Montreal

Mini-post – Take a break from Winter…. Doing it Right, in St. Henri

I enjoy championing small business. I empathize. I know how hard it is to put it all on the line and want/need to make it work. It is such a pleasure when it is done properly. Case in point – Sumac on Notre Dame West – the street that is exploding with all things new and foodie. David Bloom and Raquel Zagury have figured out the perfect formula. SUPER food (best falafel I have ever eaten – and I have eaten a lot of the stuff – Sumac has knocked both my Jerusalem AND Tel Aviv favourites off the map), simple and comfortable décor, and laid-back sort-of-table service (you order at the cash and orders are brought to your table). EVERYTHING is delicious. I know, since our party of 5 ordered…almost the entire menu.

Thank you, Sumac, for brightening my winter with exotic flavours. It is a spot of middle-eastern sunshine in the Montreal deep-freeze.

Chicken Shwarma platter

Chicken Shwarma platter

Yes, those fries are sprinkled with Za'atar

Yes, those fries are sprinkled with sumac!

Best Falafel. Served with a side of Salade Cuite and Quinoa salad

Best Falafel. Served with a side of Salade Cuite and Quinoa salad

Yes, we ate all of that.

Yes, we ate all of that.

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Montreal Winter-Melting (Pot) Moments

Visitors often comment on Montreal’s neighbourhoods. Each one has a different feel.  Some parts of town feel European, others like they could be anywhere. Montreal neighbourhoods are always changing. Areas popular with immigrants transition as groups establish themselves. Blocks that used to be run down slowly morph into cool and hip.

Two recent restaurant meals tell the story better than I can.

H4C, a restaurant in that very zip code is in the heart of Little Burgundy, an area long known as poor, tough, and undesirable. It is now seen as an up and coming, if not even maybe “here and now” young neighbourhood, minutes away from downtown, close to the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. The Joe Beef gang began the restaurant gentrification several years ago, and now the wave is continuing west, with solid names like Tuck Shop, Rustique Pie Kitchen, Satay Brothers and thankfully, H4C.

The restaurant’s website told me I would be in for something special. How many restaurants have an “Architecture” tab on their site?  The space is beautiful. An old post office was converted into a perfect dining room. It is open, but not too open. Airy without being cold or severe. Lighting is perfect, which is rare. Service is knowledgeable and reservedly friendly, which seemed to suit the space.  Diners can peek into the super-equipped kitchen, while noise and cooking smells are kept out of the dining room itself. Now, onto the food!

Every plate was beautiful. Every morsel was delicious. While menu descriptions sounded simple, execution proved the level of detail was anything but.

Carmelized liver mousse, huckleberry, pickled onions, toast

Caramelized liver mousse, huckleberry, pickled onions, toast

Braised veal cheek, salsify, black trumpets, brussel sprouts, black garlic

Braised veal cheek, salsify, black trumpets, brussel sprouts, black garlic

One of the deserts we devoured won the Montreal Gazette’s dish of the year (click link for the complete article and a video). “Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oatmeal, maple” was a triumph.

Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oat, maple

Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oat, maple

Lesley Chesterman, a critic not afraid to call it like she sees it wrote:

“This unique dessert at H4C was just beyond the beyond. The mix included an apple sorbet, an apple brunoise, apple jelly, muesli and a large quenelle of buckwheat ice cream. The way that gorgeous ice cream played off the muesli was brilliant, but the inspired addition of a slice of cheddar cheese in the middle of it all took this dish to another level. It was not only the dish of the night, but one of the best desserts I’ve ever sampled: the perfect example of technique meets innovation meets deliciousness. Bravo!”

A few weeks later we finally made it to Impasto in Little Italy. Stefano Faita, a local foodie celebrity, and Michel Forgione, a well respected local chef opened this corner restaurant last summer. Did I mention it is based on “local”? The restaurant is across the street from Stefano’s family’s “hardware” store (specializing in kitchen ware and hunting equipment!) and Stefano’s cooking school. It is a few blocks from the all-important Jean-Talon market. Décor is simple, and perfect, in a much different way. The exterior blends in seamlessly with the block. No “look at me” here! The interior says “Italia”, from the terrazzo floor to the sleek walnut paneled walls to the marble tabletops.  The vibe matches the style of cooking. It is friendly, comfortable and Italian. While I understand this restaurant is all about the pastas, I have to say they were fine, but not the standouts of our meal. The charcuterie was exceptional, and (some of you readers may shudder), the porchetta was the best I have ever even IMAGINED eating. The fact that desserts were delicious actually came as a surprise – I am usually disappointed at Italian restaurants in Montreal. The tiramisu was not too sweet or too airy, and the chocolate-hazelnut cake was so good I am still craving another piece.

