Fringe Food

Let the Chef Headline

Photos Louise Callier

As the summer trailed out, Fringe Food trailed in, dashes of nostalgia gleaned from the waning seasonal gems of a farmer’s market soaked in late-September sun. The Société des Arts Technologique’s Marché foodLab was an inspired reuse of urban space, an innovative clash of Québec produce with urban remix culture, the latter crystallizing in the form of Nicolas Fonseca’s Food Bingo. But though we draped the Marché in kudos of all kinds, we didn’t hold out much hope for techno-foodplay beyond October—when frost sets in and farmers tend to withdraw to their seed catalogues.

Luckily for us, Frédéric Gauthier, Culinary Programs Director at the SAT, has always had a long vision. Without telling us, he had already enlisted the help of Laloux’s Michelle Marek and Seth Gabrielse to keep the culinary heart of the SAT beating throughout the six bleak months known as the Montreal winter.

“They were already interested in the kind of experimentation and collaboration we do here,” he said. “And they were excited by the creative liberty we gave them.”

The result is FoodLab version 3.0, aka ‘Aperitivo 5@10.’

As you can probably glean from the name, SAT’s current focus on culinary innovation takes the cozy wintry form of the indoor apéritif: offering a warm dynamism to those bleak hivernale hours of retreating light. A riff off the traditional 5 à 7 happy hour featured at many a brasserie Montréalaise, FoodLab 5@10 offers a weekly thematic tasting menu paired with a carte of natural (mostly Québec) wines, all in their brand-new 3rd floor tech-heavy environment. It’s a freshly-spun selection of small plates, best described as ‘dinner…ish.’

Let me elaborate: don’t bother showing up if you are obliged to join your Italian parents for dinner later that night—you might be short on belly room. That said, you’ll doubtlessly be let down if you are trying to rekindle the spirit of Christmas feasting. On the savoury side, the chefs’ dishes ($6-$9) extend beyond mere bites, even beyond tapas, but stop short of claiming the substantialness of a meal.

Manek—a pastry legend and blogger extraordinaire—similarly puts her hands to concise sweets ($5-$7) that are meant to marry with the wines ($6-$8 per glass), rather than land you in a sugar coma.

Svelte as they are, these dishes are at times robust in flavour and voluminous in ingredients, drawing atmospheric resonance from the clean concrete surfaces, red LED lighting, and flat open kitchen. My dining companion and I feasted on tartine and waterzooi etched within a decidedly January theme: “Carte blanche / Clean slate.”

“The third-floor space sometimes surprises diners at first,” Gauthier says. “It’s not a traditional restaurant in any way. It is designed to be a space that engages all the senses.”

My waterzooi was a wintry fish soup presented neatly if predictably upon a thin cream base and julienned carrot and celery root. Though the fish was cooked to perfection, it was the only notable flavour in the bowl. The veg–elegant as they looked–added neither taste nor texture and the scallops were threadbare: chopped almost beyond recognition, and (not surprising due to their size) slightly overdone. The mushroom tartine on house made sourdough, on the other hand, amped up FoodLab’s flavour profiles with spot-on seasoning and a voluptuous ricotta that tasted as if it had been made within the hour. It took all of five bites to go down.

As with FoodLab’s Marché, the true zest of the 5@10 Aperitivo emerges in its unique sensory mashup: primary colours with mellow sounds, traditional recipes with avante-garde techniques, and warm vibes on an icy night. Yet mashups–whether visual, sonic or gustatory–can easily overextend their appropriate capacity; in other words, they all-too-often fail by being postmodern just for the sake of it.

Happily, Aperitivo 5@10 sidesteps this trap by drawing its environmental touches from food and food first. Unlike a regular club or a typical vernissage, where hors d’oeuvres are left to sulk on the fringes, taste here is at the forefront. Rather than relegating gastronomy to an afterthought in the techno-art scene, Aperitivo dishes out a wholly worthwhile performance where–for once–it’s the culinary folk steering the ship.

No offence to my turntablist crew, but if event spaces like SAT continue to let chefs headline–at the expense of demoting the odd DJ–they’ll only get better and better. Long live the stomach!

Aperitivo 5@10 continues Wed-Sat from 5-10 p.m. through the winter and, according to Gauthier, likely beyond. SAT is at 1201 St-Laurent Blvd. Check back with Fringe Food for a whole new lineup of cooking classes, lectures and events set to arrive at FoodLab.