Ryan Gray and Emma Cardarelli at Nora Gray

Ryan Gray and Emma Cardarelli at in the kitchen at Nora Gray, April 2013

This post is about how much fun I had at Nora Gray on a recent trip to Montreal. To do it justice, by which I mean to properly describe the personal context into which proprietors Ryan Gray and chef Emma Cardarelli blew my mind and palate on a snowy early spring evening, I need to provide a little personal history. Please bear with me…

In September of 1990 I was a young man of 18 tender years who arrived as a student to live in Montreal. The Meech Lake Accord died the June before, and Lucien Bouchard had left the Mulroney government to launch the Bloc Quebecois riding a wave of Quebecois resentment at the R.o.C., or Rest of Canada. On the lawn of the main campus of McGill, drinking Molson from plastic cups, our revelry was literally shadowed by the double propped Canadian Forces helicopters mobilizing out to the Oka crisis.

By the time I was ready to graduate four years later, Gilles Duceppe was my MP, Jacques Parizeau was poised to bring a referendum on separation in 1995 that would be lost (or won, depending on one’s view) by half of a percentage, and every third or fourth storefront on St. Catherine or St. Laurent was boarded up with a sign that said ‘A Louer’. The political and economic climate of Montreal in the early to mid 1990s meant there wasn’t any question of an anglophone Torontonian doing anything after graduation except heading back up the 401 or to Dorval airport headed to the other greener pastures one might scramble to in New York, London, California or anywhere except Quebec.

Not that life was bleak in Montreal, then. Far from it. The city will always embrace and kiss, on both cheeks, anyone who is interested in living well, whether they’re from Paris, Chibougamou or Port-au-Prince. Or, even La Ville de la Reine. I had a lot of fun in between, and sometimes at the expense of, my studies in Montreal. But my world there was small; it spun on an axis that was boulevard St-Laurent (a.k.a. St. Lawrence, a.k.a. The Main). I would occasionally venture north up into Little Italy or even the Jean-Talon Market. Occasionally, I might walk as far east as Papineau. In the 1990s, cut off from the city by the expressway, The Old City was pretty much abandoned except for a few tourist traps. When we poked around there it was to find a loft party, or just to explore the empty cobblestone streets.

The west part of the Montreal, by which I mean anything beyond Crescent Street, was more or less a mystery to me. I went once to the Atwater Market by taxi, but I would have been hard pressed to put my finger on it on a map. I ventured once or twice to a friend’s parent’s house in Westmount. I recall getting into another friend’s car once to safari to an exotic locale called N.D.G. to go to breakfast at Cosmos. But, what is now the fast-gentrifying, hispster cool collection of neighbourhoods dubbed the Sud-Ouest was strictly terra incognito.

Sea Urchin at Nora Gray

Sea Urchin at Nora Gray

All of this has, of course, changed. The city of Montreal feels alive and it’s thriving enough to have made this one-time resident turned visitor feel pangs of regret for having left. No more so than during the few hours I spent eating, drinking and chatting with just made friends at the bar at Nora Gray, the newish restaurant in a part of the city, just south of the old Forum, that I hadn’t ever heard of, Griffin Town.

Nora Gray is a spawn of David McMillan and Frédéric Morin’s Joe Beef, or more specifically its sister restaurant Liverpool House at which Nora Gray’s young co-owners chef Emma Cardarelli and sommelier Ryan Gray worked before striking out on their own. (There is a third partner in the operation, Lisa McConnell.) The name of the restaurant is an amalgam of the first two partners’ identities, Nora being the name of Cardarelli’s beloved nonna, who inspired her culinary career. Lesley Chesterman accurately (I think) describes Cardarelli’s cooking as “Italianate without going down the authentic or regional routes.” In other words, her cooking, like Gray’s wines and the room itself, is alive.

Nora Gray is a single storefront restaurant with a big front window on a stretch of rue St. Jacques where there is little other retail. The room is warm and wood paneled. An ‘L’ of tables curves around the north and east sides of the restaurant, and along the back two thirds of the room is a big bar where Ryan Gray plays host, mixing drinks and opening bottles of natural or otherwise interestingly made wine. Cardarelli comes in and out of the restaurant throughout the evening, sometimes carrying plates, other times just checking to see how things are going. (I know since I spent an entire one, and then some, at the bar.)

I need to disclose that upon arriving I was quickly made Gray and Cadarelli’s guest. I know I looked at a menu, but as became steeped in their hospitality and the restaurant’s general tone of revelry and what I ate was simply what they served me, with one request on my part. Montreal, for reasons cultural and geographical, tends to have much better seafood than Toronto, so I requested we go that way. And did we ever: sea urchin crudo, pan-fried shrimp with their roe still clinging to their legs and snow crab with spring peas all just caught and just in season from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I finished with a big slice of Cardarelli’s porchetta with a sort of salady salsa verde of brussels sprouts on top. If my descriptions are vague, it may have to do with the cocktail followed by many, many glasses of forward thinking, boutique Italian wines poured by Gray.

What Nora Gray does specifically, and the great, fun restaurants of Montreal do generally is create an atmosphere of high conviviality. You don’t want to leave the restaurant to go to the party because the restaurant is the party. You’re supposed to eat too much, drink too much and have a conversation with the guy or couple next to you at the bar, which I did in wine-fueled franglais. Had I been at a table with friends, I might have thought I was at a dinner party, with Gray’s just perfect selection of slightly obscure late 70s to early 80s restaurant rock and new wave. And as dinner service wound up and well fed patrons drifted off, newer ones came in to sit and sip something at the bar: the party continued.

One gentleman I met at Nora Gray towards the end of the dinner is a regular that Ryan Gray introduced me to. He was there with his twentysomething kids who felt as at home there as he. An accountant with a big firm, he’d moved to Montreal a few years before, after living a long time in Toronto. That’s a move that wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago, I remarked, and he agreed, adding he’d settled in the Sud-Ouest and was having more fun in places like Nora Gray and enjoying the city beyond anything he’d have imagined. His kids, too, wanted to stay. Vive la différence.

Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the not-for-profit corporation which publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley