Oui Oui! Montreal!

04Sep09

montreal_skyline

Montreal Quest: Part Un

Restaurant Bombay

This past weekend I had the privilege of taking a mini vacation to a gorgeous city just north of the border, Montreal, Quebec. My girlfriend’s Mom was nice enough to take me along on their annual family summer getaway, and needless to say I was very excited to get out of Burlington if for nothing else than to share some surely awesome food experiences. Finding out months ago that we would be making the trip, I had been brimming with anticipation, looking forward to enjoying an authentic French meal – something which neither Burlington nor my wallet could justly afford. As an avid Anthony Bourdain follower, I have long desired to experience the delights of one of his most eulogized dishes, the highly controversial, classic French staple Foie Gras. The dish remains illegal in Vermont, though our barbaric neighbors to the North could care less about animal rights – a fact which I was extremely happy with and quite excited about. Before embarking on our Canadian retreat, I announced enthusiastically in the car that foie gras would be entering my stomach at some point during the weekend. Its hefty price tag would surely not deter my motivated palate. The foie was my holy grail, and in Montreal I would be Arthur – rather Graham Chapman, the Monty Python great.

Leaving work early on Friday (man! did that feel good) I sped home so we could get a reasonable start on the drive. We got on the road at around 5:00 PM, and arrived in Montreal only about 2 1/2 hours later. It’s amazing how simply crossing an imaginary line can expose such immense cultural differences. On one side of the border everyone speaks English. Though when driving only 2 miles across it seems like you’ve been thrust into rural France. The drive up certainly provided for some interesting sights. Unbeknownst to all of us, Montreal was hosting some sort of hot air balloon festival that weekend. As we were driving through the suburban outlying lands of the city, we all noticed about twenty-or-so hot air balloons floating in the distant sky – a beautiful sight. Though, out of the corner of our eyes we noticed what seemed to be dark alien space ships dissenting to the earth. Now I’m not one to believe in aliens, monsters, ghosts, or the like, but I swear to you, these things looked like death-causing UFO’s seen in something like Terminator 3. All that was cycling through my mind was Jack Nicholson’s comical performance as the President in Mars Attacks – which by the way is one of the top 3 alien movies of my generation. As we approached the flying objects they soon became to take shape. The man-destroying UFOs quickly morphed into a smiling bumble bee and his friend a goldfish. Needless to say I felt like an idiot, though was slightly relieved.

We finally arrived in Montreal and found the bed and breakfast where we would be staying. The place was great, though we didn’t waste much time inside and promptly hit the streets in search of some food. This was not my first time in Montreal, though I can hardly say that I know the city. We were all very excited to walk around and experience what this French-Canadian metropolis had to offer. Starting out on rue de Saint-Catherine (the one street with which we were all familiar) we wanted to eat somewhere else, seeking unchartered territory. Turning on to rue de Saint-Denis we quickly decided that one in the seemingly endless line of restaurants would suit us well. The street was filled with restaurants, bars, cafes, lounges, and there seemed to be an overwhelming emphasis on enjoying the warm summer night. While I love Burlington and greater Vermont, part of me misses desperately the heartbeat of a living city. There was action, movement, and presumably endless possibility wherever we turned our eyes. One could easily get lost in the liveliness of Montreal – a sort of vaguely relevant opportunity that that I hadn’t experienced in far too long.

We walked up and down the street, debating on what kind of cuisine struck our moods and finally deciding on Indian. There were probably 10 Indian restaurants that we passed, though knowing virtually nothing about any of these places we picked one at random and entered. Firmly cementing our decision, the simply titled Restaurant Bombay was not too fancy, smelled great and was ready to seat us. We ordered some Naan to start and then began to peruse the menu. Naan is one of the many types of delicious Indian flatbreads. Its flaky crust and soft interior makes an excellent substitute for the common table bread we are used to. Good Naan tastes just like a croissant, just flattened, bigger, and void of French snobbery, easier to pronounce.  

