Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Montreal, sans garçons

Hi. I know I've been gone for a long time. It's been a little nutty around these parts, not for any particular reason, but for the past couple of weeks it's felt like I was always behind. I think this will be the week I finally catch up with my life, though, and I have, like, three or four entries to put up, but I thought I'd begin with my long weekend, which was filled with fantastic nosh and drink and company.

You see, I went away for the weekend with my friend J. To Montreal, food mecca of Western Quebec. And it was wonderful. She flew in from the Big Smoke and I took the train and we met up at an awesome small hotel in the Plateau, one I hadn't stayed at before. I was very impressed. The fellow who runs the place strikes me as a bit of an odd duck, but he was very nice and the room was gorgeous and clean and well-appointed (though the TV was weirdly mounted in a corner of the room where you would have to sit at the foot of the bed to watch it. Yeah, no idea.

The first order of business on Saturday afternoon was lunch, which we partook of at one of the branches of Brulerie St-Denis, a coffee bean roastery and cafe. We just wanted something quick, but not fast food, so J ordered a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, while I opted for tuna salad and avocado on a buttery croissant with lettuce and tomato. We were highly satisfied with the food - the service was another story, but it didn't really matter. We were all fueled up and ready to shop.

A lengthy trek up and down Rue St-Denis followed by a short siesta at the hotel took up the remainder of Saturday afternoon. There was much gussying up for dinner - it's so fun to wear cute clothes and lots of mascara for dinner once in a while.

I had made dinner reservations for 7pm at Restaurant Au Tarot, a Moroccan place I've been wanting to try ever since I walked by it on the way home from another Moroccan restaurant last summer when we went to Montreal for Chris's birthday. It's on the corner of two largish streets in the Plateau - a small place, maybe twelve tables, and it's a BYOW place (we bought a bottle of Rioja on the way), and therefore very popular. Now I know it's popular for good reason - the food is bloody fantastic.

J. was a Moroccan food virgin (whee!) so I just told her all the stuff I liked and we ended up ordering the same thing. Usually I try not to do that; if someone orders the dish I'm planning on ordering, I change my mind. But I figure that's just cutting off my nose to spite my face, and besides, everyone knows the lamb shank with dried fruit is the best tagine. So I stuck to my choice and MAN, am I glad.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual - the restaurant does a lovely table d'hote and we both decided it was a great idea. The appetizer is a choice of the daily soup or the chef's special salad. Since it was a warm evening and I was already a little sweaty, I opted for the salad, as did J. They brought us one huge one to share (with two little plates) along with some great crusty bread and a dish of the best olives in the world - the mild, wrinkly black oil-cured ones. J. hates olives so I got as many as I wanted.

It's a good thing I didn't eat all of them, though, because this salad ranks among the top three or four I've ever eaten. It was a basic composed salad, in what I think of as a European style, and none of the ingredients were weird or flashy, but the combination was spectacular. Crisp greens, a ring of red bell pepper, a scatter of those olives, sliced cucumber, tomato wedges, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, endive, and a pile of what we think was shredded mild radish, all drizzled generously with a mild, herb-flecked vinaigrette that was somehow odd and haunting at the same time, and brought it all together magically. We devoured it and practically licked our plates.

I've been to Moroccan restaurants where, when you order a tagine, that is what you get and nothing more. Just a bowl of meat and fruit or preserved lemon or olives or what have you. So I wasn't expecting anything except perhaps, if we were lucky, some steamed couscous. We got that, a big fluffy dish of it, plus a bowl of stewed veggies in a tomato broth, and tiny bowls of chickpeas, harissa, and a sort of golden raisin chutney. All of this, plus an entire lamb shank each, stewed to fall-apartness with prunes and dried apricots. It was, in a word, a feast. For all of my senses.

This was the best Moroccan meal I've ever had. Better than Paris, way better than the late lamented Dar Tajine here in Ottawa. This was divine. The lamb was rich and meaty and perfectly tender; the fruits soft and honeyed; the couscous ethereal and the vegetables (carrots, zucchini, potato and celery) flavourful and earthy. I was so full by the end, but it seemed cruel not to eat every morsel of that delicious lamb.

