In the 1990s I worked as a waiter, bartender, cook, and occasional dishwasher at La Montagne, a "healthy" vegetarian-friendly eatery on Park, just a block east of Highland. The area was, as it is now, blighted with strip malls, but "The Mountain," as employees called it with equal parts affection and animosity, was a cozy cottage tangled in grape vines and rimmed with an elegant garden. It was hidden in plain view, out of place, and inviting. Prices were competitive, which made it hard for employees to make much of a living from the bistro-sized, veggie-loving clientele. But for this U of M grad student who only needed rent money, beer money, and all the free beans and rice he could eat, La Montagne was ideal.
In 2003, the famously inconsistent restaurant -- which opened in the early 1980s as a progressive vegetarian restaurant supplied by its own garden -- finally closed. It reopened, however, in June 2004 with the same name and perfunctory nods to its healthy past. But the new La Montagne is owned by a meat-loving chef who thinks portions should be generous and customers know exactly what they want.
"I decided to keep the name La Montagne for one reason. It's been around for a long time, and people already know where La Montagne is. They don't have to go looking for a new restaurant," says chef/owner John Bragg. "But it's confused a lot of people who come wandering in looking for a $4 vegetable plate."
In the old days, La Montagne's fare consisted of a "spinach fantasy" served over green noodles, assorted seafood, and exotically named bean-based dishes involving shaved coconut, sweet potatoes, eggplant, or an exotic cheese like feta, with the option of adding grilled tofu, chicken, or shrimp. Today, the Mediterranean-inspired menu contains items such as a prime rib chop with red onion confit and mushroom Dijon sauce; beef tenderloin with a truffle-port reduction; and seared tuna with pancetta and lentils -- a far cry from the days of the four-veggie special.
"Things that were considered fine dining 20 years ago are commonplace now. I think everybody knows what goat cheese is. You can get a chipotle sauce at McDonald's," Bragg says. "I'm [not the kind of chef] who's going to make some wasabi-crusted whatever. In French cooking you learn that if you eat a potato, you should taste the potato. The first taste going in and the last taste shouldn't be 'whatever.' It should be potato."
Before reopening La Montagne, Bragg worked for top-notch Memphis chefs such as Karen Carrier of Automatic Slim's and Cielo, Erling Jensen, and Aubergine's Gene Bjorklund.
"From Erling I learned that the most important thing you can do is to give the people what they want," Bragg says. "You can get food service in a hotel, a hospital, or a prison. Dining is about accommodating. It's about not saying 'no' to your customers. It's about entertainment."
One thing that La Montagne has kept from the old days is its cozy environment. The rooms are small, simple. During the winter months diners can eat next to a roaring fireplace near the bar. The color scheme has changed, however, from battleship gray and dingy greens to bright ochers that lighten the dimly lit café and contrast nicely with the dark hardwood floors. Murals by David Mah have replaced the giant, crusty map that once hung in the restaurant's back room, and paintings and photographs by Memphis artists are hung on the restaurant's walls.
Appetizers range from grilled scallops with prosciutto and asparagus to citrus-marinated olives with hummus. Desserts include fresh sorbets, fruit tarts, soufflés, and a chocolate, coffee rum, and mousse cake called Il Diplomatico. Prices for entrées range from $12 to $36, with salads and appetizers starting at $7. La Montagne provides a full bar, a variety of imported beers, and a solid, moderately priced wine selection. La Montagne is currently open for dinner and for brunch on Sundays but will open for lunch beginning in April.
"What I want is for people to enjoy their food," Bragg says. "I want them to walk away feeling like they've gotten more than they expected."
For all of its faults, there was something charming about the old La Montagne. It blended bistro ambience with the Memphis-style funk of no-frills "meat and three." It was suspended in a time when sundried tomatoes sounded like a farming error, pesto was only a myth, and homemade pizza seemed exotic. But it's hard to look at the new menu and the invigorated interiors and not agree that change can be a very good thing indeed.
La Montagne, 3550 Park (320-9090)