Upon entering Restaurant Bombay I knew that I wanted lamb. Unlike many European inspired cuisines, lamb is a meat offered in virtually every Indian dish. After examining the rather long menu, I ultimately decided on Lamb Vindaloo. I was warned by the waiter that this dish was “very very hot“, though the news hardly fazed my decision. That dude was certainly not lying as the Vindaloo proceeded to make me sweat, a lot. Combined with the humid summer air I was soon in a pool of my own perspiration. [Note: a common theme everywhere we went in Montreal was that NOBODY LIKED AIR CONDITIONING! And I thought these Canadians would PREFER frigid temperatures.] Compared to any Indian food I have had in the past 4 years in Burlington, this stuff was outstanding (sorry Indian House). The lamb had that perfect fall off the bone consistency (though of course there was no bone) while the very spicy curry complimented the meat and potatoes swimmingly. I promptly ordered more rice for it was the only thing which eased the pain or swallowing. Taking a look across the table at my girlfriend’s brother eased my senses. Mike also decided to flex his muscles and order the Vindaloo, albeit with beef. And while I was having a tough time, this kid was downing water and sweating bullets like someone about to have a colonoscopy in Tijuana. The table shared an order of Palak Paneer, a dish which I had never before tried, though too was quite tasty. Paneer is a type of South-Asian farmer’s cheese, with a texture similar to that of Feta, and a taste similar to any type of milk curd (http://www.tasteslikehome.org/2007/11/i-did-it-i-made-paneer.html). The dish is a spinach based concoction, served over rice or with Naan. The Paneer itself was also very good, though by the time I was finished with the Vindaloo my stomach had just about all it could handle. We left the restaurant, headed back to the hotel and I proceeded to wallow in pain while simultaneously loving the great meal we just had. That night I dreamt of Pepto-flavored ice cream and candy machines full of Tums. One can easily imagine how I felt the following morning – spicy food is like crack. I sometimes give me stomach more credit than it can handle.

Montreal Quest: Part Duex

L’Express

Despite the delicious Indian food we had eaten the night prior, I was still craving a French meal – and a French meal only. We spent the next day exploring the city, riding bikes, walking around, seeing this and that. Montreal has a public bike program in which one has to pay a small fee ($5 flat rate, plus something like $1.30 for every additional hour) and gets to ride a bike around anywhere in the city. There are bike stations all over the place where you can return or rent a new one at will. Other cities have similar programs around the world, but this was the first time I experienced it first hand. Very cool stuff. Sweet bikes too.

Jacqui’s Mom had been recommended that we eat at a French café somewhere close to our vicinity called L’Express. Looking in one of our handy tourist guide books, I found L’Express in the section of the book describing French Restaurants – nice. After a long stroll around the city we set out on a mission to find this French eatery, though much to my dismay we failed repeatedly to find the place. We must have walked around the block 3 times, surely looking like confused tourists wielding an oversized map, rocking fanny packs, walking around with our shirts firmly tucked ALL the way in. Jokes aside, we actually were those people with the map…

We ended up getting so frustrated on our search that we quickly bailed on the idea of a good French dinner and settled for another French Canadian favorite – crepes. And when I say settled, I mean settled. The crepes weren’t terrible, though I was expecting much much more. My ham, cheese, and mushroom crepe was far from fantastic. The place reminded me of a Swiss chalet with an identity crisis – minus the snow, beer, and chocolate. Us Burlingtonians (man, am I now a Burlingtonian…sorry Philly) are privileged to have an awesome crepe joint in the Skinny Pancake. I do even remember what this place was called, though what I do know is that the Skinny Pancake puts it to shame. Staying with the whole French theme I could go for Skinny Pancake’s Bella Bella Crêpe Confit right now. That’s right, Duck Confit in a crepe. What more can you ask for? The answer to that question is a chessesteak on a Kaiser roll, topped with fried salami, onions, tomatoes, and Thousand Island dressing, (otherwise known as the Schmitter – http://www.mcnallystavern.com/) mmmm.

One bright spot was Jacqui’s order of pretty tasty escargot. But, honestly, what wouldn’t be good baked in a vat of garlic and butter. I would eat rocks if they were cooked like that escargot. We left the restaurant that night glad to have eaten, though despite what was said (or not said) I knew that we all yearned for the goods – we had to have them. As Kramer once emphatically asked George: “Do you ever yearn?” George simply replied: “Yearned? I’ve never yearned. I’ve craved. Constant craving!” Like the great thinker George Costanza, I myself had a serious craving for foie gras.

We spent the next day exploring Montreal’s renowned botanical gardens. Suffice it to say that the gardens were quite beautiful, though the humidity was reaching unbearable heights. After sweating off another 5 pounds we ate some popsicles, grabbed some water and broke out like Shawshank. I even raised my arms and looked up at the sky, begging for some precipitation – though in un-fantastic climax the rain did not come. We had to head back to Burlington in a couple of hours, which left us just enough time to sit down and have a late lunch/early dinner. I didn’t really want to push the envelope and demand a French meal (I had been complaining pretty consistently since we first embarked) though after the previous nights lackluster dinner, everyone wanted to get a quality bite to eat. Alas, we again turned to L’Express. And this time we would find the place or die trying.

