Monday, September 28, 2015

Montréal for foodies

Montréal, Quebec is a very diverse city, a fact reflected in its ever-evolving food scene. From traditional Jewish foodstuffs including bagels and bialies sold in the city’s Outremont, Mile-End and Plateau areas to tapas restaurants in the Ville-Marie (Old Town) to a wide variety of Asian food in and around Chinatown to haute French cuisine to the occasional food truck, there is something for everybody.

Though we hardly scratched the surface during our recent five-day trip, we discovered (and were guided to) a number of establishments my wife and I are pleased to recommend.

Déjeuner (Luncheons)

Needing a light bite before embarking on a three-hour food tour of the Outremont and Mile-End areas, we popped into the Piazzetta Outremont at 1105 Ave. Bernard Ouest, one of a chain of similar establishments in Montréal and Quebec. Because we knew the food tour would include samples of largely carb-based delights, we decided greens were our best option. My wife has a tomato and Camembert salad ($7.95) while I chose a “salad in a jar” ($6.95) which I was instructed to close and shake to distribute the dressing, then pour onto my plate. Both were freshly prepared using field and seasonal greens rather than the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, served with what tasted like vine-ripened tomatoes and lightly dressed. A delicious way to start an afternoon that would include a carb-heavy food tour, which I detail in a separate post.

Charcuterie platter at Hambar
Lunch on another day followed a visit to St. John’s Oratorie on Mont Royal. We found Les Tontons Flinguers Bistro and Brasserie at 5190 Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, a refined, upscale bar and restaurant wedged in between fast-food and quick-serve restaurants in the area of nearby Université de Montréal.

With hardwood floors under foot and classic jazz playing on the sound system, it offered a more upmarket and refined atmosphere than neighboring establishments, which was precisely what we sought. I enjoyed fish and chips for my lunch ($22.95) while my wife ordered penne pasta with a ratatouille sauce that included a cream of corn soup as an appetizer ($18.95). Both our lunches were well-prepared and came out quickly, but not so quickly that we felt rushed. I thought the prices were a bit high but the refined, relaxed surroundings made it worthwhile. Two glasses of house wine ($5.95 each) made our lunch complete. Menus are only in French, but staff is fully bilingual and happy to help translate as necessary.

On another afternoon, we sought out Hambar, a restaurant in the Hotel St. Paul in Old Montréal that focuses on – you guessed it – ham. We began with glasses of Pinot Grigio ($9) and Beaujolais ($10), then shared a small green salad ($6) to silence our mutual guilt buttons. We then moved on to a petit plateau, a small charcuterie plater (pronounced “SHAW-kuh-tree”) with several varieties of house-cured ham accompanied by patés, pickled vegetables, dense French bread with a crispy crust, and croutons. While our server said the small platter was designed as an appetizer, we found it more than ample for a modest lunch for the two of us.

Poutine and burger at La Banquise
No visit to Montréal would be complete without tasting poutine, a side dish classically made with pomme frites (French fries to us Yanks) topped with cheese curds (a/k/a squeaky cheese) and gravy. Though it may sound odd, it nicely balances the salt from the fries and cheese with the fat from the frying and in the gravy. Our poutine experience took place at Restaurant La Banquise at 994 Rue Rachel Est in the Le Plateau Mont Royal area, on the recommendation of a local who told us La Banquise had the best poutine in the area.

Open 24 hours a day, it accepts only cash and debit cards from one Canadian debit card network, and because of its appeal to late-night revelers who often come from surrounding watering holes, diners must pay for their food in advance between 2100 (9 p.m.) 0600.

My wife had a burger with the area’s signature Montréal smoked meat instead of a traditional hamburger patty. It came with fries and a soft drink ($12). I chose a small cheeseburger ($8.25 with fries and soft drink) but substituted a small poutine for the fries (an additional $3) and beer for the soft drink (another $3). Because the place is so busy, everything is fresh and hot; nothing sits around long. When we went in mid-afternoon, the wait for our food was modest. Tables are close together, so conversations with those nearby seem to happen spontaneously.

Dîner (Dinner)

Żurek, potato pancakes and pierogi at Stash
Being of Polish extraction, I was particularly taken by Stash Café, a Polish restaurant on Rue Saint Paul Ouest in the Old Town area. Having visited Kraków and Warsaw earlier this year, I was keen to have dinner at Stash so I could compare and contrast.

All of the items were authentic and, honestly, better than my Polish grandmother used to make.

Everything from the potato pancakes ($5) to the pierogi sampler ($7) to the golabki (cabbage rolls) served with cucumbers in sour cream and dill ($5) to the kielbasa served with potato salad and sauerkraut ($14) were excellent. The only dish that was even slightly disappointing was the żurek, a Polish sour soup made with fermented rye flour ($8). It is a given that, like many such “peasant foods,” żurek will vary depending on who makes it. That said, I found Stash’s less sour than the żureks I enjoyed in Poland and, to my palate, not sour enough as though the rye base could have been allowed a longer fermentation period.

