Dining: Mad Hatter

<< Back to Robb Report, July 2002
  • Patricia Harris & David Lyon

Normand Laprise was referring to himself, not the tall chef’s hat, when he named his restaurant Toqué! In Montreal, the word is also used to describe someone who’s a little out of his mind with an obsession. Anyone who has seen Laprise prodding the salmon at Atwater Market, the largest produce market in Montreal, or extracting the sweet juice of chubby Chantenay carrots to dress a risotto can attest that he is indeed toqué about food. The 41-year-old chef’s benevolent derangement over all things edible has made his establishment the top dining room in a city that considers great food its birthright.  

Ethnic eateries surround Toqué! on cosmopolitan rue St-Denis (Laprise and partner Christine Lamarche opened their restaurant in a former souvlaki joint, then annexed the Vietnamese spot next door), but Gallic cuisine still rules in the second largest French-speaking city in the world. Laprise paid his dues cooking for top chefs in Burgundy, Champagne, and Alsace, but for the last decade he’s been celebrating the terroir of his native provincial Quebec, forging partnerships with foragers and small organic farmers.  

Fanatic about ingredients, Laprise says he simply tries “to give respect to each element, to bring each to maximum flavor.” His aptitude for combining flavors lets Laprise create dishes that linger as benchmarks in sensory memory. Free-range venison that grazed on a preserve near Lac St-Jean might appear as a grilled fillet or a roasted haunch deepened by sautéed hedgehog mushrooms, roasted carrots, and Chinese artichokes. A saddle of Magdalen Islands lamb, which is nutty in flavor from the animal’s diet of seashore greens, is counterbalanced with pureed cauliflower and buttressed by the rich meatiness of sautéed girolle mushrooms, cocoa beans, fingerling potatoes, and baby pak choi. Subtler foodstuffs receive more delicate treatments, such as a briny small oyster served in its own juices with a perfect scattering of herbs and tiny scallops rendered ethereal by poaching in a lavender infusion. Ripened and rarefied Quebec cheeses stand on their own. The flow of ingredients changes with the season and the luck of fishermen and foragers, so dining at Toqué! is always a unique experience.  

Even the signature foie gras varies constantly; Quebec is the only Canadian province to produce this essential of the French menu. Laprise’s livers come from ducks that are fed organic corn, and they literally melt on the tongue, releasing complex layers of flavor. Foie gras à la Toqué!, diners are solemnly told, will be prepared according to “the inspiration of the moment.” That might be grilled and paired with pureed sweet potato to emphasize the liver’s sweetness and a nest of crisp haricots verts to contrast with its buttery texture.  

Order à la carte if you must, but a majority of diners opt for the five-course “mystery menu.” Laprise says these adventurous souls permit him to “play with food,” abetting his culinary evolution. He jokes that the menu changes every hour, as he improvises from a trickle of seasonal delicacies—Havre St-Pierre snow crab, a cache of local morels, July’s first wild berries dashed with a flutter of new-growth herbs. Like the city he serves, Laprise successfully marries French culture to North American verve. Call him toqué, but his obsession could pass for divine inspiration.  

Toqué!, 514.499.2084, www.restaurant-toque.com

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