Congolese restaurateurs Maria-José de Frias and Zoya de Frias Lakhany of Le Virunga restaurant in Montréal are on a mission to change the way the world thinks of African food. The results will blow your mind.
The mother-daughter duo run an intimate Montréal bistro that features upscale, sub-Saharan African cuisine like you’ve never tasted it before. Executive Chef Maria-José de Frias infuses Québecois favourites with flavours and techniques from West, Central, and East Africa to introduce those within and outside of the diaspora to the diversity of African food.
Born of a Congolese mother and Portuguese father, Maria-José de Frias grew up in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and travelled extensively through sub-Saharan Africa as a young woman. After operating several businesses in the DRC and Belgium and graduating from culinary school in Québec, she decided to pour her passion into building a restaurant that represented her African identity, not her Canadian training.
“It was important for me to create a place where I could go to eat the foods I wanted if I didn’t feel like cooking,” she says, referring to the techniques and flavours of sub-Saharan home cooking. “African cuisine is made of love. It’s about love for people, for the ingredients, and especially love for the people who are eating it.”
As it happens, the place to enjoy de Frias’ upscale rendition of soul food is an intimate restaurant that feels like anything but your family kitchen. It’s no wonder then, that the pair are so steadfast in creating a familial environment for all clientele.
Le Virunga’s focus on hospitality is key to the bistro’s success. “Because African food is generally lower visibility than Italian, French, or Greek cuisine, we really focus on keeping the guest experience authentic but accessible, right from the moment when our guests walk in,” explains Co-owner and Bar Manager, Zoya de Frias Lakhany. “Our concept was very new when we first introduced it four years ago (in 2016) and it still is, so our goal is to quickly make newcomers feel welcome.”
Pan-African Soul Food
With just 28 seats, moody lighting, and sensually-groovy playlist that reflects the best of French West African hip-hop and R&B, Le Virunga immediately feels like a place where you want to sit down, relax, and curl up with your boo before perusing a menu that offers Pan-Africanism on a plate. The one thing not on their continental food tour? Grilled food.
“There’s a very limited view of Africa and African food. It’s very much focused on poverty and lack, but that doesn’t mean that our culture and our cultural offerings are equally as poor,” the elder de Frias mentions. “We don’t only have grilled food to offer the world — our cuisine is extremely vast.”
Though it changes regularly, the restaurant’s menu generally includes a selection of braised meats and fish, succulent vegetables, deeply flavoured beans, and a variety of grains complemented by savoury stews that push your palate to new heights.
From the menu to the interior design and house wine on tap, Le Virunga exudes African pride through shrewd attention to detail. Daughter Zoya, who was also born in Kinshasa and is a mix of Congolese, Portuguese, and Indian heritage, is adamant about how central their establishment can be to widening the public’s understanding of the rich diversity within African cuisine and Black food culture in general.
“There’s this idea that there’s only one kind of African food or that we can only do a few recipes, but it’s beyond one thing,” she notes. “Pan-Africanism includes everyone and that’s a philosophy we truly believe in, so our menu will always reflect that.”
Their summertime picnic offering is a perfect example of how well the two understand the versatility of the continent’s regional flavours and techniques.
Umami-rich, Congolese-style red beans are paired with Berbere-infused meatballs prepared the way they do it in L’Île de la Réunion, a small island just east of Madagascar. Kenyan plantain fries are topped with locally-sourced sheep’s cheese for a twist on Montréal poutine and served alongside Mozambique-inspired shepherd’s pie, prepared with savoury goat meat and green peas.
To finish, there’s a finely crafted Angolan coconut cream dessert, it’s nutty sweetness accented by tart jam made with Québec strawberries. It’s a gastronomic adventure that merges local culture with international savoir-faire.
Innovation as Strength
Both mother and daughter work hard to infuse sustainable practices into every part of their business and are proud of the relationships they’ve built with local farmers and manufacturers that reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint.
“I believe big or small, our impact on the environment needs to be considered at all time, so our entire picnic is recyclable and compostable,” de Frias Lakhany shares. “If you think about it, in a way, we are very knowledgeable and respectful to our environment in Africa, so we wanted to keep that same energy alive at our place here.”
Since opening, Le Virunga has gained critical recognition and stellar reviews in Montréal’s fine dining scene. “Our food and culture are underrepresented everywhere except on the continent, so there’s a lot of work to do,” she continues, “but Montréal is the perfect place for our restaurant to grow because it’s multi-cultural, open-minded, and energetic.”
In 2017, the establishment was selected to cater the mayoral party celebrating the City of Montréal’s 375th anniversary and in 2019, they held a coveted seat on the official restaurant list for the Montréal en Lumiére winter festival. Each of these achievements push the restaurateurs to keep innovating and stay focused on their mission of bringing sub-Saharan African food to the forefront of the city’s food scene.
“Movements like BLACK FOODIE Picnic Day are extremely important because they invite everyone to join the party and get to know each other and our cuisine, a little better,” de Frias Lakhany says. “Our mission is to show guests that we may be different, but as people, we also have so many things in common.”
Indulge in the richness of Pan-African soul food at Le Virunga, 851 Rue Rachel Est, Montréal, QC. The restaurant is open for dine in and take-out; visit www.levirungarestaurant.ca for details.
Read more about how the restaurant has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic in this profile by Restaurants Canada.