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Montreal: The Chowhound’s Promised Land

Montreal, Quebec

I intend to finish off this leg of the tour with several days in Montreal, one of the world’s best food cities. Here’s what I wrote about Montreal a few years ago:

Montreal’s food scene is guileless. If you see a charming-looking restaurant, it’s likely charming tasting, as well. This is a strange land in which the inhabitants have never caught on to the smoke-and-mirrors trick; no Montrealer would ever think to open a pretty restaurant serving lousy food. Needless to say, serious recalibration was required. I mistrust atmospheric places not because I’m a vulgar hawg who’d just as soon eat from a trough, but because such places have so often fed me poorly. Hip vibey places rarely cook worth a damn because they know they can lure the unsavvy via ambience alone.

Montreal’s different, and the effect is pure liberation. I drop layers of cynicism as I keep stumbling into devastatingly inviting places, yet never find myself duped. Montreal restaurateurs believe in deliciousness, and they feel obliged to develop all aspects of their enterprises. The notion of lackluster food is simply unthinkable. I can only pray that none of these folks ever visits Soho.

In Montreal, you can just go somewhere—anywhere!—and eat. It’s like the promised land. I love walking around and choosing venues only the most callow New Yorker would pick. Dramatic little cafés where patrons sit with good posture and waiters speak in that intense hush. Cavernous candle-lit joints. Too-slick-to-be-true fast food places. Let me put it this way: The best bread I’ve found in Montreal came from a chain with almost a dozen outlets. They bake not just good bread, but heartfelt good bread; bread with character!

It’s like a dream. One wonders whether one’s chowhounding skills are peaking (am I like Superman off Krypton?), or whether Montreal is a city in which one simply can’t go wrong. Whatever the reason, I’ve never had a disappointing bite here. Even the humblest places have pizzazz and good food.

It’s a luxury to be in a place with virtually no bad restaurants. If you were to select an eatery by throwing darts at the Montreal Yellow Pages, you’d enjoy at least a satisfactory meal, and perhaps a great one. For non-hounds, who haven’t developed their ability to differentiate, this is heady comfort—an impenetrable dining safety net. For the savvy, it’s a vacation, a carnival ride, a delirious opportunity to turn off the chow-dar and just eat.

... and, after 8,000 miles and several hundred restaurant meals, I could use that! For the first couple of days, I’ll be joined by food-loving friends from New York City, Barry and Joel, who work in the film industry and will gladly go anywhere there’s free food.

That’s Joel on the left and Barry on the right.

Today we’ve mostly recapped my previous finds. We started out at a place I’ve been dreaming about since my last visit: Frite Alors (3497 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec; 514-840-9000), where the pommes frites are fried, properly, in horse fat. They’re as good as anything in Belgium.

Per classical Belgian protocol, they fry their potatoes twice. These par-fried spuds await their finishing greasy bath:

Poutine (see report #53) here is a profound rendition, eliciting peals of rapture:

We decided to complete the equestrian experience by ordering horse steak. It’s delicious meat—horse was once the meat of choice in Philly cheese steaks, before a newspaper exposé blew the lid off the practice.

As top-notch as the fries are at Frite Alors, their sauces are really the high point. These sauces are not mere afterthoughts; each is made with care and love.

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I’d actually stumbled upon the grand opening of Frite Alors on my previous visit to Montreal, and on that visit, Au Pied de Cochon (536 rue Duluth Est, Montreal, Quebec; 514-281-1114) was also opening, to much fanfare.

Initial buzz focused, as a surprising amount of restaurant buzz seems to, around foie gras. Au Pied de Cochon made foie gras poutine, a conceit that titillated an international cadre of food journalists in town for some conference. Give that publicist a medal for timing things to a T.

I didn’t try Au Pied de Cochon at that time; it was too booked up by imperious pundits. But I gave it a go this time, and ordered the aforementioned foie gras poutine, which was sublimely luxurious:

Blood sausage with mashed potato and roasted apple was all kinds of hearty goodness:

And, for dessert, pouding chômeur, which translates as “poor man’s pudding,” a spongy biscuit afloat in maple-y soup.

Joel went cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs over the pudding, swearing and kvelling dramatically as he scraped persistently at the dish with his spoon:

This place is a carnivore’s bastion; take a look at the entrees:

Our first blessed slice of the astounding bread of Montreal:

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Patati Patata Friterie de Luxe (4177 Boulevard St. Laurent; 514-844-0216) is just a corner coffee shop. Only Montrealers could make it a place with style, verve, and soul. Here’s my original review (which still holds true):

Even the diners in this town kill … and are hip enough to make you feel as if you’re in an indie movie … and are run by people who care a lot about food. What sad world do we inhabit where it’s surprising that a place exists where all restaurants are run by people who care about food!

The menu at this thoroughly warm and inviting little corner luncheonette is posted on a wall board, and it’s uninspiring. Burgers, fries, salads, some crepes, etc. You search for the interesting item, the catchy wrinkle, but there is none. But observe the skinny kids cooking behind the counter. They’re working very fast, but … they’re seriously COOKING. These short order cooks are preparing their food with great pride and also palpable awareness that it will be eaten by someone. Watching them work is intoxicating, not to mention hunger-inducing, and the result is pure culinary warmth.

French fries are done in peanut oil (nice!) and are extraordinarily satisfying and came with good tart dipping mayo. The personable waiter/chef asked how I liked them, and cared about my answer. And he’s proud of the local microbeer (Les Brasseurs du Nord, which makes unexceptional beer which nonetheless has a certain charm, like humble French table wine), and pours it with gusto.

Lots of zip, pride, warmth, and a friendly, intelligent youthful crowd. Salads look awesome. The whole thing is dreamy.

This time I got borscht (simple, good) with more of those terrific fries:

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Coco Rico Rotisserie (3907 Boulevard St. Laurent at Napoleon, Montreal; 514-849-5554) is a cheap late-night joint for rotisserie chicken and potatoes. Plump birds are roasted to a brown, salty, juicy turn, and the potatoes (which sit beneath the spinning poultry, catching the fat) are a megacaloric delight. The place is owned by Portuguese, and they also sell swell egg custard tarts (pasteis de nata).

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Barry eats with me frequently, so he’s learned to pace. Joel, as photos above indicate, made the mistake of eating full-out at each stop (hear the precise moment—after the horse steak, after the foie gras poutine, and after the blood sausage—when he realized what he was in for in this podcast: MP3). He was not a happy camper by the time we came to our final bite of the day—a nightcap of smoked-meat sandwiches from the legendary Schwartz’s Deli (3895 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec; 514-842-4813). Smoked beef is sort of halfway between corned beef and pastrami.

The midnight queue at Schwartz’s.

Meaty delights seen through a greasy window.

We smuggled the sandwiches into the hotel and scarfed them in an empty conference room, where Joel was miraculously revived by the magic of Schwartz’s fleshly delights.

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The Chow That Got Away

The following wonderful Chilean alfajor (lardy shortbread cookie stuffed with rich dolce de leche) came from a bakery/cafe whose business card was lost. It’s on a north-south side road not far from Au Pied de Cochon. I won’t forgive myself until I’ve found the place and tried more stuff.

36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland

St. John’s, Newfoundland

First of all, it’s pronounced “New-fund-LAND.” The standard mnemonic offered by locals is, “You must underSTAND we’re in NewfoundLAND!” One cannot overstate the importance of not merely stressing that last syllable, but of more or less clobbering it. The key to acceptance by locals is a good, hearty bellowing of that third syllable. I’m not kidding.

These 36 hours were the most intense of the entire tour. The following is a near-operatic timeline of my short but highly charged visit to St. John’s, NewfoundLAND.

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Sunday, 2 p.m.: In from the Airport

I’m stumbling hungrily around the outskirts of St. John. Things are quiet; the season’s clearly died down. Plus it’s a Sunday. Slim pickings.

