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Peek Inside Le Virunga, Where Everything Is One-of-a-Kind

Talking to the mother-daugher team behind the innovative pan-African slash Québécois restaurant

Randall Brodeur

A map of Africa, from floor to ceiling, is the first thing customers see when they walk off Rachel St. and into Le Virunga.

The back wall is a chalkboard, and between the daily specials and the wifi password is this map. Prominently placed in the middle of the map is a star. The star itself sits on top of Virunga National Park, in the chalkboard version of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It is the centre of Africa,” says Zoya de Frias Lakhany, the eight-month-old restaurant's owner, manager, and bartender. “It has everything.”

The name and the map are symbols of what Le Virunga has set out to be: A restaurant of Pan-African fusion.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind restaurant,” Zoya says. Not simply because it is the only restaurant of its type, at least in Montreal, but also because of its essence. Everything about the place is a mashup of African traditions.

The interior is decked out in earthy greens and browns, along with subtle golds, verdant suggestions of the rainforest and savannah. The walls are covered in artworks from a range of Sub-Saharan origins, with Cameroonian carved masks arrayed beside Congolese and mozambican modernist paintings. Even the wifi password fits: it’s “Karibu Sana,” which means “most welcome” in Swahili.

“You have to have your roots,” says Zoya, whose own roots are in the Congo, then Belgium, and as of 10 years ago, in Montreal. Since she has adapted and now considers herself a Montrealer first, the way she regards her roots has correspondingly changed. “Nothing,” she says, “is traditional anymore.”

What that philosophy means for the restaurant, beyond the name, the decor and the wifi password, is that the food — made by chef Maria de Frias, Zoya’s mother — is exciting and innovative.

The dishes are inspired by Maria’s extensive travel through Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as her time spent in the Congo, Belgium, and Montreal as a hairdresser, stylist, art gallery owner, and more. She is the daughter of a Portuguese-Congolese family and the mother of a Congolese-Indian family. Maria tries to bring all of that diversity together at her restaurant.

“I want that harmony,” she says. “I want that mix. I want that marriage between cultures and citizens.” She calls it “positive difference,” and it’s oozing from a dish she’ll soon be adding to the menu. The menu is constantly changing. Zoya says it’s because Maria gets bored. Maria shoots back and says that’s not the case.

“There so much to discover,” she says. Changing the menu a couple of times per year, maybe, isn’t enough. ‘I want to share so much.”

Ergo, Le Virunga’s newest fish dish. It’s one of those plates where everything gels so well together that the complexities of what’s actually going on slip past unnoticed. Luckily, Maria is a generous chef, willing to share her secrets.

The fish is arctic char: two pieces, each with a hearty nut crust. Underneath them is a bed of fresh-mashed cassava (a starchy root vegetable that’s a staple in parts of sub-Saharan Africa). On top of the fish sits a generous dollop of puréed okra leaf. Drizzled over the plate is a spicy, sweetish sauce, and next to the cassava are mushrooms and tiny African eggplants.

Maria says the fish is inspired by a Nigerian creation. But the char, caught off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula, brings the tastes home to Quebec.

The sauce is pan-African, but also French. It works off a shallot base, along with what Maria calls “African spices,” too diverse in origin and name to translate or specify beyond ginger, cumin, and Maria’s laughter.

The okra leaf mix is of African origin as well, from Guinea. It too delivers a kick, while also offering a smooth complement to the crust of cashews and peanuts on the fish.

The dish is light: filling, without being heavy. It’s familiar, too, in ways that are hard to place but make sense. The cassava mash, for one, is like an airier, fresher mashed potato. The spices in the sauce are comforting, hitting a key requirement Zoya has for a dish.

“You have to feel like you’re eating ‘African’ food, not just any food,” Zoya says. But that leaves a lot of leeway, as far as playing to or against expectations go—which also leaves a lot of room for the varying expectations people might have.

Here, perhaps the most familiar part to a Montrealer’s palate is cleverly unexpected: there’s smoked fish hiding inside the okra leaves. It makes so much sense when explained. “The char is a bit salmon-like,” says Maria. “It makes you think of smoked salmon. I just detached the smoke.”

And yet, for all of those complexities, the foundation of the dish is that truly pan-African staple of cassava mash. “It’s the perfect mix for me,” Maria says. “It means we are one.”

But what does it mean to be “one”, when that one is composed of the dozens of nations of Sub-Saharan Africa, the produce of Quebec, the tastes of Montreal, and the tens of thousands of culinary subcultures therein?

To Maria and Zoya, that’s beside the point. They’re not trying to do things traditionally. As Zoya points out, nothing is traditional anymore.

“We do it the way we love it,” Zoya says. Looking for the one true recipe, that one proper or “correct” representation of an “African dish” which has a different version for every different household that cooks it, is impossible.

Instead, look to how Maria prepares those new recipes: at home. Look to the fact that this restaurant is run by a daughter, her brother, and their mother. Look to that star on the chalk map of Africa, and to what it means.

“Everywhere I travelled, in Cameroon, in South Africa, in Tanzania, in Kenya, I felt at home,” Zoya says. “So that’s what I wanted to do with this place.”

Le Virunga

851 Rue Rachel Est, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, QC H2J 2H9 (514) 504-8642 Visit Website