Chef Sean Murray Smith came into leadership of the late Mile End restaurant Les Deux Singes de Montarvie in a happy accident. After getting his start in large kitchens in downtown Montreal, he was offered a position at the restaurant at a time when the neighbourhood restaurant’s popularity was at a low point. So when its former head chef lost faith and left, Murray Smith was offered his spot. He took the opportunity to build up a team of trusted former colleagues from around the city, reworked the menu, and slowly picked Les Deux Singes up, growing its popularity back to what it had been slowly over time.
“I was 23 and became this young chef, and it was a lot of responsibility,” Murray Smith said. “Thankfully, we were not popular, so it started very gradually and I learned a lot on the way there. All the ideas that I’d had from the past, I was able to use those.”
It quickly became immensely popular, most notably enjoying a long stretch as the top-rated restaurant among some 5,000 in Montreal on TripAdvisor — yet the critics’ praise, while warm, didn’t quite seem to match. That changed six years later as Murray Smith — now in a co-ownership position with wife Nada Abou Younes — closed the restaurant, expanded into a next-door space (complete with a top-to-bottom makeover), and relaunched it as Île Flottante.
That late 2017 reopening did the trick: the St-Viateur Street restaurant garnered multiple rave reviews, and also earned Murray Smith Eater Montreal’s 2018 title of Chef of the Year.
Île Flottante’s three, five, and seven course tasting menus (with no à la carte options) are based largely around local, seasonal ingredients, with dishes constantly changing according to Murray Smith’s mood. The chef is frequently experimenting with new ideas — according to Abou Younes, he “won’t even keep [a dish] long enough for it to be redundant” on the menu. Those dishes can be rather playful: while some of them might be rooted in some kind of classic dish, that inspiration is then twisted into an innovative new creation, such as a “Greek salad” with a beet tuile and feta granita, or a Thanksgiving dinner centred around King Oyster mushrooms.
Unlike many restaurants of Île Flottante’s calibre, Murray Smith’s menu veers away from centring meat dishes. Rather, Murray Smith focuses much of his attention on crafting complex, unique vegetarian dishes.
“The more and more I’ve worked with meat [...] I’m kind of like, ‘yeah, it’s killing the planet, and we don’t really need to [use it] anymore.”
In fact, Île Flottante’s three- and five-course tasting menus are available for patrons entirely sans meat. And while the chef hasn’t taken the restaurant full vegetarian yet, he’s currently juggling with the idea of trying it out for a short time this summer, when the best local fruits and vegetables are in-season, and items like green tomato gazpacho with sorbet of strawberries and cocktail tomatoes can play well.
And the restaurant’s willingness to appease dietary constraints goes far beyond crafting meat-free meals. The team at Île Flottante pride themselves on cultivating a space that’s accessible for diners with any variation of food-related restrictions. According to Murray Smith, this requires nimbleness, flexibility, and above all, research and preparation.
“It happens so often that I got really sick of being [put] on the spot, being like ‘oh shit, what do we do right now?’” Murray Smith said. “But we’ve overcome that, and I think we do a really good job at just being really careful. You can’t be too careful.”
After years in the industry, there’s no dietary request Murray Smith and his team can’t handle; he has ingredient substitutes in his roster at all times, and servers are trained to communicate with customers clearly about their food restrictions.
On perhaps the most notable occasion, the team prepared a dish for a customer with a phobia of white foods, a challenge Murray Smith and Abou Younes say was more daunting than feeding someone with the strictest of allergies. But the team did it, and well.
“Basically anyone can come in here who is gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and have a full tasting menu,” Murray Smith said. “It’s just years of understanding what to look for and what to fix, and now the whole menu is made up around that.”
And despite the restaurant’s immediate success upon re-opening, Murray Smith remains wary of getting stuck in the rut of doing what works. Rather, he keeps his finger planted firmly on the pulse of evolving food norms, and his mind open to change.
“Who knows where the future is gonna go?” Murray Smith said. “I like to evolve with the times, whether it be the vegetarian aspect or the tasting menu aspect, whatever the next food popular thing is…I’m gonna think about it. Because I’d rather flourish and continue to survive, than be this old thing.”