Sarah Musgrave’s list of best casual restaurants of 2014

The restaurants that stood out on Montreal’s casual dining scene in 2014 weren’t just a place to eat, but ideas come to life.

At most of the addresses on this list, you can just imagine the business partners strategizing about a premise that would set them apart for an increasingly food-savvy public. Whether it was focusing on brunch service, offering a communal style of eating, spotlighting a particular region’s specialty, or even shaping a menu around the shape of particular food items, smart and tasty were the key words this year.

Le Ballpark

Best for: A snowy winter evening when the kids need to have a ball and the parents need to have a cocktail.

The windows of Le Ballpark look out over the southern boundary of Little Italy, and it’s particularly cozy on a snowy night as buses and cars go by silently. The setting mixes darkness and light, with a big central bar, upside-down lamps on the ceiling and curved-back park bench seating. The premise is all balls all the time, with about six types on the changing menu, from Italian-style polpette to fish cakes with tartare. Sides are possibly more fun: the American salad loads ham, bacon, egg, blue cheese and homemade ranch dressing on a cross-section of iceberg lettuce, and braised fennel with walnuts and anchovies scores a home run. 6660 Clark St., 438-384-6660

Café Parvis

Best for: Folks suffering from Furco fatigue or who need to fall in love with downtown again.

Tucked away on a side street behind St. James United Church, in an enclave that was once the city’s fur district, this hip hideaway in the commercial core is owned by the same team as the popular-to-overflowing Furco wine bar next door. Designed by co-owner Zébulon Perron, the pared-back layers of paint and industrial artifacts almost reveal time passing. At lunch, pizza is served by the slice; evening service brings individual pies elevated with artsy toppings like sweet, porky and peppery pear, prosciutto, caramelized onions and blue cheese, or even octopus, spiced tomato sauce and artichoke. And how nice to see equal weight given to salad, with options like Caesar, beet and quinoa, available in side dishes, meal size or sharesies. 433 Mayor St., 514-764-3589

 Grumman ’78

Best for: The pleasures of al fresco dining at the rancho, under a warm roof.

The lime-green taco truck that started Montreal’s street food scene is often parked outside its brick-and-mortar headquarters in a St-Henri garage. The trio of Hilary McGown, Marc-André Leclerc and Gaëlle Cerf are running in high gear here at destination: fun. Under strings of festive lights, sip a manly margarita (minus the slush and the stemmed glass). Try some tacos — feta cheese and red bean is a classic — but concentrate on the bigger-ticket Mexican-ish fare, such as tangy duck chilaquiles. Fried chicken, ultra-tender from brining and sous-vide cooking, is also divine. Order papas 78, a sweet potato and cheese number somewhere between patatas bravas and poutine. And don’t miss the wheeled pastry cart that runs wild with the Ai Enrique bars, key lime tarts and pink peppercorn macarons. 630 de Courcelle St., 514-290-5125

Gia Ba

Best for: Szechuan spices that kill winter. Dead.

With the opening of this hot and spicy eatery by chef Andy Su, N.D.G. really got its Szechuan on. The blackboard lists specials like crawdads, twice-cooked oysters and soft-shell crab burgers, as well as Asian brews, sake and even moutai. Gia Ba got so popular, so fast, that it sometimes falls victim to its own success. However, when it’s on, the immediacy of the cooking process shines through in moist, crunchy, luminous green leaves of Chinese cabbage with Szechuan peppercorns and dried chilies (the chilies are fine to eat, the peppercorns will numb your mouth). Get more vegetable excitement in green beans with minced pork, Taiwanese celery, tofu, peanuts and pickled radish, lotus root salad, or dark and deep yu xiang eggplant. And that plate of deep-fried cumin chicken nuggets was born to pair with Tsingtao. 5766 Monkland Ave., 514-564-7698


Best for: Suppertime excitement during daytime hours.

