Let’s just say I’m not normally what you’d call a fine-dining kind of guy.
But sometimes in my extensive travels, I do find myself seated in some plush upholstered seat in a hushed chandeliered dining room surrounded by white linen tablecloths and an array of cutlery that would confuse a brain surgeon.
In fact, I just had one of those experiences while on a quick vacation with my wife in Montréal.
Despite my preference for smoked meats, poutine, and craft beer over caviar, foie gras, and high priced champagne, I booked a reservation at Toqué!—arguably the finest restaurant in all of Canada.
I blame Patricia Schultz for this.
Schultz is the author of the bestseller, ‘1,000 Places To See Before You Die,’ one of my most indispensable guides for cutting through all the clutter and narrowing down the essential sights to see at every destination on the continent.
I have to admit, I’m a little obsessed about checking off (literally) the places she lists in my dog-eared copy of her book. I’m up to 287 — in case you were wondering…
So dining at Toqué! is one of her 1,000 things to do before my time expires. Like right up there with seeing Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty!
Jeez. How could one go to Montréal and NOT experience Toqué! with a recommendation like that?
Plus it might score some always needed extra points with my wife.
What Does “Fine” Dining Mean Exactly?
No doubt Toqué! puts the “fine” in fine-dining, specializing in upscale French cuisine served with a modern flair by celebrity chef Normand Laprise.
These days, many fine-dining restaurants like to market themselves as “accessible,” “approachable” and “relaxed” while still being considered “fine” (translation: expensive).
In other words, these restaurants don’t want to scare off guys like me—who would prefer chowing down on a heaping bowl of pork-topped poutine at some college dive bar instead of trying to coax enough caloric intake from a $35 bite-sized morsel of culinary artistry.
Well, Toqué! makes no such effort. The pretentious level here is turned up high—from the maître d, to the hostess, to the waiter. They all work hard to let you know how special this experience is going to be.
Get Clingy: Fine Dining is VERY Attentive
Of course, there are several elements to fine-dining you can always expect.
First is VERY attentive service.
The hostess will INSIST she take your coats. The maître d will pull your chair out before you sit down. The busboy will refold your napkin while you excuse yourself to use the bathroom. The waiter will rush over to help you put your coat back on at the end of the evening.
No water glass ever goes empty. Bread will be immediately replenished.
My advice: just roll with it. And say thank you without looking too startled by all the personal attention.
The waiter will hand you an encyclopedic wine list with some bottles costing more than your first automobile.
My wife isn’t a big drinker. One or two glasses is plenty. No need for the intimidating bottle list.
And I hate wine.
If you’re already judging me, stop. You’re reading an article with the title, “A Redneck’s Survival Guide…”
But I do love beer.
And Torque!, hip to the craft beer boom, offers several selections from Dieu du Ciel, Montréal’s premier brewery.
I think I threw the waiter a little off his pretentious stride when I told him we had visited Dieu du Ciel the day before and was quite familiar with its exquisite offerings.
The whole pretentious schtick that comes with fine-dining hinges on the fact that the waiter knows way more than you do about the wine list, the menu, and how to properly pronounce all the dishes and ingredients.
Pierre, or whatever his name was, clearly wasn’t a beer drinker.
He seemed taken aback that, only 24 hours into my first trip to Montréal ever, I knew more about his beer list than he did.
Maybe that’s just the way it went down in my mind.
Which brings us to the second element of fine-dining…
Pretentiousness Turned Up a Notch
Our waiter generously offered us the option to start with a $110 hors d’oeuvre of caviar and/or a flight of fine champagnes.
Don’t be afraid to say, “No thank you.”
Or, in our case, “Non, merci.”
At this point, our waiter had no illusions that he was not waiting on an executive traveling on a generous expense account like I’m sure he is used too.
Bummer for him.
He then inquired about our choice for the “first course”. This is the fine-dining equivalent of an appetizer.
Now, if you are doing the “two for twenty” at Applebee’s, you get one app of cheese sticks to split and two entrees for twenty bucks.
Not wanting to let on to the possibility that I ever darkened the doors of an Applebee’s, I delicately asked if patrons normally “share” the first course.
“Newwww,” Pierre said in his thick French Canadian accent, which only elevated the pretentiousness. “We recommend one for each guest.”
“Unless you get the foie gras.”
“What Did We Do Wrong??”
One of the great reasons to treat yourself to a fine-dining experience is the opportunity to try something new…something exotic…something you’ve never had before.
Maybe something a little naughty…like foie gras.
This French delicacy is naughty because it greatly offends your vegan friends and PETA.
Say no more. We’ll try it!
Foie gras is goose liver, which is bloated ten times its normal size because the goose is deliberately fed a thrice-daily, forced-feeding of corn.
I think you can see why PETA doesn’t approve.
They split the foie gras onto two plates for us. We each were presented with a thin slice of cold gelatinous liver with a buckwheat crepe, a few sherry apple slices, and a walnut tuile, whatever that is.
My wife had one small bite and immediately slid her plate over to me. She thought it tasted like a livery slab of lard.
Not impressed apparently.
To me it was more like a very rich, liver flavored stick of soft butter. The taste was subtle.
Sophisticated people say foie gras is a decadent and luxurious delicacy.
