My partner, Chris, and I spent ten days in Montreal at the beginning of September, our first visit to this fine city. As is my wont, I spent the months prior to our trip researching and agonizing over our resto itinerary – though I'm happy to report that my efforts paid off in a week-and-a-half's worth of excellent meals. And I owe a debt of gratitude to all the Chowhounds who chimed in and made suggestions re. my itinerary.
I should also add that while we love good food, we are not always the most adventurous of diners (organ meat freaks me out... and foie gras is no exception). But we do live in San Francisco, so we get our share of excellent food. In other words, while we may not be hard-core foodies, I like to think we know our way around a menu. Of course, the same can be said for wine – love good wine, but am often hard-pressed to describe it in the language of the oenophile.
On our first day in Montreal, I bought a small notebook for (what else?) taking notes on our meals. Little did I know, until I began writing this, how much detail I left out – please forgive my copious and repetitive reliance on terms such as "tender", "meaty" and "perfectly-cooked". Let me just say that I have new-found respect for those who write about restaurants for a living. But I have done my best to describe what we ate and what we thought of it.
Also, I commented numerous times (favorably, I should add) during our trip that the service in restaurants had a very European feel. Waiters, maitres d' and sommeliers were not only gracious and professional, they were extremely well-versed in the dishes they served, their preparation, where the ingredients came from – they took their jobs seriously; and they were very attentive to any questions or special requests we had. Our meals were always leisurely – seldom did it ever feel slow and it never felt rushed. This is nice change from the sometimes hurried or amateurish service one encounters in the US; it's an especially welcome feeling at any time, though even more so while on a vacation. I really enjoy being able to slow down and really take the time to study the menu, chat with the waiter and enjoy the meal at an unhurried pace.
So, with those all that in mind, here goes...
L'Express (3927 Rue St-Denis)
We arrived at the airport in Montreal at around 7:00 and were ensconced in our rented apartment by 8:30. I called l'Express for a table, thinking we'd have no trouble getting in at 10:00 on a Sunday night. In fact, the earliest they had was 11:00 – fine for us since we were still on California time.
We arrived a bit early and had a glass of wine while we waited. The place really did feel as though we were in Paris – deep red walls, a long counter (every seat full), and small tables packed into the long narrow room. I had been dreaming of a classic steak frites for the past two weeks and couldn't imagine ordering anything else – until I saw someone at the counter eating what looked to be a perfectly grilled piece of salmon. Not even seated, and I was plagued with indecision.
Once we were at our table, a basket of bread and a jar of vinegary cornichons appeared – what a great way to whet the appetite. I started off with a warm goat cheese salad – four large croutons, each topped with a slab of chevre – mild, creamy and nicely balanced by some simply dressed greens. Chris, at my urging, switched from a plain green salad to a celery remoulade. It was tender, nicely seasoned and refreshing.
Since Chris was ordering steak frites, I went with my gut and ordered the salmon. How pleased I was – it arrived perfectly cooked, seasoned only with salt and pepper, with a lemon wedge on the side. The texture was just right, meaty, substantial, with a salty, slightly crusty exterior, on a tasty bed of spinach. Of course, Chris's steak was wonderful, too – succulent, a bit chewy and tasting of beef (funny how unusual that can be when ordering beef), the frites hot and salty, with mayo on the side. Probably the best part of his meal was the last few frites, which had soaked up all the juices from the steak.
We chose a bottle of Domaine Charon Cotes du Rhone, with some help from our waiter. A medium bodied wine, with a bit of astringency, it went nicely with both the salmon and the steak.
For dessert, they were out of both ile flottante AND crème caramel – quel dommage! I settled for a baba au rhum – it was OK, but nothing to write home about. However, it was served with a Domaine Cazes Muscat de Rivesaltes, which I quite enjoyed. Chris wisely chose the biscotti with vin santo – the biscotti were lovely, crunchy but tender, with a fragrant orange flavor. The vin santo (Frescobaldi) was a great match.
I loved l'Express – it was all I hoped it would be and a great late night dinner to start off our stay in Montreal.
Chez l'Epicier (311 St-Paul Est)
Besides the favorable reviews online, Chris had heard wonderful things about this restaurant from a client. We arrived by taxi on a rainy evening, getting our first glimpse of old Montreal's cobbled streets. The restaurant was simply decorated, with spices displayed for sale in the entry. Soft lighting, simply set tables and a lemon sitting atop a bowl full of coarse salt - all made for pleasant surroundings. We waited rather longer than we'd hoped for our waiter to appear. He recommended the house aperitif, a Kir Royale prepared with eau de vie and cognac. It was very nice, with a slight bitter edge. It was also $18 a glass – which was fine, but steering us to the most expensive choice available turned out to be a not-especially-welcome theme for the evening.
I started off with an asparagus salad. It was a very pretty presentation with tender-crisp asparagus criss-crossed on one end of a long rectangular plate; very fresh and tasty, though the portion felt stingy – two spears by my count. Chris had frog's legs, battered much too heavily in a soggy, oily crust – somewhat reminiscent of the bar food one might get at TGI-Fridays; he described them as being outshined by the Knights of Columbus fish fries he went to on Friday nights as a kid.
