Now they’re knocking at your door, saying please come out tonight … for Haitian cuisine and tasty rum cocktails
It isn’t every restaurant that gets a writeup in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Entertainment Weekly months before it opens. But such has been the anticipation attending Montreal’s Agrikol – a collaboration between Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, with Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg and her husband, Roland Jean – that every step forward has generated headlines.
From the announcement to the list of requested construction permits to the public consultation meetings with the borough, and finally to the first reviews, both the city and the world at large have been keeping close tabs on Agrikol.
It might seem like a lot of pressure for one restaurant, but the spotlight is nothing new to Agg. Over the past eight years, she has opened and run such successful Toronto ventures as The Black Hoof (known for its charcuterie), Cocktail Bar (self-explanatory) and Rhum Corner (which is Haitian-inspired, and thus a sort of sibling for Agrikol). Agg meanwhile has another spot set to open this year, a cider-and-wine-focused spot in Toronto’s Kensington Market area. And when she’s not running restaurants, Agg has been an active opponent of harassment of women within the restaurant industry. Oh, and she has a memoir in the works for the fall; it’s to be called I Hear She’s a Real Bitch.
The partnership behind Agrikol started with serendipitous evening at Rhum Corner. Butler put on a mix of Haitian festival music and blew out the speaker system – so Chassagne and other bandmates kept up the rhythm on the tables and the glassware. Butler and Chassagne appreciated the atmosphere of the laidback Toronto hotspot, and plans for a Montreal counterpart quickly followed. Both couples have a personal connection to Haiti: Jean was born there, and Chassange’s family emigrated from Haiti to Montreal, inspiring the band’s close relationship with that country. Just this spring Arcade Fire was awarded a humanitarian Juno award for the millions raised for Haiti through their various charitable initiatives, including KANPE, a non-profit co-founded by Chassagne in 2010.
But fans and foodies alike have had to wait longer than expected for Arcade Fire’s Haitian-Montreal oasis. Though reports circulated along with Agrikol’s announcement in spring 2015 that it would open later that summer, the restaurant finally welcomed its first customers this February, after lengthy encounters with the city’s red tape.
“It was a very frustrating experience building and opening a restaurant in Montreal,” says Agg in an interview with Billy. She vented on Twitter about the process as it unfolded. “It’s much, much easier in Toronto.”
Agrikol’s labour pains were worth it: The final result is lovely. With small tables, white wood panelling, and large-scale artwork by Jean (whose primary career is as a painter), the restaurant feels intimate but airy, colourful yet collected. Butterflies dance on tropical turquoise wallpaper behind the gorgeous open-shelving bar mounting the height of the resto’s two storeys, which is arrayed with rum, plants and musical instruments.
The drinks menu features both new and classic rum-based cocktails perfected by Agg’s head bartender, David Greig. Agg’s current favourite is the delicous “kokonut”: “It’s basically a painkiller [a classic tiki drink consisting of rum, orange, coconut cream and nutmeg] but with passionfruit and lemon added for zing.” Another fun and popular option is the mix-it-yourself ti ponch, which comes with lime, cane syrup, and Double Barbancourt rum in various size formats up to a full bottle.
Patrons of Toronto’s Rhum Corner will already be familiar with the menu of affordable small and large plates, including Haitian staples like griot, oxtail and plantains. Says Agg, “The Agrikol menu used Rhum Corner as a jumping off point, but we plan to be constantly evolving it.”
But while the two youngest restaurants in Agg’s stable may be similar, their home cities are not. Though noting that any assessment is a generalization, Agg observes that Montreal and Toronto are “very different cities in terms of dining culture. Toronto tends to be a bit ‘What’s next?’ and Montreal is very much about food as a cultural representation.”
According to Agg, the differences are not only cultural, but financial: “I’d say without a doubt, what Montrealers save on rent they spend in restaurants. It’s a city very oriented to dining and has been for a long time. Toronto’s relative newness as a dining city makes it a bit more excitably fickle.”
Agrikol may return to the headlines again this summer as Agg and Jean have more plans in store for the warmer weather, including an expanded menu of “grilled things and snacks” developed exclusively for the terrace.
“I’ve never been so excited about building a patio,” Agg says, “and I can tell you it’s going to be very, extremely spectacular – like a twinkling, magical oasis.”
1844 rue Amherst, 514-903-6575