Ryan Gray

Ryan Gray’s passion for natural wine and local produce is matched by the affection he holds for the ever-evolving food scene in his hometown of Montreal. The restaurateur and sommelier is an incredible ambassador for his city’s unique food culture, which he describes as compact enough to cover plenty of culinary bases over the course of a few days (although with the apparent array of quality eating and drinking options, that may be a tall order). “We're very blessed. Overall, you’d eat well at the majority of independently owned restaurants in the city, especially the chef-owned ones”.

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Montreal’s Culinary Revolution

We have such a good food scene in Montreal that’s unlike anywhere else in North America. As a place that was colonised by the French and hence one with a long history of French cuisine, what’s evolved over the years is a melding of a really serious craft of cooking with the incredible seasonal produce we have here. This has resulted in such a forward-thinking food city with really high standards – there are so many good restaurants here. Also, Quebec drinks more wine per capita than any other place in the world, so there’s always been this really interesting wine culture and over the last 15 years a really exciting natural wine scene has emerged.

Good Morning Montreal!

A really good place for coffee in the city is September Surf Cafe. It’s a really fun neighbourhood spot in an area called Little Burgundy, near the Atwater Market, which is where a lot of us who live close by go to get our groceries. It’s also where a lot of restaurants get their food from. It’s always nice to go to a market when you visit a city – especially if you’re a food person. Montreal has two major markets: Atwater is perhaps a bit more boutique than the Jean-Talon Market, which is up in little Italy. 

Not Your New York Bagels (But Debatably Better)

Montreal is well known for its bagels. There’s this ongoing debate about the superiority of a Montreal bagel over a New York bagel. While New York bagels are very dense, dry, hard and honestly a bit unappealing, Montreal bagels are a little crunchy on the outside and very soft and fluffy on the inside. They’re wood-fired and they’re absolutely delicious. There are two bagel places that everyone talks about: St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel. They’ve both been open for around 100 years and truth be told, they’re very similar. I’ve lived in Montreal my whole life and if I was blindfolded and served each one of these bagels, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The standard order is usually a sesame seed or a poppy seed bagel. The weird thing about the Montreal bagel experience is that you have to buy the bagels and then you have to buy a tub of cream cheese and a package of smoked salmon and assemble it all yourself – they don’t fill them for you. 

An Industry Favourite

My favourite place to go in Montreal and the industry’s go-to spot is a place called Larrys: the sister restaurant of Lawrence which is a little bit more high end. I suppose Larrys is what you might call a small plates restaurant, but really it’s just the perfect place to go any time of day. It’s open from morning until night and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything’s homemade and they have an excellent coffee programme and an incredible natural wine list. It’s usually the first place I recommend to people. It’s just a very accessible, very easy, down to earth restaurant. The chef, Marc Cohen, is a good friend of mine. The food is quite British as Mark is originally from England and because he’s not a local, it has its own language yet is definitively Montreal. Larrys is probably the benchmark for local sourcing, especially with meat. It has a butchery attached to the restaurant that they opened a few years ago. They buy whole animals that have been ethically raised from small producers in Quebec or Ontario. They break them down to sell in the shop and use the offcuts and trimmings at the restaurant.

Iconic Quebecoise

L’Express is the iconic French bistro of Montreal. It’s located in the Plateau neighbourhood and has been around for almost 40 years. It’s open seven days a week from 8am until 2am. It’s the kind of institution where the same people go every morning and have a soft-boiled egg and a piece of toast and read the newspaper at the bar. It was designed by the iconic architect Luc Laport and is truly one of the greatest dining rooms in the world. In terms of credibility, quality and consistency, they’ve given the best French bistros and brasseries a run for their money. When I was studying to be a sommelier, I lived in the area and they always had an incredible wine list with references from all over France. It was so cheap, accessible and incredibly well-selected, so it was like an education going there: learning about French food and wine, this culture that was so important to gastronomy. If you went there on a Thursday night at one in the morning, the place would be packed full of chefs and front-of-house staff from all the cool restaurants in town and it would always turn into a party. It’s an amazing place and a really important part of the city’s culinary culture. 

“Food That Warms the Soul”

During the pandemic, some really good friends of ours opened a restaurant called Pichai that specialises in Northern Thai food. They have spent a significant amount of time in Thailand, studying and learning about Thai food. They go deep into the traditions with the dishes they serve and do it in a really fun, vibrant and well-designed small room that’s always bursting at the seams. They have an incredible natural wine programme that is really geared towards their spicy and flavourful dishes. They have managed to bring it all together in a way that’s very unique – there’s certainly nothing like it in our city. This is on par with the great Thai restaurants in New York and the very best of them in LA. It’s really refreshing to experience and it just transports you to a totally different place. It’s particularly nice to have food like that in the winter here – food that warms the soul. 

