MTLàTABLE: Zoya de Frias, from Virunga

Isa Tousignant

Zoya de Frias became a Montrealer at the age of 16, when her parents, originally from the Congo and Canada, decided to emigrate here from Belgium. She was all set for a career in computer technologies when her life took a sudden detour: in 2016 she and her mum decided to open their own restaurant, Virunga, and bring a dash of African heat onto Rachel Street, in the heart of the Plateau.

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Why did you choose to open Virunga on the Plateau?

We’ve always loved the Plateau. It’s so cosmopolitan and multicultural, there are people everywhere, and lots of travellers. It’s very openminded and artistic, and even though it’s so close to the centre of town the energy is homey, family-friendly and relaxed.

What are some discoveries you made here since you opened?

One of the things I love about the Plateau is the mount of independently owned stores. There are nearly no chains. Even in terms of coffeeshops, there’s Café Névé, Café Rico. Next door to us, La Maison des Pâtes Fraîches is a family-run business, as is the Afghan restaurant just a bit further, Fenêtre sur Kaboul. It’s great.

Where do you go in the neighbourhood to get a coffee?

I get the coffee we serve at the restaurant at Café Rico. Generally I make my own coffee here, but I do like to pick up lunch before coming in to work; usually a sandwich at Les Co’Pains d’Abord or something Italian at La Maison des Pâtes Fraîches.

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Where do you go for last-minute errands?

We go to L'intermarché Boyer on Mont-Royal. And now there’s a giant Rachelle-Béry that just opened on the corner of Rachel and Saint-Denis. And of course, the corner store across the street from us, Dépanneur Rachel – they’ve always got our backs!

Is there anywhere you like to go after a long day’s work?

I sometimes walk over to Parc La Fontaine – it’s really nice.

What flavour does Virunga add to the neighbourhood?

We offer something completely new on the Plateau. What’s great about Rachel street is that there’s already an Afghan restaurant, an Italian, a Filipino, a Chinese, a Portuguese restaurant, plus the Banquise, a local institution. But the Virunga comes and adds a completely unique twist on Congolese food.

What keeps people coming back to Virunga?

We put lots of love in what we do, and I think you can see it in our plates. We want to transmit the African heat and welcoming attitude, to host people as if in our home. We want people to discover our culture and feel free to ask questions, and we love hearing their stories too. It’s a place to share.

What are some Québec products you use on a regular basis?

Using local products has always been part of our mandate. Obviously, we can’t find Québec-grown plantains, but we love the way of shopping that’s common in Africa – we go to the local fishmonger in the morning, then over to the produce guy, and so forth. One of the most special ingredients we use is Québec goat – we’re the only ones in Montréal who have access to it. We’re very proud of it. It’s a beautiful product.

Do you have a favourite ingredient these days?

We’ve just received African eggplant. We’re members of an association, Chef514, that pairs Québec chefs and growers. This year we grandfathered a crop of African eggplant, and it’s a star in our recent dishes! It’s smaller than a regular eggplant, more the shape of an apple, and it can range from red to yellow in colour. In Africa people eat it as a fruit – you can bite right into it – but here we serve it cooked in all sorts of ways: raw in a salad, in a ratatouille, roasted, sautéed. Come over and give it a try!

Isa Tousignant

Isa Tousignant, blogger

Isa Tousignant is an art and lifestyle writer based out of Montréal’s eclectic Park Ex neighbourhood. She is Contributing Editor for Canadian Art magazine and freelances full-time for a wide variety of magazines and brands. She’s also a jewellery designer and passionate about animal costumes and their role in contemporary art.

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