The new resto at Four Seasons is a gorgeous space with quality dishes, but has not yet found its customer-service footing
** out of ****
1440 de la Montagne St. (corner de Maisonneuve); 514-843-2525; fourseasons.com/montreal/
Wheelchair access: Yes
Price: Entrées $14-$26, platters $25 to $150, mains $27 to $48, desserts $12-$34
Ratings are from one to four stars: One is good, two is very good, three is excellent, four is exceptional.
Marcus is gorgeous. The recently opened restaurant and bar from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has spared no expense in giving us a stunning setting, located on the third floor of the equally new (and very good-looking) Four Seasons Hotel on de la Montagne St.
As soon as you step out of the elevator and come face to face with an entire wall in floor-to-ceiling gold metallic, it becomes clear: Everything is impressive. The bar, in soothing shades of cream, grey and green, transports you to an art deco-inspired reverie. Did I dress right for this? This might cross your mind, because it all looks, feels — and probably is — expensive. Plus, on the opposite side of the bar you can access Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, so the shopping fantasy is built right in.
But it’s the restaurant that’s the chicest of brasserie chic. The design plays with sharp and smooth textures of wood and marble, mellowed out by plush brown leather banquettes and circular booths, rattan-backed chairs with sage velour seats. There’s a wall of lush green plants arranged in front of a bay of sliding windows that can be opened to convert to a covered terrace overlooking the cityscape. This is all the impressive work of Montreal’s talented Atelier Zébulon Perron, who first raised eyebrows with the interiors of Buvette Chez Simone in 2008, and hasn’t stopped wowing Montreal restaurant-goers ever since.
So it’s easy to be swept up in the magic of Marcus, with such a spectacular setting and all the hype surrounding the — take a breath — Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, New York-based chef’s first Canadian venture. (He currently has 12 restaurants around the world, including his most well know, Red Rooster in Harlem). The idea behind Marcus? To draw on the chef’s Scandinavian influences, while highlighting local, seasonal ingredients, with a focus on seafood. But you won’t see Samuelsson leading the brigade in the expansive open kitchen. Rather, local restaurant chef Nicholas Bramos (former Toqué!, Monkland Tavern, 1909 Taverne Moderne), and French pastry chef Frank Vilpoux are at the helm. It’s no easy feat, as Marcus seats approximately 200, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, non-stop.
I had no trouble finding three Mar-curious dining companions to join me. Everyone was excited to live luxuriously for an evening. On the Thursday night, the restaurant and bar were packed, and while we did have to wait for our table despite having a reservation, we were soon shown to a great spot on the terrace area. It was cool and rainy so no windows were open, but still, our big wood table was spacious and comfortable, the views superb and the abundant green foliage around us very haute jardin. Our server introduced herself, but no one could hear her due to a DJ playing very far from cool (or even ironic) ’80s and ’90s lounge remixes. It was so loud we found it hard to communicate. Also, this was only 8:45 p.m.
The wine list is what you would expect from a high-end hotel restaurant: awesome, if you have money to burn. But there are some more affordable, interesting wines to be tasted thanks to sommelier Gabriel Bélanger, so when our server brought the wrong bottle (I guess she couldn’t hear us, either) it was actually a happy mistake; the Meinklang Grüner Libre was a refreshing, affordable, lively choice at $65 (skin contact, unfiltered) to start the evening.
The menu is broken into sections: raw, tartares, robata grill, salads, platters, mains, grilled fish and dishes to share. To start, since the spicy tuna tartare wasn’t available (sold out!) we went with salmon. The tomato salad had no more buffalo mozzarella (sold out!), so we went with a red endive option, along with yakitori wings from the robata grill. For mains, we kept it simple: Cornish hen, crab spaghetti Picadilly, halibut, and New York strip in place of the preferred lamb chops (sold out!).
And then we waited … just under an hour to get any food. At this point, the music had not dimmed but the lights had, so it was hard to decipher all the details on each plate, and as I began to question our server, she seemed flustered, giving me vague answers.