For my main course, I asked the waiter about the lamb preparation (I'm a big fan of lamb, but I generally prefer it on the mild side) and he indicated I would be happy with it. It was lamb chops with braised lamb shoulder. The chops were OK – rather fatty, chewier than they ought to be and served tepid. The shoulder, while a bit gamy for me, was very tasty, though again not served hot. The sauce was also good, a simple and savory reduction, as was the vegetable (forgot to write down, but it was a root or a tuber, if I recall correctly).
Chris loves scallops, so he chose the scallops stuffed with chorizo. Again, the waiter indicated they were delicious, though I had some misgivings about the combination – and it turned out I was correct. The chorizo overwhelmed the delicate scallops, which seemed a waste. And, like my lamb, they were not hot – yet they were also overcooked... Not an ideal combination, needless to say.
For dessert, I ordered a rather complicated preparation – chocolate cake with ginger ale sorbet, raspberries and one or two other items thrown in. It was tasty, though the presentation was overly-fussy and made it difficult to eat.
We ordered wine by the glass, and really enjoyed what we had, including a very nice Pascal Jolivet Sancerre; some tasty red with my lamb; and a good dessert wine, too. When the bill arrived, we compared it to the chalk wine list – every recommendation from our waiter had been for the most expensive glass available in each category. I hope I don't sound like a cheapskate (if anything, I don't pay enough attention to prices when I'm on vacation), but it felt like the waiter was making recommendations solely based on price, rather than what might go with our dinners. And there are ways around this – if, in fact, the "best" choice for every wine is the most expensive, offer some alternatives and mention the prices. Had our waiter done that, I probably wouldn't've felt like I was being ripped-off – which is exactly how I felt at the end of our evening.
In hindsight, the service throughout the meal felt rather rehearsed – that is, the waiter had decided what to recommend based not on his interaction with his customers, but based on his script for the evening – and perhaps in an effort to pad the bill and, presumably, his tip.
This meal was a disappointment overall. It wasn't horrible, by any means. But it felt like the kitchen was phoning it in, relying on it's location in the tourist destination of old Montreal and an established reputation. All of the dishes felt like they had potential, but were executed sloppily. And the service ultimately felt inattentive and focused on the increasing the size of the bill, not ensuring the quality of our experience.
Area (1429 rue Amherst)
Being two big queens from San Francisco, we knew we'd be spending our share of time in Montreal's gay Village (which, by the way, is pretty GD fabulous). Much like the Castro district in San Francisco, there didn't seem to be a glut of highly-reputed dining establishments in this part of town, though there were plenty of pleasant cafes and neighborhood type places (and I must say, the slices we ordered a few nights later at Madona Pizza across from the Sky Bar were wonderful – though this likely was influenced by the fact that it was 1:00 AM and we'd had quite a few drinks beforehand). But I had heard good things about Area, so we gave it a try. I still had my doubts, as I am far too familiar with some of the "fabulous" restaurants back home that are really about seeing-and-being-seen rather than great food.
As it turned out, the restaurant, located just off St-Catherine, was small (and sparsely populated on a Tuesday night) and contemporary, without feeling trendy or off-putting. We were seated in the window and began studying the menu, which is divided by ingredients (fish, meat, vegetables), with prices giving a good indication of portion size (i.e. starter or main). Everything sounded good and luckily for us, most everything we decided on was a smaller portion, so we ordered lots to share.
First came a spring roll, chewy rice paper surrounding tender raw beef, carrots and mint. A complex Asian soy-based sauce was fresh and assertive (ginger? sesame? something else?), though it didn't overwhelm the rolls. A great start.
Next, seared scallops, perfectly cooked. And I mean perfectly. Scallops are unforgiving – not cooked enough, they can feel unfinished, a little slimy; one second past done and they turn rubbery. Besides being impeccably fresh, they were golden-brown and crusty on the exterior, tender and sweet inside. Served with a lacy Parmigiano stick, which added a nice saltiness to the dish.
After that, two tempura shrimp served on skewers. The batter was crispy, light and delicate – the shrimp, like the scallops, were perfectly cooked, meaty and fresh. Along side was a sesame-flavored mayo.
For our mains, we were torn between braised beef with mushrooms, topped with a cauliflower puree – something of a nouveau shepherd's pie - and the asparagus risotto. Ordering both seemed like it would simply be too much food, but Chris sagely pointed out that we were on vacation, so why not be gluttonous? Boy, was I glad he prevailed.
The braised beef was falling-apart tender, while still substantial, chewy and beefy. The sauce was savory, with a slight sweetness – not sugary, more like a molasses or dark caramel; the cauliflower puree added another dimension of sweetness, which balanced nicely with what was essentially a bowl of really good stew. This was my favorite dish of the evening.
