By Thane Peterson Normand Laprise wasn't anything like I expected him to be when, clad in his white chef's tunic, he stopped by our table to say hello. Burliness tends to be a professional hazard in his line of work, but Canada's most celebrated chef is a slight, sandy-haired 42-year-old who could almost do his shopping in the boys' department.
He's also easygoing and approachable, with none of the fiery ego and intensity for which chefs are notorious. He stood and chatted for a good 10 minutes, as if he hadn't a care in the world, let alone a bustling 95-seat restaurant in the midst of its Thursday-evening seating to take care of.
It's surprising that Laprise is so unassuming because the food he whips up at Toqu?, his famed restaurant at 3842 rue St. Denis in Montreal's hip, French-speaking Plateau district, is anything but. Laprise is legendary in the food world for his imaginative use of ingredients and unusual combinations. If you're a meat and potatoes lover looking for copious dishes of traditionally cooked food served amid luxurious surroundings, Toqu? isn't for you. But if you want to sample the cutting edge in new cuisine, Toqu? is a must-stop on any serious foodie's visit to Montreal. Check it out at www.restaurant-Toque.com.
BUYING LOCAL. Laprise's food is characterized by variety, beautiful presentation, and astonishing bursts of flavor. For a time in the late 1990s, he divided his time between Toqué and Cena, a restaurant in New York's Flatiron district, where he was executive chef. Laprise's cooking earned raves from New York food critics, but Cena never made it financially and closed after about a year. These days, the only way you can experience Laprise's expertise is to make the trek to Montreal.
Like most great chefs, Laprise is a seasonal cook who prefers to buy local, organically grown produce whenever possible. He has spent years cultivating ties with local growers in Quebec, and his menu varies endlessly according to what's in season and freshest on any given day.
You can order individual dishes à la carte at Toqué, but I suspect most first-time diners try the tasting menu, as I and my two dining companions did. It consists of six diminutive courses (remember, this is nouvelle cuisine, so the servings are small), from appetizer to desert, with three glasses of wine -- all chosen by the chef for that day. It's not cheap: The menu goes for about $85 U.S., or $92 if you want foie gras (excluding gratuity).
WARM AND COOL. The food is a riot of colors, cooking styles, and international influences. Our meal started off with a complimentary aperitif: a raw oyster in a shot glass seasoned with green onion and various other spices, plus a touch of vodka. You're meant to gulp it down in one slug and it definitely wakes up your palate.
The first formal course -- a sashimi -- demonstrated the variety of Laprise's influences. Dissatisfied with the training he received at cooking school in Quebec City, he did apprenticeships at restaurants in France, the U.S., and Asia. His sashimi of arctic char came with a cucumber and fennel salad and a puree of red pepper. I loved the contrast between the light, cool cucumber and fennel, and the warmer taste of the red pepper puree. It was served with a glass of French sancerre white wine.
What struck me most about the next course, a cooked, locally produced foie gras, was the fatty sweetness of the goose liver. Laprise says the sweetness is due to the geese being fed whole corn, rather than meal. The wine was a sweet Hungarian similar to a French sauternes. As unusual as the foie gras was, I almost regretted paying more for it when I tasted the less expensive alternative dish, Madeleine Island lobster flavored with crushed garlic, tomato, and parsley. It was served with a light Saintsbury chardonnay from California.
FOREST AND FIELD. Next came one of my favorite dishes, a single ravioli stuffed with braised lamb and topped with a cauliflower mousse. It was served at the bottom of a shallow, white ceramic bowl that seemed to be designed specifically for the dish. It looked like a big, irisless eye, which I found amusing.
Venison, the next course, is one of Laprise's specialities. It's served medium rare at the chef's suggestion and comes from a Quebec producer who allows the deer to run loose in the forest. The meat is dark and rich, not at all gamey. (Laprise made a convert of renowned Chicago chef Charley Trotter, who prominently features Quebec-grown venison in his recent book on game cookery.) Our venison course was accompanied by a French red wine, a costières de Nimes produced by Dupéré Barrera.
Next came a selection of cheeses -- three from France and three from Quebec -- and a scrumptious warm desert, which in my case was a gratin of black cherries flavored with guinea pepper and chocolate. There were also were three delicate, delicious little madeleines for dipping in your coffee.
DITCH THE VELVET. I asked Laprise about his plans and was glad to hear him say he said he hopes to remodel his restaurant this winter. The d?or was my only real disappointment: The wall behind me was brick painted camouflage green, the ceiling and ductwork above were a sort of gun-metal blue, and the wall facing me was in red crushed velvet. It probably looked hip 10 years ago, when the restaurant first opened, but it looks shopworn today. He should ditch the crushed velvet, for sure.
Apart from that, I came away from my meal entirely satisfied. The food is light, so you don't feel at all stuffed after six courses. The service is attentive, and the personnel are knowledgeable without being officious.
If you're looking for a culinary experience that would be almost impossible to duplicate anywhere else on any other day, Toqué is not to be missed. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online