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3 p.m.: Arrive at the Ship Inn

The Ship Inn (265 Duckworth Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-753-3870) is deserted except for bartender Dave. I really need lunch, but the kitchen’s closed. Not wanting to be rude, I sit down for a quick beer.

After my beer and an interesting chat with Dave—conflating like brush-fire to other patrons who’ve gradually wandered in—I feel compelled to try my first screech, the proud local libation of overproofed, underaged rum. Dave serves it to me with Coke.

I love it. Deeply. And even though I’m not drunk yet, I find myself liking everyone in this bar as much as the screech. Kind, smart, funny people, all.

I drink lots more screech.

Screech on the rocks.

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7 p.m.: In Search of Jigs Dinner

Around dinnertime, conversation at the Ship Inn turns to food, and my new friends decide I need to try a real jigs dinner (vegetables, salt beef, and dumplings or pudding). There’s much argument as to whether someone ought to bring me home and cook for me, or whether I should be taken to a restauarant (and if so, which one). Finally it’s decided that I’ll be taken to a place called Big R.

As always, people don’t know that I’m writing about the trip. This is simply how things go in St. John’s. Perhaps you’re planning your trip right now in another browser window. That’s a smart move.

As we leave the bar, Dave instructs us to be sure to ask when, exactly, the jigs dinner was made.

I pile into a car with people I didn’t know until two hours ago, and we drive miles to a homely diner-ish place right out of 1964.

Following Dave’s advice (Dave is highly respected), we ask the staff at Big R (201 Blackmarsh Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-722-6549) when the jigs dinner was made. The answer: Friday. It’s Sunday. We pile back into the car and drive on. I am astonished that they admitted it.

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8 p.m.: Irving Restaurant

After miles of driving, we arrive at Irving Restaurant (65 Clyde Avenue, Mount Pearl, Newfoundland; 709-745-3403) ... which has just run out of jigs dinner. My companions are disconsolate. I, by contrast, am jubilant. I’m dining not just in a gas station, but in the most ambitious gas station eatery ever.

Notice the dramatic restaurant windows in back.

This place has serious pace, the waitresses are super-nice, and I’m ready for cod tongues, my backup craving, served with mashed potatoes in brown gravy.

I’ve tried cod tongues once in Toronto, but here they come with scrunchions (little pieces of fried rendered pork fat, akin to cracklings). Happily I scrunch, devouring my lovably trashy dish.

We also got some other homely, homey, comforting items, such as split pea soup, dosed with honey and served with touton (pronounced TOW-tun)—fried dough with molasses.

Check out this moundlike turkey dinner with dry stuffing (apparently from a bag of stuffing mix to which no liquid’s been added) and canned vegetables:

The same plate worked down a bit.

... and worked down a bit more (I was humming “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” from The Sound of Music).

For dessert, “fruit of the woods” pie with coffee and wisecracks traded with the kind-hearted, quick-witted waitresses.

You may have heard that in really remote places, animals have no fear of humans. NewfoundLAND feels somehow like that. People talk substantially to each other here. They joke with strangers, even go off-script with easy aplomb. No wonder NewfoundLANDers have acquired a reputation for being “eccentric.” It’s because they have no concept of canned conversation, a lapse that creates fear and confusion for the dronelike. They’re alive. You must go this far north to find thawed humanity.

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10 p.m. to midnight: Barhopping

We hit the famous nightlife nexus of George Street, with its legions of characterful little pubs, which still maintain a faint whiff of the recently departed tourists in the air. A few stragglers come into one pub, demanding to “kiss the puffin,” which is some contrived touristic shtick. The weary bartender dutifully tends to them.

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Monday, midnight to 1 a.m.: Back to the Ship Inn

I confess to Dave at the Ship Inn that I’d strayed, and beg forgiveness, promising to never drink anywhere else ever again. Dave’s actually off work at this point, drinking at the bar. His colleague converses eruditely about education theory, and avows her aversion to bartendering, her job for many years. Everyone in St. John’s is highly discontent, which is, of course, a downside of aliveness. If I lived in St. John’s, I can’t imagine how I’d ever feel discontent (aside from the Chinese food craving).

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1 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Screech Sleep

Rough …

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10:30 a.m.: Cora’s (chain with a view)

Cora’s is a (small) chain, but it’s a high-quality one. And even within its overstylized decor, there’s local color to spare. What a view!

I order a breakfast of competent poached eggs, intense bacon, ingenuous home fries, and sort of rubbery fruity pancake things. Plus deeply profound toast. I sample only a bite of each thing, preserving appetite for more local pleasures.

This is Cora, the founder (on the right).

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11:30 a.m.: Auntie Crae’s

Auntie Crae’s is the big local gourmet shop and bakery, though, being in NewfoundLAND, it’s got none of the usual pretension. I’m mostly looking for partridge berry pie. They have none today, but I find other interesting things, including an intriguing-looking brand of rooibos tea, The Gathering Place. For more on rooibos, see report #53.

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12:30 p.m.: The Gypsy Tea Room

The Gypsy Tea Room (195 Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-739-4766) is just another romantic Gypsy restaurant where Serbians serve Mediteranean cuisine made from Canadian Maritime ingredients. Only this one’s killer. The shark bites, in an indescribable and surprisingly spicy sauce, are worlds better than Bobby Darin ever imagined. I scarf more than is prudent, despite the long day of eating ahead of me.

Yet I cannot leave this wonderful place without trying something else. “Omakase!” I holler at the chef, who hasn’t the slightest freaking idea what I mean (thankfully, it seems not to be a curse in Serbian). After explanation, he decides to make me escargot in cream sauce.

It’s not usually my kind of dish, but this version is clenchingly fantastic. At my request, the nice waiter turns off the damned Gypsy Kings and puts on some traditional Serbian oro music. I’d like to linger but must move on. It’s been, after all, 12 hours since my last screech.

Here’s the Gypsy Tea Room’s interesting menu:

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1:30 p.m.: The Ship Inn Yet Again

I’m back at Ship inn, where I’d forgotten that Dave had promised to arrange a plate of cod tongues for me. A large plate.

I’m full, but after one bite I melt into primordial hunger. These cod tongues are epochs more advanced than the ones last night. They are probably the best thing I’ve had on the tour. In fact, they might be the best fried thing I’ve ever eaten. The cook is a quiet magician. I offer you, below, many views of the tongues plus their affiliated scrunchions (which go beautifully—and alliteratively!—with screech). You must click on each to expand, and you must stare at each photo. You must book your plane tickets. You must quit your job. You must swear to never eat anywhere but the Ship Inn for the rest of your life.

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2:30 p.m.: Still at the Ship Inn

I’ve finished my dish and am as full as I’ve ever been in my life. But I’m also desperately, pantingly, heart-shatteringly in love, and, like a chicken staring up at a rainstorm until drowned, I can’t conceive of not eating more. The cook serves someone chowder, and I’m jealous enough to strike the recipient dead with a bar stool. I conquer my violent impulse and ask for a cup. Expecting grandeur, I’m nonetheless unprepared. Angels sing, lights shine. Words fail. Just … look.

It’s not much of a photo, I know. You’ll need to meditate on it for a few minutes. But it’s all there. I regret that I can’t describe this chowder. Words fail, and my feelings are just too … personal.

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3:30 to 5 p.m.: ... And Still at Ship Inn

The blessed cook has left, thank goodness, and I’m binge drinking to steady my nerves.

The Ship Inn often has good live bands, but, just my luck, tonight’s “Stitch ‘n Bitch Night.”

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6 p.m.: International Flavours

Having heard an irresistible tip about an Indian restaurant in a private house in a residential neighborhood, I’m climbing intently (and somewhat totteringly) up the hills outside of town, investing a full hour in the search, finally locating International Flavours (4 Quidi Vidi Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-738-4636) at the intersection of Signal Hill Road, Quidi Vidi Road, and Duckworth (yes, street names here are awesome). The restaurant is, alas, closed on Mondays.

