Faithful customers of Verdun’s Restaurant Su may not realize the influence of a septuagenarian in Turkey on their evening takeout meal. “I’m talking to my mother every day,” says Su’s owner, chef and personality Fisun Ercan. “Everyone is seeking comfort food, and she’s giving me advice on what to cook.”
Ercan is not alone in seeking to cater to Montreal diners accustomed to leisurely meals in chic surroundings. From Ercan’s sophisticated Turkish bistro, to the classic French fare of Plateau icon L’Express, the Syrian delicacies of Damas, and locavore dishes at Le Diplomate on Beaubien West, Montreal restaurateurs are reinventing their menus and opening up their wine cellars to meet the needs of housebound gourmets while trying keeping their restaurants afloat.
In deciding to stay open, these restaurants faced a unique challenge: in comparison to some of their more casual counterparts, their menus weren’t made to be take-out or delivery friendly
But adjusting kitchen operations for takeout was a simple task compared to the distress of saying goodbye to staff: owners expressed real anguish letting employees and colleagues go, knowing that they all face an uncertain and worrisome financial future. In addition to monetary concerns, some servers and kitchen staff feared for their own health if their jobs continued.
Josée Préfontaine, co-owner of L’Express, told Eater that several members of her staff wanted to stop working because they were worried about possible exposure to COVID-19.
“We screened customers at the door who would tell us they were feeling fine, only to be let in and divulge — after two glasses of wine — that they’d just come back from New York or London. We just didn’t want to take that kind of risk for our team and their families.”
So, the restaurant closed voluntarily, several days before the Quebec government ordered all restaurants in the province to close their dining rooms. Préfontaine’s staff then dwindled from about 70 to a skeleton crew of five, preparing and packaging L’Express’ shrimp risotto and duck confit in sous-vide bags, easy to reheat at home. Gone from the menu are classics like steak-frites or tartare: They just weren’t suitable to be transported around and eaten later. The takeout service is virtually contactless, with tables set up for the scheduled pickup of pre-ordered meals.
Over in Verdun, chef Ercan’s operation is equally streamlined, aiming to give her loyal clients a break from their own cooking, and giving her a renewed sense of purpose.
“I was so happy to get back into the kitchen,” Ercan recalls.
“It’s good to go back to work, and stay away from social media. I want to stay healthy, though, so we’re doing this only three days a week for now.”
The restaurant’s new takeout menu features her mother’s suggestions of Izmir kofte (Turkish meatballs with potatoes and tomatoes) and roast chicken with citrus and root vegetables in family-friendly portions. Customers are given a specific time to pick up their orders, with privately imported wines available at a significant discount.
In an industrial strip on Beaubien West, just outside Little Italy, chef-owner Aaron Langille’s nimble setup at Le Diplomate allowed for a fairly quick readjustment without extra days of closure or losing team members. Langille called his dry goods supplier to order packaging, and then got cracking on a takeout menu. Family-style duck and capon, dishes previously served in the restaurant’s private group dining room, are now packed in sugar-cane recyclable trays. A vegan option and sides of marinated, preserved, and fermented vegetables, round out the menu, with Le Diplomate’s wine selections on offer by the bottle or case.
“This restaurant was an economic experiment to begin with,” Langille says, aware of the irony of the situation.
“We designed it to survive the apocalypse, in an affordable location, and here we are, living through it.”
Not far away in Outremont, diners are parked on Van Horne, waiting near popular restaurant Damas for their grilled halloumi, labneh with zaatar, and braised lamb with okra to be delivered, old-school A&W style, to their cars by staff wearing masks and gloves. Damas had been planning to open a takeout counter this year, but the coronavirus crisis sped up that pivot in a way — and business has been brisk so far.
“We’ve been renting space across the street for a year and a half, but we haven’t opened it yet,” chef-owner Fuad Alnirabie told Eater.
Alnirabie admits that the situation is not without challenges: some parts of the menu translated to take-out in a somewhat straightforward way, but the menu required careful tailoring in terms of the availability of fresh ingredients, portion size, prices, and ensuring that no one on the team burns out.
Like other restaurateurs, he’s obsessed with maintaining a pristine environment for food production and distribution of meals so his remaining team stays healthy. “Only God knows what’s going to happen next,” Alnirabie confesses.
As the pandemic continues and Montrealers seek inspiration for their pantry cuisine, everyone appreciates a break from planning, chopping, preparing, and cleaning up. And who couldn’t do with a tarte au citron these days? “For a thousand reasons, we never wanted to do takeout,” L’Express’ Préfontaine says.
“But this is who we are; we all need familiar food right now.”