** out of ****
1290 Beaubien St. E. (at Chambord St.); vinvinvin.ca
Accessibility: A couple steps up; narrow room.
Ratings are from one to four stars: One is good, two is very good, three is excellent, four is exceptional.
Critic’s Choice: Signifies a noteworthy restaurant that is highly recommended, regardless of the star rating.
It’s official: Montreal is hitting peak wine bar. What was once a novel “natural wines and small plates” concept in this city can now be found in practically every neighbourhood. Just recently, four new wine bars opened in different areas: Little Burgundy’s Stem Bar from the owners of September Café, Bazarette downtown, Etna in Villeray and Le Roseline on St-Laurent Blvd. That list doesn’t even include another handful slated to open, as well as the one I visited for this review, Vinvinvin, which has been going strong since last summer. Add all that to the mainstays — including Pullman, Buvette Chez Simone, Le Vin Papillon,
, Rouge Gorge and
As for Vinvinvin, this Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie newcomer could not be more welcome in an area that was in dire need of a wine-focused watering hole. With nearby Isle de Garde taking care of the increasingly vibrant neighbourhood’s microbrew needs, I was hardly surprised when we arrived at the natural-wine hot spot early on a Saturday night and had to wait for a table. Our waitress later told us the lineup goes out the door on Friday nights. Supply and demand.
The triple-vin name represents the three owners: chef Marina De Figueiredo, formerly of
alum and sommelier Nikolas Da Fonseca; and maître d’ Antonin Frenette-Laporte of Isle de Garde. The wine list, put together by Da Fonseca and local import agency Ward & Associates, is focused on central European wine regions — including Austria, Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — with very well-priced selections that rarely go over $70. There is also a scattering of excellent options from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Canada, with plenty served by the glass, or magnums for crowds.
Wines are grouped into categories that help you navigate depending what you’re in the mood for, from mineral to thirst-quenching options, all-stars, funky bottles and “joufflu,” or chubby/full-bodied wines. It’s a great way to organize a list and eliminate a lot of the intimidation that comes with the ever-expanding natural wine landscape. Friendly staff are also at the ready to offer information and advice.
The long and narrow space, smartly designed by Ménard Dworkind, has mosaic-like tiling accents on the floors and up the walls, vibrant colours in light fixtures and a soothing teal ceiling. Tables are tucked into the sides, while a bar in the middle with seating serves as the room’s main showcase, next to a semi-open kitchen. There’s a system in place for the crowds, with a waiting area where you can stay, preferably with glass of wine in hand, until you get seated. It feels chaotic at times, with no one to take your order, but it works out: we had wine within 10 minutes and a table within 15.
We started with three very different glasses: a bright, slightly effervescent, light skin contact wine from Trail Estate in Ontario’s Prince Edward County; a crisp Alsatian white from Christian Binner; and a more intensely orange skin-contact wine from Paraschos in Friuli, Italy. This is exactly why wine bars are so popular: you get to try a bit of everything.
De Figueiredo’s small but varied menu is made to pair with the wines and atmosphere, ranging from the snacky to the veg-driven, to more meal-like dishes that can be grouped for sharing or can make up an individual dinner. We sampled most of the menu, but it’s worth noting that De Figueiredo was not in the kitchen on the night we visited, and I later learned she’s on maternity leave.
To start, some snacky stuff: a yogurt and spinach dip with spelt crackers; homemade bread with hazelnut butter and honey; and radishes with chive butter and puffed oats. The spinach dip and crackers were nice — a simple and easy option to have with a drink. The flavour combination of spinach and yogurt is well worn, but when garnished with puffed oats and parsley, and alongside crisp shards of spelt crackers, the details made it more appealing.
The bread — a satisfying hunk of fresh whole grain with a thick crust — came with ramekins of the honey and hazelnut butter. When dipped in sequence, it reminded me of a breakfast spread, the sweet combined with the nutty. I preferred sticking with the nutty option alone.
The radishes were definitely the best of this bunch, set atop a healthy schmear of rich green chive butter and sprinkled with greens and puffed oats. The radishes were a combination of raw, grilled and lightly dressed, giving both biting and subtle aspects to a great little primer plate.
Drink-wise, we moved on to Rennersistas’ Waiting for Tom White, from Burgenland, Austria — a lively, fresh pinot blanc and chardonnay blend with a touch of acidity and fruit — while waiting for our shared mains: a butternut squash pasta, a bologna sandwich, Arctic char and half a Cornish hen.
The butternut squash tagliatelle, served with sautéed mushrooms and covered in generous shavings of a local sheep’s milk cheese (Zacharie Cloutier), was creamy, rich and slightly sweet, but in dire need of something to puncture that uniformity beyond the mushrooms, which got lost in the weight of the sauce. Freshly cracked pepper, herbs, some bread crumbs for texture — anything to rescue it from being a heavy, one-note winter dish.
As soon as I looked at the menu, the bologna sandwich spoke to me as a late-night, indulgent option — the one you turn to for a little grease to soak up some of the wine. Unfortunately, the bun wasn’t soft and spongy, despite the satisfying layers of fried meat, sauerkraut and mustard, with sliced pickles to boot. The homemade potato chips served alongside were also very oily — the thin slices were practically soaking in grease.
The next dishes fared a bit better. The Arctic char fillet was served in a dark poultry consommé and with a scattering of root vegetables, like a mini pot-au-feu. The broth needed seasoning and didn’t add much to the elegant char, which was lovely despite being slightly overcooked. Again, fresh herbs would have helped give this dish some more vibrancy.
The half Cornish hen — complete with foot — was easily devoured, served on top of baby potatoes and velvety choron sauce (a variation of béarnaise, with the addition of tomato paste). Juicy, rich and very satisfying, the roasted hen was garnished with scant fried capers, which helped give the occasional salty textured burst.
The biggest surprise was the single dessert on offer: a financier with diplomat cream, sunflowers and berries. Served in a small dish, the round, moist almond cake was propped up in a butter-coloured pillow of pastry cream — basically custard meets whipped cream — with a hidden treasure of berry compote underneath and broken fragments of candied sunflowers on top. So delicious and refined, with such a considered composition, this was one of my favourite desserts in recent memory.
There’s no denying that a trip to Vinvinvin is fun. Whether it’s for a drink after work, a nightcap before going home or, in our case, a full evening spent eating and exploring their many wines, there’s a buzzy energy about the place and lots of interesting, affordable bottles to choose from. The food might not be the sole focus, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. And despite the dishes being uneven, there’s a lot of potential and creativity here, so I’m going to give Vinvinvin the benefit of the doubt. After all, everyone deserves some time to find their footing.