Reflecting on this blog and thinking how lucky I am to live in a city this diverse and foodie-friendly, I popped into Cheskie’s bakery on Bernard Street. That was the clincher, and I found myself chuckling. There was an orthodox Jewish man buying bread and some cookies. A young religious girl was buying an assortment of pastries, including the requisite sponge cake. Next, a hipster French-Canadian girl ordered chocolate croissants. Two very large Black guys were next. In French, they ordered sandwiches. One of the guys knew no meat was served. He was about to order a tuna sandwich when he spotted something and asked what it was. When told it was lox spread, his face lit up, and he said “one of those, and one for my friend”. I knew I was in Montreal, and left the bakery with the best babka in town and a smile.

Around the World (almost) in 80 Days

I have slacked in my posting because I have been traveling like a freak.

Dublin:

Best food is good pub food. Best pub food is at The Black Sheep. Best pub is known as the Gravedigger’s.  Its official name is John Kavanagh’s.  It is worth the taxi, and I won’t say any more. Just go. Best whiskey: Yellow Spot (I know, the name is very, very, silly).

London:

Things I never imagined saying:

  1. Food in London is amazing.
  2. Forget the rest of the list. Did you read #1?

Ottolenghi alone is reason to visit my new “one of my favourite cities” city.

Who could resist salads that are the perfect balance of fresh and satisfying, and fresh, delicious baked goods? I have never managed to taste a main dish at the Ottolengi stores, since I cannot resist the veggies and desserts, but they look yummy.

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Lunch at Nopi turned into an all-afternoon affair, followed by a nap. It just doesn’t get better than that!

Oh, where do I start?

Sumac Martini, Rooibos Old Fashioned…how can anything be bad?

Twice cooked chicken with lemon myrtle salt, chili sauce

Twice cooked chicken with lemon myrtle salt, chili sauce

Burrata, Miyagawa, fennel and coriander seeds

Burrata, Miyagawa, fennel and coriander seeds

Sticky rice, brown coconut jam, carmelized banana

Sticky rice, brown coconut jam, carmelized banana

Haute Indian at Amaya was delicious, but the service was…weird. Go, but wear clothes you don’t mind getting smelly, and ignore the cold wait-staff.

I never knew Chinese food could be as delicate and perfect as it is, table after table, at Hakkasan. Go – you will be happy. Make sure to have the tofu with crunchy bits – I can’t remember exactly what it is called, but it is a favourite there.

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The Clove Club was a great find in Shoreditch, the best area for street art in the city.  A fried chicken amuse-bouche was nestled on fir branches, dusted with ground fir… yummy. Inventive and delicious. They have a great collection of cookbooks, and for sure they use Tartine – the bread was perfect.

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Tel Aviv:

Young and fun staff, fresh flavours, great wines at HaShulchan (The Table). Be sure to order a bottle of Sphera wine – it is really surprising.

Zepra and Messa are both delicious, but expensive (as in, really). The people watching is also excellent.

Durham, North Carolina:

The Q Shack may make the best barbeque sauce I have ever tasted. Ditto the baked beans, and mac and cheese.  Everything, actually.

Back home, we finally tried Dinette Triple Crown. What a concept!  The 7 seats at the counter are ok, but the fun thing to do is get a picnic basket (complete with table cloth and lantern at night), and (weather permitting) sit in the park across the street.  I am still drooling thinking of the brisket sandwich. The big nasty is…oh, try it. They do baskets for pickup all winter…and they deliver!

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Nature’s Corndogs and Other Wonderful Discoveries

I am finally upset enough that since my flash-free photos have wrecked a post, I will change my colours, apologize, and use the flash once in a while if I need to capture something to share with you.  For this post I have used images from the restaurant’s Facebook page where mine failed.

After years of “we should really go,” 4 of us set out on a dining adventure of sorts. There’s this guy, François Brouillard, at the market who is a forager, and his wife, Nancy Hinton, is a chef. Together they have a restaurant that is open once a week, except during mushroom season, when they serve Friday – Sunday.  I’m not new to traveling for food, but I never expected to drive past oil refineries and strip clubs to get to a memorable dinner.

With a few bottles of mushroom friendly wine, we arrived at Les Jardins Sauvages, perched beside a gentle waterfall. I knew we were in for a fun evening when I read the chalkboard inside the door, which had the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” It appealed to me as a gardener and a foodie.

8 courses celebrating mushrooms. Yes, dessert too. In fact, it was the mushroom tiramisu that blew my mind.  If vanilla usually rounds out the flavor of chocolate, mushroom does it too, perhaps even better. It is deep and earthy, and makes your brain kinda giggle.

The mushrooms, most of which I have never heard,  were treated respectfully and playfully. Something I will never forget however, is not a fungus at all.  We have all driven by them on the side of the road. Bulrushes, also known as cattails are nature’s answer to corn dogs!  They taste like a cross between corn and asparagus, and have a texture that is strangely couscous-like.  Very cool.  You actually eat around the stick in the middle!

