Dining with the Devil

Contrary to Mies Van der Rohe’s famous dictum, it is not God but the devil that resides in the details. At least, that is the bedevilment for those of us who like to dream big, but hate to sweat the minutiae to make it work. One of Lucifer’s latest hangouts, however, appears to be Vauvert, a Montreal restaurant that recently opened in the chic Hotel St. Paul at 355 McGill St., where the revitalized avenue divides Old Montreal from the rapidly developing live/work district of Faubourg des Rcollets. The restaurant’s design by Jean-Guy Chabauty (Plouk Design and Moderno) gives Mephisto a front-row seat. Vauvert replaces the hotel’s Cube restaurant which, until it closed in February 2007, had a reputation for excellent cuisine in a sophisticated venue. The challenge with the new restaurant was to create a specific and unique atmosphere that would avoid comparison with Cube and its light, clean, minimalist decor. “The goal was to create a more accessible gastronomy,” explains the restaurant’s web site, “in a more cordial setting that was inviting to the customer.” This “user-friendly” restaurant features a fusion of cuisines from the south of France and Quebec’s Lake Saguenay region, the birthplace of Chef Pascal Leblond. This includes, for example, such entrees as venison in a croustade of apple, celery and turnip. In support of this robust menu, explains Chabauty, Vauvert seeks to be a decidedly more casual, playful gathering spot for customers prepared to experiment with good food, in a different but welcoming atmosphere.

The restaurant’s name is derived from the French expression “au vauvert” meaning “to live far from anywhere.” But there is also a devilish twist to the expression that sometimes becomes “au diable vauvert,” originating from the Castle of Valvert or “Vauvert” near Paris. Built by Robert le Pieu in the 11th century, it was eventually abandoned, became the hideout of vicious thieves, and ended up as a place, some say, where nearby Carthusian monks invoked devils and ghosts in order to elicit donations from Louis IX.

If the connotation of a “distant unpleasant place” was not intended, the idea of a devilishly good time was, and this has informed Chabauty’s enchanted intervention. It seems that the Castle Vauvert’s original owner was known for his love of good times and good food while ignoring his religious duties; indeed, it was rumoured that the Devil was frequently in residence. Others say that for his sins poor Bob was doomed to flee across the sky for eternity, chased by snarling dogs. In New France this legend merged with a First Nation’s myth of a flying canoe and the legend of the Chasse-galerie, or the enchanted canoe, was born. In a nut shell, it seems a group of homesick lumberjacks made a pact with the devil to travel across the sky by canoe to spend New Year’s Eve with their loved ones. But, points out Chabauty, not only does the devil not win their souls, he is “actually a rather good, fun-loving guy.”

The L-shaped restaurant, which wraps around the corner of Rue McGill and Place D’Youville, keeps literal references to the legend at a minimum – there is no canoe – but plays off its theme by mixing rustic with urbane references. Vauvert’s dining area is predominately black, including dark wood flooring and black marble tabletops. However, its entrance lounge, which opens onto recently refurbished McGill through the huge front windows, remains largely white and cream in deference to the hotel’s light-toned lobby. This includes a pure white couch that, like all the furniture, is designed and built by Moderno.

Across the dining area ceiling, Chabauty installed a rolling wave of black baffle panels to simulate movement and then suspended 111 tiny lights to create – quite effectively – the appearance of starlight. This number, he muses enigmatically, is in tune with the infamous 666, the number of the beast. Mirrored walls, some angled, not only multiply these many points of light but also visually expand the relatively modest space.

Connection with the incautious lumberjacks is established by the restaurant’s two signature elements. The first is two freestanding maple tree trunks. Stripped of foliage, with three branch prongs meeting the ceiling, these iconic columns bracket either end of the lounge. The intent, says Chabauty, was to have four to represent the quartet of loggers aboard the legendary canoe. When the space proved too cramped, he was content to let the mirrors provide the illusion of four. The dominating feature, however, is the restaurant’s long bar, sliced from a 10-foot slab of Quebec black walnut, its naturally undulating edge facing a line of low back stools. It took a month of searching to find just the right cut tree, and it had to be taken to Quebec City to be properly cured.

This bar zigzags along equally enormous windows bordering Place D’Youville. Bar patrons are offered an almost unobstructed view along McGill, toward the signature fritted glass “rail yard” wall of Boutros + Pratte Architectes’ award-winning Europa 6 condominium. Equally important, says Chabauty, “the size of these uncurtained windows allows the inside out, allow pedestrians to see the stars, the flicker of flames and the movement of bodies.”

Of course, the devil also gets his due, for instance his own bar stool, covered in luxurious black fox, stitched into a herringbone pattern. While the banquettes and stools are primarily black leather, bursts of colour provided by elegantly striped material, designed by Paul Smith for Maharam, punctuate the dark, masculine atmosphere. Along one wall, behind a banquette and a line of wood-topped tables, are four large canvas panels. Three are black-on-black and one dripping in white, painted by Chabauty and his talented 10-year-old son. Above the panels leap real flames from alcohol burners, for after all, the designer chuckles, “What is the devil without fire?”