For our last dish, we were served an asparagus risotto, prepared with Parmigiano cheese and topped with a Parmigiano foam. Well-balanced flavors, with the asparagus remaining distinct from Parmigiano; the texture of the rice was just right. It felt like classic comfort food, yet also light and summery. The foam seemed a bit superfluous, but it didn't detract from the dish. Overall, a simple preparation that showed off the chef's restrained touch and his meticulous cooking technique.
Finally, dessert. I believe it was described as "crumble", though I remain hard-pressed to describe it – there was a mini-parfait with fresh berries, maple cream, cookie crumbs and tiny maple crepe. I can assure you that it was delicious. And our waiter recommended a Domaine Pinnacle ice cider, which was a perfect match.
A couple of other notes: the presentation of every dish was flawless. Simple rectangular white plates, with the food arranged intricately, yet always pretty, never fussy. And our waiter was absolutely charming. In addition to spending plenty of time describing the menu, offering his recommendations and observations for both food and wine and providing service that was both unhurried and attentive, he was kind enough to answer my questions about the etiquette of language in Montreal and Quebec (should I try out my limited French? Is it rude to assume that people speak English – or is it worse to assume they don't?). He assured me that my earnest (though often unsuccessful) attempts to communicate in French were likely to be appreciated – of course, he provided this assurance in English...
In some ways, this was my favorite evening, largely because I had kept my expectations in check. It was a real pleasure to have them exceeded by such a wide margin.
Tapeo (511 rue Villeray)
Prior to leaving for Montreal, the resto itinerary was looking very heavy on the French – not a bad thing, in my book, but I figured a change would do us good. I'd read good reviews of Tapeo, a Spanish tapas place, so off we went on Wednesday night.
It's a small-ish place, lively and convivial, very much with the feel of a neighborhood restaurant. We started with a plate of piping hot calamars frits – delicately battered, crispy on the outside, with a just-barely-chewy interior. Accompanied by a bit of aioli-like mayo, they were simple and delicious.
Next was an octopus salad – we almost skipped it, since we'd had the calamars, but the waiter indicated it was very good. How right he was – thick slices of octopus, meaty and surprisingly tender, along with onion, radish, tomatoes, green beans and tomatoes, dressed with tangy vinaigrette (sherry vinegar, perhaps?). This was the best dish of the evening.
Our next dish was gambas romanesco – two giant shrimp, served whole, with a mildly-garlicky tomato sauce. The sauce was good, though it may have overpowered the shrimp just a tad. The shrimp themselves, as with the two previous orders, were cooked to perfection.
The special that night was a lamb shoulder with potatoes and plums – it, too, was highly recommended by our waiter. My first bite worried me – the lamb seemed to be quite strongly flavored; however, my next taste included a bit of plum, which provided the ideal counterpoint. Once you throw in the crispy potatoes with their creamy interiors and the lovely rioja I was drinking, all was well with the world. The lamb slowly-cooked and assertive, the tangy plums, the smooth potatoes – really tasty.
We also had a dish of fresh green beans, cooked simply until crisp-tender; and ended with an unusual stuffed mushroom. We were expecting small white mushrooms, more like canapés – what we got was a giant mushroom (probably a Portobello) stuffed with a savory ground meat mixture. It reminded me of the stuffed peppers I ate as a kid. It was good, but did not stand out among the other dishes.
Regrettably, we skipped dessert, as Chris and I decided to argue instead. The saving grace, of course, was getting the argument out of the way early on in the trip – peace prevailed for the remainder of our stay.
Laurie et Raphaël (Quebec)
Thursday morning, we managed to get ourselves to the Gare Central at 6:00 and board our train for Quebec. We were checked into our hotel by 10:00 spent the day wandering the town (which, though touristy, was charming), had crepes for lunch near the Hotel de Ville and ended our day with a cocktail at the Frontenac. Then, back to our hotel to rest up before dinner at Laurie et Raphaël at 9:00.
The restaurant is fairly simply decorated – contemporary, with soft colors and simple furniture (save for the furry crimson wall in the entry). A very comfortable room – we were seated at one end of the curved room, on the South and West sides of our square two-top table. This was nice, as it allowed us to talk to each other, while also looking around the room and gossiping about the other diners.
Before we'd even arrived, I was leaning heavily toward the degustation menu, though I was unsure if Chris would be interested. With seven courses, it would've been a little difficult for only one of us to get it. However, once we confirmed that he could start with something other than the smoked salmon (not one of his favorites), we were all set.
So, I did get the salmon. It was a nugget of house-made gravalax – dense, smoky and meaty – wrapped in cellophane like a hard candy; alongside it was a paper cup (like what you'd pump your ketchup into at a burger joint) with a very simple slaw of carrot and fennel. The presentation was a bit precious, but the strong yet basic flavors gave a nice jolt to the tastebuds.
Chris went out on a limb and started with venison tartare (he generally regards "tartare" as cause for alarm), served in a Chinese soup spoon, and topped with a quail egg. The venison was mild and soft, very much like ahi, and it was zesty with garlic and spices. Chris liked it as much as I did.