Cattails15 Cattails04 Cattails11

Here is the menu from our evening, with a few notes in brackets:

Sea scallop with wild mushrooms : Porcini mousseline (imagine Gefilte fish if it were really tasty) and Ceviche with Leaf-like Oyster and Late Fall Oyster Mushroom, Grilled Elm Oyster Mushroom, smoked pickled Hen of the Woods (too hard to describe, but delicious)

Mushroom Barley Soup : Chicken Mushroom and Beefsteak Polypore broth, Shaggy Mane meatballs (to continue the analogy, they were the best matzo balls, ever, and I may start adding ground dried cepes to mine in the future), Gypsy Mushroom

Mushroom and cattail crepe lasagna (beyond scrumptious, made with mushroom and cattail flour) : Delicious Lactarius, Scaly Vase, and Pig’s ear, Black trumpet cheese, sea spinach, ratatouille with Chanterelles and daisy buds, cattail spear (so great)

Thanks to Les Jardins Sauvage for taking a good photo...

Thanks to Les Jardins Sauvage for taking a good photo…

Mushroom Salad-Rice bowl : Stewed Lobster Mushrooms, Wine Cap omelet, smoked duck, spicy Swollen Stalked Cat pickle, rice lettuce, Sticky Gray Trich sweet n’sour sauce, Matsutake tempura (I could eat this every day, forever…)

Pan-roasted venison, Giant Puffball cutlet with mustard and Parasol Mushroom sauce, Morels, Wood Mushroom tourtière-ravioli, Hedgehog sauté with Blewits and Umbrella Hedgehogs

Larch Bolete granite(the only thing I didn’t adore), Yellow-Brown Bolete Jello, Orange-Capped Bolete shortbread, Maple Scented Lactarius sandwich cookie

‘Mushroom Tiramisu’: Glabrescent Bolete cake, Red Mouthed Bolete white chocolate mascarpone mousse, Fairy Ring caramel sauce, mushroom cacao, candied Yellow-foot Chanterelles (a triumph!)

Again, thanks for the photo.

Again, thanks for the photo.

Mignardises: Dark chocolate sausage with nuts and candied Meadow Mushroom, Aspen Scaber Stalk toffee, Slippery Jack and coconut marshmallow

I look forward to returning to taste the “regular” menu. Anyone care to join us?

All things Italian on a snowy weekend in Montreal

I normally view grocery shopping on a weekend as a result of poor planning, and do it reluctantly. What a surprise it was last Saturday  to make 2 new discoveries. Montreal is not known for its richness of things Italian. It pales in comparison to Toronto and NYC, but now there is hope!

First, after doing my scurvy-fighting order at Chez Louis, I stopped into Nicola Travaglini, a new fine food shop, complete with a few tables to enjoy the yumminess that was being cooked up in the back.   They had a whole roast pig on the counter (yum for some, cover-your-eyes for others) and possibly the best breadsticks I have ever eaten. Sorry, there are no photos of those – I devoured them before I snapped a pic.

Doesn't it smell great?

Doesn’t it smell great?

On my way home, inspired by my discovery, I thought to go to my favourite cheese shop, Yannick.  On the way, I passed by a new café, grocery and bistro. I had to stop and check it out.  Dispensa is a new gem on Bernard, conveniently and so Montreal-like next to Cheskie’s kosher bakery (their babka deserves a post).  Dispensa is the new project from one of the brothers who opened the Italian Pantry on Monkland Ave.  It is tiny, looks great, and is on my must-try list.

Getting home and unpacking my bags I realized I had an Italian feast on my hands…delicious cheese, breadsticks, and my favourite-hard-no-impossible-to-find vegetable, puntarelle.  It is a veggie that is loved in Rome, and tastes like celery IF celery tasted good.  Fresh, crunchy, and delish.

I tried growing puntarelle last year, and couldn’t figure it out…apparently, after the bulbs (much like fennel) are picked, they are left indoors in the dark so shoots are “forced”. Those are the yummy parts.  Hopefully someone reading this can tell me what to do once I have harvested the bulbs.  The leaves are bitter, but tasty if blanched and sautéed with garlic and a squirt of lemon.

untrimmed puntarelle

untrimmed puntarelle

Outer leaves removed, shoots exposed.

Outer leaves removed, shoots exposed.

1 head puntarelle

1 clove garlic

2 anchovy fillets

juice of 1 lemon

olive oil

A pinch of chili pepper and/or black pepper

1. Remove the outer leaves of the puntarelle. Set aside to blanch and sauté if desired. Slice the inner shoots, wash well and place in a bowl of iced water until required.
2. Pound the garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar. Add the anchovies, lemon juice and enough oil to give a pouring consistency and keep grinding until the anchovies have broken up.
3. Season to taste with pepper(s).4. Drain the puntarelle, place in a serving bowl and pour the dressing over. Serve at once.
Puntarelle, sold ready for salad in Italy. I wish.

Puntarelle, sold ready for salad in Italy. I wish.