Our most memorable dinner was at a French restaurant called Le Mas des Oliviers. It is located along Bishop Street near Concordia University occupied by a range of restaurants, from those that appeal to the college crowd to those with a more upscale appeal. Le Mas des Oliviers was among the more upmarket offerings.

Dinner began with two glasses of sparkling wine - “Not champagne, I’m afraid,” our server apologized ($14) - followed by appetizers. My French onion soup ($10) was among the best I have ever enjoyed: a rich, flavorful broth; nicely caramelized onions that were neither too crispy nor too brown; and melted cheese that was still bubbly and hot when presented at our table. My wife chose the house-made pate appetizer ($10), which was very mild but equally delicious.

Main courses of dinner at Oliviers
My wife had been harboring a taste for duck so, for our main courses, she ordered duck Magrete ($32) while I chose stag medallions on a bed of pureed carrots with garlic and cream surrounded by small boiled potatoes in gravy. ($38). Both were perfect: crispy skin on the duck, which was bathed in a light, flavorful gravy. My stag was seared to a medium-rare at the chef’s recommendation. Unlike many such meats, it had only the slightest hint of the game flavor that makes such meats so desirable. A bottle of Maison Rouge (house red) wine ($34). Concluding dinner with complimentary panna cotta, we then made our way back to the Metró for the ride back to our hotel.

While we hadn’t intended to do so, we also wound up having Spanish tapas at two different restaurants.

Our first experience was at Toro Toro at 260 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest in the Old Town. The tapas we enjoyed there were presented in charcuterie style: on a large wooden platter, and included two varieties of shaved ham, ultrathin slices of sausage, pallea, Spanish olives, and bread and crackers ($45).

Because we enjoyed our dinner at Toro Toro, we mentioned it to the general manager at our hotel. Being Spanish, he had some firmly held opinions about tapas and directed us to Tapas 24, another tapas establishment about two blocks west of Toro Toro, which he prefers.

Tapas 24 is one of several restaurants owned by Chef Carles Abellan but is his first outside of Spain. Our experience there was more a “true” tapas experience. As we pored over the English subtitles of the extensive menu, our server was happy to offer additional detail and make suggestions.

We settled on a croquet of deep-fried mashed potatoes with a gravy called a “bomba” ($6), two ham croquets ($3 each), two chicken croquets ($3 each), a plate of vegetables cured in a light vinaigrette dressing then sliced paper-thin ($12), a dish of olives ($6), and grilled bread topped with fresh tomatoes and cheese ($5). A glass of white sangria for her ($10) and a house red for me ($9) and we were set.

Bomba, croquetes and marinated veggies at Tapas 24
We agreed that the food at Tapas 24 was excellent; however, the atmosphere was more energetic than at Toro Toro. Tapas 24 struck us as “the place to be” and was inhabited by a number of Millennials just wrapping up their day, though there were also a fair number of fellow Boomers dining there as well. Hardwood floors and tall glass windows make the place very “live” acoustically and loud as a result. House music, though kept at a manageable volume, also contributed to the place’s high energy.

Other places that were highly recommended by a local contact who know Montréal’s food scene included Chez la Mère Michele, Joe Beef and sister restaurant Liverpool HouseAu Pieds de Couchon  which is all about pork), Le Filet, Le Serpent and Club Chasse et Pêche.

One of the facets of dining out in Canada that is worth knowing about centers on paying the bill (not often referred to as a “check”). In most of the establishments we patronized, guests ask for the bill when they are ready to pay. This is a very European practice. In Europe, a server simply dropping the bill on the table without being asked is either considered rude or a hint that it’s time to move on.

When paying the bill with a credit card, servers bring a portable machine to the table rather than disappear with a guest’s card. The machine shows the price of the meal, then asks the guest to add a gratuity. Most of the machines we encountered gave the option of tipping as either a percentage of the bill or a dollar amount. Even though several machines’ displays were only in French, the universal icons of “%” or “$” made it fairly easy to decipher.

As to the amount of the tip, a 10 percent gratuity is considered fair in Canada while 15 percent is considered good and more may be appropriate for truly outstanding service.

Many diners prefer to calculate the tip on the amount of the bill before tax is added. In Montréal, sales tax is substantial at a shade under 15 percent. Taxes include a provincial sales tax indicated by the letters TVQ, which stands for la taxe de vente du Québec, and a “harmonized sales tax” indicated by the letters TPS. TVQ is currently 9.975 percent and TPS is currently five percent.

One server told us that, for simplicity’s sake, guests will often simply add the same amount being charged for tax as their gratuity. Using the credit card machine’s “15 percent” function will add 15 percent of the post-tax total, which will result in a slightly larger gratuity. A small matter but worth knowing.

Please use this list as a starting point and feel free to add your own recommendations. The more, the merrier.

Bon appetit!

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
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