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6:30 p.m.: Arty Photography

Time out to shoot moody photos of downtown and the harbor.

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7:30 p.m.: Bianca’s

Dave had recommended high-end Bianca’s (171 Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-726-9016), famous for fillet of caribou, a meat I’ve never tried. I’m certainly not hungry, but I put on my food critic hat (after taking off my alcoholic hat) and head over to Bianca’s for a professional few bites in spite of my lingering painful fullness.

The stuck-up waitress in her little black designer dress seems strangely anachronistic. What with the food, the alcohol, and the disorientation of thousands of miles of traveling, I think for a second that I’ve been transported to Tribeca. She’s very on-script. It’s killing my buzz.

The food’s deft, dramatically plated, expensive. As with virtually all upscale places I’ve visited on this trip, the kitchen affirms its location via regional ingredients and refined shout-outs to tradition. But there’s pretension here, and I just can’t forgive pretension in NewfoundLAND.

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8:30 p.m. to ???: Blurry Drinking and Good-byes

Can’t remember much, aside from emotional good-byes at the Ship Inn. I’ve been in town less than 36 hours.

The next morning I fly out early. But I’ll be back. Halifax native and radio star Heidi Petracek, who hipped me to the Ship Inn and Gypsy Tea Room, predicted that if I liked Halifax, I’d flip over NewfoundLAND. And she was right.

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The Chow Not Eaten: St. John’s Leftovers

Places I didn’t get to:

On Bell Island, the only fish and chips on the island, near the ferry.

The Battery Hotel (100 Signal Hill Road, 709-576-0040) for traditional brunch.

Michel’s Bakery (799 Water Street, 709-579-0670).

... and, not chow, but the essential stop for all tunely needs: Fred’s Music Store (198 Duckworth Street).

Peanut Butter Burgers, French Fry Titans, and Bye-Bye “Streak”

Halifax, Nova Scotia

I’m staying at the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront, a terrific and underpriced new hotel with surprisingly good room service and a fun, lively bar. Best of all, it’s right on the waterfront, an irresistible part of Halifax. One can amble for hours among pleasant shops along a scenic harbor rife with tugboats and hardworking mariners.

Take a virtual walk down Halifax’s waterfront with Jeff Pinney (and hear about a very good Nova Scotian wine as well as an explanation of The Nature of Reality) via this podcast: MP3.

This shot of shimmery tugboats is the sole example of a failed attempt at impressionistic photography:

My favorite waterfront food shop is Botticelli Mercato Italiano (1477 Lower Water Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-7466), which makes excellent gelato. Pear tastes like you’re eating a cold, creamy pear, and pistachio is the essence of toasty pistachio. Both a bit too sweet, but I quibble: Experience GelatoCam: Movie.

You’ll notice that as I shot the video, I was struck dumb by the sight of brownies. Sure enough, they were amazing, with as long a flavor fade as anything I’ve ever eaten:

The big don’t-miss weekly waterfront event is the Saturday morning farmer’s market. I somehow managed to miss it (hotel bed too comfy).

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I’ve never seen a city with such an intensely focused french fry culture. The scene hinges on big tater-spewing fry trucks parked in front of a statue of Winston Churchill.

Bud the Spud pretty much owns fried potatoes in this town. Bud, an artiste held in much awed esteem by the populace (slightly less so his brother, Bill the Spud), only deigns to fry in optimal weather. It was a bit drizzly during my stay, so Monster Fries, a lesser truck that pops in strictly at the whim of the almighty Bud, was my sole choice.

Monster Fries’ product was damned good, making me dreamily wonder what tuberous majesty Bud’s blessed pommes frites might have offered.

Halifax french fry trucks are actually big business: Truck, permit, equipment, and parking space cost umpteen thousand dollars, I’m told.

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In my last report I described the no-frills Ardmore Tea Room as “no-nonsense.” But that place was downright jolly compared with the Midtown Tavern and Grill (1684 Grafton Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-422-5213), a time capsule where giant waiters with forearms like fireplugs stalk the floor, slamming down tankards of beer and growling hardily at their fellow roughneck customers. I felt like a little girl suddenly beamed from some Hello Kitty boutique to the movie set for The Gangs of Nova Scotia.

Behold, the Nova Scotian boiled dinner.

Was the food good? That’s totally beside the point. Any landmark this characterful, evocative, and steeped in long tradition is inherently perfect. One must calibrate to such places.

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One of the callers in to yesterday’s radio show tipped me to great home fries. South End Diner (1128 Barrington Street, Halifax: 902-429-6439), a sweet, calm white-tiled mom-and-pop parlor from another era, is a bastion of care. The from-scratch cooking is glacially painstaking; it took forever for our puny order to arrive, and we were the only customers. The methodical, stoic chef simply doesn’t do shortcuts. Similar care seems to have gone into the amazing collection of decorative plates, which occupy virtually every inch of wall space.

South End keeps their home fries close to the vest—you can’t simply ask for them. They must be requested with earnestness; the request will be mulled over and, if you’re lucky, approved.

I was moved by these little stones of staunchly unseasoned hand-cut potato, diligently parboiled and then fried in fresh oil. The opportunity to eat things like this, impossible to find at home, is the very reason for traveling. All photos in these reports enlarge when clicked, but we’ll blow this one way up so that you can ponder the subtle depths of these spuds:

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Sweet Jane’s (5431 Doyle Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-0168) is famous for New York–style cupcakes. Did you know there even were New York–style cupcakes? I sure didn’t—though, come to think of it, growing up on Long Island I was never aware of a duck connection. Anyway, New York cupcakes seem to be a standard item up here.

Regionality aside, they were fine cupcakes, with tangy frosting.

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The appeal of Darrell’s peanut butter burger, one of the city’s most titillating culinary oddities, can be explained via one word: satay. As Southeast Asians long ago discovered, peanut sauce and meat work together beautifully. I doubt that Darrell and company were aiming for satay, however. This is what cultural anthropologists might call “parallel innovation.”

The restaurant’s full name is My Other Brother Darrell’s (5576 Fenwick Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-492-2344), and they’ve won all sorts of local awards for this culinary achievement.

Just down the block, Tarboosh (5566 Fenwick Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-405-4000), a new Lebanese place, looked good, and a few quick bites confirmed quality. These guys actually make foul madamas from scratch (rather than with canned favas), which is way beyond the call of duty.

And around the corner, Gingerbread Haus Bakery (1138 Queen Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-4333) broke my streak. I thought it looked great from outside, I thought it looked great from inside, and, infinitely confident about its grandeur, I ordered box after box of cookies, pastries, breads, and treats … none of which was the slightest bit remarkable.

Would you have been fooled, too? Have a look:

I wasn’t so upset about my streak, seized as I was by crashing disappointment over those luscious-looking chocolate elephant ears, adorable gingerbread men, lovely cakes, crusty loaves, and hand-dipped spritz cookies. Streak, shmeak; after being spoiled by all the great strawberry shortcake and pie in Maine, I need some decent baked goods, dammit!

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The Wooden Monkey is a sort of vegetarian place (serving lots of meat), offering nominally healthy fare (made with tons of oil). I stopped by on a tip to try their seitan sandwich, which was way more satisfying than its name would indicate.

This spicy sandwich went well with good, strong ginger beer made by Propeller, a local microbrewery.

I don’t know about those “baked” french fries (greasier than fried), though:

... and the blueberry pie was downright disturbing:

Its crust seemed to contain some health food oil (and no salt at all). More trans fats, please!

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The Chow Not Eaten: Halifax Leftovers

A grab bag of tips, spottings, and other leftovers … caveat eater!

Certainly Cinnamon

Smith’s Bakery

Nameless bakery in Dartmouth Ferry 2 mins. from the King of Donair branch near the ferry terminal.

Lamb sandwich in front of Pete’s Frootique.

Jamieson’s in Cole Harbour for really good food in the sprawl.