Mint tea and dessert were included in the table d'hote - the menu said pastries, but we both received the house chocolate cake, a dry Euro-style affair with a good mousse layer and a nice chocolate ganache glaze. I would have preferred the baklava, but I assume they had run out (we received no explanation, and I was tipsy enough not to want to ask). Plus, chocolate is never a bad way to end a meal.

We waddled home down St-Laurent, peeking in store windows and avoiding one very angry young punk type who was shouting at the middle-class drones who passed him. Falling asleep wasn't hard, and dreams were sweet.

Sunday brought more shopping, this time downtown along Ste-Catherine, and when we did stop for lunch it was at a place the Internet suggested, called Café L'Étranger. It's a subterranean space across the street from the malls, a sort of student haven with an extraordinary list of sandwiches and salads as well as daily specials. Both J. and I ordered one of their tarted-up grilled cheese sandwiches - hers had three kinds of cheese including an herbed havarti, mine had fresh and sundried tomatoes and sliced avocado (you'll notice an avocado theme over this weekend). Each sandwich came with a respectable green salad and a pile of "pasta chips", which turned out to be deep-fried wonton strips. Horrible for you, but impossible not to devour. I'll be returning to this place when we do our mad Christmas shopping along Ste-Catherine - they have a full bar, fancy coffees, and nice desserts as well. Definitely worth a stop.

It started to rain mid-afternoon, and when the stores closed we ducked into the Ben & Jerry's on McGill for a cone and a sit-down. Peanut butter and chocolate ice cream, the perfect pick-me-up. We saved room for sushi, though. After dropping off our acquisitions and checking in with our poor abandoned male counterparts, we headed back out to Mikado on Laurier, getting rather damp in the process but working up a good appetite. As always, it did not disappoint. We needed a bowl of their excellent miso soup to warm up, then we split an order of veggie tempura (eggplant, zucchini, carrot, broccoli and squash). Then we ordered a bunch of rolls and some yellowtail sashimi to share. The flavour of the hamachi was perfect, as always, and the cuts were lovely, but I found the texture to be the tiniest bit slimy - first time that's happened to me, and I don't blame the chefs. It was tasty anyway. We also enjoyed their excellent California rolls (real crab!), tempura shrimp rolls, and half a dozen each of salmon and spicy tuna maki. It was just enough to fill us up without being overkill. God, I love sushi.

We wanted to go for girly drinks somewhere we could walk to from the restaurant, but I don't know that neighbourhood well enough to know the bars, so we stopped into a Sbux for warm drinks and asked the barista for his recommendations. He suggested a place down a few blocks on Laurier called Baldwin Barmacie, so once we finished up with our coffees we wandered down to see what it was like. Turned out to be an awesomely retro lounge, all low amber glass globe lights and stylized vinyl-covered barstools and classy cocktails. We ordered from their short but brilliant martini menu - gloriously flavoured concoctions of vodka, juices such as pineapple, lemon, and granny smith apple - and a gorgeous, pale pink-gold fizzy drink known as a Cosmoroyal, with raspberry vodka, triple sec, a splash of cranberry and a measure of champagne. I had two of those. It was a perfect storm of atmosphere, conversation and libation - utter lighthearted fun.

Monday dawned clear, bright and sunny, so we took a stroll through the famous Jean-Talon market, which I had never been to before. It's a big and bustling public food and plant market, and on the first holiday Monday of summer, it was packed with avid gardeners and shoppers. We nosed around the flower booths and the small specialty food stores, J. got a crazy juice from a very hippie stand, and then we wandered back to the Metro and zoomed back to the Plateau for lunch at the St-Viateur bagel cafe on Mont-Royal (smoked salmon and cream cheese for both of us. Yum) and a long chill in Parc Lafontaine. It was full of people doing busker-type tricks like handstands, juggling, and tightrope walking. Free entertainment!

Finally it was nearly time to go pick up my bag at the Auberge, but in the little time we had left we grabbed fresh juice and guacamole at a tiny Mexican place on St-Denis called Mañana. Best restaurant guac I've had since Ironwood Cafe here in Ottawa closed its doors years ago. (See? Avocado again.) It kept me going until halfway through my two-hour train ride home, at which point I devoured the vegetarian rice-paper roll with peanut dipping sauce I'd purchased on our way back to the hotel.

I love going to Montreal; have I perhaps mentioned that?

Coming soon: belated entries about Mother's Day afternoon tea and a photo entry about some awesome pasta with sausage and peppers.

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