A Pop! of Palate-Pleasing Panache on Pine Avenue

250 Pine Avenue East (at Laval St.)
Montreal, Quebec H2W 1P3
(514) 287-1648

Hours: Sun-Sat:  from 5:30 p.m.
Average for meal/person, excluding wine, taxes, and tip: $20-$30
Wine by glass: $6-$16
Major cards and Interac
Rating: ◊◊◊◊½ (excellent)

Menu at Pop!

Wine bars and tapas-inspired restaurants encapsulate the current gastronomic zeitgeist as such taste-tempting trends continue to sweep through the dining scene and continue to gain a popular foothold in numerous metropolitan cities around the world, including Montreal. Small-plate dining, a simple, liberating approach to, and communal style of, eating, is more accessible, less formal, less structured, and more economical. It not only encourages people to explore, experience, and share, in a casual and convivial fashion, a meal made up of many of the chef’s culinary creations in petite portions, but it also stimulates sociable interaction and conversation at the table as more often than not, the diminutive dishes which offer a variety of tastes and textures represent the culinary conversation pieces themselves. As many people embrace increasingly this flexible form of dining as an alternative to the standard meal structure confined to three courses, many culinary establishments, particularly wine bars, which have become hip and über-trendy over the past several years, have adopted and incorporated a menu of small plates, catering to today’s new generation of food and wine aficionados.

There are a number of notable vinous outposts which have popped up in the metropolis of Montreal in the past several years, such as Bu, Pullman, Accords, Buvette Chez Simone, Les Trois Petits Bouchons, and Les Cavistes, all of which not only boast an impressive lineup of wines that have been well selected and compiled but also offer a tantalizing menu of intriguing dishes. Pop!, the adjacent sister locale of the landmark French bistro Laloux, also falls into this category. Although this branché bar à vin in the heart of the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood shares the same entranceway (and venerable kitchen and stellar wine cellar) as its older sibling restaurant, it evokes a different ambiance and aesthetic. Here, the dimly lit milieu captures a vintage vibe; with a post-modern flair, the urban lounge is a stylish study of 1960s Scandinavian décor with Wegner-style teak chairs, arm chairs, and tables and Danish design leather sofas. Furnished with teak-covered walls and sliding panels of Spanish cedar and mahogany, the long, oblong-shaped space also includes a small garden alcove situated across the marble and walnut bar. With tasteful jazz music in the background, the inviting haven is chic and sleek.

Like the distinctively arresting décor, the wine and food menu is refined and modish. And at this wood-toned destination, both the wine and food share the limelight. Compiled carefully by sommeliers David Vincent and Francis Archambault, who is also the Director of the duo establishment, the strikingly stellar and continually evolving carte des vins features a diverse selection of wines, predominantly privately imported, from around the world with a prominent panoply of varietals from France, such as a voluminous 2008 Marcel Deiss Bergheim Pinot Blanc from Alsace, or a fluid 2007 Guardiao Casal Dos Jordoes from the Douro appellation in Portugal. The wine collection counts one hundred fifty references, including twenty vinous options available by the glass. With Vincent on hand to assist the choice of wine and to impart his expansive knowledge of wine, the experience at this cool, casual wine bar becomes all the more enlightening.

Braised and grilled octopus with white beans, sweet peppers, roasted almonds, fresh coriander, and salsa verde

And the gustatory experience would not be complete without the food, scrumptious food, if I may add. Under the creative helm of chef des cuisines Seth Gabrielse and chef de pâtisserie Michelle Marek, the alluring, eclectic menu of small and large plates captures the fancy of pleasure seekers. The virtuoso culinarian Gabrielse, who further honed his extensive culinary skills and knowledge under the tutelage of leading bread baker and brilliant master chef James MacGuire at the now sadly defunct Le Passe-Partout, has learned well from the acclaimed veteran chef, from the art of breadmaking to the art of charcuterie. Since his arrival at this neighbourhood joint a year and a half ago, the menu at Pop!, originally oriented towards French cuisine, has been reworked. The seasonally inspired and locally driven revised menu, which emphasizes simple yet creative comfort food fare, reflects Gabrielse’s vision of modern French bistro and modern Quebecois cuisine that is inflected with fusion flair and accented with exotic and colourful nuances, a hallmark trait that stems from the influence of former restaurateur and chef Racha Bassoul, with whom he had worked as sous chef at the now closed Anise. And Michelle Marek is the mastermind behind the spirited sweets at this bistro à vin. Like Gabrielse, she lets the ingredients in her dishes speak for themselves as her enchanting concoctions are original and elegant yet straightforward and simple. Everything that emanates from the kitchen, including sauces, condiments, and even the bread, are freshly prepared and made from scratch on the premises.