Next was a chunk of ahi, tempura battered and served on a skewer, with a bit of sesame mayo. This was good, though it didn't bowl us over – and the serving was bigger than a single bite, so navigating the skewer and the slippery ahi proved challenging. This course was paired with a Ca' da Solo Malussia Bianca (the spelling of wines is likely incorrect, as I have terrible penmanship and great difficulty deciphering my own notes) – it was excellent.
We were very excited about the next course – a trio of tomato preparations: tomato sorbet with tarragon, a tomato shooter with yellow tomato foam and blanched, peeled cherry tomatoes. As most people would agree, there is nothing like the taste of a perfect tomato; yet this dish fell short. The shooter was quite good and the most tomato-y of the lot; the sorbet was very delicate, perhaps too much so – it was hard to discern either tomato or tarragon; and the four different cherry tomatoes were surprisingly bland – they may have just needed some salt. This course was served with dry, mildly fruity rose, Le Petit Chaperon – one of the tastier and more interesting rosés I've had.
I must confess, I was a little underwhelmed at this point. While I enjoyed every dish, nothing put me over the moon. Fortunately, our next dish did exactly that; it was perfectly cooked lamb loin, succulent, full of flavor and simply seasoned, with a shiny reduction, redolent of meat; with it came a meltingly tender lamb shoulder atop couscous, with olives and lemon, which lent a wonderful bitter edge to the rich meat; finally, a caramelized fig, topping the richness of the lamb with bit of dark sweetness. I loved this course – it was complex, yet unpretentious; each element of the dish provided either a complement or a counterpoint to another. Really sensational. The wine was Marina Cveti (the Montepulciano? Again, my notes have failed me).
A cheese course preceded our three (!) dessert courses. A disclosure: I like cheese well enough, but cheese courses have never really been my bag – and this goes double for Chris. Well, that all changed during this meal. Out came a small, dense-but-tender piece of toasted raisin bread, topped with a local brie-like cheese, warmed just enough to make it a bit runnier – all of this resting atop a plate swirled with a sweet rose syrup. The combination of chewy, slightly sweet bread, the creamy, musty cheese and the perfume of the rose was amazing– it was one of the most astounding dishes I've ever had. Had you told me when we sat down that the cheese course would be the highlight of this dinner, I'd never have believed you – but it was absolutely marvelous. It was served with a wine from Domaine Le Roc de Anges by Marjorie Gallet.
After this delightful cheese course, a tangy strawberry sorbet was served with watermelon, some crunchy bits (cookies? nuts?) and a bit of gin sorbet. The strawberry sorbet tasted as if it had just been plucked from the garden and the gin sorbet and watermelon added a cool and refreshing foil to the strawberry.
More of these delightful strawberries appeared in the shortcake that was served next; lightly whipped cream, perfectly ripened berries and a base of white chocolate, a small scoop of banana ice cream and bit of strawberry coulis along the side. Simple, delicious, each flavor bringing out another.
Finally, two tiny homemade marshmallows bracingly topped with a bit of lime zest. We polished off the last of the Dom Cazes Grenat we'd been drinking with dessert, expressed our thanks for such a lovely meal and evening and made our way happily back to our hotel.
I should also add that our service was great. We were served by different members of the staff throughout out our meal and all took great pride in describing the dishes and their preparation. Another waiter, who answered most of our questions about the wines, was amazing. His enthusiasm for the wines (and his extensive knowledge) was apparent as he described the grapes, the vineyard, the flavors, even the philosophy of the wine maker. By the end of our trip, we had also voted him "Hottest Waiter (perhaps Hottest Guy) in Canada", thanks to his dimples, broad shoulders and adorable accent.
Toqué! (900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle)
It seemed that I'd read mixed reviews of Toqué – largely favorable, but some seemed to find it overpriced or unadventurous. But I went in with an open mind. I'd ultimately chosen Toqué over other contenders in the "fancy" category as striking a happy medium – I got the impression it was neither super-trendy nor stuffy.
We arrived a bit early (despite our cab drivers unfamiliarity with the location of Place Jean-Paul Riopelle) and were walked to the bar for a short wait and a cocktail. I found the room to be lovely – the large glass windows looking out on the decidedly modern, urban square; the interior a pleasing combination of deep reds and various woods – contemporary and comfortable. The lighting was also well-done – simple globe fixtures that provided ample but still flattering light.
I started off with an oyster shot, presented in a mild foam with chives. Very nice, though I'd have been just as happy with a single oyster presented on the half-shell.
Next, our appetizers – for me, a single large ravioli filled with lobster, served with a bit more lobster and wild mushrooms in a subtle broth. A straightforward and tasty combination, quite earthy with mushroom. The lobster may have been a tad overdone, as it was a little chewy.
Chris had scallops served with some kind of foam. All I can report is that they were delicious – according to Chris; they were gone before I could insist on a taste.
