Loyal patrons of Restaurant Su in Verdun may not realize the influence of a 70-year-old in Turkey on their evening take-out meal. “I talk to my mom every day,” says Fisun Ercan, owner, chef and personality of Su. “Everyone is looking for comfort food and she gives me advice on what to cook. ”
Ercan is not the only one who wants to satisfy Montreal diners accustomed to quiet meals in a chic setting. From Ercan’s sophisticated Turkish bistro to classic French dishes from Plateau icon L’Express, to Syrian delicacies from Damascus and local dishes from Diplomate sur Beaubien Ouest, Montreal restaurateurs are reinventing their menus and opening their cellars to wine to meet the needs of homebound foodies while trying to keep their restaurants afloat.
In deciding to stay open, these restaurants faced a unique challenge: Compared to some of their more casual counterparts, their menus weren’t designed to be take out or deliver.
But adjusting kitchen operations for take out was a straightforward task compared to the distress of saying goodbye to staff: Owners expressed genuine anguish at letting employees and colleagues go, knowing that they all faced an uncertain and worrying financial future. In addition to financial concerns, some waiters and kitchen workers feared for their own health if their work continued.
Josée Préfontaine, co-owner of L’Express, told Eater that several members of her staff wanted to stop working because they feared possible exposure to COVID-19.
“We checked customers at the door who told us they were feeling good, only to be allowed in and disclose – after two glasses of wine – that they had just returned from New York or London. We just didn’t want to take that kind of risk for our team and their families.
Thus, the restaurant closed voluntarily, several days before the government of Quebec ordered all restaurants in the province to close their dining rooms. Préfontaine’s staff then went from around 70 to a reduced crew of five, preparing and packaging L’Express’s shrimp risotto and duck confit in vacuum bags, easy to reheat at home. Classics like steak and fries or tartare disappeared from the menu: they just weren’t suitable for transporting and eating later. The take-out service is virtually contactless, with tables set up for scheduled pickup of pre-ordered meals.
In Verdun, Chef Ercan’s operation is also streamlined, aiming to give his loyal customers a break in their own kitchen and give it a renewed sense of purpose.
“I was so happy to go back to the kitchen,” Ercan recalls.
“It’s good to go back to work and stay away from social media. I want to stay healthy, however, we only do this three days a week at the moment. ”
The restaurant’s new take-out menu features his mother’s suggestions of Izmir kofte (Turkish meatballs with potatoes and tomatoes) and roast chicken with citrus and root vegetables in family portions. Customers have a specific time to pick up their orders, with privately imported wines available at a significant discount.
In an industrial area of Beaubien Ouest, just outside of Little Italy, Chef Owner Aaron Langille’s agile setup at Le Diplomate allowed for a fairly quick readjustment with no extra days of closure or loss of team members. Langille called his supplier of dry products to order packaging, then fell for a take-out menu. Family-style duck and capon, dishes previously served in the restaurant’s private dining room, are now packaged in recyclable cane trays. A vegan option and sides of marinated, preserved and fermented vegetables round out the menu, with the Diplomate’s wine selections offered by the bottle or by the case.
“This restaurant was an economic experiment to begin with,” says Langille, aware of the irony of the situation.
“We designed it to survive the apocalypse, in an affordable place, and we live there.”
Not far in Outremont, diners are parked on Van Horne, waiting near the popular Damas restaurant for their grilled halloumi, labneh with zaatar, and braised lamb with okra to be delivered, in the old-fashioned A&W style, to their cars by staff wearing masks and gloves. Damascus had planned to open a takeout counter this year, but the coronavirus crisis has accelerated that pivot in a way – and business has been booming so far.
“We’ve been renting a space across the street for a year and a half, but we haven’t opened it yet,” chef-owner Fuad Alnirabie told Eater.
Alnirabie admits the situation is not without its challenges: some parts of the menu translated into take-out in a fairly straightforward way, but the menu required careful adaptation in terms of availability of fresh ingredients, portion sizes, price, and making sure that no one team member runs out.
Like other restaurateurs, he is obsessed with maintaining a pristine environment for food production and meal distribution so that his remaining team stays healthy. “Only God knows what will happen next”, confesses Alnirabie.
As the pandemic continues and Montrealers seek inspiration for their pantry kitchen, everyone enjoys a break between planning, chopping, prep and cleaning. And who doesn’t fancy a lemon pie these days? “For a thousand reasons, we never wanted to make take-out,” says L’Express’ Préfontaine.
“But that’s what we are; we all need familiar food right now.