Culture  BBQ Laurier dies… And goes to heaven?

Brendan Lewis tastes Gordon Ramsay’s rotisserie takeover

Some might say I live in an enviable location. Prime real estate, in fact.  And the reason for this high property value lies not in my sparsely-furnished one-bedroom shithole in the basement of a crumbling building.  No, the reason is more spiritual and lies right across the street.

You see, my church is Romados, and there doesn’t pass a single Sunday that I fail to join my congregation in bowing their heads to the deity of Montreal Rotisserie. As with any proper faith, Montreal’s many parishioners of poulet may receive communion in many fine houses of worship. For 75 years, though, there was another altar in Outremont that never fell short of poultry pilgrims, many of whom felt as passionately about the institution as I do for my personal basilica.

So, it’s easy for me to understand the public’s outrage at the announcement last spring that this beloved chicken chapel’s days were numbered, and that television chef and restauranteur Gordon Ramsay was gentrification’s reaper du jour (see the Daily’s March 5 article, “Hell’s Chicken”).

The LaPorte family opened Laurier BBQ in 1936, and it grew into one of Montreal’s pre-eminent rotisserie destinations, at one point boasting up to one thousand customers per day.  Laurier made “regulars” out of a great many Outremont natives, and remains entrenched in the nostalgia of many Montrealers to this day.

Despite these wistful yearnings, somewhere along the line the restaurant ceased to be the hotspot it once was.  Turnover fell, and, with fewer diners passing through, Laurier’s balance books were presumably creeping towards the red.  Maybe the steady march of gentrification and development sounded its death knells, forcing it to compete with swankier, more upscale eateries. Or maybe a decline in expendable income among its aging customer-base (and the hard economic times of the past few years more generally) was to blame.  Though the details are vague, somehow the third generation of LaPorte’s found it harder to return the senescent institution to its former position of prestige in the wake of a dwindling clientele.

These uncertain circumstances of Laurier BBQs untimely demise might explain the incredulous, even defiant, sentiments that boiled to the surface when it was slated to become Laurier Gordon Ramsay.  Comments on the CBC’s August 10th article heralding the restaurant’s re-opening were by and large dismissive, with more than a few taking umbrage to Ramsay’s notorious on-camera persona:

“No, not ever, even if it was free I would not support this guy.  He does not respect other people.”  Or: “Sorry, too overwhelmed by his nasty personality to even consider dining at one of his restaurants.” Another, seemed to contrast the restaurants past with Ramsay’s present: “I wouldn’t give this guy a dime…there are many other fine dining options in Montreal.  And it is not the Laurier BBQ anymore – no nostalgia points.”

Personal digs aside, I was curious to see what mark Ramsay’s overhaul left on the place.  Paying a visit to Laurier Gordon Ramsay presents the diner with some interesting juxtapositions.  The decor in many ways follows the template of casual dining: rows of table-cloth free booths, a large flat screen television for hockey nights, and all this arranged around the focal point: rich and satisfying comfort food.  But the simplicity and familiarity of setting are matched by a very evident attention to detail, from the Corinthian leather padded benches to the complementary jar of made-from-scratch pickles beside the expansive – though not prohibitively so – wine list at each table. The sheer number of forays that Head Chef Guillermo Russo makes into the dining area, patiently listening to the comments and critiques of his guests, underscores the restaurant’s emphasis on hospitality and the hand-crafted.

Russo, a McGill alum, explained the mission of the new rotisserie to me: “Our model hasn’t really changed, so the essence is that we’re still remaining true to what Laurier was, and all that Ramsay is bringing to the table is the name, and the respect.” He continued,  “I always listen to the customers…my job as head chef, especially being from Montreal, I’m in the dining hall, and I keep a constant dialogue with them.” When asked if the restaurant’s new incarnation has changed its DNA, Russo stressed that there was no fundamental overhaul: “The only thing I’m doing is sourcing really good ingredients and making it local however possible.”

Certainly, it took more than grain-fed, Quebec-raised organic chicken to make Laurier Gordon Ramsay, but the ease with which I could sit with a few friends and fill my belly without emptying my wallet made me wonder if the answer to the cosmic question could be that simple.  Maybe Chef Russo’s charming smile and trucker hat will make a believer out of you.