Walk the line

Duel, as a moniker for a restaurant, exudes an edgy macho-romanticism -with a dose of ominous peril. Indeed, this Montreal eatery takes its premise from Iron Chef, a popular Japanese television show best described as ultimate fighting meets The Galloping Gourmet. But the only blood on the floor at the end of the night in this restaurant, already on Montreal Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman’s “Fine Dining Top 10” list, has likely spilled from a steak bleu.

Diners are offered dishes created by two “duelling” chefs, Laurent Godbout and David Biron. The former, La Socit des chefs, cuisiniers et ptissiers du Qubec’s chef of the year in 2006, prepares modern French cuisine; while the latter, late of Yuzu in Quebec City and Soto of Montreal, shines with a taste for an eclectic Japanese/French fusion. Each night, the two chefs coax the same, sometimes obscure ingredients into 20 succulent dishes (ingredients change weekly). Diners are encouraged to oscillate between the outputs of the two rivals and eventually vote for the winner. “Whimsical” is what the Globe and Mail’s Heather Sokoloff called dishes like Biron’s seared foie gras on a bed of dates with a sauce of coriander and soy milk infused with sake, up against Godbout’s foie gras prepared torchon-style and covered in raspberry jelly.

To give this spectacle the proper venue, the chefs called in Champigny Raymond Studio. The firm boasts a history of excelling at projects that mix a cool, sometimes minimalist, modern design with raw historical remnants. Strong graphic components are frequently played off the more finely textured surfaces of original materials. For furniture and in wall panels, naturally stained wood figures The signature electric yellow appears in Duel’s translucent shelving and in the individually stencilled numbers on the backs of the transparent acrylic chairs. prominently but always with a sleek contemporary sensibility. Still, they are not adverse to strong, vibrant colours as the firm exhibited with its use of blue and purple glass at Groupe Image Buzz.

Located inside a light-toned brick shell, detailed with rich, dark-stained cherry and sharply punctuated by a defining neon yellow band, Duel is no exception. “Our strength, indeed our preference,” explains partner Pierre Raymond, “is for graphic expression, and in Duel this bias is exploited to express the idea of gastronomic confrontation.” The 40-seat restaurant is cleaved down the middle by a yellow line, on both the floor and ceiling, which starts vertically on the building’s street facade as a highly visible marker and ends inside by defining the chefs’ dual fiefdoms. This electric yellow, which seems to crackle across the floor, also appears as individually stencilled numbers on the backs of transparent acrylic chairs and as codes etched in the cherry cupboard doors to situate different wines. It also shows up in glass shelving behind the bar and a Plexiglas screen, punctured with food graphics, near the kitchen.

On the right, against the wall, a line of individual cherry wood tables reflect Godbout’s Western sensibility. Pieces of paper skewered with knives and tools to a wood beam, set in the warm brick wall, playfully contribute artwork with a moderately threatening theme. Across the line, a single communal table of carefully layered cherry with openings to receive individual serving bowls dominates the right side and serves Biron’s Eastern-leaning clients. When the chefs are in residence, they move from the open kitchen to this “food altar” for animated cook-offs. “The concept, the theatrical animation, the open, uncluttered space and the attention to details – such as the graphic yellow acrylic serving stands inset in Laurent’s tables – are all about the clients’ desire to redefine the complete eating experience,” Raymond concludes.

In both food and decor, concept restaurants are frequently bland or at best excruciatingly unsubtle in presentation. On both counts, Duel is neither. cI