For dinner, I had lamb shoulder with root vegetables. I think I mentioned earlier that I can sometimes find lamb a dicey proposition, especially if it leans more toward mutton. When my dinner arrived, I saw two big bones surrounded by what I feared was gristle and fat – not that the presentation was unattractive, mind you. It's just that I had expected something a bit more delicate in appearance. So, I warily took my first bite and exclaimed "Oh my God!". As much good lamb as I'd had this trip (and in other cities and restaurants), this lamb was in the pantheon of lamb preparations. Literally melted in my mouth, sumptuously tender; the savory flavor of the lamb braised in its own juice, subtly enhanced by the baby carrots and turnips (parsnips?) that were so perfectly prepared I ate them stems-and-all; potatoes were also sublime – we tend to think of potatoes as bland, a mere vehicle for the delivery of ketchup or sour cream. These potatoes were firm yet tender, creamy and, for lack of a better word, "potato-y" and could have happily stood on their own – yet were obviously further enhanced by the lamb. This was the first meal of our trip where it was clear from the get-go that I had "won". (I have a bad habit of not selecting my first choice of appetizer or entrée if Chris orders the same thing – and invariably I prefer his dish to my own while he crows about "winning again"... It's a habit I'm trying to break).
This is not to say Chris's main wasn't fantastic. It was a butternut squash risotto, cooked just right – tender yet just a bit chewy, the sweetness of the squash balanced with a pleasant saltiness and the savory fresh herbs. A scrumptious plate.
For dessert, I made a foolhardy choice in selecting the molten chocolate cake. It was a very well-prepared example, but I've had more molten chocolate cakes than you can shake a stick at – it was the least interesting selection. Chris ordered crème brulee – this, too, one can order everywhere, yet it feels like a classic, not a bore. And this version was excellent, creamy and rich yet still light, with crunchy tuiles served along side.
As for wine, all I can tell you is that I liked everything the sommelier recommended (we drank by the glass). He listened carefully to us and made his selections based on that and our food. Three wines were notable enough for me to ask him to write them down: 1. Vin de Pays Duche d'Uzes 2004, Orenia, P. Nusswitz; 2. Cotes de Gascogne 2004, Monte Regalis, Domaine Haut-Campagnau; 3. Vin rouge Fortifié, La Fortune, Domaine de l'Île Ronde.
As I check my notes, I see the last thing I wrote for Toqué is "This meal was sublime". And indeed it was – food, wine, service, atmosphere... All receive my enthusiastic endorsement.
BU (5245 St-Laurent)
Sunday was a "free" night, so I hadn't reserved anywhere. Among my list of places to try was BU, a winebar serving Italian food. It sounded like a good change, as we'd been pretty French/Quebecois-centric so far.
BU was not too busy when we arrived, so we got a nice table in the window. Our waiter, Olivier, told us about the specials and then asked if we wanted drinks. He was extremely knowledgeable and spent a good deal of time discussing the wines available. We tried two Colutta del Friuli – one a tocai friulano, the other a selenard. The tocai was delicious – quite fragrant, almost perfumey, with a nice acidity.
We started off with grilled vegetables – simple and satisfying, cooked just right. A combination of eggplant, peppers, zucchini and onion, nicely caramelized, tender yet crisp and seasoned perfectly with salt and pepper.
For dinner, I ordered the special, thinly sliced loin of pork with a piperade. Again, very simple, the flavors just right – and a good portion for my not-too-big appetite. Chris chose the pasta special, lasagna. It was amazing – meat, cheese, sauce and pasta in perfect proportion to one another; pasta tender and al dente, tomato sauce fresh and basic, providing a solid foundation for the meat and cheese, all of it cooked to a lovely texture. Really well-prepared – rustic and balanced.
Another really satisfying and very unusual wine was the Domaine de la Rectorie, La Goudie, Collioure Rosé – Olivier recommended it to Chris, who generally doesn't care for rosé, but the description (and Olivier's enthusiasm) convinced him to try it. It was unlike any rosé we've had, not sweet, surprisingly complex, full-bodied. Really lovely.
No dessert for Chris, but I, of course, couldn't pass it up – a mild, barely sweet panna cotta, tangy and rich, topped with a bit of balsamic reduction. Along with a Tenuta Caparze Moscadell di Montalcino, it was the perfect end to our simple and pleasurable Italian feast. Many thanks to Olivier for making this such a great night, in terms of food, wine and conversation.
Le Jolifou (1840, rue Beaubien Est)
Another restaurant with good word of mouth was Le Jolifou. We had reservations for 9:30 – a late dinner, since we were coming from the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Botanical Gardens (which was a fine way to spend this crisp and chilly fall evening). We actually arrived early, but the restaurant was not crowded, so we were seated right away. The room itself was quite nice – simple, clean and modern, with white tablecloths, bright red chairs and the walls and tables home to various tin-wind-up toys; charming, but not cutesy.
Their menu is sort of a modified prix fixe: the mains were all priced accordingly and included a choice of any appetizer and dessert. I preferred this to a prix fixe where one is limited to certain choices – this allowed us to order what we liked, while the restaurant could price mains based on market prices. Remarkably sensible.