Easily a highlight, the salmon tartare with lemon, dill and cucumber was superb; we literally fought for each bite. Unfortunately, the endive salad, a jumble of thinly laced carrots and green papaya, endive leaves, cilantro, basil and trace amounts of chopped peanuts, can only be described as dry. As in, there was no dressing. The only perks came from the rare cubes of grilled watermelon hidden at the bottom of the bowl, and the muted bite of the tender endive. And then there were the yakitori wings. Cooked on the robata (a Japanese charcoal grill that no one explained), two metal skewers splayed a dismal amount of deboned chicken the size of my thumb, sparingly drizzled in a sticky maple and Sichuan peppercorn sauce. The chicken scant, the sauce cloying, and the accompanying grilled shishito peppers unseasoned.
Mains were also uneven. The Cornish hen was tender, yet the accompanying fricassée of carrots, peas and onions felt conservatively chicken dinner-ish despite a tangy mole sauce, the ingredients of which were as much a mystery to our server as they were to us. The spaghetti Picadilly had so much potential: a healthy dose of crab, a good amount of chilli heat, uni (sea urchin, to give it that umami creaminess) and a dusting of breadcrumbs but, unfortunately, way too much salt. The generous piece of halibut was also sadly oversalted, though served with a vivid eggplant puree and lively lima bean, blistered cherry tomato and sliced-okra succotash. On a positive note, the steak was excellent, with a finger of glistening fat capping each thick-cut piece. If only it came with something more seasonal than a brick of scalloped potatoes under a hot melted blanket of what tasted like Gruyère cheese (I think? No one was around to tell us).
By the time we got desserts, we were discouraged. The vibe had gone from chic to club, and the music was not improving. The lights became even dimmer, and we saw several of the $150 seafood towers going out, adorned with road-flare-sized sparklers — or maybe that was just a diner letting the staff know they were still there, in a dark corner. The only place for sweet relief from that music were Perron’s beautiful bathrooms, mercifully soundproof, the women’s done in pretty pink terrazzo tiles and pink gold accents, the men’s in striking black and white marble.
Desserts were an uptick, with impressive presentations and thoughtful flavour combinations. The chocolate coffee cake was a slick dark chocolate bar with mouse-like consistency, served with crumbled all-spice gingerbread and cardamom coffee ice cream. The feather light donuts were filled with peanut butter cream, served with pineapple-ginger compote, yogurt ice cream and maple taffy. And even though these helped sweeten our mood, we left disappointed. Food and service were all over the place, and as the night progressed, the initially enchanting evening had spiralled into a bad supper club scene.
So I went back to see Marcus in another light: daylight, for lunch. Along with similar menu items, there’s also a prix fixe menu: choice of three entrees and mains for $29. The salmon belly, warmed on the robata grill, lightly rubbed with maple syrup and wrapped, sushi-style, in nori, was wonderful. Served with pickled daikon, uni butter and a citrusy green shiso leaf, things were looking up. The fish of the day, Quebec Nordic shrimp on a homemade brioche bun, was dreamy; ultra-soft and generously buttered bread filled with a mound of soft pink crustaceans mixed with mayo and fresh herbs. The Niçoise was equally impressive, with seriously fresh seared bluefin tuna slices atop crisp baby gem lettuce with shards of mellow green Sicilian olives, heirloom tomatoes, and a perfectly executed soft-boiled egg. It was literally night and day from our last experience.
But again, no one explained any of our dishes despite it being markedly less busy. Nor did they tell us where anything was from, how it was prepared, or what went into it. So here’s the problem (besides the awkward supper club scene, and the fact that the kitchen had a very bad night): The place already looks and feels special, so convince us why we’re there (and do it without a sparkler). Woo us. Sweep us off our feet. Show us that we’re experiencing something exceptional and not just something expensive, because there’s no doubt about the quality of the ingredients and the work that has been put into executing each dish. The potential for Marcus to be exceptional is there, but I only experienced a glimmer of it. In a food city like Montreal, good looks will only get you so far.