Present customer with a delectable 12-inch éclair, with coffee cream, kumquats and pistachios. Offer “bulles du matin,” a private import bubbly. Both before noon. This is breakfast for grown-ups. With 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. opening hours, Ma’tine reflects how people with culinary aspirations are trying to achieve work-life balance — in this case, the talented team of Maxime and Jérémy Daniel-Six, and Sophie Duchastel de Montrouge, previously of La Famille. Brunch at this clean-lined Village space is special: think sockeye salmon with butternut squash, hazelnut-almond butter and poached egg, or a dish of beets and greens spiced with vadouvan and anchored with anchovies. Great wines, great pastries and thoughtful dishes, and did I mention dessert for breakfast? 1310 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E., 514-439-9969


Best for: Family-style Middle Eastern feasting, without necessarily having to invite the family.

Walking into Sumac, the scent of spices plays over you. Raquel Zagury and David Bloom have transformed a former St-Henri reptile store into an airy backdrop for colourful Middle Eastern meals. The white-tiled room has a buzzing atmosphere, lots of veggie options and a modern take on an old style of dining: mix and match the many salads, dips and platters, order at the cash, and wait staff takes it from there. Even the pita gets extra care, charred to order and sprinkled with zata’ar and olive oil, before being used for rustic hummus and mouhamara, salade cuite of cooked peppers and tomato, or fried eggplant with harissa and preserved lemon. The falafel is fabulous; chickpea balls have just the right crust-to-crunch ratio, and a moist, herbed interior. 3618 Notre-Dame St. W., 514-935-1444

Sammi & Soupe Dumplings

Best for: For slurping without shame.

The third eatery from the Qing Hua dumpling emporium is a utilitarian space dedicated to one purpose: delivering bamboo steamers of China’s famous satisfyingly soupy xiao long bao to the table. The shape, closure and filling of soup buns distinguish them from other pockets of joy — like mini water balloons, they’re ready to explode all over your shirt if not handled properly. Fortunately, there are instructions at hand; the key is to bite off a little corner and noisily suck the broth out, then dip into a mix of soy sauce and black vinegar before gobbling. Eat and repeat with half orders of chicken and shrimp, pork and leek, lamb and cilantro, or crab and pork. Hot and sour soup and the cucumber salad are great counterparts for the rib-sticking cold weather fare here. 1909 Ste-Catherine St. W., 514-846-8886

 La Récolte — Espace Local

Best for: Making brunch your main meal of the day.

A few blocks from Jean-Talon Market, La Récolte initially opened with a singular focus on weekend brunch. The team of Étienne Huot, Denis Vukmirovic and Lyssa Barrera recently added dinner service on Thursdays and Fridays. It remains a showcase for the province’s organic and seasonal ingredients, from hot toddies made with local parsnip gin to pork shoulder served with tarte tatin, aged cheddar and mustard sauce. They think outside the brunch box while staying committed to principles of sustainability. Case in point: a multilayered dish of pristine Quebec-caught trout, adorned with marguerite buds, cherry tomatoes, cippolini onions and half-smashed ratte potatoes, with soft-cooked egg oozes yolk into sauce vierge and rich, tongue-coating snowcrab bisque. On the sweet side, the s’mores French toast is done with homemade marshmallows, of course. 764 Bélanger St., 514-508-5450

Best for: Asian lite at night.

Replacing long-standing Souvenirs d’Indochine, Hà is a hopping new spot for easy-to-like Asian bites, beer and cocktails — try the Saigon Sour or the Hanoi Sling. Chefs Hong Hà Nguyen and Ross Louangsignotha, along with luminaries from Montreal’s media and PR scene, have a venture with a vision. I wouldn’t call it a restobar, but it does bridge eatery and nightclub — eatclub? Tables are cleverly arranged along different axes, echoed in a cleverly arranged menu of ultra-palatable small plates that bring southeast Asian street foods inside. Assemble a meal of fried tofu blocks with creamy interiors, shrimp-and-pork-packed egg rolls served in newspaper, cloud-light black squid ink buns filled with pork belly, and some great soups, particularly a punchy laksa. 243 Mont-Royal W., 514-848-0336

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