Our waiter was charming, taking the time to describe the preparation of most every dish on the menu. His enthusiasm and knowledge were helpful and appealing.
I started with a shrimp tempura – fresh and meaty shrimp in a crispy light batter, served with mango, avocado and a bit of sweet and spicy curry sauce. The flavors played well together and made for a refreshing start to the meal; the subtle Latin flavors even made me a little homesick, as it reminded me of the many "Nuevo Latino" restos out in my part of the world.
Chris had cauliflower soup. It was pleasantly light, somewhere between a broth and a cream soup – yet the flavor of the cauliflower was quite intense, enhanced with a bit of truffle oil. Deceptively simple, really delicious.
Of course, per usual, I had gotten to talking with our hostess, Helene. She runs the front of the house, while her husband, David, runs the kitchen. She talked a little about how her husband had come to love the flavors of the Southwest US after a trip to Santa Fe – and about the occasional disappointed patrons, who show up at Le Jolifou, expecting nachos and margaritas. She also recommended a couple of glasses of white wine for us to start off. After enjoying those, she came over to our table and mentioned a new wine she'd just received (a private import, no less) – Domaine le Conte des Floris, Lune Blanche – 100% carignan blanc, quite full-bodied, rather dry, yet quite flowery and a bit fruity. It was delicious and we both enjoyed it, despite our often differing taste in whites.
For mains, I chose the swordfish special, described as a soup. Impeccably fresh fish, served atop yucca and avocado in a mild, creamy broth. Very nice, simply prepared, a good combination of mild flavors – though I might have preferred a bit more "zing" just to brighten the dish a bit.
Chris ordered short ribs with molé sauce – and even before he (or I) had taken a bite, I knew he'd won again. I can't recall having ever seen such meaty short ribs – they were nearly the size of double cut pork chops. The meat itself was surprising lean tasting, tender and chewy, the molé sauce complex, sweet, smoky, spicy and a rich, deep brown color. Truly sensational and a great use of molé; I often find it to be overwhelming, but these beefy ribs stood up to the sauce.
For dessert, I won – panna cotta (again – I could eat it every night, frankly) with lavender and honey, creamy and rich, but still delicate and tangy. The lavender added just the right aroma and hint of flavor to make this more than "just" a great panna cotta. I've always admired chef's who can prepare desserts such as this – it really couldn't be simpler in terms of ingredients, but it's rare to find such a flawless execution, with the right texture and the fresh dairy flavors not masked by too much sugar. I couldn't have been happier.
Chris had the lemon tart – another success. Tasting of tart fresh lemons, the filling was also distinctly eggy, keeping both the sweet and the sour from overpowering. Another seemingly "plain" dessert that achieved excellence due to the perfect preparation.
Les Chevres (1201, avenue Van Horne)
When planning our Montreal resto itinerary, Les Chevres sounded like the perfect place to spend our penultimate evening. My understanding is that the chef focuses especially (and successfully) on vegetables – a bit of a break from our decidedly meat-centric prior week.
Located on a corner, the simple, modern dining room is inviting. On the right as one enters, there is a ceramic "bamboo" curtain, set off nicely by the wood floors and the pale green walls. We were shown to a nice table by the window.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche: a shotglass with a creamy mushroom puree atop a thin layer of cauliflower puree. The mushroom flavor was intense and earthy, the cauliflower adding a finishing lightness that was a bit sweet. Delicious.
After we ordered our dinners, our sommelier, Guillaume, arrived to help us pick out some wine. I gave him our usual spiel – I like dry French whites, Chris likes buttery Calif chardonnays and we don't want to spend more than $75 a bottle. He recommended three wines and described each one in great detail, steering us to the one we'd likely not have tried before – and we happily took his recommendation. I must confess, however, that the whole "taking notes during dinner" was getting to be a bit of chore – so I neglected to take any notes on the wine we had with this dinner, though I know we both enjoyed it greatly. We were also very taken with Guillaume and his efforts to help us discover new wines – which he continued to do with our cheese course and dessert.
My appetizer was a fromage croquette with a mushroom duxelle, almond cream and micro-cilantro. Though it sounded complicated, it was simply prepared and presented; the croquette, with its crunchy exterior, was surprisingly light, even with the creamy fromage; the nutty, slightly astringent almond cream added some complexity to the mild cheese, while the cilantro added a burst of fresh and peppery zest.
Chris started with a watermelon and kohlrabi (at least, I think it was kohlrabi – it could've been jicama, but my notes say "kohlrabi") salad – alternating thin slices of each, served in a mini-tower. The watermelon was a firm, dense variety, crispy and not-too-sweet; the kohlrabi, crunchy and mild; all with a lovely vinaigrette (sherry, perhaps?), the acidity playing off the textures and sweetness of the salad. A wonderful dish.
