The team behind Menu Extra had hosted nine sold-out pop-up events amassing $32,000 for local charities before deciding on September 21 to take a temporary hiatus. The day before, the provincial government had announced that Montreal had seen 160 new cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours, placing it firmly in the orange zone in Quebec’s alert system. Restaurants were permitted to stay open — and most did, until being forced to close a week and a half later when the city was put on red alert — but the guys at Menu Extra didn’t think it was worth the risk.
“We had a lot planned for October, but we had been noticing that people were gathering at our events; they were coming and leaving in groups. It sounded an alarm for us. At the end of the day, these events were meant to help restaurants and charities, but if we were adding to the crisis in any way, well, then we weren’t helping at all,” Francis Blais, one of the founders of Menu Extra, former chef de cuisine of Le Mousso and the winner of the 8th season of Top Chef Canada, says.
Blais’ partners at Menu Extra include Camilo Lapointe Nascimento, former sous-chef at Le Mousso, and this year’s winner of Les Chefs!, the Quebec equivalent to Top Chef Canada; Alexis Demers, former sommelier of Le Mousso; and Martin Pariseau, a Montreal film director and now the creative lead on the project. The four conceived of the project during the pandemic spring, as they found themselves suddenly laid off from their respective gigs. (Despite restaurants having been given the go-ahead to reboot operations on June 22, Le Mousso, which employed the majority of this foursome, only reopened on August 6. Once it did, the group decided they wanted to see their project through instead of going back.)
Menu Extra’s “takeout pop-ups” entailed occupying a restaurant for a day, churning out upscale takes on unpretentious Quebec classics like hot chicken, lasagna, and pogos, and generating proceeds for local charities struggling to get the help they needed from the government. “Camilo and I thought, ‘Why not use our visibility from winning the shows to help during these hard times?”
Menu Extra’s first event was held at La Prunelle and hauled in $3,000 for Les Banques alimentaires du Québec, equivalent to 8,000 meals dispensed by the food bank. A few hundred shrimp rolls served at Île Flottante during the second iteration of the pop-up series fetched $4,155 for Pour 3 Point, an organization supporting underprivileged youth in the region. At its most fruitful, Menu Extra donated $7,007 to Foyer du Monde, a mutual aid organization dedicated to asylum seekers and refugees settling in Quebec, as the result of a lasagna night held at Griffintown’s Nora Gray.
Food wise, the thinking was to take beloved, albeit “kind of trashy,” Quebec classics and inject them with some “top chef” know-how, Blais explains. During their takeover of Little Italy restaurant Moccione, for instance, Blais and Nascimento took a stab at recreating the infamous pizzaghetti, but with a sourdough crust that had been cultured over a long stretch of time and a nest of home-spun pasta. “We had a meeting pre-event, where I was pitching some ideas to Luca Cianciulli [of Moccione], a chef I love and respect. And I remember how I was kind of shy to pitch this idea because I knew it totally goes against everything he believes in,” Blais laughs.
After a few such events, the team transplanted Menu Extra to vineyards and farms outside of Montreal, where large swaths of bare land gave way to more elaborate experiences, in ways the abridged takeout stagings of their events couldn’t. The tasting menu for a pop-up held at Fragments winery in Ripon, approximately 150 km from Montreal, listed 17 separate items.
In the absence of these events, the Menu Extra team this past weekend debuted a small takeout and delivery operation, that, as of right now, hinges on just one dish: a flaky enclosed pastry pie, called the pithivier. The dish holds a particular significance to Blais after having steered him to victory in the finale of Top Chef Canada.
“The pithivier allows me to prove to myself that I can pull off something really technical in a short amount of time and under extreme pressure. But it also reflects my love for French cuisine and classics, and being able to add my personality, flavour-wise, to a classic is also part of my cooking style,” Blais says.
This time around, the pithivier is made with foie gras and duck, not pigeon, and is doused in a miso sauce. (As of tomorrow, there will also be a vegan version.) It’s served alongside a salad of blackened onions and a corn-flavoured ice cream topped with a caramel miso syrup for dessert.
The miso cameo hints at another of Menu Extra’s ventures: a fermented Japanese condiment business (think soya, shuyo, and, yes, miso) based on Quebec ingredients. “Our plan was to have both a restaurant and a condiment business, but we decided to focus on condiments first while hosting these pop-ups,” Blais says.
The team is based out of the space once occupied by Osteria da Elda on Saint-Laurent, and Blais says the Mile End location may someday house their restaurant. “When things settle down health-wise, we do hope to have a restaurant. But I don’t want to say much more than that because we might end up using the spot for something else instead, like our condiment business.”
If, when, and where the team’s first restaurant does open, the vision is for a small, high-end outfit prioritizing high-quality local ingredients and carefully orchestrated tasting menus. “We don’t even want transactions being done at the restaurant; you would have to buy your tickets online prior to the meal. The focus should be on the food, and we don’t want there to be any compromises.”
Menu Extra is taking orders for takeout or delivery online at menuextra.ca.