Posts Tagged ‘Italian cuisine’

Soulful and Sophisticated Fare at Chez Sophie

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

Chez Sophie
1974 Notre-Dame Street West (between Canning Street and Chatham Street)
Montreal, Quebec H3J 1M8
(438) 381-6389
Hours: Tues-Fri:  12:00 – 2:00 p.m., 5:30 – 10:00 p.m.; Sat:  5:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Average for meal/person, excluding wine, taxes, and tip:  $55-$85
Major cards
Rating:  ◊◊◊◊½ (excellent)

Server station counter at Chez Sophie

Ah, summertime, the sunny, sizzling season which provides an enticing invitation to unwind, bask, and revel in the idyllic pleasures of carefree leisure and joie de vivre. It is a fitting time to satisfy our desire to have fun, our craving to indulge in outdoor activities, and our drive to connect and interact with close friends. After months of closure due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, major cities and towns around the globe, including Montreal, are gradually coming out of COVID-19 confinement as they have started to loosen lockdown restrictions, and people are cautiously following suit. However, the ominous coronavirus cloud of uncertainty and unpredictability continues to hover over us. With physical distancing measures still in place, this summer appears and feels different.

Nonetheless, like numerous people here and abroad, I am striving to find a semblance of normality and to return to the art of enjoyable living during these unprecedented, challenging times. Montreal, which has been lauded for its diverse and dynamic food scene shaped by the metropolis’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic melting pot, has slowly been reviving la joie de vivre as restaurants have gradually resumed dine-in service after weeks of pivoting to only takeout and delivery options during the large-scale quarantine.

Eager to seek and embrace once again such solaceful pleasures of haute gastronomie, my foodie friend and I decided to venture out and explore the current fine-dining landscape. So on a sultry evening, we headed off to visit Chez Sophie. This culinary gem, which is tucked away on the main commercial thoroughfare of Griffintown, is the brainchild of the talented husband-and-wife team Sophie Tabet and Marco Marangi. In compliance with the physical distancing measures and heightened hygiene and sanitary procedures based on directives and guidance from government and health authorities, chef Tabet, sommelier and manager Marangi, and their kitchen and wait staff have succeeded in creating a comfortable milieu that not only feels safe and secure but also a gastronomic haven that is enticing and inviting for patrons to enjoy their wining and dining experience.

The urban destination, wrapped in a warm and welcoming ambiance, exudes modern European elegance and a clean, contemporary look, reflecting the duo’s personal style and travels. Dressed in steel blue, muted grey, subdued cream, and snow white tones, the oblong dining room is furnished with wooden tables set in a modern, minimalist manner and spaced out along the west wall, giving guests a sense of comfort and intimacy. The original oil painting Fragments d’humanité by Argentinian artist Emilio Trad graces the east wall near the entrance. Adjacent to the sleek bar endowed with an impressive lineup of coveted liquors, the semi-open kitchen allows curious diners to catch a glimpse of the kitchen brigade in action. Upon our arrival that evening, a convivial buoyancy permeated the streamlined surroundings; there were customers who were already seated at their reserved tables in the stylish salle à manger and outside on the flowering terrace at the back of the hideaway, and they were happily conversing and savouring the eye-catching dishes that were emerging from the kitchen.