For dinner, I stayed on the herbivore path, choosing baby squash with gnocchi. The presentation was a large plate strewn with tiny green and yellow squash, some wild mushrooms and small gnocchi cylinders, with lemon verbena and green onion jus filling out the plate. The squash were tender and mild, the gnocchi light and airy, the mushrooms chewy and woodsy – a very nice combination with the onion jus adding a bit of zip. The lemon verbena was, for me, a bit odd – it mainly added a perfume to the dish. While not unpleasant, I think I'd've enjoyed it more in an appetizer or a dessert. It seemed a bit ethereal for a main course – which left me feeling a bit like "is that all there is?" Don't get me wrong – I enjoyed my dinner – but it ultimately felt a bit insubstantial as a main course.
Chris continued his love affair with scallops – and again was rewarded for his choice. Impeccably fresh, tasting slightly sweet, they were cooked to perfection, served with pencil-thin asparagus and mushrooms. Simply done and beautifully presented, this was delicious.
For a change of pace, we added a cheese course, post-dinner, and tried three different local cheeses: one, creamy and brie-like, quite earthy; the next, a mild but tangy hard cheese, akin to a Parmigiano; and finally, a medium-textured, fairly ripe-smelling cheese, which took a bite or two to grow on us. All served with warm raisin bread, nuts and a fennel-raisin slaw. I think this whole cheese course deal could grow on me...
Finally, dessert. I saw the caramel-and-chocolate-crème with salt in Mason jars being transported from the kitchen to the sister restaurant Le Chou. When I asked about it, our waiter indicated it was only served at Le Chou. I'm sure if I'd been a bit more insistent, I could've gotten it – but I was too mellow and happy after such a nice meal (and rather full from the cheese!) to insist (though, with hindsight, I wish I had – it looks and sounds wonderful, and who knows when I'll be back in Montreal?). At any rate, I ordered a fromage blanc glace with cookie crumbs and passionfruit gelee. Tangy ice cream, very nice.
Chris ordered the banana, date and pistachio cake with honey-nougat glace. Each was presented as a long, squared-off log, both nestled against one another, and they were fantastic. The cake was dense and nutty with a fine-crumb texture; the ice cream cutting through the sweet and sticky flavors of banana and date. A sensational dessert.
My only regret this evening was my failure to take note of our wines. We had such wonderful time at Les Chevres – enjoyed our meal immensely and were charmed by the attentive and personable Guillaume.
Brunoise (3807 St-Andre)
Our last night in Montreal was spent at Brunoise, located on a quiet side street not far from our apartment on Square St-Louis. From all I'd read about Brunoise, it sounded like an ideal way to end our visit – a restaurant focused on quality food with a neighborhood atmosphere. The restaurant was simply decorated with muted lighting and lots of browns and earth tones – very cozy inside, especially with the rain outside.
We started off with an amuse bouche, a shot of cold cucumber soup spiked with radish and pepper. It was thin, yet crunchy, the radish providing a marvelous bite to the refreshing cucumber.
As we discussed wines-by-the-glass with our waiter, the lady seated next to us leaned over and excused herself for eavesdropping – but she and her dining companion had just finished a bottle of Chablis that they'd found to be splendid – Kimmeridgien Bourgogne 2004. The waiter agreed with her assessment and who were we to argue? To be honest, I tend to forget about Chablis (all those years in high school drinking jugs of "Almaden Mountain Chablis" – ugh), despite some of my most memorable meals being accompanied by it. The wine was delightful – not too dry, a nice clean mineral taste but some fruitiness as well; a great choice.
I started off with smoked scallops, served with yogurt, piperade and fingerling potatoes (this was a substitute for the same preparation with mackerel, which they were out of). A really nice blend of flavors, creamy, tangy, smoky – though I'm not sure the flavor of scallops stood up to the smoking sufficiently.
Chris had a lovely tomato and mushroom confit, served with manchego and sherry jelly. Wonderfully balanced, with some unexpected textures. My notes for this dish (it being our last night, my note taking was not at its zenith) ready simply "!!!". 'Nuff said.
For the main, the beef tenderloin with veal cheek and parmesan polenta jumped out at me first – as it did for Chris. But, having learned my lesson by now, I decided that I'd just order what I wanted, even it was the same thing Chris was getting.
When our mains were served, I noticed immediately that each of them was cooked as requested (medium for Chris, medium-rare for me), always a good sign. The tenderloin was good – simply prepared and tender, though it wasn't as beefy tasting as one might've hoped – a heavier hand with the seasoning might've been warranted. The veal cheek, however, was amazing ("formidable!" per my notes) – deeply meaty, falling apart tender, rich with fat rendered during cooking. It paired beautifully with the polenta, creamy, a bit mealy, tangy and salty with Parmigiano. Some asparagus, both whole and pureed, rounded out the sensational dish.
As for dessert, I'd apparently stopped taking notes entirely. But I do remember the sugar pie, which I compared to pecan pie without the pecans. Dense and gooey, tasting of caramel, served in a buttery crust (and was there a bit of ice cream, too? I believe so...).
