Menu Extra offers a taste of the real thing
It’s tough, sometimes, to appreciate the silver linings — or to see them at all.
Even when you can recognize them, they seem insignificant, at least when compared to the gravity of recent events. It’s hard to write about food with any sense of joy (although I try my best) at the moment, but if you make yourself open to seeing the upside of things, like looking at one of those magic eye pictures, a silver-lining is suddenly revealed.
Francis Blais and Camilo Lapointe Nascimento’s project, Menu Extra, is one of the most joyful embraces of the possibilities of food that I have experienced, including before the big C. The chef-duo are both winners of TV cooking shows: Blais having won Top Chef Canada and Lapointe Nascimento Les Chefs! Personally, I don’t put much stock in those types of accolades. Yes, I suppose one can infer that they’re good cooks by virtue of these wins, but there are plenty of excellent cooks out there that don’t bother with the TV schtick. But the notoriety the chefs gained from their TV appearance is undeniable.
Using their newfound public platform, Menu Extra was launched at the end of May last year. Originally, the project was a series of pop-ups. Menu Extra would take over a restaurant for the day and serve comfort classics retooled in the chefs’ personal style with an added touch of refinement. Lamb kebabs were served out of la Prunelle, pogos at Boxerman’s, lasagna at Nora Gray and the proceeds from these events were donated to various charities. By the end of last summer, Menu Extra hosted nine pop-ups and raised over $32,000.
It was during this time that Menu Extra caught my attention. I was impressed, not by the quality of the cooking or the excellent branding of Menu Extra, but that these chefs seemed to be cooking entirely without ego. There were no flexes; their events offered a COVID-safe place where that captured the fun and excitement of a backyard BBQ while raising money for charities like Desta BYN, Pour 3 Points and the Native Women’s Shelter, among many others.
During the summer, as restrictions eased, Menu Extra began hosting private dinners outside of the city. In vineyards and on farms, where health measures could more easily be maintained, a return to a formal restaurant experience started to take hold. Moreover, Blais and Lapointe Nascimento used these multi-course dinners as an opportunity to show what they could really do. That all came to a grinding halt at the end of September.
After that, Menu Extra fell off my radar for a bit, that is until I started noticing the “lost cat” style posters going up around Little Italy. A piece of printer-paper with a picture of a pithivier (an ornate closed-pie which originated in the Loire Valley, France) read,” Have you seen this pithivier?” complete with tear-off phone numbers with which to place an order. I thought it was brilliant. For me that sums up Menu Extra’s identity perfectly — it’s playful, self-aware and so damn smart. While the rest of the industry was figuring out how to simplify their menus for take-out, Menu Extra was like, fuck it — we’re going to figure out how to make this very technical, very finicky dish available for delivery.
They’ve since moved on from the pithivier to the emblematic dish of an iconic film: Babette’s Feast. For those familiar with the film, Babette’s dish of poultry-in-pastry will be warmly imprinted on their memories. If you haven’t seen the film, the principal character, Babette, after living as a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War in a small Danish village, wins a large sum of money and with her winnings, cooks a lavish French meal in which Caille en Sarcophage is the star, for the villagers. It is one of the best food-centric films that exist.
A day in advance of my meal, I order the Caille en Sarcophage for two. It arrived late afternoon and the cheerful delivery driver carefully handed me a large bag and instructed me to put the dessert in the freezer immediately. I brought the bag into the kitchen and unpacked my meal. The meal, for two, includes a salad, potato purée, the quail and a McCain-style caramel cake for dessert. Each dish was well-packaged and very neatly labelled. Aside from the very good branding, the unboxing was standard procedure, barring the addition of a printed instruction card that read “Menu Extra et le Caille en Sarcophage” which was reminiscent of a menu card at a good restaurant and a spring of fresh gypsophila. A true touch of class.
I popped the dessert in the freezer and sat down to read the card. It begins with the story of the dinner’s inspiration, Babette’s Feast. They speak romantically of the simple pleasure of a good meal shared between loved ones and move into a detailed explanation of the dish itself. Caille en Sarcophage is a whole quail, deboned via the back and stuffed with applewood smoked duck. The bird is then set in a nest of puff-pastry which rises as the bird cooks, locking in all the dish’s delicious flavour. It’s served with a quail and red wine jus.
Next, the sides get their explanation. A simple salad of greens is served with roasted hazelnuts from Ontario and lightly dressed with a shallot and honey vinaigrette. The creamy potato purée is dusted with a burned onion ash and for dessert, a take on the McCain deep ‘n’ delicious — a childhood favourite. Menu Extra’s version transforms local bolete mushrooms and sunchokes to replace the chocolate in the base cake. It’s a true restaurant-calibre menu and far from anything you could call traditional take-out.
And that’s because it’s not take-out. Menu Extra’s format requires that you cook, or really reheat, the dishes before serving. But the directions provided could not be more clear. I followed along dutifully and took note that this is as close to idiot-proof as you could ask for. They even go so far as to remind you to put the salad in a bowl to mix. The quail, however, does require a smidgen of know-how. It’s true that they’ve provided very clear directions on how to cook the dish; the only hiccup is that not all ovens are created equal. 375F on your oven might be 325F in another. You just don’t know what your true oven temp is unless you measure it. The delicate balance of golden brown pastry, crispy-skinned quail and rosé duck farce is one that requires some precision.
In my preparation, after the 30-minute cook time suggested in the recipe, I had pale-blonde pastry and undercooked farce. Another 10 minutes in the oven solved the issue nicely. So while this dish wasn’t difficult to cook, you can’t exactly set it and forget it. But, to me, there’s a beauty in that it’s not automatic — even as you’re barely even cooking, you are immersed in the preparation of the meal. The romance of the story compels you to open a bottle of wine and take the good dishes out of the cabinets. In my case, the dining room table was used for the first time since Christmas as a dining table and not a desk. After an hour of playing chef in my kitchen, I had before me a perfectly roasted Caille en Sarcophage with two sides and a decadent sauce.
The meal was rich — bordering on but not quite crossing into overly rich. My wife and I ate our meal commenting on how nice it was to have set the table and how it felt celebratory. In that moment, I realized the truly exceptional aspect of this meal. Yes, the food was very good and I was impressed at how simple Menu Extra managed to make such a complicated dish. But what was really remarkable was that the experience they’ve provided was as close as I’ve felt to eating at a restaurant in a very, very long time. It was once thought that you could put any dish in a take-out container and it would be fine, but you could never take the romance of the restaurant experience to-go. Well, they’ve come pretty damn close.
Dinner for two from Menu Extra will cost you $95 bucks (plus tax and tip) but for me, to feel, for an hour, like I was sitting in a very good restaurant eating a very good meal, it was worth every last penny. Thinking back on silver linings, I count this experience among them. How fortunate we are, faced with such adversity, to have minds creative enough to have figured out how to pop the restaurant experience in a bag and drive it to our homes. ■
This feature originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Cult MTL. For more about Menu Extra, please visit their website.
For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.
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