And here, Tabet’s culinary art represents a kaleidoscope of the chef’s culinary background and journey. A native of Lebanon, the culinary maven, who grew up in Montreal, became intrigued and enthralled with the world of cuisine during her studies in graphic design. When she turned seventeen, she had the opportunity to expand her horizons when chef Roberto Stabile took her under his wing during her stint at his restaurant Primo e Secondo. Her eye-opening and palate-pleasing discovery of such gastronomic pleasures at this Little Italy locale awakened and ignited her fascination with, and passion for, haute cuisine. After receiving formal training at the prestigious Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, she had the privilege of further honing her culinary skills under the tutelage of prominent chefs at various distinguished establishments, including the Michelin-starred Violin d’Ingres and double Michelin-starred L’Astrance in Paris and the legendary triple-Michelin-starred and Relais & Châteaux Dal Pascatore in Runate, northern Italy where she crossed paths with the Italian professional sommelier Marangi, her future partner in life and business. The two moved to the Lebanese capital where they unveiled the first version of Chez Sophie in the heart of the trendy Mar Mikhaël neighbourhood in 2010, followed by the bar Lei, which is still open to this day. That year, the ambitious culinarian was awarded the Prix au Chef de l’Avenir et du Meilleur Restaurant for her eponymous establishment from the Académie internationale de la gastronomie. Although it was considered to be one of the best restaurants in the Arab world, the duo decided to close their epicurean enterprise in order to take a break to renew their culinary curiosity. After having further deepened their knowledge and polished their savoir-faire at various venerable institutions in Paris, Tokyo, and Florence, they returned to Beirut and opened in 2013 their second eatery Totò, an upscale Italian trattoria (which incidentally was equipped with the first stone bake pizza oven in Lebanon) in the same premises that housed their original resto. However, as escalating violence of the Syrian civil war spilled across the border into Lebanon, Tabet was feeling nostalgic for Quebec, so the couple sold their successful businesses, packed their suitcases once again and headed this time in Montreal. In 2014, the Montreal version of Chez Sophie was born, occupying the space of the former Viva Galerie antique store in Little Burgundy.

Inspiring and imaginative, Tabet’s menu, which adapts to the natural rhythm of the seasons, reveals a veritable treasure trove of contemporary French and Italian cuisines nuanced with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern inflections, and at times, accented with other ethnic influences. Executed with exceptional virtuosity, meticulous care, and fastidious attention to detail, Tabet’s culinary compositions are gracefully constructed and gorgeously plated with fresh, premium ingredients and produce. Soulful and sophisticated, her striking dishes, cleaved to the tenets of the fine art of French and Italian cooking and prepared with passion, love, and creativity, showcase a sheer mastery of the art of combining and balancing flavours and textures. Tabet may not have reinvented the wheel, but she reworks and rejigs longstanding recipes with a poetic and poignant spin, yielding gastronomic fare that displays an orchestrated blend of tradition and innovation.

In an adventurous mood, my friend and I both opted for the four-course tasting menu which was individually customized from all the conspicuous comestibles that were offered that evening as well as the personalized wine pairings thoughtfully selected by Marangi. An observant listener and conversationalist, the cultivated vinophile not only dazzles you with his sweeping knowledge of the history of every bottle from his carefully curated and stupendously hefty wine list which is constantly evolving but also the splendid wine and food pairings from the alluring wine journey he encourages you to embark. And as mixologist, he also enchants you with his short but everchanging lineup of intoxicating cocktails that he concocts at the bar.

In true French style, the gastronomic ritual that night commenced with two amuse-bouches. Served cold in a small charcoal tea bowl, the velouté d’asperges was enhanced with a swirled drop of extra-virgin olive oil. Velvety and voluptuous, the soothing and refreshing green soup was delicately sweet and mildly grassy. Equally delectable was the rosette de Lyon. Presented alongside thick tranches of fresh, warm bread supplied by the bakery Première Moisson, the razor-thin slices of the French saucisson sec dotted with telltale flecks of pork fat were disarmingly silky and richly flavourful. A pleasant prelude to our multi-course meal.

Tomato tarte tatin with parmesan ice cream

For the first course, I chose the tarte tatin appetizer, and here the classic French bistro dessert was given a savoury, summer twist. Basted with a dark, sticky caramel, a snugged stratum of oven-dried pomodori pelati laid cushioned atop a circular base of tissue-thin sheets of crisp, flaky phyllo pastry. To mimic the timeless staple à la mode in a playful fashion, a round scoop of parmesan ice cream decked with a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a gentle flurry of basil microgreens and freshly ground pepper gloriously crowned the inverted tomato tart. Rustic yet refined, chef Tabet’s brilliant take on the traditional tarte de demoiselle Tatin was harmoniously matched with a glass of 2017 Langhe Nebbiolo wine produced by Cantina del Pino from Piedmont, Italy, a complex yet smooth red wine delineating ripe red fruits and well-tempered tannins.

