Open fire cuisine is having a moment, both globally, and here in Montreal. Every other new restaurant in the city has a fire pit in its kitchen, from Foxy, Olive and Gourmando's forthcoming Griffintown eatery, to Marc-André Jetté's blockbuster new Rosemont project. Bar Mercuri, the larger, less formal side of chef Joe Mercuri's Cité du Multimédia/Old Montreal restaurant, unveiled its prodigious fire pit a year ago. Big cuts of meat, and ash-roasted vegetables have figured prominently on the menu, but, cautions Lesley Chesterman, "it would be wrong to think of this as a barbecue or even a grill-style restaurant, because that fireplace is more of a cooking tool than the restaurant’s raison d’être. Though the menu isn’t as fancy as the gastronomic space alongside, the dishes are not as straightforward as expected."
With that, the Gazette critic launches into a plaudit-laced write-up of Mercuri's fiery side. The chef himself is on hand to assemble most of the dishes, from a "brilliant" mix of parsnips, curry, peanuts and sake, to an "ambitious" app of rapini with mustard seed, chili and pineapple. Another meatless starter, blue cheese and truffle wontons on a bed of fregola, elicits this line: "Talk about perfection!"
On to Mercuri's meatier fare. Pittsburgh-style ribs ("Yum!"), a grilled strip loin steak ("a real treat"), and a turkey burger ("the deal of the menu") all hit the mark. The star dish, however, is the ravioli. "Made with striated black and white pasta sheets flavoured with charred leeks, the ravioli are filled with homemade ricotta, set atop a purée of celery root, and topped with shiitake mushrooms, slivers of fried pancetta and a thin layer of melted provolone. I would recommend this restaurant solely for that dish, a modern take on an Italian classic that shows Mercuri at his best."
Desserts, a pineapple tart, and an elevated chocolate bar, do not disappoint either. Fine service, and an improved wine list round out Chesterman's experience, and help Bar Mercuri/Mercuri Montreal Grill earn a rare three stars on four. In conclusion, the critic "cannot emphasize enough how great it was to watch the chef at work right there in front of that roaring fireplace. There are a lot of star chefs around, but so few of them actually cook on the line every night that I’m beginning to wonder if they even remember how."