Story by Adrian Brijbassi
MONTREAL — On the surface, Montreal’s L’Orignal appears like one of those trendy subterranean places that restaurant owners snap up for the cheap rent and large space. It entertains a slick-looking crowd of 20- and 30-somethings with boozy cocktails, fresh oysters and hand-selected music from owner Travis Champion. You only have to linger a bit, however, to realize there’s nothing superficial about L’Orignal – from the food to the wait staff to the passion Champion has for the business, there’s depth here and a ton of quality.
While it’s not the most celebrated restaurant in the city, L’Orignal is one of Montreal’s stars, a restaurant that deserves more notoriety than it has recently received. And one that will draw you back because of the food and the drinks, yes, but most especially because of the community feel that Champion and his staff have created.
When I first visited in January 2010, I walked into what was a one-year memorial for an employee who had passed away in an accident while travelling. There was a tangible sense of camaraderie among Champion’s staff members and his friends, a certain sweetness that makes you want to cheer for the place. Luckily, L’Orignal is deserving of praise.
“We started it with the intention of serving more game meats, rather than traditional steaks,” says Champion, who opened the restaurant nearly four years ago. “Those meats come from smaller farms and the farmers themselves will be a little more eclectic, going back to the way it used to be in terms of how they raise and feed the animals rather than how the industry is with mass-market cows.”
The restaurant’s name is French for moose, which harkens to the emphasis on gamier fare as well as Champion’s admiration for that Canadian icon. “I always thought the moose to be a very regal animal,” says Champion. “They’re our elephant.”
It may have been easier to call the restaurant by a name that was simple for anglophones to enunciate, but Champion, who is from New Brunswick, wanted to respect the language of Quebec. “It is a very difficult name for English speakers to pronounce,” he says. “It’s hard to carry the ‘n’ and the ‘g’ and the other day I heard a girl just call it Lo.”
An ornamental moose head hangs near the bar and the floors resemble a woodsy hunting lodge, even though the rest of the décor is Montreal sophisticated. For late-night offerings, there may not be a better bet than the restaurant’s lamb sliders with hand-cut potato chips. It’s a rich and savoury dish that’s not good for you, but could be just what you need at 1:30 a.m. to centre those niggling headspins.
“I think people enjoy our environment because we work hard on making things comfortable. We do try to make the perfect playlist and we are open later and we have an environment where you want to stay a little longer. We wanted to bring that to the Montreal restaurant industry,” says Champion. “It used to be you’d walk into a place around midnight and the barstools would be up and people would be ready to go home. We’re doing the opposite of that. We’re saying come in late at night and spend three hours and you’ll be very satisfied.”
Although there’s not an official bartender, the mixes are almost as good as what you’ll find at Chuck Hughes’ Le Bremner, a nearby hot spot that has a vibrant bar scene and a tempting list of cocktails. General manager Michael Terlecki will sometimes man the bar or it might be sommelier Rachel Kerswell. The bread for the past several months has been made by Jeff Finkelstein, who has been on sabbatical from El Bulli, the world’s No. 1 restaurant that is undergoing renovations.
While there’s a definite coolness to L’Orignal, it’s the authentic community feel that resonates. Much of that connectedness comes from the family attention paid to the business by Champion, his wife and her brother.
“It’s family here,” says Terlecki, who moved east from Ottawa to work for his sister, Champion’s wife. Champion adds that people often comment that the restaurant isn’t the same when he isn’t there. “And I think that’s the way it should be,” he says. “I’m there as much as possible to make sure things are being done to the original intent.”
He’s also going to be busy around the corner, where he’s recently opened Le Gros Jambon (286 rue Notre Dame West, 514-508-3872), an American-style diner that’s already won rave reviews. “I can’t show hockey games in the restaurant but I’ll be blasting them here,” Champion says while sitting on a bar stool in the long diner, a week before it opened.
The diner on the edge of Old Montreal serves fresh comfort foods and takeout fare, a contrast to L’Orignal’s upscale menu. But it follows L’Orignal’s lead in trying to bring something unique to the city.
The prices at L’Orignal aren’t cheap. Entrees will run into the $30 range, which puts it in the high end for most Montreal restaurants. You won’t be disappointed in the quality, though, and the items on the late-night menu are reasonably priced, in case you just want a nibble with your drinks.
“I was always disappointed in the Montreal food scene because people were trying to be a little too French,” says Champion. “Plus, it used to be people would come in with the mentality of, ‘I want my meal in 45 minutes and I want to go home.’ Now, I find people are willing to wait a little extra to get that perfect meal.”
Location: L’Orignal is at 479 rue Saint-Alexis (see map below). Tele: 514-303-0479. Reservations can be made online.
Other restaurants in Montreal to check out:
Icehouse – It’s a good name for a Montreal restaurant, an odd one for a casual Tex-Mex eatery. Despite its chilly title, Icehouse has one hot dish: a Lobster Burrito that’s delicious enough to become addictive. It costs $20, the priciest option on the menu, and the best from what I tried. 51 rue Roy East. Tele: 514-439-6691.
Le Bremner — You can read about the Jelly Doughnuts elsewhere on Vacay.ca. It’s a highlight dessert, but Chuck Hughes is at his best with seafood and the scallops are divine. So is the Perfect Little Steak ($18), served on top of a delectable red-wine reduction. 361 rue Saint-Paul Street East. Tele: 514-544-0446.
Joe Beef —In the city’s southwest neighbourhood, Joe Beef is considered by many foodies, including the members of L’Orignal’s staff, to be at the head of the class of Montreal restaurants. Like so many other excellent establishments in the city, it is a casual spot with a community feel and also a breeding ground for many of the city’s leading chefs and restaurant managers. 2491 rue Notre Dame West. Tele: 514-935-6504.
Aix and Suite 701 — In the outstanding Place d’Armes Hotel, Aix is a fine-dining restaurant focused on traditional Quebec cuisine while Suite 701 is a stylish lounge for the clubby set. Both serve terrific dishes. Try the Crab Cakes ($14) for a nice snack with your drinks. 55 rue St. Jacques; 514-842-1887 (for the hotel).
MAP OF L’ORIGNAL IN MONTREAL
View Larger Map