Saturday, July 12, 2008

Montreal Notes 2008

I'm a frequent visitor to Montreal, often going in July for the Jazz Festival. I've written about Montreal a couple of times before. Here's an update. This time I revisited some old favorites and discovered a couple of new interesting places.

As I've done several times in the past, I headed up from Burlington with my friend David Mindich, who had accompanied me to the Pinnacle ice cidery a couple of years ago. I had a food circuit worked out for before we ditched David's car at the hotel. We started at Byblos, where we'd had an excellent brunch in '06. It's an Iranian restaurant on Laurier Street, on the east side of town, in a now youthful, trendy neighborhood. The big draw for us at Byblos is their breakfast combos, offered until 2 PM, which feature a basket of excellent sweet breads and your choice of jam from an intriguing list (this time I had orange flower). They also offer many tasty, fresh juice blends, and I chose grape-mango. Their espresso was faultless.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to Havre aux Glaces, at the Jean Talon market (one of Montreal's great European-style markets), which I had visited before. I had been wowed by their gelati, but I had subsequently read on Chowhound that their sorbets were all the rage among Montreal foodies. I had a medium cup with two flavors: pineapple-passion fruit and pear-cider. Both were indeed spectacular, quite possibly the best sorbets I've ever tried (though Philadelphia's Capogiro gives them a run for their money). The secret to the sorbet a Havre aux Glaces is the unusually high fruit to ice ratio, giving you a simultaneous experience of sorbet and fresh fruit that you can sink your teeth into. They capture the essence of the fruits, almost unadulterated. The pear-cider sang loudly and proudly of pear.

From there it was off to the original St. Viateur Bagel shop, in a largely orthodox Jewish neighborhood. On a previous visit I'd been to their sit-down cafe, but this time we went straight to the source for some fresh, hot, malty Montreal bagels. Though we'd just had brunch and dessert, we had to share a hot sesame bagel. The remainder of our purchase was for breakfast the following morning. As I believe I've mentioned before, it's much easier to find a great Montreal bagel in Montreal than it is to find a great New York bagel in New York.

Later that evening we dined at North America's only Reunionnais restaurant, serving the cuisine of the French Indian Ocean island, Réunion. That will be the subject of another post.

David and I lunched the following day, before his return to Burlington, at Chez L'Epicier, in Old Montreal. With chef Laurent Godbout at the helm, Chez L'Epicier is a combination "new Canadian" restaurant (with Asian accents) and gourmet food shop. The room has an open, airy feel, and it wouldn't seem out of place in Napa Valley. While a high-ticket restaurant for dinner, lunch is a bargain, with most main courses at under $20, along with a complimentary appetizer and coffee. The menu changes frequently. For my starter I had the eggplant caviar with balsamic caramel, small shoot panache and escargot "tempura." The quotes are mine, as the breading was definitely not a tempura batter. The serving was small, but nicely presented.

For my main course I chose the pan-seared west rosefish, a mild white fish I was hitherto unfamiliar with (though it appears to be related to perch and redfish), served on a mushroom risotto in a shellfish bisque with carrots and green beans ($16.95). The combination was tasteful and tasty.

But the real hit of the meal was the dessert we chose, the quartet of crèmes brûlées: vanilla, cinnamon, coffee and pineapple, each topped with a different type of biscuit, each representing its flavor with great aplomb, especially the coffee and the pineapple.

On my own I returned to a couple of Chinatown restaurants I'd been to before. I think I first read about Niu Kee on Chowhound. It's an excellent, authentic Sichuan restaurant, and because it's not in the heart of Chinatown it gets a largely Chinese clientele, along with the Franco and Anglo cognoscenti. It's quite possibly Montreal's best Chinese restaurant, at least in Chinatown. Servings at Niu Kee are enormous and cheap. I tried the pork "familial" style, which we can safely assume is better translated as family style. It was a mix of lean and fatty sliced pork, fresh and preserved vegetables, a little preserved black bean, and large quantities of cloud ear fungus. A modified version of this preparation may be familiar, though not familial, to you as "bean curd home style" on many Chinese-American menus.

Another Chinatown restaurant I returned to was Pho Bang New York. It's actually been years since I've been to any of the New York branches of Pho Bang, but the Montreal branch is easily the best Vietnamese restaurant in their Chinatown. The reason I keep going back is for their weekend-only bun bo Hue, Hue-style spicy rice noodle soup. It's not the most authentic version of bun bo Hue, as theirs doesn't have any mysterious innards, congealed pig's blood or pig's foot (the last being a component of almost all versions of the soup). The version at Montreal's Pho Bang has a Platonic balance of lemongrass and chili flavor. Meatwise it's one of the more genteel versions of the soup: there were slices of beef and pork and a piece of oxtail. It's exquisite.

An old favorite I've now crossed off my list is Basha, on Sainte-Catherine and Drummond. Once a reliable place for Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters, their beef shawarma this time was dry and over-salty, a total dud.

On the other hand, my smoked meat sandwich as Schwartz's was perfect. Smoked meat is the Montreal Jewish deli specialty, a first-cousin to corned beef. This time I actually went to Schwartz's for breakfast, at 10 AM, to beat the inevitable hordes. Why not? There's no law I know of in Canada or the U.S. that says you can't eat a deli sandwich for breakfast. At the risk of starting a deli war between Montreal and New York, I'd have to proclaim that a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's is the ne plus ultra of Jewish deli sandwiches. And at $5.2o it's an amazing bargain (you can buy a whole pound of hot smoked meat for $11.95).

Having been to the Jean Talon market, on the northeast side of the city, several times, I decided to visit another market, Atwater, in the southwest part of the city. The two markets have different characters. Jean Talon is all outdoors and fringed by shops. Atwater has both an indoor market, with butchers, cheese shops, and various specialty shops, as well as an outdoor area with greengrocers and plenty of florists. At the boulangerie/patisserie La Premiere Moisson (which has multiple locations in Montreal) I had a fabulous croissant aux amandes. The filling was fluffy and not cloyingly sweet, unlike many almond croissants that seem to be stuffed with a cyanide-marzipan mixture. Just outside the market is another branch of Havre aux Glaces, but with a smaller selection than the Jean Talon branch. I couldn't leave without trying another couple of sorbet flavors. The pineapple was perfect, but the raspberry was overly sweet, the only misstep I've experienced at Havre aux Glaces.


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