Happy and satisfied as we headed for the door, the maitre d', Zach, stopped us to inquire as to our evening. We both told him what a lovely choice Brunoise had been for our last evening in Montreal – which, of course, led to me trying to chew his ear off. Lucky for me, Zach seems to enjoy chatting as much as I do. We spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes happily interrupting each other as we compared notes on restaurants in SF and Montreal, the importance of good service, choosing wine, etc. (all while Chris did his best not to roll his eyes at me). But what I really remember from our conversation was Zach's philosophy as a restaurateur. He wants Brunoise to cater to a wide spectrum of clientele – foodies who dine out someplace new every night; folks from the neighborhood who drop by regularly; out-of-towners (like us) who've heard the good word-of-mouth; and special occasion diners who enjoy a night at Brunoise as their annual splurge. And it feels to me as if he's succeeded. The menu is focused on fresh, seasonal foods, prepared in unexpected ways, but with great care and skill; and a wine list that offers an excellent variety, in both types of wines and prices.
This is one of my favorite ways to end my meal – a little tete-a-tete with the manager or the chef. It was a real pleasure meeting Zach and was the perfect way to end our stay in Montreal.
Obviously, we did more than just eat dinner, so here're a couple of other places of note:
Marché Jean-Talon and Marché Atwater – Even if you don't buy a thing, wandering the aisles and gazing at the beautiful produce is great way to spend an afternoon. We saw row after row of countless varieties of shiny peppers in a rainbow of hues; bunches of matchstick-thin asparagus, selling for a song; green and yellow beans, standing upright in little wooden baskets, looking like delicious art; bushels and bushels of apples; and wild blueberries, tiny and deep cobalt, to name but a few. Add to that the various other treats available (I had a piping hot crepe, while Chris had a baby banana dipped in warm dark chocolate), you won't know where the time goes.
Schwartz's Charcuterie Hebraique (3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) – As good as it's reputation. Similar to (but definitely not) pastrami – much less spicy, a hint of sweetness. The sandwiches look huge, but are surprisingly easy to wolf down – and you don't feel like you've eaten a bowling ball. The coleslaw was just OK, but the half-sour pickles were very good and the fries were fantastic. Granted, we could feel our arteries clogging as we ate, but it was well worth it – I even made a quick pit stop on our last day in town for a sandwich to go.
As for crowds, we showed up at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning and got right in. And our waiter was perfectly nice, despite all we'd read about how rude they are (though the self-centered tourist who parked her suitcase-on-wheels in the restaurant's only and very-narrow aisle did receive some scornful and disdainful looks – from Chris and me, as well as the waiters). When I went back the following week for my "to go" order, the line was up the block – but I was able to duck right in, place my order and I was on my way in less than five minutes.
Olive & Gourmando (351 St-Paul Ouest) – Of course I'd read about this place, so it was in the back of my mind to try, though it hadn't made it to the "official" itinerary. However, after a morning of wandering Old Montreal, I spied it on the corner and asked Chris if he felt like a snack – to which he responded, "I was just about to say, "I could use a cup of tea!". So, in we went, ordering two pots of jasmine tea and a berry tart. The berry tart could not have been simpler – a square of puff pastry, topped with mixture of blueberry, blackberry and raspberry. It also could not have been more delicious – the pastry flaky and tender, the berries fresh, fruity and not too sweet. So good was the tart, we felt we'd better order something else, a croissant aux amandes, which was, I'm afraid to report, just OK.
While we ate, we saw beautiful sandwiches and salads being served all around us, so we made a point of returning for lunch the next day. We shared a delicious "Cuban Panini", with ham, pesto and cheese; a corn salad, with cucumber, fresh mozzarella, red onion and tomatoes – refreshing and crunchy; and a delightful tomato salad, with four or five varieties, simply dressed, allowing these wonderfully fresh tomatoes to shine on their own. And we got another berry tart – the last one, no less! – which was as excellent as the day before.
Les Chocolats de Cholé (375 Rue Roy-Est) – Conveniently (and unexpectedly) located about four blocks from our apartment, these chocolates are not to be missed. The tiny cubes, covered in dark chocolate, all contain delicately flavored ganache, tasting deeply of chocolate and infusions such as fleur de sel, orange or pistachio. I only regret not trying everything – but my two favorites were basil and coconut.
So, how to wrap up? We enjoyed Montreal immensely – great dining, really fun nightlife (by our third night out, François, the adorable bartender at Mado in the Gay Village, already knew our drink orders), groovy shopping, a beautiful bike ride along the Canal Lachine and the St. Lawrence, a romantic evening at the Chinese Lantern Festival. (By the way, I've made a point of sticking to food for this post – but for those of you who'd like tips on what to see and do, feel free to drop me a line). And as for the restaurants we visited, I would happily recommend any of them (well, except one – I'm sure you know which). What was so fortunate for us was that the restaurants we chose all felt very different from each other. While French and Quebecois cuisine dominated our visit, each restaurant approached it in its own way, each chef putting his own signature on his dishes. What else is there to say? Vive Montréal! Vive le Québec!
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