Dessert of "apple 3 ways, caraway and thyme, dulce de leche ice cream, caramelized brioche, and apple granité"

As a habitué of wine bars and wine bistros, I have frequented Pop! a number of times, and I have enjoyed sampling and savouring a variety of culinary delights crafted by both Gabrielse and Marek, including savoury delicacies such as the whimsical verrine of Nordic shrimp, diced celery and apple, and tarragon espuma, accompanied with rabiole chips; the dazzling dish of braised and grilled octopus combined with white beans, red and orange sweet peppers, roasted almonds, fresh coriander leaves, and salsa verde; the praiseworthy plate of spicy lamb tartare seasoned with fresh coriander and complemented with peppery pommes gaufrettes, lively green harissa, and creamy labneh; and sweet creations such as the amazing “apple 3 ways,” a mesmerizing mélange of green apple cubes, honey jelly dices, caramelized brioche croutons, caraway and thyme notes, apple granité, and dulce de leche ice cream; the comforting chestnut crêpe filled with chestnut and pear purée and decked with bourbon poached pear wedges, chestnut ice cream, and chestnut bits; and a mind-blowing white chocolate crémeux caressed with coconut and crowned with vanilla-kissed key lime granité garnished with fresh basil leaf shreds.

Marinated olives with herbes de Provence and citrus zest

I found yet another occasion to revisit this cozy, stylish spot, this time with an eclectic group of foodie friends who have discerning palates and different food preferences. So on a warm spring evening, we converged at Pop! originally for a casual bite, but we all ended up opting for the “menu découverte POP!”, a four-course gourmand menu designed for sharing among all the guest diners at our long, convivial communal table. The friendly and courteous maîtresse d’ Fanny Alaizeau, who is always attentive and discreet, greeted us cordially upon our arrival and ensured that we were well pampered and well served that night.

Our casual feast commenced with a trio of crowd-pleasing preprandial grignotines. Unassumingly simple yet deliciously sophisticated, the time-honoured, titillating little plates of small bites with big flavours provided us a taste of internationally-inspired dishes, transporting us from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean to the alluring lands of East Asia.

A bowl of marinated olives is always a welcome Mediterranean antipasto and snack. Bathed in olive oil enriched with garlic, herbes de Provence, including fresh thyme and anise seeds, and enhanced with strands of orange and lemon zest, the large, plump green olives were irrefutably refreshing and delightfully toothsome.

Arancini di riso with braised rabbit and parmesan cheese

I have always enjoyed Gabrielse’s modern take of the traditional Sicilian street food staple of arancini di riso, a longstanding classic which vary in size, form, and ingredients from region to region in Southern Italy. And when I saw our waiter arrive and place the round serving plates of bite-sized, golden orbs on our table, I became instantaneously overjoyed with excitement. Served piping hot, the set of six deep-fried rice croquettes, which resembled faintly miniature oranges in shape and colour, were coated with a light, crispy batter of bread crumbs. However, in Pop!’s adopted rendition of this addictive antipasto specialty that evening, the glorified fritters were filled with a melting blend of braised rabbit, risotto, and parmesan cheese, a lighter reinterpretation of the cult Sicilian version which are typically stuffed with rich ragù supplemented with mozzarella cheese, and peas, a prominent archetype which I had encountered during my travels in Italy. Formidable.

As the “entrée du moment,” the third table hors d’œuvre was yet another universally adored fancy finger food starter. The shrimp cocktail, a quintessential retro American dish which was de rigueur in the 1960s and which has recently resurged as a popular appetizer at pre-dinner tables as well as cocktail party and reception events, was revived and revamped with a Southeast Asian twist. With heads, legs, and shells intact, the small Matane shrimp were arranged not in the customary martini glass, but rather, in a large, deep square bowl, served alongside another identical bowl filled with a dark red dipping sauce. Although a little effort was required to de-shell the chilled, boiled crustaceans, it was worth the extra work. Poached in a court bouillion heightened with garlic, shallots, peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and lemon, the fresh sea specimens from Gaspé, tender yet resilient, were sweet and succulent, and paired with the tangy and mildly spicy condiment, a cocktail made with ssamjang, housemade pimentón, Worcestershire sauce, and ground coriander, every bite was flavourful. And here, the timeless classic dish has been reborn.

As we noshed and nibbled, we were enraptured by the pure pleasures of gastronomic delight of the bonnes bouches. And this was just the beginning of our multi-course meal. As we savoured every last morsel of food from the plates and sipped leisurely our glass of selected wine, we became even more excited as we awaited eagerly the next course.

