There have been a few missed dates at Virunga over the years, but after watching the series Meanwhile in the Kitchen on Prime (a show I was transparently on), I was determined to finally meet Maria-José and Zoya de Frias in the flesh. It finally happened on a Friday night in mid-March. This pretty restaurant on Rachel Street offers unique cuisine, cocktails and service. A meal at Virunga is a journey of discovery for the taste buds, an invitation to broaden your culinary horizons.
Maria-José and Zoya de Frias form an inspiring mother-daughter tandem. If the mother spent the first half of her life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the daughter grew up in Belgium, political conflicts having displaced the family. Maria-José, who also has Portuguese origins, has practiced several professions, from business manager in Africa to stylist in Europe. It was in Montreal that she took her cooking class at LaSalle College, while Zoya, who arrived in Quebec at age 16, studied computer science and statistics. In 2016, the desire to introduce Montrealers to the culinary culture of their homeland began to tickle the two women with an entrepreneurial spirit. This is how Le Virunga was born, whose name is borrowed from the large national park located in eastern DRC, on the borders of Uganda and Rwanda. Knowing the overlap between the cuisines of many countries on the continent, Maria-José and Zoya decided to offer a pan-African menu, rather than limiting themselves to Congolese specialties. And why not ! We are talking about Mediterranean cuisine, after all.
“Why focus on what divides us when we can instead celebrate what unites us,” says Zoya de Frias, as we chat after the photo shoot, which takes place a few days after my meal at the restaurant.
It is indeed this desire to create bridges rather than burn them that is felt as soon as one settles in Virunga. This is expressed first of all by the warmth of the welcome and by the enthusiasm with which Zoya informs us of the rich origins of the various preparations that her mother conceives in the kitchen.
The spirits used in the majority of cocktails are either African (like Cruxland Gin and Caperitif) or Quebecois. All wines come from South Africa. The dishes are made up of local ingredients, such as mushrooms from 400 feet, trout from Bobines, mutton from Trouvailles gourmandes du Canton, guinea fowl from Sabinoise, etc., combined with essentials from the African continent, such as cassava and attiéké from Côte d’Ivoire, lemongrass and green anise from Cameroon, palm nuts (to make West African seed sauce). White Penja pepper is ubiquitous.
The meal formula is classic: starters, main courses, desserts. Maria-José and Zoya would like one day to offer a tasting menu with a succession of small courses, but the tightness of the kitchen and, above all, the difficulty in finding qualified staff make it difficult.
At the first service, we are a little surprised by the small size of the plates. My “cassava couscous” (attiéké) served with zucchini, cashews and aromatic curry is finished in two bites. I would have taken twice as much! The starter of mushrooms, runny egg and pili-pili cream (little chilli) is more generous, but the Tanzanian chapati advertised on the menu is actually a very small square of flatbread about 3 cm. That won’t blot up a lot of the yolk or sauce!
We are not used to eating goat and mutton in Quebec. This is an opportunity to try, at Virunga, and discover that these are meats just as delicious as lamb. Like guinea fowl, shoulder of mutton is a very hearty dish. The meat was braised Malagasy style, that is, in a sauce full of hot spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc. Its support is a mukimo, mashed potatoes with spinach, green peas and Kenyan corn.
Don’t leave before dessert. The crush on the Nzeto (all the dishes have names that evoke their main influence, which is Angola in this case) is great! A rich coconut cream topped with maple whipped cream springs from a well-concentrated and slightly tangy raspberry soup. We also do not leave a crumb of the cabbage stuffed with ginger pastry cream, with caramelized mango. Totally successful final!
Zoya’s “mixology” has nothing to envy to that of the best cocktail bars in Montreal. The co-owner knows how to compose an inspired and balanced menu with always this little nod to the flavors of the vast African continent. Its South African wine list is quite daring. Despite a rather limited supply on the Quebec market of African “private imports”, she manages to unearth the most classic, organic and even natural, such as the living wines of Johan Herman Meyer, in Swartland. To be continued: cuvées from MC Stander, from Equinox Wines.
Prices are fair for elaborate cuisine made from high quality ingredients. You’ll pay between $14 and $16 for a starter, $32 and $39 for a main course, and $9 for a dessert. The cocktails are well worth the $13-15 charged.
Open from Wednesday to Saturday, in the evening.