5439 Boulevard Saint-Laurent

By Ksenia Prints

When chefs Gilbert MacNutt and William Cody decided to open a restaurant, they never imagined the beginning would be just weeks away. Now they create their own brand of Mexican Food in Montreal, and we couldn’t be happier.

It was forty-two days between the moment that MacNutt and Cody learned about the available space from superstar restaurateurs Dave Schmidt (of Sardine) and Peter Popovic (of Magpie and Sparrow), who agreed to co-own the venture. Two years later, with a bustling Mexican eatery with a locavore twist and a buzz that just won’t stop, the guys behind Maïs can pat themselves on the back on a job well done.

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The restaurant, which is only open for dinner, is a warm space done up in industrial metal and reclaimed wood. Signs in Spanish line the walls, while the bar is fully stocked with tequila, gin, and homemade bitters, syrups and tonics. Strung fairy lights invite diners to nestle in close at the communal tables at the front, grab a sit at the bar, or make their way towards the small, two-seater tables at the back. A private room is available for small event rentals.

Coming from fine dining backgrounds, MacNutt and Cody wanted to bring an ingredient-driven mindset to traditional Mexican food. When they started offering local produce flanked by offal, tripe and blood sausage, customers came clamouring for more.

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“We had a chance to open up a restaurant at this space, something fun where people can come for good food that didn’t already exist in the area,” said MacNutt.

The restaurant is packed on most nights, with returning neighbourhood diners making up most of its clientele. The menu gets revamped seasonally, but the products can vary daily. With suppliers that pass them the freshest, local merchandise, MacNutt and Cody can afford to be versatile.

The food is truly unique. The restaurant sources most of its ingredients from the area, including tortillas that come from the neighbourhood and a hot sauce made to order just outside the city. An in-house bartender mixes inventive drinks that change seasonally, though the Margarita is a mainstay. The Tijuana Zebra is a seasonal ode to summer, a refreshing drink that distills the essence of watermelon and creeps up on you while you’re not paying attention (but hurry up, because it won’t be offered for long!).

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Of the tacos, which range between $3.50 and $4.50 a piece, crowd favourites include the carnitas, pork tacos served with pickled onions, cilantro and salsa verde. The fish tacos are a dream-come-true, with perfectly seared fish that changes regularly (Rainbow Trout on my visit) perched atop zesty, punchy guacamole, and topped with thinly sliced pickled cabbage, carrots and jalapenos.

For the vegetarians, it doesn’t get much better than zucchini blossom tacos. Smeared with a fall-appropriate salsa of roasted pumpkin seeds and jalapenos these beauties are stuffed with homemade fresh ricotta and lightly seared. A side order of punchy pickled onion salsa elevates these bundles to pure perfection.

But the true revelation was the octopus starter. Though pricey at $13, this dish is octopus done right; dry-roasted and served atop buttery green onions, baby zucchinis, delicate crema and spicy marinated chilies, it offers a perfectly tender bite encased by a supple exterior.

The trick, according to MacNutt, is focusing on local ingredients, and not being afraid to change things up or offer unusual cuts of meat. “Using whatever ingredients you can get and doing your best with them” is the key, he advises.

“We started playing things safely at first, but now that our customers trust us, we put things out there that are great but people might be squeamish about, because they may have never had them done right,” said MacNutt.

Maïs is open 5-11p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays and 5-midnight from Thursday until the weekend.

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