Take someone whose experiences travelling and cooking go back more than a decade and change, put him in the market that’s a go-to for most other restaurants around the city and you get a seasonally inspired cookout whose menu is an amalgam of all things summer: A hot grill, a fresh glass of lemonade, cold soups, spicy taters, salads, herbs straight from the soil.
Tête Carrée is an outlier. Situated between produce stands in Jean-Talon market, Josh Lauridsen’s spot is often overlooked among the market’s more prominently displayed offerings of crêpes, cheeses, saucisson and seafood by its entrances. Blink and you might miss it: A stand made from the bare bones of two by fours, adorned with chalkboard menus, hung plants and boxes of fresh herbs with a single table at its back. The only clues lie in its black and white signage, or the smell of dishes being fired off its grill.
From Kitchener, Lauridsen accrued experience at the likes of Club Chasse et Pêche upon his arrival in the city (it was there that the nickname for the odd-anglo-out stuck: “They called me Tête Carrée — I loved it,” he says with a laugh) and le Filet after that, subsequently landing the position of chef at Garde Manger for two and a half years. Now he’s brought his chops to an unexpected place: Instead of crafting his food out of an upscale kitchen by the light of flambées and the sound of oui chef!, he’s in his second season of a mostly one-man operation.
“There’s a high-end philosophy (behind it),” the chef tells me after my meal one hot July afternoon. “It’s just not with spoons and sauces and plating… I was never a tweezer kind of guy. The decor of cooking is (secondary) to the basic recipes that need to be done properly, whether you’re high-end or a mass quantity restaurant, for the sake of longevity.”
That being said, the dishes here carry the artfulness found on any given plate of the restaurants he’s worked at. Asking him about the logic behind this effort, Lauridsen tells me the onus of beauty comes from how you “eat with your eyes first. If you like what it looks like, the odds are that you think it tastes good already.”
The concept is simple, minimal: The short menu’s main attraction is flatbreads, topped with the homey likes of in-house ricotta and beets ($8.70) or tomatoes, basil and garlic ($6) to more sumptuous choices like grilled squid with herbs ($10) and a prosciutto lobster wrap with ancho peppers ($19). I settled on the week’s special of chanterelle mushrooms and podded peas with a ranch-tapenade sauce. The faint apricot-like taste of the fungus paired amazingly well with the cumin oil that was drizzled on top.
“My inspiration was from three years ago when I was in Costa Rica for my sister’s wedding,” he explained. “We were eating on the beach and there was this guy with a little charcoal grill grilling his version of flatbreads (with toppings)… I ate it, thought it was amazing, and I knew I had to bring the idea back. I said, ‘We have to do this live! This is too good.’”
This experience and the cuisines of countries such as Portugal and Lebanon influenced Lauridsen’s à la minute bread, the texture and taste of which is somewhere between a pita and a naan. But the chef’s cosmopolitan sensibilities don’t end with the flatbreads.
Take, for example, the jerk potatoes ($4). Dusted with a spicy, smoky seasoning derived from a Jamaican recipe thrice-removed from its source, they’re dressed with a sweet garlic mayo reminiscent of a Trinidadian garlic sauce — thin and light — and chives. If spice isn’t your thing, there’s a regular cold yellow zucchini soup ($6.75). In lieu of gazpacho for more sweltering days, this viscous mixture ran deep with tones of roasted garlic, shallots and thyme, the faintest aftertaste of fennel, all garnished with grilled zucchini flowers and a tomato, fennel and cumin jam.
Each of these made for a substantial side to accompany a flatbread, but the heaviest of all was TC’s salad ($5.87), an earthbound mix of kohlrabi, carrot, red onion and herbs, made tangy with red wine vinaigrette and nutty with broad parmesan shavings. The only complicated component to the stall’s offerings was its lemonade, served either pure ($3) or mixed with seasonal fruits, this time around being red currants ($4). Lauridsen’s wide countertop selection of fresh herbs to pluck and add to beverages and dishes is almost overwhelming.
Market stall food across Montreal is hardpressed to get much better than this. Get it while the city’s still hot. ■
Tête Carrée is open from May to end of October at the Jean-Talon Market, 7070 Henri-Julien. Note that the stand is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.