Chickenburger (“unique and trashily addictive”).

John’s Lunch (“you will not believe the pile of clams”).

Habbibi’s (Jeff’s find for great Lebanese in the middle of an industrial park).

Alexander’s Pizza.

Bitar’s Pizza & Grill in Elmsdale (just outside Halifax), for great pizza.

O’Carroll’s (“great bar”).

Sushi Bang.

Halifax: Faux Turks and Primordial Corned Beef Hash

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Island is shut tight for the season, so I’ll be hunkering down in Halifax for the next few days. If I’d arrived just a week or two earlier, there’d have been many more Maritime options, but the prospect of eating seal meat in the Magdalen Islands, et al., will have to wait for another trip.

But I’m not suffering. Halifax is a dynamite town, just large enough for urban culture and edge, but small enough to feel personal. And you’re still in Nova Scotia, so there’s a certain softness in the air.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the Canadian Maritimes as a culinary hotbed, so I was stunned by the chowhounding savvy of callers in to the Maritime Noon show, which had me on as a guest. By kind permission of the folks at the CBC (and the show’s host, Costas Halavrezos—who, as you’ll hear, really groks the ethos), here’s the entire program: MP3.

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I spent the day running around sampling quick bites. The following is an overview of the chowconnaisance:

The Ardmore Tea Room (6499 Quinpool, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-7523), a no-nonsense old-time diner, serves the primordial corned beef hash. A frequent theme of my trip has been discovering local traditions that inspired ubiquitous mass-market foods, and this is clearly the sort of hash that inspired canned corned beef hash.

I don’t mean Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s grabbed the recipe from this very kitchen. But the Ardmore opened in 1958, and their hash is an amazing trip back in time. Nobody in New York City (or anywhere else I’ve been) makes hash like this anymore. What does this legacy hash taste like? Like canned corned beef hash, only soulful. Just like Chattanooga fried chicken tastes like Banquet fried chicken, only soulful. And Memphis ribs taste like barbecue potato chips, only soulful. And so on …

These folks all surely ate lots and lots of hash in their day:

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Donair shops are everywhere, serving what I’m used to seeing spelled “Döner”: compressed meat on a spit. But despite the similar spelling, this is a whole different compressed meat on a spit. It’s Halifax Donair, made by guys as Turkish as Doug McKenzie. Brace yourself as I explain what they use for sauce on these babies: vinegar, sugar, and evaporated milk. The result at least visually resembles the yogurt sauce used on Turkish döner, though the taste is, er, quite distinctive. My theory is that a visiting Turk once accidentally dropped a photo of döner on the streets of Halifax, and the relic went viral (and oh so wrong).

My stomach went a little viral after just a few bites of this sandwich from one of the downtown branches of King of Donair:

The swarthy King of Donair proudly displays his royal accouterments.

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I was endlessly fascinated by Tom’s Little Havana Café (5428 Doyle Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-TOM’S). This is a super-popular gin mill/cigar bar, where the thick cigar smoke adds yet more cinematic ambiance to a scene already straight out of a European movie. Despite its dramatic high ceilings, the room is warm and intimate, comfortably hosting a clientele spanning oddball loners to coiffed scenesters.

There’s a wide selection of local beers, and a kitchen the size of a closet turns out an ambitiously long list of dishes cooked with equal parts irony and naiveté. The terse dish names do little to describe what’s actually served, so ordering here is like making a wish to one of those tricky genies who never conjure up quite what you’d expected. The pace is too bustling to engage much with servers, and there are no menus beyond the terse chalkboard, so your only hope is to seek the counsel of a regular with experience in this place’s wacky oeuvre:

Local beer and wine guru Jeff Pinney suggested Havana rolls, sort of deconstructed chickeny egg rolls refashioned as wraps … or chicken stir-fry wrapped in a flour tortilla and baked. Whatever they are, they’re defined by their utter non-Cuban-ness. This place is no more Havana than the donair joints are Turkish. But they’re not aiming for Cuban. The name’s just a point of departure for whatever twisted genius (I visualize a wise-ass 11-year-old with a toaster oven and hot plate) whips this stuff up in the nano-kitchen.

The rolls are served with herbacious dipping sauce and tequila salsa, and, speaking of departure, they taste like they were made on another planet—which is not to say they’re not tasty. They are, and I pretty much inhaled them:

Just as the Havana rolls are the antithesis of Cuba, beef-chipotle quesadillas here contain no cheese:

Jeff had never tried them before, but I insisted on ordering potato pancakes, which tasted like deconstructed Indian pakoras (complete with cardamom) refashioned as latkes, with a dipping sauce of chutney refashioned as ketchup:

The food is primitive, even amateurish, yet supremely confident and intriguing as can be. It’s like a distinct cuisine, with its own internal flavor logic. One yens to work through the entire menu, preferably with a guidebook to the cuisine in hand (The Lonely Planet Guide to Tom’s Little Havana Café?). It’s all very trippy, very Alice in Wonderland … with cigars! (Note: By the time you read this, anti-smoking legislation will have cut in. Let’s hope they’re still in business …)

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Charming, obscure Mrs. P’s Bakery (336 Herring Cove Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-479-1293) makes real good oat cakes and other everyday baked goods. They’re quietly witty, nice folks, too.

Oat cakes are a blurry, homely sort of treat. The camera resists all attempts at focus.

You can taste each of the 600 miles from New York City in those highly Canadian black-and-white cookies.

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Tarek’s Café (3045 Robie Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-454-8723) is a shopping-strip Lebanese restaurant with great potential. Their toom (garlic mayonnaise) is sharp, pungent, just right. Tzatziki is lush; kibbe is authentic, down to the pignoli. Buf falafel’s nuked—everything seems to be nuked, robbing the food of its soul. My guess is that the trick is to arrive early when the food’s warm and fresh, and get to know Mama, cooking in the back, so that she’ll make you special dishes (I get the feeling she’d take requests). This is a restaurant that requires effort and strategy.

A Tale of Two Restaurants (or, Yin ‘n’ Yang in Nova Scotia)

Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and Port Williams, Nova Scotia

I’ve traversed Nova Scotia, trading the bucolic salty south shore for the bucolic salty north, where I scored a surprisingly inexpensive room ($125 Canadian) at hoity-toity Blomidon Inn (195 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 877-542-2291). Ah, sweet shoulder season. Look at this joint and tell me: Could life possibly get any quainter?

The dining room splays out among various alcoves on the first floor, making for a luxuriously personal setting. Here’s the view from my table:

Aside from the unbeatable ambiance and impressively professional service, it was a perfectly fine, thoroughly unmemorable meal. In fact, I can’t recall a single bite. But I’m glad to have done it … once (at this price—$53 Canadian—I wouldn’t return for seconds).

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Tin Pan Bakery & Bistro (978 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-5649) is one of the most enigmatic places ever. It’s as humble as can be—just a modest cabin by the side of the road offering a daily soup, a sandwich or two, and a couple of pastries. The woman in charge is quiet and polite, but her eyes brim with intensity.

I ordered potato leek soup (with biscuits), plus a muffin, and took it all out to the car, where one sip told me this was the most ingenuous of soups. Very little salt—in fact, it had very little flavor, though the oddly shaped chunks of waxy potatoes told me that the chef really loves potatoes. But it was the strangest thing: Nothing happpened in my mouth, yet this was one of the few items I’ve completely finished on this trip. I just couldn’t put my spoon down.

I’ve included two shots, hoping that if we all stare at them long enough, we’ll figure out what the magic is:

The biscuits also were phenomenally bland. I arrived late in the day, so they were slightly tough, too. And I couldn’t stop eating them. What weird, enchanting food!

This pensive muffin is also from the Tin Pan. Yup, utterly flavorless and utterly irresistible:

Only now, as I review these photos, have I noticed Tin Pan’s motto at the bottom of this sign:

Something about the font, the spacing, the capitalization, even the wallpaper behind the sign makes me suspect there’s an intelligence at work. The supernatural effect is, I believe, no accident.

