Revisiting Vin Papillon and discovering something exceptional

Revisiting Vin Papillon and discovering something exceptional
I have never written about any of the Joe Beef group’s restaurants. It’s widely accepted that they are good and, moreover, they are as well known and popular as any restaurant could hope to be.

But for the first time in a very long time, Montreal’s most celebrated restaurant group is experiencing a paradigm shift. This isn’t about Dave McMillan, it’s about how the majority of the restaurant’s stalwarts have moved on to other things. Fred Morin, often considered the contemplative genius behind the restaurants, is, for the first time, the sole decision-maker for all things Joe Beef. This new era, in so many ways, offers a period of renewal for the restaurant group now 17 years into its tenure, and a rare opportunity to begin again.

In that spirit, I figured it would be fitting to check in on the Joe Beef group to see what, if anything, has changed. The first significant transition that I remember, in regards to Joe Beef, happened at the end of 2013 when the group opened le Vin Papillon. Vin Papillon (or Vin-Pap, as it’s known around town) was a major departure from so much of what Joe Beef (and Liverpool House) had become internationally known for. Rich, over-the-top, Bouchon Lyonnais-style cooking was left behind to make room for clever, almost whimsical presentations of peak season vegetables. Who could forget the famous smoked carrot eclair? 

Vin Papillon was also incredibly important, not only to Joe Beef’s legacy, but to the landscape of Montreal’s restaurant scene because of the notable alumni who passed through it. The restaurant was opened as a sort of gesture of appreciation for Marc-Olivier Frappier and Vanya Filipovic. Marc-Olivier would have free rein over the food and Vanya full custody of the wine and service. Along with them came Willow Cardinal (now chef at Gia), Jessica Noël (of Vin Mon Lapin) and Gab Drapeau (now the culinary director of WeCook) and beloved front-of-house manager Alex Landry. Almost instantly, le Vin Papillon gained a reputation, around the world and throughout Montreal, as a veritable institution in the same ways as its beloved next-door neighbours. Then, as things do, a lot began to change.

Dave and Fred underwent a period of self-reflection, they both got sober, Fred discovered he was celiac and they vowed to make their businesses better places to work. Marc-Olivier and Vanya opened Vin Mon Lapin, sold their shares of Joe Beef, got married and turned their Little Italy restaurant into a near-overnight sensation, taking Jessica Noël, Alex Landry (and a host of other talented folks) along with them. Two years of pandemic pivots later, Gab Drapeau and Dave McMillan also moved on from the business, which, for many outside observers, marked the end of an era. 

Escargot at Vin Papillon

I got an early reservation the day I went to eat at Vin Papillon — 5:45, with the sun still shining. I have to say, the moment I walked in the front door I caught a glimpse of that special gently-blue-hued evening light that comes at the very beginning of spring illuminating the window-nook table and something clicked for me. Say what you will about Joe Beef and its legacy — it’s a somewhat controversial business — but the romance and the subtle yet distinct magic of those restaurants is alive and well. I remembered the feeling I got as a 19-year-old cook poring over the Joe Beef cookbook in utter amazement. There’s a magnetism to this place.

The dining room had its familiar bar-à-vin feel, cozy leaning a bit toward snug, but there were some subtle and not so subtle changes. The most obvious addition is the massive (3 x 6-foot, I’d guess) painting of an ocean liner above the tiny open kitchen, painted by Fred himself.  Later in the evening, he’d explain the painting to me in the simplest of ways, “You like the boat? I always wanted a painting of a boat.” An emblem, perhaps, that Fred is now free to do as he pleases.

The menu is short, unelaborated and full of dishes with deliberately simple names. Wines by the glass are up on a chalkboard and daily specials are revealed at the table. A dinner for two is likely going to be around four to five dishes depending on what you order. For example, the razor clam special, which came served in a princess scallop shell with crème fraiche, grapefruit and chervil, was little more than a small bite each. Delicious, refreshing, palate-awakening even, but far from what you’d call a plate of food. 

