. But behind this flippant facade is a man who takes great pride in his product, his profession, and his city.

"When we were all young cooks we took everything in, read voraciously, and wanted to create our own ways to express ourselves," McMillan recalls. "Now, even though we probably start with the same ingredients, from the same suppliers, the people in our restaurants have direct access to our individual visions. Together, we have built a sizzling gastronomic scene that did not exist 12 years ago." 

 

McMillan’s Picks
David McMillan heads a list of local chefs who have helped transform Montreal into a first-class dining destination. The following are his favorite spots throughout the city for fine cuisine and culinary essentials. 


Restaurants

Au Pied de Cochon:
Specializing in pork and game in the winter and the freshest fish and seafood in the warmer months.
514.281.1114

Les Chèvres:
Certifiably haute cuisine that just happens to be vegetarian.
514.270.1119

Ristorante Brontë:
A contemporary and elegant restaurant that brings a Mediterranean flair to Montreal.
514.934.1801 

Rosalie:
McMillan’s perfectly executed bistro classics at a sleek, chic dining destination.
514.392.1970

Markets and Specialty Shops

Le Petit Milos:
It’s all Greek at this bustling food shop and casual restaurant. 514.274.9991

Marché Atwater:
Vendors at Montreal’s most famous market carry everything for a well-stocked larder; hours vary by season.
514.937.7754

Olive et Gourmando:
Diminutive yet chock-full of delectable baked goods, sandwiches, cheeses, and caffeinated libations.
514.350.1083

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Photo by Gina Taro
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Photos by (from left) Roger Ball/Getty Images, Gareth Brown/Getty Images, Roger Mastroianni/Getty Images and Ted Morrison
Photo © John Arandhara-Blackwell 2012