When I introduce myself to Marc-Alexandre Mercier, he is sprawled on a weathered picnic table at the back of his restaurant, catching a few precious minutes of sleep before the evening dinner service begins. It's a scorching hot summer Saturday and Montreal's main street, Saint-Laurent Boulevard, is teeming with crowds of revellers in this most joyous of festival cities.
It's quiet at the back of Hotel Herman, though, and subdued too. The two-year-old restaurant feels like a neighbourhood hangout but the buzz has made it a place to seek out. It is among the most talked about spots in the city and the reason why is Mercier.
He has emerged at the head of the class of Montreal's next generation of great chefs. With him running the kitchen, Hotel Herman has earned tremendous reviews and ranked No. 15 on the 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. Mercier previously worked at La Salle a Manger, one of Montreal's celebrated establishments, and his talent was spotted by his co-workers.
"I've been working on and off with Marc for a few years and I could see he would be able illustrate himself outside of La Salle a Manger," says Dominic Goyet, co-owner of Hotel Herman. "He has a more delicate and sensitive approach to food."
Goyet, Mercier and their business partner Ariane Lacombe ventured out to start an inn in the city with a strong culinary component. The "hotel" part of the operation hasn't emerged as envisioned, but they kept the name and the desire to one day branch out (although Goyet says they would likely need to be at another location in order to offer accommodations).
They may not have a big house, but they have a packed one. The restaurant matches Mercier's vision for a small place -- Hotel Herman has about 40 seats, many of them attractively wrapped around a U-shaped bar -- with menu items that come in small doses.
One of the favourite dishes I enjoyed was a single white asparagus spear beautifully topped with hazelnut butter and dashes of breadcrumbs ($8). It was attractive and elegant, a dish I would expect to come out of a kitchen full of chefs in embroidered white coats and sharp, creased toques. There's no formality here, however. Mercier is as laid back at the helm of the kitchen as he was on the picnic table when I spoke with him. Not surprisingly, though, there is a clear vision and passion for his art.
The razor clams ($18) were served with diced cucumber and coriander, atop a salad of milkweed flowers. The ingredients are set on a bed of black bread crumbs that appear like top soil in a garden. It's a sight to see in front of you and the taste that excites when it hits your tongue. That blend of creativity and technical brilliance is why Hotel Herman has rapidly become a star in not only Montreal's dining scene, but the nation's as well.
Dining on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, aka Montreal's Main Street, is evolving from its ethnic cuisine and late-night, low-cost fare for concert- and club-goers. There are several superb choices that range from classic to eclectic, fancy and elegant to barebones and utilitarian. Here are three other outstanding restaurants in the area to put on your list.
PASTAGA (2014 Vacay.ca Rank: 60; No. 11 in 2013): Chef Martin Juneau is one of Canada's most talented culinary talents and the menu at his stylish bistro features contemporary Quebec cuisine. At Pastaga, you'll find inventive seafood dishes such as grilled halibut cooked with bacon and some exotic Quebecois dishes like guineafowl prepared with mushrooms and celeriac. Juneau's dishes are delicate and the ambience in Pastaga is delightful, with professional but unfussy service. It's what a great French bistro is supposed to be -- relaxed, unpretentious and tremendously tasty.
BRAMA: Billed as a modern trattoria, this large, elegant restaurant in a converted bank building serves up Italian dishes created by chef Marco Bertoldoni. Brama, whose name in Italian means to desire or crave, is also on a stretch of Saint-Laurent Boulevard that few tourists visit. The restaurant is in Montreal's Little Italy, an interesting neighbourhood to stroll around and one that is becoming a more significant culinary location as businesses seek cheaper rent north of the Plateau and Mile End areas. At Brama, you'll enjoy gnocchi stuffed with squash and served with zucchini and chestnuts ($21) and tagliatelle in a sauce thick with local mushrooms ($25), as well as seasonal fish and meat choices. The salads are large and delicious, while the cannoli ($6) for dessert shouldn't be passed up. It's prepared with chocolate and mascarpone.
IMPASTO (2014 Vacay.ca Rank: 30): A newer restaurant in Little Italy, Impasto (named after a painting technique) and chef Michele Forgione impressed Vacay.ca judges enough that in made it into the 2014 edition of the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. I have yet to dine there, but this is what two judges said:
- "The chef of the decade. Forgione is staggeringly amazing and deft at so much in his realm. This guy enjoys food and Impasto shows this in so many ways." -- chef Ross Munro of PEI Culinary Adventures
- "Easily, the BEST Italian restaurant in Montreal. No nonsense, unpretentious, and down-right delicious." -- food writer Dustin Gilman