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Tempest World Cuisine (117 Front Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-0588) is a much-acclaimed restaurant, whose chef/owner, Mike Howell, seems to be one of Nova Scotia’s buzziest chefs.

He’s up on the latest trends—for example, his upcoming “Surreal Dinner.”

I was seated within view of the kitchen, so I couldn’t get away with taking lots of photos, but you can just visualize splashy, pizazzy presentations. I did squeeze off this one hasty shot of my slow-braised pork bellies in sour cherry gastrique:

The little square potato thingies on the left tasted rewarmed. The beety/cheesy thingies, on the right, were obnoxiously rich with cheese. And the squares in the center with the sauce are the pork bellies, which tasted nice. My pumpkin risotto was deftly made, but soulless. Pineapple and lemongrass ice cream sandwich (“our own lemongrass ice cream between layers of coconut milk–poached pineapple”) suffered from a remarkably low deliciousness-to-cleverness ratio.

“It’s SHOWTIME!” exuberates your food. And I suppose it truly is. This kitchen musters fine technique, interesting (if not always successful) juxtapositions, and sophisticated broad strokes. But everything left me stone cold. I had to force myself to take plodding second bites of things.

It dawned on me that Tempest World Cuisine, where skillful cooking entices nary a second bite, is the precise yang to the yin of Tin Pan Bakery & Bistro, where poor cooking is downright magnetic. A high-powered laser experiment must have gone awry, splitting a genius chef into two dysfunctional half-chefs. One works in a silent bleak cabin, the other a few miles away amid splashy accolades. One day I hope they find each other and merge.

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Café Central (corner of Cornwallis and Webster streets in Kentville, Nova Scotia) is just some generic small-town coffee joint with counter service, but their chowder and salad were leagues better than I’d expected. Have I just been chowhounding well, or are ordinary restaurants starting to try harder than they need to?

Classy-looking chow for a pedestrian coffeeshop, no?

I’ve been drinking more and more rooibos tea (see report #53), and liking it better and better:

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Fox Hill Cheese makes ordinary hard cheeses (though their fenugreek havarti wins points for creativity), but also sensational quark. You can find their products at the Saturday Halifax Farmer’s Market, at 1496 Lower Water Street, or at Fox Hill Cheese House (1660 Lower Church Street, Port Williams, Nova Scotia; 902-542-3599), where friendly staffers offer samples.

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This area was a bastion of Tories opposed to the American Revolution, and the British flavor is still palpable—particularly in the dark, woody, creaky Library Pub (472 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-4315), which could easily be a bar in Oxford. Downstairs, the same owners run the Coffee Merchant, a warm little hangout for teetotalers.

Dashing Up to New Brunswick

My logistical skills have been falling well short of Prussian military standard. Assigned to, essentially, meander for weeks on end, I’ve lost my organizational chops.

The drive from Maine to Saint John, New Brunswick—a three-hour yawner—was followed by a dull five-hour slog to Nova Scotia. These eight hours of boredom served as penance for my having missed, by a mere one day, the last ferry of the season from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia.

It’s not that I was aiming to miss New Brunswick. The point of this tour—of life itself—is that great food can be found everywhere if you look for it skillfully and persistently. So I knew there was treasure in New Brunswick, despite its culinary disreputation. But I have a radio date coming up in Halifax, plus I’m eager to check out Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, and, especially, the Magdalen Islands, where I hear that people eat seal meat. So I was forced to sprint the 500 miles through New Brunswick.

I made one stop en route today, for a random dish of poutine (french fries in gloppy brown gravy with squeaky cheese curds) from a fast-food outfit called Deluxe French Fries (103 Albion Street South, Amherst, Nova Scotia; 902-660-7000):

Good-quality french fries made this relatively high-class poutine. The brown sauce was, as it must be, straight from a can, and the cheese curds were–as they, too, must be—vulgar and trashy. Such is poutine. If you clean it up too much, it’s not really poutine anymore. If I were 20 years younger and four beers drunker, this would have been pure heaven.

Also in Amherst, I tried to track down a tantalizing clue, courtesy of Eartha (my GPS navigation concierge). Suffering a cookie jones, I’d asked her to list nearby bakeries, and she offered “Shirley’s Baking and Catering.”

Even with Eartha’s help, though, I could not find it. Perhaps Shirley works out of her house, but there’s no commercial business at 2812 Brownell Ave. Hmmm … as I stare at the photo, I’m wondering whether the address might actually have been 28 1/2 Brownell. Groan.

Other than that, I just blazed through, and only the last hour or two (in the thick of Nova Scotia) was any kind of picturesque. Well, a surfeit of picturesqueness was in store for me in Lunenburg.

I stayed at Greybeard’s Bed and Breakfast (201 Pelham Street, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; 888-532-9696), run by Bob Higgins, an affable gray-bearded fellow, and his good-humored wife, Rosanna. They take particular pride in their breakfasts, and with good reason. It all tasted as good as it looks:

Cantaloupe mousse!

Blueberry banana bread.

The following dish was made with smoked salmon. Very good old-time maritime cooking—with evident design flair:

Bob and Rosanna introduced me to rooibos (“ROY-buss”) tea, a noncaffeinated herbal brew made from a South African red bush. Early adopters, Bob and Rosanna used to have seafaring friends bring back rooibos from Africa, but suddenly you can find the stuff across Canada. It left me a little cold—it tasted a bit like weak chamomile—but I’m going to try to acquire a taste for this stuff.

Bob recommended Magnolia’s Grill (128 Montague Street, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; 902-634-3287), a funky little local legend cooking both Nova Scotian and Cajun food (fortunately, they don’t attempt to fuse the two). I stuck with the Nova Scotian end of the menu, and was entirely impressed.

This is the annex, next door to the cozy dining room.

Fish cakes, a staple up here, are a delight. They’re mostly spuds—think of them as potato cakes “plus.”

So soft, so carefully fried. Not fishy at all.

Mussels were merely good—a great disappointment given the proximity to Prince Edward Island.

Magnolia’s crunchy, perfectly balanced Caesar salad was nearly as good as George Sape’s (see report #39), and the key lime pie was stupendous. Its crust (Deep South style, per the chef’s Cajun/Creole association) was crumbly and melting—exactly what you dream of when you dream of key lime pie crust. As you can see, the filling’s a bit runny, but that’s OK:

I love places like this, run by strong-willed mavericks. Magnolia isn’t a member of the chamber of commerce, and you won’t find it listed in any of the town materials. The chef/owner is known to be cranky and difficult. But she respects the local cuisine, opting not to ostentatiously update it, but instead to prepare it with an uncommonly deft and caring touch.

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Knot Pub (4 Dufferin, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; 902-634-3334) is an old fishermen’s pub straight out of The Hobbit, an insider’s place where the insider order is superb peanut butter pie:

It’s all about that dense, hard layer of chocolate and the crumbly graham cracker crust. This pie is thoroughly unrefined, in stark contrast to the dessert meticulousness of Magnolia’s Grill. But it’s primo for its type.

Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is picture perfect ... but self-consciously so. I like the food, and the Greybeard Inn, too, but I prefer locales less self-aware of their own charm. Tomorrow I’ll hit the road again.

What Is Real and What Is Shtick?

Saint John, New Brunswick

I could relate to most of Maine, but once I reached Machias, way up in the Down East—where stews are soups, stew/soups consist of magical thin milk, and strawberry pie is deliciousness from another galaxy—I started feeling very off the map. But yet more strangeness awaited me as I continued northward.

Let me fill you in on the rest of my night. I’ve been terrified of Canadian immigration officers ever since I went to jazz camp up north as a kid and told the immigration guy I needed a student visa. He smirked and said, “Well, maybe we won’t be giving you one!” Then he pulled me into a back room, where he told me jazz musicians do lots of drugs and I wasn’t going to be doing lots of drugs, was I? It was all a bit much at my tender age, and even now I get nervous crossing the Canadian border. And when I get nervous, I get forgetful. So I forgot to tell last night’s border guy about the rum. And believe me, you don’t want to forget to tell them about the rum.

