18 Jun - Marconi on what’s good for the mind and the palate
Marconi is the neighborhood restaurant everyone wishes they had in their city. The genius behind the place? Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, who left New York in 2015 to open the charming, market-driven restaurant of his dreams in Montreal. We were lucky enough to convince him to come back to the Big Apple for one night, as part of our The Neighborhood: Dinner Series. Hear Mehdi’s take on Montreal’s restaurant reputation, his love of vegetables, and the foods in New York he misses the most.
Freehand: You used to work at Au Pied de Cochon, but your menu is definitely not in that style. Do you identify with Montreal’s reputation for excess and rich food?
Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly: Let’s put Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef in one category. Montreal, at some point, had a big wave of that gluttonous trend and a lot of people were doing that. I think it’s calmed down a little bit. Me? No. I always liked smaller portions, lots of stuff to share, and not necessarily everything smothered in gravy. At PdC, it was very different for me, so I learned a lot of stuff. I was not supposed to stay there very long, and I ended up being the chef de cuisine. I think I brought a lot of my own there, but where I was cooking before and what I did after was not as excessive. I like a beautiful piece of fatty meat, but I’m careful about what I pair it with. I love the intensity, but in smaller quantities.
FH: I used to work at a restaurant in Lyon and got very exhausted with that kind of food. When you just have fat and meat, it’s not as fun to work with.
MB: There’s a way to make even fat on fat interesting, but you need to cut it with a lot of acid and a lot of green. You need to play with texture and be smart about it, like any food.
FH: How interesting is just meat?
MB: I would take vegetables over meat any day of the week. As it is here, and in New York, the dead of winter is a little tough. But you prepare for it, like they used to do. That’s something that’s coming back in fashion. Canning, fermenting, it’s really cool, but you have to prepare.
FH: That’s a huge investment of money and time.
MB: This winter was really fun here. We played with a lot of fermentations. But you do have to prepare as much as you would do in a home. In a restaurant, it’s the same thing but at different quantities. You have to think ahead, but it’s also good for the mind. It’s good for the team. Here at the restaurant we try to stay very local. Asparagus is a good example. We only use asparagus at this time of year [May], and we’ll never buy an asparagus at any other time. I do buy citrus, for example, so we’re not purely locavores at all. We buy lemons and grapefruits for the bar program.
FH: What product season do you look forward to most?
MB: I love them all. Now it’s exciting because we have the first produce coming out. The real scallions, some lettuces, fiddleheads. And then we’re gonna get into a lot more stuff: the beans, and then obviously the peppers, tomatoes, and all that stuff. And then the super sweet roots, sunchokes… I really love them all.
FH: What do you like to do in New York?
MB: Eat ramen. We didn’t have time when we were there last, but at least one or two bowls of ramen. And sushi for sure. I love sushi very much, my wife as well, so we always hit at least one amazing omakase spot. Montreal is really not a place for that. And New York has plenty. When I lived there, I had a proper omakase at least once every two months. We can’t bring it back, but we really enjoy it while we’re there. We just bring back the memories.