Crispy, soft-boiled egg with potato mousseline, sautéed asparagus, Parma ham, and parmesan shavings

My friend selected one of the chef’s signature starters, and he was not disappointed. On this occasion, a crispy, soft-boiled egg was cradled atop a blanket of creamy potato mousseline that was set beneath a bed of sautéed asparagus spears, Parma ham slices, and long Parmesan shavings. Coated in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried, the impeccably cooked egg, with its golden brown exterior and warm, runny yolk, elevated the humble number to a higher level of sophistication. Seemingly simple in construction and presentation, the smashing showpiece not only demonstrated sharp cooking technique from the diligent kitchen staff but also exhibited a lively, congenial interplay of the different compositional components, a salient feature that continued to resonate in Tabet’s culinary prowess and cooking style. As a superb accompaniment to this standout specialty, a glass of 2017 Domaine des Terres de Velle Chardonnay from the new appellation Bourgogne Côte d’Or in central eastern France was presented, a full-bodied white Burgundy with pleasant citrus fruit and mineral core.

For the ensuing course, my friend and I decided to savour dishes that paid homage to the sea. All of the three tantalizing offerings tickled our fancy, but we each managed to pick one. After our first morsel, we were revelling in rapturous delight, and both soul-stirring showstoppers catapulted us straight to a state of hedonistic nirvana.

Seared scallops with sea urchin cream and chanterelle mushrooms

I immensely relished the special of the day for my first plat principal. Adorned with diced fresh tomatoes and finely chopped chives and finished with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and a trickle of extra-virgin olive oil, the two succulent sea scallops, spectacularly seared with their golden brown crust, were plated with pan-fried chanterelle mushrooms bathed in a luscious sea urchin cream. The 2017 Pinot Noir wine, which was also created by Domaine de Terres de Velle in Bourgogne Côte d’Or, handsomely complemented the sublime shellfish delicacy with its fragrant cherry and raspberry notes, fresh minerality, and soft tannins.

Miso black cod, grilled asparagus, cauliflower mousseline, and lime foam

For his second course, my friend chose another crowd-pleasing warhorse from Tabet’s evergrowing and evolving culinary repertoire. In this exquisite étude on the theme of East meets West, the culinary savant fused Asian gastronomic culture with French culinary esprit by adopting an iconic Japanese recipe that has gained global popularity since it was first introduced by the celebrity chef and restaurateur Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa (松久 信幸) at his eponymous Nikkei flagship restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, California. In her rendition of chef Nobu’s reinterpretation of the traditional gindara kasuzuke (銀ダラ粕漬け), the luxurious black cod, marinated in a variation of Saikyo miso glaze—a mélange of sake, shiro miso, mirin, yuzu, and sugar, was pan-fried on the stovetop and then broiled under the salamander. Moist and melting, the two lacquered fillets of flaky and silky sablefish with browned, caramelized crusts were anchored in juxtaposition on top of a trio of grilled asparagus logs which were assembled over a pillow of creamy cauliflower mousseline. A sliced cauliflower floret and clouds of ethereal lime foam which imparted a subtle citrus touch to the saporous ensemble completed the compelling culinary concoction. To pair with this saucy seafood delicacy, Marangi presented my dining companion a glass of 2018 Andlau Riesling crafted by viticulturist-oenologist Antoine Kreydenweiss of the preeiminent biodynamic winery Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace, a terroir-driven, jammy wine with fresh aromas of peach and apricot, chalky minerality, racy acidity, and a lingering finish.

 Food from the land was honoured in our third course. Again, we each selected a different main dish in order to share and sample more of Tabet’s gourmet items.

Magret de canard and grilled terrine de foie gras with sherry and fig confiture and beet espuma

In the mood for fowl play, I was game for some poultry. That night, her assiette de volaille featured Moulard duck as the star ingredient, and on this occasion, the highly prized winged game, which was sourced from Hudson Valley Farm, was prepared in two ways. Tender and moist, the two thick pieces of duck magret, perfectly pan-seared with crispy, brown skin and rosy pink interior, were artistically arranged one on top of the other over a pond of lush sherry and fig confiture which lent an elegant sweetness to the rich yet delicate flavour of the lean breast meat. On the opposite side, a cluster of red radish halves sautéed in butter was placed beside an oval block of artisanal terrine made with semi-cooked foie gras. Gently caressed with French cognac, the contentious délice, fatty and unctuous, was lightly grilled with visible charred marks on the exterior, graciously seasoned with finely chopped rosemary, and prettily embellished with a fresh pansy flower. To add further depth and complexity, a round pool of beetroot espuma intensified with brewed coffee provided a punch of vibrant fuchsia colour and a sweet, earthy counterpoint to the dainty and decadent composition. In between bites of pure bliss, I sipped a 2015 La Côte from the vintner Château Tire Pé, a well-rounded organic wine from Bordeaux made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with bramble fruit and sweet spices on the nose and palate and balanced tannins on the finish.