I’d bought two bottles of Pampero Añejo Venezuelan rum at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store for the unbelievably low price of $22/bottle and promptly forgot about them. So when asked if I had any liquor (no inquiries on drugs this time), I did remember the bottle of bourbon in the trunk. I declared it … and was told to pull over. I was grilled by a manager who went out to inspect my trunk. As he lifted the hatch, right smack on top of everything were my bottles of beloved Venezuelan rum.

My choice: Pay $60 or spill it. And that’s how I came to share a small restroom with a large Canadian official while I morosely poured caramel-hued ambrosia down a very happy sink.

Then it was a late-night drive through New Brunswick to Saint John, which I knew nothing at all about. It was too dark to see anything, which enhanced my disorientation. Was I heading from weird into weirder? Or would this unknown eastern part of Canada feel like … Canada?

The good thing is that I was done with that Seafood Shacks book (see report #34), which doesn’t, thank God, cover Canada. Everywhere I’d gone in New England, every remote and unlikely find I’d found, turned out to be in the book. By the end, it was causing me such angst that I slid it out of sight under my car’s passenger seat. Now that I’m in Canada, the damned book shall vex me no more.

I woke up in Saint John, which turned out to be a small, wind-swept, deserted city. It was very post-apocalyptic, very Twilight Zone. There were buildings, restaurants, parking lots, etc., but I felt as if I were on the steppes of Mongolia.

My cell phone won’t work up here, so I headed to a mall in the suburbs to pick up a cheap backup unit. And there I found a surprise. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3.

Upon returning to Saint John, I recorded a terrifying soundscape. If you thought I was exaggerating about the eerie desolation of the place, listen to this podcast MP3.

But enough travel repartee. Let’s do food.

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At Reggie’s (26 Germain Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-6270), a gruff local legend, I was served an ingenuously terrific breakfast, including extraordinarily careful toast. The charming homemade corned beef hash was a textural wonder, and it came with some campfire-ish beans, which only heightened the sensation that I was at the western extreme of the continent rather than the eastern.

Below is a view up the street from Reggie’s. It’s highly unusual to spot two people and a car on the street all at once, but all three quickly vanished. And even in the photo, it’s impossible to focus one’s attention on them. They’re not fully there. They are wraiths.

Then I headed down to the seafront to try to track down a good place for lunch. I didn’t know what to make of this place:

It looks so very salty, no? My New York skepticism got the best of me. Such a stylized joint down by the water had to be posing, right?—carefully manufactured to look scruffy and pull in tourists from the nearby cruise-ship port.

This existential dilemma often arises when I’m far from home: It’s hard to distinguish between shticky and real deal while on unfamiliar turf. I recall once seeing a cowboy in a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Mexico and rolling my eyes at his pretentious getup. Get a load of Mr. Cowboy! But no, he actually was a cowboy. We postmodern urbanites tend to construe all genre as contrivance.

Even now, I’m still not sure whether Steamers Lobster Co. (110 Water Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2325) was legit. The name alone raises grave suspicions. But a small group of apparently real fishermen were hanging out there. And the lobster was top-notch, which is all that counts. It was no great bargain at $40 (including a beer), though.

I asked my waiter for a recommendation for dinner, and she suggested, with great enthusiasm, Church Street Steakhouse (10 Church Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2373), which I later found out is run by the same owners. I’d been taken in by these wiley big-city hustlers.

But not really. The steakhouse was a pleasure. It’s in the bricky, artsy center of downtown, which is atmospheric without being at all obnoxious. Here’s the edge of that area at sunset, looking down toward the water.

Church Street Steakhouse is intimate and rakish without trying hard. It was, like everything else in Saint John, deserted. One waiter worked the whole floor plus the bar. He looked about 22 and was outgoing and helpful. Sweet potato fries (which he recommended) were benchmark great … perfectly fried in very clean oil at the perfect temperature. So light, crisp, and oilless, and the very essence of the tuber.

My steak was a fine-not-great cut, well butchered and grilled, and came with a generous portion of sautéed onions. Garlic mashed potatoes were unique. They’re made by scooping out baked potatoes. The result was so startling that they’re difficult to gauge. They’re real potatoey, which is certainly a good thing. Good beer list, terrific bar.

I stuck my head in Lemongrass Thai Fare (42 Princess Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-8424), an impossibly handsome, slickly designed place run by friendly people (everyone in Saint John is friendly—all six of them). It has a heated outdoor patio and a menu that I stared at forever, trying to parse their motivations. Back in New York, a smashingly designed place like this couldn’t possibly serve decent Thai food because they wouldn’t need to. Diners would come for ambiance alone. Is this true in Saint John? On the other hand, even if the place tried to serve real Thai food, could they? Where would they get their ingredients?

I never found out. I just couldn’t handle another meal. But my suspicion is this: People in Saint John are too nice to intentionally serve you lousy food. They may unknowingly serve you something bad, but I doubt anyone here would lure you in with décor and deliberately slack on quality.

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Among the many municipal projects snazzing up this town faster than Shanghai is Saint John’s Old City Market, an enclosed area that was fun to walk around. This sort of environment makes some people cringe, but to me, Yuppie is just another ethnic realm to enjoy.

The menu at Asian Palace (1 Market Square, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-642-4909), which seems to center on north Indian, looked pretty serious, though I didn’t try the food. This cute place is hidden in the basement.

Nice interior in this yuppie pub:

A seafood restaurant/lounge.

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Note: Astonishingly, in Canada, the “close door” button in elevators actually seems to work. I suppose the manufacturers figure Canadians are polite enough not to misuse them.

Belfast and Up North to Down East

Belfast, Maine

This tree, on a residential lawn, greets you as you head into downtown Belfast:

Virginia may be for lovers, but Maine is for cookie lovers. I haven’t had a bad cookie since I entered the state, and, sure enough, the ones at Weaver’s Bakery (101 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3540), an otherwise unexceptional-seeming luncheonette, were charming, unaffected, and irresistible.

I’m accustomed to big-city cookies, which, like big-city muffins, come in on the big truck. Even if they’re baked in-store, they’re nearly always made from that same cynical industrial batter.

But the SYSCO trucks seem not to make it up this far. This forces cookie bakers to actually bake cookies. While the cookies at Weaver may lack artistry, they are honest. And in a cookie, honesty is all that counts. All cookies ask is that you be non-evil in their preparation.

Doesn’t this photo (if you click to larger view) make you sigh?

Across from Weaver’s is Chase’s Daily (96 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-0555).

This is a neo-hippie market/bakery/restaurant/coffeehouse.

You can best grok the vibe via close examination of one of their napkins:

You don’t see napkins like this in New York City.

Per last night’s podcast, I’d been craving simplicity and heathfulness, so Chase’s Daily seemed a gift from heaven. I ordered the dullest, most earth-motherest thing on the menu: curried parsnip soup.

Well, I got my wish. This is food as nutrition. I probed for subtleties but tasted only … parsnips. I’d like to send one of those New American Cuisine believers in “using good ingredients and getting out of the way” to a place like this—where people really walk that walk. Cookies may benefit from being left alone to be cookies, but they’re unique. Parsnips, like most things, need help. Artifice is required to transform them into deliciousness.

By contrast, the fried-egg sandwich (with breadcrumbs, sautéed greens, and Grafton cheddar on grilled semolina bread) was also guileless, but value was injected via cannily chosen ingredients and stupefyingly perfect balance. The result: an unpretentious wonder I’ll forever crave:

Pastries were ambivalent. The bakers have more pretension than the cooks, so this stuff doesn’t know whether it wants to be voluptuous or ascetic. I tasted a bunch of these things, and none were memorable.

