Jun 12

Europea (1227, Rue de la Montagne, Montreal)

A surprise-filled dinner at Europea began unsurprisingly with a 4 out of 4 star rating, but the tiresome effect of endless astonishments caused one of these stars to be shaven off around halfway through the tasting menu. Ultimately, by the time we reached our last strenuous course, we had judged our rating down to half its original number. The biggest surprise of the night was that such a strong start to a meal could end up being overtaken by such mounting exhaustion. Sadly, this meal constantly aimed to distract us from the best it had to offer.

I play with the idea of surprise in my introduction because that was the establishment’s stated goal at the beginning of the dinner. As spoken by one of our servers: “We aim to surprise you tonight.” Were it not for this explicit promise, perhaps we would have been more responsive to the subsequent onslaught of attempts at delighting us. First, some context: my boyfriend and I celebrated our third anniversary at Europea this weekend. Our hopes were appropriately high: Europea boasts a menu by renowned French chef Jérôme Ferrer, and is part of the illustrious Relais & Châteaux family. (Montreal is actually home to only two Relais & Châteaux restaurants, the other being chef Normand Laprise’s equally underwhelming Toqué.) All signs pointed to us finally finding the Montreal equivalent of New York City’s exquisite Le Bernadin, a quest that has endured for some time now. It appears, however, that our fair city is simply no match for the Big Apple.

Our meal at Europea was off to a stellar start. Before our first course (of the “Menu Dégustation”) even made it to the table, we were treated to three welcoming gifts: thin and pungent Carpaccio strips hung on a tiny clothing line with tiny clothing pins; sharp cheese lollypops propped in coarse salt; creamy-on-the inside, crispy-on-the-outside cheese cigars resting in a cigar box; and smoked salmon bites in a cloud of fragrant smoke trapped inside an empty book-shaped box. Highlights from the actual meal included lobster cream cappuccino, tagliatelle of calamari carbonara, and maple bark stewed pan-seared foie gras, finished at the table on a heated river stone. The aptly timed palate cleanser, wild tea ice granita, cut through some of the escalating, and increasingly disconcerting, saltiness of the dishes. Following a lackluster cheese plate, we were presented with three amusing, but ultimately average-tasting and ill-fitting desserts. Over the ten courses, a hefty richness persisted from beginning to end, with little variation. And if you failed to find a common thread or theme that carried through these dishes, that’s because I don’t believe there was one.

Except for that desperation to surprise. So eager to thrill, Europea half pulls this off. Most dishes were served in genuinely unexpected and innovative ways, cleverly repurposing teapots, lollypop sticks, coffee cups, cigar (and other) boxes and hay. Dishes themselves made creative and appealing use of different flavors, smells, colors and textures. If this all somehow failed to surprise us, the chef even sent a handwritten note halfway through the meal, expressing his desire that we enjoy ourselves!

But Europea’s forte is also its downfall. One cannot build such a well-oiled surprise-machine without a degree of industrialization. As the evening progressed, it became increasingly difficult not to think of ourselves (along with our servers) as cogs in this machine. The openness of the space, dominated by a large, winding staircase, at first seemed pleasantly expansive. As time went on, however, the unobstructed layout forced into view the endless stream of servers literally running around and up and down stairs, platters in hand. (The poorly chosen, fast-paced background music lent an even more frenetic quality onto the servers’ va-et-vient.) In this way, guests are able to see, over and over again, their upcoming and previous courses, directly undermining any sense of surprise. I suggest more intimacy in the space would better suit Europea’s objective.

Similarly problematic: however friendly all the servers, they presented each dish in a coolly rote fashion, without spontaneity, as if they had done this a thousand times. (Regarding the first official course, the server announced: “We have been serving this dish for 10 years.” An interesting detail, were it not for the fact that it was relegated as if the man had been trapped in the same loop for 10 years.) This, too, undermined the intended feeling of surprise. (A noteworthy exception was the eloquent and gentlemanly maître d’, who appeared to spin descriptions out of fresh verbal yarn every time, and interacted with guests in a refreshingly warm and authentic fashion.) This practiced spectacle, this ritualization of delight, not only sterilized the menu’s playfulness, it also had the unfortunate effect of making us feel like guests at a wedding reception, or worse, pigs at the trough.

The shame of all this distraction is that Europea’s menu undeniably hit several highs that deserved to be the singular focus. These unique concoctions merited being the backbone of the dining experience, and a critical rejection of anything too superfluous would have created a sumptuous, impactful meal nicely hacked down to its essentials. As the saying goes, there can be too much of a good thing. Never a chef’s desire, by the end of the meal, we began to dread the arrival of the remaining courses, due to satiety and overstimulation. This ultimately seems to point to structural problems with the menu, which I believe should escalate and expand like a good story.

Europea’s menu, however, is the culinary equivalent of The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003): both feature too many endings and an overindulgent resolution. Tightening the menu would enhance its impact. For example, I felt the pop rock-coated chocolate lollypops, reminiscent of fireworks (which usually end a celebration), would have been an appropriate finish to the meal. (The fact that they were served along other carnival fair, like homespun cotton candy and Madeleine popcorn, was only fitting.) Instead of a bang, the meal ended with a whimper: two days later, I cannot recall or be brought to care about what was on my final plate. That it took 25 minutes for us to get our bill, when we clearly indicated we were ready to pay and go, only served to exacerbate the exhausting feeling of interminability (and it didn’t help that this is one of my boyfriend’s list-topping pet peeves).

There is the bud of a great idea somewhere in Europea: serve up classic fair with both panache and showmanship. Chef Jérôme Ferrer’s innovative vision, however, currently crumbles under the weight of its execution.

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