I don’t know what our issue was the day before; though this time we found the restaurant with ease. To our defense L’Express does not have a sign on their façade, rather their name is only visible on the ground next to the sidewalk. A little pretentious if you ask me, though this after all was a French restaurant and I was prepared for even the most arbitrary smugness. I have to say I was kind of nervous when we walked in. I had been anticipating this moment now for months, and I wanted it to be a perfect as I had imagined (how nauseatingly sappy, I know). We were quickly seated on a table near the front window. It was lucky for us that we choose to eat at such an awkward hour, for shortly after we sat down “reserved” signs were being placed on virtually every surrounding table. I was brimming with fervor when Jacqui suggested that we order a glass of Chardonnay, a request which I happily obliged. As we sipped the wine and read through the menu there were a number of items which caught my eye. Jacqui and I quickly agreed that we would split an order of Steak Tartar with frites (French fries) for our main course with gazpacho and salad for an appetizer, plus wait for it…the foie gras terrine. At first I was a little hesitant to order the foie. After being treated to such a lovely weekend, the thought of spending thirty plus dollars on a hockey puck sized appetizer just seemed cruel. Jacqui’s Mom finally insisted that I order the foie, and I accepted contending that I contribute to the bill. We all agreed and at last, placed our order. First to come was the gazpacho and foie gras. You should have seen my face when our server put the plate in front of me. To sum, pure joy – I was damn excited. [Note: I feel as if I should elaborate on my severe desire to try foie gras. Growing up as a Jewish kid, I frequently snacked on chopped liver and crackers, a delicious, protein filled quick eat. After learning about foie gras, how it is not only the finest liver one can eat, though one of the finest meals one can have, and given my love for chopped liver – I knew that I needed to try it.] Its presentation was not exactly fancy (though I’m not sure how fancy a liver pâté could possibly be), a foie pâté sitting in the middle of a round plate, surrounded by toasted crackers and tiny cubes of jelly-fat. As the dish was served like I would typically eat chopped liver I felt right at home. Spreading a healthy schmear of fattened goose liver onto a toasted slice of French bread, I topped the appetizer with a jelly cube and dug in. The easiest way to explain the taste is really, really good, rich, flavorful chopped liver. Though unlike standard chopped live, foie gras is in its purest form – no filler, just liver and natural fat. The aroma was very irony with almost nutty essence, though perhaps most importantly; it maintained an undeniably welcomed meaty flavor. Its texture reminded me of semi-soft butter – thick and creamy. The taste was so opulent that it lingered far after I had swallowed, and even after I sipped my wine. As I chewed, tasted and swallowed I immediately wanted another. My plate was bare within minutes. Before this glorious encounter I had known not really what to expect of foie gras. Though following shortly after my first indulgence I was hooked – plain and simple, foie gras is the real deal.

When our entrée arrived I was not yet ready to let go of the foie memory. “No tartar! Stupid steak, worthless mush, I thought to myself. “Give me more of that precious liver ”. Though once the plate was put down in front of me, it didn’t take long to realize that steak tartar is excellent in and of itself, and I was still really hungry. I quickly popped a frite (French fry) into my mouth and was in awe. “Damn, this has seriously got to be the best fry I’ve ever had”, I said aloud. It honestly was. I never asked, though I’d be surprised if the frites were not fried in duck fat. They were so perfectly crisp on the outside while soft and gooey within. Really, I have never tasted a fry so good. It may be a shame to say, though the fries outweighed the tartar, which was very good – though not quite as eye-opening. I don’t even really remember the rest of the meal because after the foie, the tartar, and a couple of those fries, I was in another world. This WAS the meal I had been dying to have. As we left L’Express I knew that my Montreal experience had been complete – a truly awesome meal to affectionately highlight a great little trip. 

 

Restaurant Bombay Rating: 4-phones

L’Express Rating: 4-phones

….Foie Gras & Frites Rating: 5-phones

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One Response to “Oui Oui! Montreal!”

  1. There’s nothing beyond him– not illness, not inkwells. F Retail charge: $19. Look for comparable devices in the future, primarily as the inkless paper technology is improved upon and made less costly to manufacture.


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