Vin Papillon Jambon

Other dishes, however, like the intriguingly named Langue de veau bagnat, were quite a bit more substantial. Like much of the dishes at these restaurants, the veal tongue bagnat traces its roots back to a classic French dish. In this instance, it refers to the sandwich version of Niçoise salad known as Pan Bagnat. In Vin Papillon’s version, a halved veal tongue, braised and seared, comes topped with olives, fresno chillies, a soft-boiled egg and charred cups of onion filled with a creamy tonnato sauce. The lot is served in a shallow pool of demi-glace. Delicious. The dish cleverly omits the bread of the pan bagnat but you don’t miss it one bit — in fact, you don’t even think about it. That’s part of another new development at Vin Papillon — plenty of gluten-free options. 

The wine program has been taken over by Max Campbell, a Joe Beef alumni in his own right and co-owner of the wine importation agency Deux Caves. The Vin Papillon cellar is full of coveted quilles and one is spoiled for choice provided they’re prepared to foot the bill for one of the pricier lists in town. Service is charming and informal in the most classic Montreal-restaurant way, but never strays into the territory of overfamiliar or lackadaisical. The bussers were prompt and expeditious, nearly to a fault, flying in after each course and resetting the table in what seemed like a single motion. It’s obvious that nothing is by chance; this kind of service is the product of a tried and true system and a uniquely “Joe Beef” style hospitality. The whole team are pros. 

Back to the food. The two standout dishes of the night, for me, share in common a unique trait — see if you can spot it: Maitake aux champignons and Escargot aux escargots. Wylie Dufresne is famously quoted for his praise of eggs benedict, “Eggs Benedict is genius. It’s eggs covered in eggs.” It’s a line that seems easily applied to this particular menu. The Maitake, also called Hen of Woods, is a mushroom famous for its rich flavour and meaty texture. It’s a regular stand-in for meat on many-a-vegetarian menu. In Vin Papillon’s preparation, the mushrooms are skewered, like a brochette, and grilled over charcoal, which lends the mushroom’s ruffled edges a wonderfully charred and crisp texture and a lovely smokey quality. The brochette is then served in a silky and richly-hued mushroom gravy, which is every bit as good as it sounds. 

The Escargot aux escargots — which I have been told is a Joe Beef classic, although I have not come across it before — is a thing of beauty. The principal escargot is not a reference to succulent French snails but another French delicacy: The escargot pastry, also known as pain aux raisins, is a tight coil of flaky pastry, which, in this instance, is filled with a hearty yet refined duxelles. The pastry is then set atop a half-dozen plump escargots (the snails this time) en persillade, the bright green condiment of oil, garlic, shallot and parsley. It is the real deal and it encompasses everything I love about the Joe Beef way of cooking — it’s playful, iconoclastic, rooted in old-world French cooking and utterly delicious.

One would be remiss not to mention Vin Papillon’s famous ham and cheese plate: a mound of thinly sliced jambon blanc topped with ribbons of Avonlea Cheddar and drizzled with brown butter. It is a near-perfect plate of food, if you ask me, and is required eating for anyone going to Vin Papillon for the first time.

Revisiting Vin Papillon and discovering something exceptional

We finished the meal with an artfully scored frangipane tart — a personal galette des rois, really — served with a dollop of vanilla speckled crème chantilly. The pastry was beautifully flaky and the frangipane filling tasted properly of almond without being overly sweet, which allowed the chantilly to carry the bulk of the dessert’s sweetness. I suspect it won’t last much longer on the menu as the season warms but trust that the dessert menu here remains in top form.

I think that could maybe be said across the board — everything remains in top form. I didn’t expect to eat at Vin Papillon and then deliver its eulogy, but there was some doubt that it would come out of all this completely unscathed. With that said, it’s still a restaurant helmed by one of the greatest culinary minds in the country and staffed by competent and talented cooks and servers. Maybe it’s unsurprising that Vin Papillon is still an exceptional restaurant, but I find comfort in the fact that, after everything, one can still eat very well in the heart of Little Burgundy. ■

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

For more on Vin Papillon, please visit the restaurant’s website.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.
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