Scoops & Crepes (35 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3350) is a relaxed trippy café with counter service and an old upright piano. It’s open all winter.

The blueberry ice cream was extraordinary, redolent with mobs of intensely flavored wild blueberries. Not very sweet, this was obviously a blueberry lover’s ice cream made by blueberry lovers, with skill and love.

For lunch I hit Just Barb (24 Main Street, Stockton Springs, Maine; 207-567-3886), which makes peppery, soulful fish (haddock) chowder, though you have to really bear down to appreciate the subtle flavors. I’m finding that as I go north, flavors, like Mainers themselves, express themselves more recalcitrantly. You must slow down, look deep, and be patient.

Just Barb’s also makes great strawberry shortcake, even out of season. It’s all about the biscuits, and they’ve mastered them. The big problem, here and everywhere, is Cool Whip. Cool Whip is to New England what instant mashed potatoes are to the South. New Englanders love pie, cobbler, and shortbread—all of which involve whipped cream—as much as southerners love mashed potatoes. So why does seemingly everyone serve Cool Whip?

From Stockton Springs it was a long, long drive up to Machias, near the Canadian border. I’m finally Down East—a wry Maine term that actually refers to Up North. The foliage has been breathtaking all the way from Connecticut, but I’ve refrained from compulsively shooting photos of trees. Since things seem to be coming to a peak, color-wise, I offer just this one representative shot, taken in a minuscule settlement in an unthinkably remote forest at the very top of Maine:

Helen’s Restaurant (28 East Main Street [Route 1], Machias, Maine; 207-255-8423) is right on the coast, nearly as far up as you can go without being policed by guys in red coats.

Helen’s scallop stew was a masterpiece of understatement. Puffy, meltingly fresh and tender scallops float happily in a thin, weak, slightly buttery milky broth, which delicately cradles them. You taste an echo of scallop in that broth—attenuated but dead-on faithful. Even the salting is disarmingly restrained. It’s not one grain past the point of just-barely-salty-enough.

I’m not sure when New England decided Westminster All Natural Oyster Crackers were the one and only oyster crackers. I’ve been served them literally everywhere, but Helen’s alone serves old-fashioned Saltines (so I shot this photo elsewhere):

Helen’s lobster roll is fully doctrinaire, containing a merely generous portion of lobster, ample mayo, and honest-to-goodness hot dog bun. Pat Hammond would be happy!

Strawberry pie was delicious, but from a dessert galaxy I’d not previously visited. Take a look at the photos. It required lots of shots from several angles at several stages of consumption:

You can mail-order their wild-blueberry pies via Helen’s website.

Machias Motor Inn, which appears to be a sparkling-clean, inexpensive, and well-maintained motor court, is right next door. What a great vacation it’d be to stay at this place and just eat three meals a day at Helen’s!

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One troubling non-food observation. I stayed in several B&Bs run by harried city folks who had moved to Maine to chill out. I noticed something terrifying about them: Without exception, all seem to have brought their harriedness with them. You can always spot the urban escapees up here—they’re the ones who are high-strung and tightly wound. I suppose the cliché is true: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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The Chow Not Eaten

These are places in Maine I passed but didn’t try, or was tipped to by friend—or friends of friends, or found on Chowhound or elsewhere. I haven’t eaten in any of these places, so none of the descriptions or opinions are mine:

Bangor: Friar’s Bake House. (Run by monks! Breakfast and lunch only.)

Belfast: Singh Thai.

Belfast: White House B&B.

Brunswick: Wild Oats Bakery in the Tontine Mall. (“A homegrown, community oriented gathering place with a huge selection of homemade goods, including fresh baked goods and bread, cakes and pastries, healthy soups and hearty sandwiches.”)

Hallowell (near Augusta): Liberal Cup. (“For fine hand-crafted brews and superior pub food.”)

Old Orchard Beach: Mary Anne’s. (“Excellent pancakes, full of locals.”)

Searsport: Rhumb. (“Good upscale place.”)

Waterville: Bolley’s. (“Awesome french fries and hot dogs.”)

Waterville: North Street Dairy Cone. (“The world’s best fresh-banana ice cream and homemade cookie dough ice cream. Grapenut is a New England specialty flavor that is also very good here. Also peanut butter or peanut butter choc chip.”)

Winslow (one town over from Waterville): Big G’s. (“A favorite breakfast and lunch destination. Creative, fresh, ENORMOUS sandwiches, home made bread and desserts. And low prices.”)

Tips from my friend Jon Kalish:

Belfast: The Wealthy Poor House (70 Church Street; 207-338-4578). (“A B&B with amazing blueberry pancakes.”)

Bethel: DiCocoa’s Market Bakery/Cafe DiCocoa (119 and 125 Main Street). (“For good coffee and wonderful lunch—including awesome spicy African peanut soup.”)

Tips from Elizabeth Bougerol, author of New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, whose website, by the way, is

Boothbay Harbor: “Go to the Ebb Tide on Commercial Street. You’ll know it by the striped awning. Probably the peach shortcake will be off the menu (because it’s not peach season), regrettably. No matter. The place rocks.”

Harpswell: Dolphin Chowder House: “This diner is seriously out of the way, but the fish chowder. Oh, the fish chowder. I can’t stop the tears.”

Port Clyde: The General Store: “Haddock chowder. Try it if you’re nearby.”

Wells: Maine Diner: “Ignore the gift shop. Ignore the ‘As seen on the Today Show’ banner. If you’re on Route 1 heading through, stop in and ask for Myles Henry, who owns the place with his brother. He’s a Mainer and a font of information about great Maine food. Ask him to tell you the story of the guy who used to own the place and the waitress who worked for him. Also, if you eat here: lobster pie. It’s made with tomalley.”

Midcoast Maine in Pain (and Big Score in Damariscotta)

Lincoln County, Maine

Heading northward, I stopped at the legendary Red’s Eats (Main and Water streets, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-6128). They’re a landmark for lobster rolls, though opinion seems extraordinarily divided. A sizable number of Mainers seem to feel that Red’s makes an undistinguished lobster roll that’s been highly overrated by clueless tourists.

The photo below shows Red’s laughably tiny size, but also the supremacy of its location, location, location. This tiny shack occupies the central visual field of all drivers headed over the Sheepscot River bridge on Route 1 (you can just barely see the on-ramp in the photo)—which is to say: all coastal traffic headed northward.

I tried a lobster roll, and I don’t fathom the controversy. I can’t find a thing to complain about, and frankly can’t imagine any reason why anyone would ever want any other lobster roll. The Red’s lobster roll amounts to this: huge unbroken chunks of lobster meat expertly picked out of the shell, cooked to a T, sweet as can be, on carefully grilled bread. Nothing else. That’s it. If you don’t like this, you just don’t like lobster.

This is what it’s like to eat a perfect lobster (actually, it’s two lobsters’ worth of meat) whose shell has magically vanished. It is the epitome of everything crustacean:

The sole downside is that the unfamiliar ease of confronting two buck-naked lobsters tempts one into taking huge bites, which require mighty chewing. This can lead to the false impression that the lobster isn’t optimally tender. It is. You’re just wolfing down larger morsels than nature had intended.

Red’s “homemade” lemonade, however, is a sham. It tastes like lemon Tang. I don’t hear Mainers complaining about this.

Right after lunch, I had a slightly heated phone conversation with Maine native Pat Hammond over the propriety of Red’s lobster rolls. Listen in on this podcast: MP3.

A gaggle of restaurants and shops cluster around Red’s, hoping to glom tourism juju. Across the street, Sarah’s (US Route 1, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-7504) makes really good home-baked-tasting peanut butter cookies:

They pass the paper bag test:

+ + +

Later, I trekked way out of my way to Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf (129 State Route 32, Pemaquid Peninsula, Maine; 207-677-2200), hearing there was great food and a fun bar with cool bartenders, but things were shutting down for winter, and only the dull upstairs cafeteria was open.