Charcuterie platter, from top left, clockwise: baguette, pâté Landais, pickled vegetables, mustard, rillettes de Tours, and mousse de foie de vollailles

Fine French charcuterie can be a sumptuous affair, particularly when the artisan cured meats are executed in masterful fashion. During my earlier visits, I enthusiastically explored the assorted housemade pâtés and terrines de campagne offerings from Pop!’s selective culinary repertoire, and I enjoyed immensely every single one of the peasant-style food items, including the terrific tête fromagée aka head cheese or pâté de tête, a marbled terrine made primarily from a pig’s head, all of which, incidentally, are based on Meisterchef James MacGuire’s superlative recipes. That night, in addition to an appealingly simple salad of fresh greens punctuated with coarse shreds of white and fuchsia radicchio di chioggia leaves and invigorated with a sweet confit shallots vinaigrette, the esteemed kitchen dished up a selection of three of its signature rustic pâté treats. Unveiled on a large, rectangular wooden board dressed with a piece of parchment paper, the charcuterie platter was composed of various components. The rillettes de Tours, which is a celebrated regional delicacy from the legendary Loire Valley of France, was stunningly exquisite. Affectionately nicknamed “confiture de cochon,” by the French, the amorphous mound of fine-textured terrine of pulled pork was remarkably rich and marvellously melting. Equally outstanding, the pâté de campagne Landais, a specialty from the Aquitaine region in southwestern France, was moist and firm in texture. Aromatised discreetly with armagnac, the triangular slab of pork pâté revealed a pronounced meaty taste due to the presence of pork liver in this Landes-style number. But among the three cold cooked meat samplings, the mousse de foie de vollailles continues to be my all-time favourite. Scooped into a generous quenelle, the chicken liver mousse, delicately perfumed with cognac, was lushly dense, silky smooth, and subtly sweet. The country-style meats were teamed up with a medley of pickled accoutrements consisting of orange and red serrano pepper halves, fennel slices, cauliflower florets, and pearl onions; a small steel bowl of spicy mustard sharpened with pungent horseradish; and a substantial segment of splendid baguette which was semi-sliced, all of which were lovely accompaniments to the charcuterie spreads. This trendy mixed platter was the showstopping pièce de résistance of the evening, pitch-perfect peasant food of the highest order.

Boudin noir pizza with caramelized onions, marinated shallots, Honeycrisp apples, candied pecans, and fresh parsley

Soul-satisfying food continued to be a recurring theme in the ensuing course, and we welcomed whole-heartedly a series of savoury gourmet pizzas and tartes presented at our table. With a sturdy yet light and delicately crisp crust that was golden and slightly charred around the edges and bubbled in spots, the elliptical-shaped, open-faced pies with varied toppings, which ranged from simple to extravagant, were utterly delectable. The pizza Bianca was the simplest among the flatbread pizzas which we sampled that night; although it was garnished only with crème fraîche and parmesan cheese and seasoned with black pepper, it was equally saporous. A little more elaborate, the superb flammeküeche, an Alsatian tarte flambée, was dressed classically with a blanket of crème fraîche topped with slender onion juliennes and thick lardon strips, which provided an intense salty edge to the dish. It was, however, the other two pizza pies with pedigree trimmings that quickly and unanimously became the standout items of the penultimate course of the repast. The pissaladière consisted of an abundant scattering of black Niçoise olives and salt cured anchovies on top of a liberal spread of sweet caramelized onions, but in this variation of the traditional Provençal open onion tart, paper-thin slices of ossou-iraty cheese were added, lending further complexity to the specialty pie. The boudin noir pizza was the most unconventional, with a garniture of caramelized onions and acidulated shallots which was gussied up with house blood sausage pieces, Honeycrisp apple matchsticks, skinny red onion bands, candied pecans halves, and shredded fresh parsley leaves. In this creative flatbread-style pie, the seemingly unusual combination of ingredients worked beautifully well together. Wow.

Chocolate pot-de-crème, caramel, and Maldon salt

By this point in time, we had consumed copious amounts of food and drink, but we managed to save room for the final course of the evening: dessert. Pop! has kept the popular pot-de-crème au chocolat, caramel et sel Maldon signature dish of Laloux-Pop!’s former pastry chef Patrice Demers on the menu, and that night, we savoured this seductive sweet treat, which has been hailed as one of Montreal’s top desserts, prepared lusciously by the talented Marek. In the tradition and spirit of Demers, the delicacy, served in a Mason jar, was simultaneously simple, light, fanciful, and dreamy. The voluptuous verrine featured a soft bed of velvety chocolate crémeux cushioning a stratum of crunchy cacao cookie crumble, the whole covered with a thick layer of creamy caramel mousse which was sprinkled with a touch of Maldon salt. We relished every spoonful of this luxurious sweet concoction; it was so irresistibly decadent that within few minutes, the Mason jars were empty save for the long-handled silver spoons that were used to commit the act of hedonistic indulgence.

Life is filled with little simple little pleasures, and one of those pleasures is the sheer enjoyment of food. During that night of animated chatter and light-hearted laughter, simple, soulful food and wonderful, worthy wines became a celebration, and we revelled in the sublime fare, prepared with dedication and attention and elevated with imagination and panache. It was yet again another memorable moment at the Pine-Avenue bistro à vin, and I look forward to returning to this wine bar eatery to relive yet another exhilarating, enthralling epicurean experience, which remains vividly imprinted in my memory, and to savour other palate-pleasing delights yet to be discovered and to be uncorked in the Danish retro-modern splendour of Pop!.

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