Have these “people” never been to Texas?
Just asking, because while foie gras is certainly decadent, it isn’t life changing like brisket that’s been slow-smoked over post oak for 18 hours in Lockhart.
The waiter asked my wife how she liked it, in that somewhat presumptive manner like he already knew the answer.
“I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan,” she said bluntly.
The look on Pierre’s face was like he’d just been stabbed in the neck with a butter knife.
…what did we do wrong??”
In Pierre’s mind it was clear that no rational human being could not enjoy the luxury of foie gras unless something had gone terribly wrong in the kitchen.
We assured him that it was no fault of the restaurant, just a personal preference.
The entire experience makes me suspicious that sometimes pretentiousness in itself must be the only appeal of certain things.
Like the appeal of foie gras…
…or people who drink Heineken.
Is pretending it’s the most delicious food you’ve ever eaten a way to virtue signal your level of sophistication?
Color me a bit skeptical.
Who Cares If You Can’t Say It? Just Eat It.
The third element of fine-dining is the long list of ingredients on the menu, most of which you’ve never heard of and others you simply can’t pronounce.
At this point my wife remarked that despite the thorough list of ingredients, you still never quite know what you are ordering.
I chose the “Suckling Pig” with Jerusalem artichoke, salsify puree with cumin, roasted salsify, oyster mushrooms and garlic sauce.
Sounds delicious, but in what form will this pig be presented?
Look, I’m from the South.
I consider myself something of an expert on the subject of porkology – pulled pig, sliced pig, pork tenderloin, pork belly, bacon, ham, pork rinds.
As it turns out, my “Suckling Pig” came as medallions of delicious tenderloin.
It was fantastic.
Lesson: Don’t over-think it.
Chocolate Ganache What?
The most comical example of over-thinking it came when it was time to order dessert.
We knew we wanted something chocolate. We are both chocoholics and we are at a world class French restaurant.
This should be easy.
There was something on the dessert menu referencing chocolate ganache.
My wife, who likes to ask a lot of questions, quizzed the waiter, “Chocolate ganache what?”
“It’s just a ganache,” Pierre said.
“A ganache is something that goes on the dessert, it isn’t usually the dessert itself,” she persisted. “So is it a pie or a cake?”
“Newwwww, newwww,” Pierre replied somewhat befuddled in his French accent. “It is like a crème.”
“Ya mean like a puddin’?”
On the verge of kicking her under the table, I quickly told Pierre we’d try it and that we were sure it would be delicious.
And it was. It was fantastic, actually.
But no, I’m still not sure what it was. Just go for it.
That is always the best advice for fine-dining.
Don’t be intimidated by the menu, or the ingredients, or the wine list…
…or the waiter.
How To Take Control of the Conversation and Set the Expectations
Begin your evening of fine-dining with friendly banter. Tell the waiter who you are and where you are from. Ask plenty of questions.
Don’t let the pretentiousness of the waiter get to you. Afterall, he’s just the waiter. You’re the one paying the $250 dollar tab at the end of the night.
Always set the expectations for your meal and experience up front. If you have special dietary restrictions or certain preferences or time constraints, tell the waiter at the beginning of the evening.
When we went to Toqué!, we made a 5:30 dinner reservation (the earliest they open) with plans to attend a performance of the Nutcracker at 7:30 just a few blocks away.
Fine-dining is not fast food. It takes a while. Most people plunking down hundreds of dollars for dinner want to make it last most of the evening.
Understanding that, I wanted the staff to know we had plans for a 7:30 show. I confirmed our plans twice, once with the maître d on the phone and once again with the waiter as soon as we were seated.
Our waiter replied, “I guess you won’t be enjoying our three hour tasting menu then.”
But he assured us it wouldn’t be a problem if we ordered from the ala carte menu.
And it wasn’t a problem. Fine-dining restaurants like Toqué! are run by professionals. They work hard to get you out in time without rushing the experience.
Bring Your Wallet
The most obvious advice about fine-dining is expecting to pay.
This is a splurge for just about anyone not related to Donald Trump.
You won’t enjoy this special occasion if you get sticker shock as soon as you open the menu or when they bring the bill.
Prepare your mindset (and your budget) in advance.
At Toqué!, first courses were $25-$30 each. Main courses were $50-$60.
The mystery chocolate ganache dessert? $20.
My wife’s glass (again, not bottle) of wine was $20, equaling my two $10 fancy Quebec beers.
The total was about $260 Canadian, with tax and tip.
Of course, the bill goes up exponentially from there if you order an extra first course, opt for the $110 caviar, or get the $500 bottle of French wine.
Enjoy the Experience
The most important advice about fine-dining is, enjoy it!
You are paying not just for fancy ingredients or a celebrity chef’s artistic flair—you are also paying for an unforgettable experience.
The food will be delicious, of course. My wife said her cod flown in from British Columbia was the best fish she had ever eaten.
The food is prepared by the hands of masters with the best ingredients available anywhere in the world—even if I can’t pronounce them.
But fine-dining is more than that.
It is the celebration of a special occasion…
…a celebration of a long-awaited vacation…
…a celebration of the special person with whom you are dining…
…or simply the celebration of life.
All of us deserve a rare splurge like that.
Even beer drinking rednecks like me.