But I enjoyed walking around the pier and taking moody photos. While it was still quite warm, I could feel the season about to change.

I couldn’t possibly eat another lobster roll, though I’ve heard Shaw’s are good, so I opted instead for lobster stew, which was subtle and pristine.

The stew was chock full of tasty lobster chunks. But I feel spoiled by Red’s, which left me with the staunch conviction that there’s nothing one can do to lobster to make it better than just plain lobster. Hey, I sound like a New Englander!

+ + +

I was hoping to have dinner at the remote Anchor Inn (Anchor Inn Road, Round Pond, Maine; 207-529-5584)—or at least a dinnerish gesture, given that I’m extremely full, having scarfed the entire lobster roll at Red’s earlier today. I’m starting to worry about myself; I’ve been losing my food-writer discipline and consuming more than my usual mere bite or two. This has landed me near the pain point, and that’s not a good place to be.

I’d heard Anchor Inn is idyllic and serves great desserts, but they were closed for the season, so I headed to the Damariscotta River Grill (155 Main Street, Damariscotta, Maine; 207-563-2992), owned by the same people. This place is situated closer to civilization, in the charming town of Damariscotta, and it’s open year-round.

What a sweet, no-nonsense, romantic restaurant! I realize those adjectives don’t really go together, but I’ve never seen a place like this before. Well, that’s not true. Canyon Grill, from report #25, was similar. The vibe is upscale but not pretentious. You don’t feel your status buttons eagerly pushed to assure you that you’re getting value for the premium charged. Prices are justified by quality and care rather than smoke and mirrors.

And they’re not trying to offer a taste of big-city restaurant glamour to the provinces. Just as Canyon Grill is a world-class restaurant that firmly belongs on that mountain in Georgia, so does the Damariscotta River Grill fit the picture here in salty Damariscotta. But it’s really elegant and really good.

I was forced to conclude this from mere dribs and drabs. Determined to experience the restaurant without actually eating anything of substance, I ordered a half-dozen raw oysters, a glass of apple cider, and bread pudding. But I was able to coast a little, thanks to a revelational bread basket.

What on earth was that sophisticated, amazing bread basket doing out here in the boonies? It included apparently housemade breadsticks and great fluffy Italian peasant bread (some of the best I’ve ever had … soft but chewy, with beautifully crunchy crust), and came with top-drawer olive oil for dipping. I’ve rarely seen this level of quality in top Manhattan spots!

The cider wasn’t just great and fresh; it was interesting. Someone had shown artistry in blending the apple varieties.

The oysters—local Pemaquids—were sublime. Even the best oyster bars in big cities are only an echo of oysters such as these: I wanted to sing to my mollusks, pet them, thank them for what they did for me:

Bread pudding was stately and thoughtful without being presumptuous or precious. It wasn’t just slammingly delicious. It had class.

Perfect oysters, perfect dessert, perfect bread, perfect breadsticks, perfect olive oil, perfect ambiance, perfect service (friendly, genuine, professional). Oh, how I wish I could have eaten a full meal here. I’ll return first chance I get.

It was late by the time I got to Moody’s Diner (Route 1, Waldoboro, Maine; 207-832-7785), and I thought I’d down a bite or two of their famed walnut pie. I finished most of the (wondrous) slice …

... and then worked myself into a lather out in the parking lot. Brace yourself for a delirious meltdown of a podcast: MP3.

Portland’s Greek Pizza Sleeper, Plus Stealth Somali

Portland, Maine

Two breakfast places regretfully missed in Ogunquit:

The Egg and I (Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-8777) (across from the Lobster Pound).

The Omelette Factory (422 Main Street, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-4110).

Peanut butter is a side dish at the Omelette Factory!

Wow. Two dedicated breakfast specialists in one town of 1,226 residents. This, my friends, is where I intend to retire one day.

But wait! I just learned there are even more!!

+ + +

Sometimes the biggest finds are obvious places that are undervalued by locals. No one in Portland doesn’t know Bill’s Pizza (177 Commercial Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-6166). But no one in Portland seems to fully recognize the majesty of their pies. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out taken-for-granted brilliance. For example, until beer writer Michael Jackson began writing rapturously about the artistry of Belgian ales, the Belgians themselves did not realize their beer was anything special. It was just stuff they unthinkingly brewed and drank. Bill’s Pizza is like this.

One likely reason for the underrating is that they make a little-known subgenre: Greek pizza. Greek pizza is a vanishing style that was once fairly common in New England, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania. It’s characterized by thin, well-done cheese (usually pocked with crunchy burntish nodes); plenty of oregano; and a highly ridged, lightly oiled crisp crust.

Greek pizza is not an acknowledged term among pizza historians. I use it to refer to pizza baked by Greek restaurateurs who scrambled to get in on the action as pizza was becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s. If you spot pizza fitting this description, ask about the original proprietor’s nationality. You can bet that Greeks started the place. You can also bet that the place is at least 30 years old.

I don’t need to check genealogy at Bill’s. They do an archetypal rendition of this style, and it’s smashingly tasty. Notice the large bitten-off missing portion, below. My breach of professional self-control is the best possible indication of killer deliciousness:

This reverse shot shows the trademark ridged crisp crust. You’ll want to study it closely in order to identify specimens quickly in the field:

The crust was so crisp (the end crust was positively explosive), the cheese and sauce so perfectly dovetailed, the spicing was so deftly optimized, that I did something I’d never before done on this CHOW Tour: I returned for another portion. In my position, every iota of hunger must be carefully rationed. I’ve seldom finished an item, much less asked for more.

This place is that good. And I’ll bet it has been since 1949.

+ + +

Middle Street is a cool little eating block on the edge of downtown Portland. In the photo above, Duckfat is the place with the orange and blue awning, and Norm’s East End Grill is to its left. I didn’t try Ribolita (41 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-2972), at the end of the block.

Duckfat (43 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-8080) is a breezy, cool little place, very informal and relaxing. They keep their menu quite small—a great way to ensure quality:

White bean and chorizo soup, a special, was humdrum, though. I don’t usually order soup specials. Great soups require long repetition to perfect. My bad.

Frites, fried in—what else?—duck fat, were quite the luxurious experience. They were oversalted and too greasy by far, but have undeniable appeal as an infrequent (say, biannual) extravagance.

Also calorically profligate (what, you were expecting health food at a place called Duckfat?) was the duck confit panini, with herbed black pepper Boursin spread. It contained some other stuff, too, but the thing atomized before I could fully analyze it. This pressed sandwich was so light and crisp as to be positively insubstantial—ingested more by osmosis than by chewing. The kitchen exhibited formidable Zen chops via the effortless transformation of heavy ingredients into a beautiful ducky cloud.

Their beignets looked good, but I didn’t try them. And I somehow completely missed the sweet chestnut and mascarpone panini, a daily special I just now noticed in the photo, above. A humiliating failure.

Norm’s East End Grill (48 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-253-1700) is a similarly airy, laid-back place. The staff’s incredibly friendly and the beer’s good—Riptide Red, brewed by local Casco Bay Brewing Company, is a magnetically subtle brew with a hint of malty sweetness. Their pulled-pork BBQ sandwich wasn’t authentic, but it emoted palpable kindess. Fun eating.

After a few hours of digestion while driving around Portland in search of duct tape for my decrepit suitcase, much excitement flared as I spotted Al-Amin Halaal Market (269 St. John Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-3220). Who’d have expected Somalis in Maine??

Podcast #1, MP3: The whole story.

Podcast #2, MP3: Goat curry on spaghetti in the car.

The curry (shot on my car’s roof).

Podcast #3, MP3: Curry appraisal: very good, not quite great.

Halfway through my meal, I realized they’d forgotten to pack my samosas. I ran back, grabbed my crunchy fried meat pastries, and returned to the car, where I took a bite and just barely turned on the recorder in time to catch the bliss in podcast #4, MP3:

Killer, killer samosas!