A Jewish-Argentinian-Italian Hybrid Cuisine

Beba was opened in 2019 by chef Ari Schor and his brother Pablo who runs the restaurant. They’re just great guys. They’re Jewish-Argentinian and the food is a kind of hybrid of Italian, Jewish and Argentinian cuisines that defies a specific definition but is very Montreal. For example, they do some twists on classics: Argentinian dishes like empanadas, but stuffed with spinach and local cheese curds or a dish of guinea fowl stuffed with chorizo. It’s very restrained, and very much ingredient-forward with incredible sourcing and absolutely stunning technique. It’s all delivered in such a humble environment. I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone in the city that’s cooking at a higher level than they are right now.

The Best Smoked Meat in the World

Smoked meat is another iconic Montreal food. There’s a place called Smoke Meat Pete that’s located about 45 minutes outside of downtown Montreal and it is probably the best smoked meat restaurant in the world. Although smoked meat is similar to New York’s pastrami, it’s really only a Montreal thing and this place does the best version of it. It’s seasoned and steamed, sliced very thinly and piled high between two pieces of barely noticeable rye bread with a smear of mustard. You can choose the meat to be fatty or lean or somewhere in between. Smoke Meat Pete also has some of the best french fries in the city. If you’ve ever seen the movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, it kind of feels like that: like entering a different era or a time warp. It’s very raucous and is always absolutely jam-packed. 

Your Sunday Lunch by the Water

Another restaurant I recommend if you don’t mind a little trip is the Auberge Willow Inn. It’s in a town called Hudson, about 40 minutes outside of Montreal and it’s probably been there for around 200 years but it was recently renovated. A young chef and a really good friend of ours named Danny Smiles took it over and is making absolutely beautiful food there, again [as with Larrys] with a little bit of a British vibe. It’s on a lake and it has a few rooms so you can stay there for the night. The dining room is beautiful. It’s a great place to go for a Sunday lunch – sit by the water, have an exceptional meal and explore Hudson.

Seasonal Italian to a Psychedelic Folk Soundtrack

I opened Nora Gray in 2011 and it’s my first of three restaurants. The only Italian restaurants that existed in Montreal previously were either the Italian-American ones with red-and-white-chequered tablecloth, or the high-end version that played Pavarotti in the dining room. We were young and stupid and thought that we should open an Italian restaurant, but make it fun and play T. Rex and The Smiths. The farm-to-table movement was happening and we wanted to use Quebec’s seasonal products to make Italian food and try to cook it the way we thought it was done in Italy: seasonal and regionally specific. We do a ton of homemade, handmade pasta as my partner chef Emma Cardarelli is incredible at making pasta and at just making delicious food in general. We were one of the first restaurants in the city to have a natural wine programme and we have really knowledgeable staff that’s excited to serve it. It just makes you feel so good to be in that room. My favourite dish that we make here is the snow crab pappardelle that Emma makes during our brief but epic Quebec crab season in the spring.

Pizza and Natural Wine Picnic

We had wanted to open a pizza restaurant for a long time and so the second place we opened was Elena (in 2018). It’s a pizza and natural wine place. Instead of importing an oven and the flour, tomatoes and mozzarella from Naples as many places were doing, we thought “Let’s work with a local organic farm to supply wheat for our flour, have a local artisan build us an oven, source the best local tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella we could get and create a product that is ours,” and it worked really well – we’re very proud of it. It’s a really fun place that’s packed all the time. We have a little park next to it that we call “Pizza Parc” because people just like hanging out there with our pizza and a bottle of wine.

La Dolce Vita is Only a Few Bites Away

We opened a third restaurant in December 2021. Again we wanted to work with small farms and small producers, but we’re doing more central Italian cuisine at Gia, borrowing a lot from our trips to Tuscany and Abruzzo. So we do arrosticini and skewered meat that’s all sourced from local farms. We do pici pasta with duck ragu, a classic dish from Chianti. We do chicken and fish on the charcoal grill. It’s a really simple, accessible menu with tons of natural wine. In the summer we will open a huge outdoor dining space that we’re really excited about and I think we’re going to put a travertine fountain in the middle of it. I love the idea of transporting people to a different place – that’s what it’s all about for me. 

The Best Restaurant in Montreal

I think Mon Lapin is the best restaurant in the city. It’s run by two very good friends of mine who are perhaps the best chef and front-of-house team in the city, if not the country and even the continent. Marc-Olivier Frappier is the chef and his wife Vanja Filipovic works the floor and they’re just the best people. The food is French and Italian but is also uniquely Quebecoise. Marc is just a brilliant cook – the technique behind the food is at the very highest level and yet the restaurant manages to be fun, hospitable, welcoming and warm. The wine selection is also so serious yet so well curated that you never feel that you’re in over your head. Mon Lapin is where I take people from out of town to show them what Montreal has to offer. If you had one night and one meal and you wanted to know what Montreal restaurants were about, that’s where you should go. 

A Shop Full of Surprises

J’ai Feng opened very recently on a super hip strip of Beaubien East and is a must-do for lunch. It’s technically a Chinese grocery store loaded with all kinds of well-sourced products, as well as pret-a-manger options and homemade condiments by chef-owner Anita Yue Ming Feng. However, there is also a four-seat counter where you can dine in and order whatever dish Anita is making that day. It can be something like a big bowl of rice noodles with ground local pork and her signature red sauce. Her food is super soulful and it’s such a welcome addition to the local food scene.

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