Racines has closed. See update below.
When Racines took over the old Louigi's space at the corner of McGill and Saint Maurice, the change could not have been more drastic. The space has been transformed from old-time greasy spoon to a restaurant that is sleek, modern, and fit for foodies.
The big question is whether or not the cuisine matches up to the decor. So far, Racines has received somewhat mixed reviews, but everyone seems to agree that the chef is talented. At the very least, the restaurant shows promise.
The use of wood for the tables, the floor and much of the walls and ceiling adds warmth. In keeping with the upscale casual atmosphere, the tables aren't covered with white tablecloths. White cloth napkins, quality flatware, and spotless stemware provide just the right amount of flair.
The front of the restaurant is filled with tables, followed by a long bar, and finally the open kitchen. The open, comfortable feeling is complemented by a good sound system, and an amiable staff who wear plaid shirts.
There's no question that the space at Racines has been professionally designed, and the result is impressive. It's the perfect place to relax in comfort while still feeling connected to what is going on outside.
Racines started out offering small plates at both lunch and dinner. The lunch menu consisted of three more or less equally sized courses, with several choices for each course. A typical first course offering was the shaved raw foie gras with meringue chips. The deconstructed style of the chef was apparent in this dish.
Another similarly plated first course was a carrot tart that had a thin wheat base, carrot puree, thinly sliced carrot, and fresh crumbled cheese.
These two dishes were both fairly consistent in texture. There were few ingredients on the plate, and I felt like they somehow lacked a centralizing element. In fact I found that the food generally involved too many sauces, purees, and mousses and not enough contrast and structure.
An exception was a delightfully balanced third course of chicken livers with cream of salsify, crispy salsify chips, and bacon.
Recently Racines changed up its menu and went to a more traditional appetizer/main dish format. The lunch offering is now two courses and costs $20. I'm not sure why the change was made, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was, at least in part, due to a lukewarm reception of its original concept.
In any case, the changes are positive. Although the presentation may have, at least to some extent, backed away one step from its avant-garde approach, the inventive style of the food luckily remains.
Some dishes have been reworked or presented differently to fit into the new format, or perhaps just to change things up. For example, on the previous menu Matane crevettes were presented as two cylinders nestled in chive butter sauce and topped with butter lettuce.
On the new menu this morphed into a more traditional looking salad, with bacon to add the bit of crunch that was missing before.
The fun presentations haven't gone away completely, though, as evidenced by the starter of veal cheek topped with sunflower seeds and enveloped in endive leaves. The tender, melt-in-your-mouth veal is worth searching for.
The main dishes are distinctly larger. Take the tagliatelle with lamb neck, mint, and mushrooms for instance. The elements on this plate marry well, and the portion is substantial enough to satisfy.
A beef dish, while more modest in size, also gratifies, thanks in part to the richness of the confit of potatoes and the zing and crunch of the marinated onions. However, when I ordered this dish the beef was quite tough and the sage jus needed more flavor.
Dessert at lunch is an add-on. Don't expect grand creations. These desserts are meant just to provide a bit of sweetness after the main course. An example is a dessert described as "Creamy dark chocolate, apricot, vanilla" on the menu. (The trend of listing key ingredients unadorned on menus has taken over the foodie dining scene.) It turned out to be a tasty chocolate pudding, topped with apricots, and crowned with crunchy chocolate bits.
Service has been consistently friendly and attentive. Once or twice I experienced a small service fault, but generally the service is quite professional and well paced. The team works well together, and dishes flow seamlessly from the kitchen to the tables.
A nice touch is the inclusion of an amuse bouche before the first ordered plates arrive. One time this was a bit of foie gras mousse with apple. Another time it was a cube of mackerel mousse topped with thinly sliced carrot.
Racines continues to evolve. Is it perfect? No, but the food shows promise and is moving in the right direction. Plus, the dining room is very pleasant, the service is quite good, and the lunch price is competitive in its category. This is one to keep an eye on.
Metro: Square Victoria
Parking: Street or nearby pay lots
Dress: Upscale casual
Price: Allow $25 - $45 per person, including tax and tip, for lunch.
Highlights: Good ambiance. Inventive food.
Update (December 2014): Racines is no more. The chef, Simon Mathys, moved to Micro Resto La Famille. Meanwhile, the owners, MTL Cuisine, decided to re-open the space as a pizzeria called Nolana. The stated opening date is November 2014, but as of the end of the year it is not yet open.