Let me introduce a new term to your gourmet palate: Micro restaurant. As in, a restaurant the size of a stamp, with only a handful of tables, owned and run by the chef. Unlike larger restaurants, micro restaurants allow chefs to try out new recipes in a more intimate, interactive setting. It’s like dining in a chef’s living room.
Vivace is a new micro restaurant on the corner of des Pins and Coloniale, which Chef Maurin Arellano opened last summer, replacing the Colombian joint, Mr. Empanada. Arellano sources fresh ingredients from local farms and prepares a different menu every week, cooking in an open-planned kitchen just metres away from her guests. The result? A restaurant that’s poised to thrive in Montreal’s hip Plateau.
I drop by the day before to book a table. Almost straight away, I’m admiring the vibrant-orange mural outside, designed by local community artists. The winking beetroot above the door with fire splintering out of its head is quite the head-turner, as is the corn with legs. The road work on des Pins is also finally finished. Only took them two years.
Inside, a cozy, square room with a rustic, light-blue counter and a busy, compact kitchen greets you. Two long unpretentious tables, with booths and short wooden stools, hug the corner. Artwork and postcard-sized drawings dot the walls, but utensils, like plates and cutlery stacked on the counter, and pots and pans dangling from a wall hook, serve as modest decorations, too. Then there’s this extra-large, white fridge that sits haughtily behind the counter covered in enough hippie stickers to beguile a Concordia art student for a week.
Chef Arellano, a 40-something woman originally from Mexico but who moved to Canada over 20 years ago, leaves the pretentious chef’s coat for the pretenders, dressed in an unassuming grey t-shirt and a pinstripe apron. She’s cooking for a lone gentleman in his late forties, commanding the kitchen with a humble but self-assured swagger.
After a few pleasantries, I ask hesitantly, “Do you have a table at 7:45 p.m. tomorrow?”
“Yep,” Arellano replies. “What’s the name?”
I don’t know what comes over me, but in the spur of the moment, I book under a fake name.
“James,” I assert, flinching slightly.
It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It’s the sort of thing Americans would do. I mean, who do I think I am? A spy? James Bond? Well, not exactly. The name is James, though. James North.
The next day, Allegra, my dining companion for the evening, and I arrive at 7:45 p.m. A couple is sitting by the window table, so we sit at the other table along the wall.
The menu, written in chalk on the wall, consists of a soup, three mains, and a dessert. Arellano tells me there’s no particular food genre—rather, it’s seasonal and changes every week according to the farm’s produce. She also serves local wines and beers.
In larger restaurants, chefs typically prepare your meal behind closed doors, so there’s no telling what happens. Service is also compartmentalized, with each employee doing a different role, whether it’s hosting, bussing, or taking orders. Not here. Maurin is your server-chef-owner and prepares your meal from two metres away—you can even hear the chopping.
To start, we share the vegetable chowder, which is well-seasoned, sweet, and earthy, like a forester’s zest for life. The roasted chicken with arugula pesto, potatoes, broccoli, and a slice of toasted artisan bread comes as a main. A seriously good dish. Tender, fibrous chicken, kicking with zip from the pesto, and juicy, like a good gossip session with the girlies.
Allegra gets the gnocchi, which she enjoys, and for dessert, we share the wheat-based fruit tart, which could do with a sauce or sorbet to ease the graininess. I’m a white bread eater, you see.
The pleasure at Vivace doesn’t end once you’ve finished your meal; the intimate setting serves as an affable place to continue chatting, perhaps with a glass of wine, too. Pricewise, $6 for the soup and $5 for the dessert is reasonable. $25 for the mains stretches it for students, but it’s better value for those who love food and are looking for a down-to-earth, informal setting. It really is like going to your friend’s house for dinner.
101 Avenue des Pins, Montréal, H2W 1N8
Dine in only, no delivery
What the score means: Scores are out of five stars.
Five stars: Best thing since sliced bread.
Four stars: Excellent
Three stars: Jolly good.
Two stars: Probably won’t return.
One star: Starbucks Coffee.