By: Tracey Teo
At Le Mousso, a new 40-seat restaurant in the heart of the Centre-Sud neighborhood in French-speaking Montreal, Canada, I patiently sit at a communal table sipping water as servers breeze past me, never bothering to take my order. Nobody is ever going to take my order, and I don’t expect anyone to.
That’s because by decree of Chef-Owner Antonin Mousseau-Rivard, everybody eats the same thing in his restaurant, a seven-course prix fixe menu created from Quebec-sourced ingredients that can be enjoyed with or without a wine pairing. Stealing surreptitious glances at your neighbor’s plate is the only way to get a preview of what’s to come. “We want people to come here and open their minds. We don’t believe in people who don’t like things,” says Mousseau-Rivard. “It’s not like I’m serving monkey brains or whatever. There’s nothing really crazy.”
Noir, orange, mauve, vert, blanc, rouge, brun, and jaune. These are the only clues the so-called menu provides about what I will be eating this evening. Each color represents a course, and I must say, I’m a little nervous about the first one, noir (black). I can’t think of a single food I’ve ever eaten that was black, except dark chocolate, and it seems doubtful we are going to start with dessert.
Looks like Chef has added an extra course tonight. I’m counting eight instead of the usual seven. I’ve opted for the wine pairing, and tonight’s libations are as much a mystery as the food. At last, the first course arrives. Bewildered, I stare at a couple of lumps of coal served with a side of dirty dryer lint on a stick. Bon Appétit!
I twirl the dryer lint, inspect it from all angles, and, finally, work up the courage to put this fanciful concoction in my mouth. Hmmmm. My mind works furiously to identify what’s on my palate. The outside is sweet, but the inside is savory. Yum. It melts in my mouth like butter, but what is it? Hey, I’ve got it. Foie gras! Chef calls it a foie gras bonbon wrapped in burnt maple cotton candy. Delicious.
I move on to the lump of coal. It’s actually a financier (pronounced fee-nahn-see-AY), a classic almond-flavored French pastry with a crispy, eggshell-like exterior. It serves as a pedestal for a puff of charcoal-infused cream and a sprinkle of sturgeon caviar — three delightful textures and flavors in one tiny bite.
I feel as though I’m running blind through the forest, not knowing if I will encounter an inviting field of fragrant wild flowers or hurl myself over a cliff. Social media has been buzzing about Mousseau-Rivard’s culinary masterpieces since he opened Le Mousso last fall. The chef takes a bit of devilish pleasure in forcing diners into a state of culinary cognitive dissonance, teaching them that sometimes food that looks completely unappetizing tastes divine. “I love to see the reaction when they see the plate,” admits Mousseau-Rivard. “One time I served black soup. Everyone’s face was worth a million dollars.”
If you want to try the black course that I enjoyed, well, you can’t. The menu changes regularly. Forget going online. It’s never posted, unless a customer puts it on Instagram. Don’t ask for substitutions. It’s not going to happen.
So how does this young, self-taught chef get away with being so inflexible, mysterious, and downright obstinate? It’s simple. In a short time, he’s built trust among his loyal, mostly millennial crowd. They recognize his innovation and talent, and most importantly, they have a blast analyzing what they are eating.
It occurs to me this restaurant would be ideal for a first date. Even if the couple discovers they have nothing in common, there will be no awkward silences because each course is a conversation-starter. Le Mousso isn’t simply about being edgy and avant-garde. In the end, no matter how funky and fun the presentation, the food has to taste good — and it is very, very good.
It’s important to note that Antonin Mousseau-Rivard doesn’t run his restaurant the way he does because he’s pompous or egotistical. Quite the contrary. He’s a down-to-earth guy that wants diners to have the best experience possible, but that often means challenging their firmly held beliefs about food. He thinks people often say they have an aversion to a certain food when what they really don’t like is not the food itself, but the preparation they are accustomed to. For example, when he was young, Antonin Mousseau-Rivard didn’t like Brussels sprouts.