We were late for dinner on a Sunday night in Montreal. Browsing too long in a fantastic art gallery near the Vieux-Port, we lost track of time and had to nearly sprint back to the car, where, thanks to its enormity (Toyota Highlander) and tinted windows, the four of us were able to change out of shorts and into decent dinner togs.
Thus attired and refreshed, two challenges remained: driving from the tiny streets of Old Montreal to the restaurant Au Tarot in the Plateau; and obtaining a bottle of wine to drink with dinner on the way there. We had four minutes. A quick cellphone call to the restaurant bought us ten more, but the wine was still going to be interesting. The SAQ we passed as we headed towards Chinatown was long-closed, but I knew the one on St-Denis near Duluth was habitually open late. In true Montrealais fashion, Chris wove and ducked his way down Sherbrooke and St-Denis and pulled up, double-parked, to the front of the store. I grabbed my purse and ran.
It’s a small store, and fortunately wasn’t busy. I zipped towards the Australian section knowing I’d find familiar faces there. A quick scan revealed no Wyndham Estates Bin 555 shiraz (though they had both merlot and cabernet) but next to those sat, in its iconic red-script-on-white-label, Penfolds Koonunga Hills shiraz/cabernet. I grabbed. I paid, I ran. Total time elapsed between leaving the car and reentering it: three minutes. Damn, I’m good. Thus fortified, we drove the six remaining blocks to the restaurant, Chris went to park, and I settled in with our Bostonian comrades and the menu.
But wait: what strangeness did I find inside the colourful laminated brochure? A much-reduced list of table d’hote options at a drastically increased price than the last time I had dined there in May. I sadly chalked it up to tourist season (such price hikes are common in Europe) and began translating for my friends. When their puzzled faces gave way to utterances of “but that’s not what ours say”, I grabbed one of their menus and found it to be identical to the one I was familiar with. The waiter quickly confirmed that mine was incorrect (whew!) and we started over, with Chris, and a generous basket of some of the best baguette we’d ever had.
By this time, we had both cold water and good red wine (Au Tarot is a bring-your-own-wine establishment, and sells none, hence the essential stop) and were ready to get serious about Moroccan cuisine, which the Bostonians were being introduced to for the first time. All opted for the excellent value table d’hote; three of us chose tagines and our female companion branched out with a chicken pastilla.
It was far too hot for soup, and when the enormous, rectilinear white bowl of house salad (served family-style) arrived, it was quickly attacked by all and crunching was the only sound to be heard for a few minutes. It was every bit as good as I remembered it: crisp lettuce and gently bitter Belgian endive leaves, wedges of ripe tomato, cool slices of cucumber, and hidden gem-like wrinkled black olives, topped with sliced heart of palm, artichoke hearts, and chunks of the most interesting and delicious goat’s cheese I’ve ever enjoyed, all drizzled with the signature creamy, herbal vinaigrette whose flavours I can’t identify (not that I tried that hard, as I was busy eating). It was difficult not to eat far too much of it, in fact, but I managed to save room for my main course.
I nearly always order the tagine of lamb shank with dried fruits, but as I knew Chris would be getting it, I opted for the spiced duck and was rewarded with a generous leg, moist beneath the skin and fat, a brunoise of carrot and a darkly spicy red wine reduction pooled around it in the ceramic dish. I cleaned its bones nicely for it.
Chris’s lamb shank and D’s lamb shoulder were both proclaimed to be delicious (I tried Chris’s and it was indeed), while J had a little less luck with her pastille. She liked it but pronounced the pastry dusted with icing sugar to be too much of a good thing, though the shredded, moist chicken filling was to her taste. Alongside all these tasty treats was a big bowl of plain steamed couscous, piping hot, and a bowl of amazingly scented stewed vegetables – carrot, turnip, and zucchini in a tomato and cumin spiked broth. The wine stood up nicely to everything I ate, and the others seemed to enjoy it as well.
So much food, and still more to come: the table d’hote included “Moroccan pastries” which on this night were small fluted cups of phyllo filled with a small mound of pistachio, honey and rosewater paste; and four small wedges of blueberry cake/tart hybrid (cake-like filling, studded with berries, in a tart crust). I had one bite of the cake and remembered that I don’t care for blueberries, but the phyllo/nut confections were heavenly. Mint tea, of course, came with these treats, and was perfect as usual, in gorgeous glasses I wanted to bring home with me.
Ironically, the restaurant never did fill up that evening, so all of our rushing was perhaps for naught; still, the excitement of getting there certainly piqued our appetites for the meal to come, and it ended the weekend visit of our friends on a high note, in my opinion. I foresee many more meals spent at Au Tarot, alone with Chris or with friends and family – two visits and not a sour note to the food (though service is, shall we say, relaxed – not always a bad thing).
I made sure to hang onto their card. Who knows when I might need it again?