Angus beef filet with thyme garnish, red wine gastrique, and grilled vegetable tagliatelle

For my friend’s second principal course, the Aberdeen Angus beef, pan-seared medium rare as requested, was liberally doused in a red wine gastrique and tastefully garnished with a medley of finely minced thyme, parsley, and shallots. Incredibly tender, naturally juicy, and abundantly flavourful, the filet de bœuf was united with a toothsome tagliatelle of grilled zucchini, aubergine, and red and orange peppers enriched with a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. As an appropriate pairing partner for the hearty number, a glass of 2017 Langhe Nebbiolo was served, the same Barbaresco vino which earlier accompanied my appetizer course.

Well-versed in savoury cooking, the versatile culinary wizard also excels as a masterful pastry chef, devising desserts with unequivocal finesse and elegance. Both sweet delights were revamped reiterations of classic pâtisseries françaises.


For the fourth course, my friend opted for the popular Paris-Brest. In Tabet’s modern take on this time-honoured standby, the choux pastry puff, its shape resembling a gargantuan gougère, was cut in half and filled with a piped cloud of robust hazelnut mousseline cream. Ethereal and crisp, the pâte à choux bun was capped with a heavy dusting of confectioners’ sugar. For my dessert course, the emblematic gâteau millefeuille was revived and reconfigured with a Middle Eastern accent, drawing inspiration from Tabet’s Lebanese roots. In her unabashed riff on the beloved mainstay, pistachio pastry cream was sandwiched between the three stratified tiers of flaky pâte feuilletée which were studded with toasted almond slivers. Crispy and crunchy, airy yet rich, the Napoléon-like pastry wedge, dusted with powdered sugar, was partnered with an irresistible orb of intense, black chocolate ice cream. To heighten the sensual sweet treats, Marangi poured each of us a glass of 2013 Grande Cuvée Pelechacz designed and stylized by Sugar Hill Vineyard in Lac Brome, a sparkling Vidal Extra Brut wine that pleasantly surprised and consequently seduced us with its refreshing effervescence and Champagne-like style. With an imperial touch to the final course, our magnanimous repast culminated on a magnificent, high note.

Millefeuille à la pistache with dark chocolate ice cream

Marangi and the friendly wait staff provided a warm sense of hospitality and delivered courteous and solicitous service to their patrons that night. For diners with purses and murses, portable mini-tables were offered and placed next to tables for their carried accessories, giving seated guests greater comfort. This thoughtful gesture, which rarely occurs even in luxury restaurants, represented one of the little exemplary details that brought a special touch to the attentive service.

I had previously dined a few times at Chez Sophie, and my recent revisit reminded me of Tabet’s culinary versatility, dexterity, and artistry, not to mention, Marangi’s oenophilic enthusiasm and the well-paced service from the wait staff. Extremely creative, accomplished, and professional, Tabet, Marangi, and their integrated restaurant team continue to impress and surpass my expectations, and the scrumptious and sumptuous dinner turned out to be yet another memorable experience which has left an indelible imprint on my mind.

As COVID-19 continues to have a dramatic impact on our daily lives, we continue to adjust and adapt in order to survive during these difficult and trying times. The novel coronavirus pandemic has revealed how fragile everyday life is and how the global disease outbreak can easily disrupt our daily habits that comprised our rites quotidiens. As we gradually get back into the rhythm and balance of life, we have re-discovered life’s little joys that are often overlooked and underestimated in this complex, fast-paced world and learned to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, the indispensable gifts of life that we each subconsciously celebrate and cherish in our personal, unique way. La joie de vivre and the zest in life which sustain, nourish, and nurture the human spirit encourage us to look into the future with high hopes and to find the strength and courage to renew our dreams and resume the path and pursuit of our passions in life. The dark cloud of COVID-19 still looms, but there are brighter days ahead, waiting to embrace us. Let’s keep pressing forward; these days will come.

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