Restaurants are a leap of faith for everyone involved. For the diner, it’s a quixotic mix of taste and expectation. For the owner, it’s a matter of avoiding disaster and living up to the hype—if any.
The Restaurant de l’Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ) in Montreal’s Latin Quarter is a bizarre variation on this equation. The menu completely changes every semester or more, since it’s part of both a restaurant and a school. Meeting diners’ expectations is a scholastic, not just monetary, matter. The owner, meanwhile, is the Quebec government, where disasters are frequent and hype is bureaucratized. As a result, the food and experience the Institut produces is cookie-cutter near-perfection—fine dining in embryo.
We started off the meal with a view of Carré St-Louis at night, a maze of walkways through ancient trees, hemmed in by tidy greystones. Cocktails arrived; try the Fleur-de-lys, a sweet, bracing romp of vodka, lychee liqueur, curaçao and white cranberry juice. Try two, if you can, as you wait for the spinach gnocchi, cut with Parmesan gratings. The wine list is utilitarian, not extensive. I had a glass of 2013 Ravenswood Zen of Zin, which was a polite, if firm, reminder of the existence of California zinfandels. There are usually six main courses, but rabbit loin all but compels you to order it, stuffed as it is with minced chestnuts and wrapped in speck. Dessert is apricot crème chantilly.
You can never escape the knowledge that everyone around you is at school—and that’s a good thing. The 65-seat restaurant, which opened in 2005, doesn’t lack for staff. The bread basket is always brimming, water never goes unpoured, drinks are replaced nearly as quickly as they are consumed. When a dessert tray crashes, three waiters and the maître d’ are on all fours in a flash, mopping up.
In the cavernous kitchen, 12 chefs cut ribbons of spinach gnocchi, strategically place the vegetables on each plate by hand, braise morsels of veal and generally obsess over everything. “Many end up in Western Canada,” professor and chef Pasquale Vari says. “The working conditions are better, and they can learn English there.”
ITHQ students become everything from travel agents to tour guides to chefs and sommeliers, but its signature programs offer diplomas in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. A Bachelor of Business Administration in tourism and hotel management is offered in conjunction with the nearby Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).
For now, their toil is the diner’s gain: Dinner and dessert for two with all the alcoholic fixings comes to $154, including tip.
For those wishing to continue with the bargain, the Quebec government invites you upstairs to L’Institut’s hotel. Renovated in 2010, the decor is light and inoffensive, complete with desks, flat-screen TVs and free WiFi. Prices start at $129 a night for regular rooms and $229 for an “upgraded” room, which comes with a “French-language newspaper delivered to the room.” At $249 per night, the handful of “superior suites” have 10-person dining tables and kitchenettes. Most rooms have a balcony overlooking Mount Royal or downtown Montreal. There isn’t a single negative review among the 329 on Trip Advisor. Government, it seems, can really do good when it tries.