Monday, December 10, 2007

BU bar à vins - Montreal

Sunday was Montreal Christmas shopping day, and it was a lovely day indeed. We went with my sister and BIL again, and this year they offered to drive, which was awesome of them. After a long and chilly (but bright and productive) afternoon of shopping, we anxiously made our way up Boulevard Saint-Laurent to Mile-End, where we had decided to try out a restaurant we’d never been to, BU bar à vins. I read Montreal restaurant reviews and message boards for fun, because we go there often enough that it’s paid off many times, and this was no exception. BU has been in place since 2004, and it’s a long, narrow, minimalist space that on this cold Sunday night was empty at opening time and never got busier than our lone four-top and another couple in the front window, who came for snacks and two glasses of wine each, then quietly melted away leaving us with the place to ourselves.

You’d never have known it was a dead night from the warm welcome our single waiter gave us, though. He was friendly, professional, and well-informed from start to finish, and made the evening a delight. I didn’t get his name, but I hope he’s there next time we go (and there will be a next time). He took care of the tunes from his iPod connected to the house sound system: plenty of Feist and Mazzy Star, an ideal soundtrack for such a mellow evening.

But before I go further, a note on the concept of BU: it is, as the name suggests, a wine bar by vocation – its list is a weighty, suede-bound book organized by region, with choices ranging from the reasonable $28 to $600 and up for super-Tuscans and the like. There is also a weekly list of wines available by the glass or in flights of three 2-oz glasses. Most of the wines are privately imported by the owner, apparently, so not many recognizable names to my LCBO-trained palate. We did what you should do, if you go: ask for help.

Inquiring into the three “blind” reds (indicated on the menu by question marks – how whimsical!) my sister discovered that one was some sort of vino nobile from Italy, and that they had but two glasses left, so she snapped one up. Chris and I both opted for the single Côtes du Rhône on the list, and enjoyed it immensely – I had a second glass, it was so lovely, and went beautifully with the Italian-inspired food we ate.

The menu at BU consists of three sections: amuse-bouches, or small tapas; cold appetizers, which are slightly larger; and warm entrees, which include a daily main course, pasta dish, and risotto, as well as standards like spaghetti with tomato-basil sauce and eggplant parmigiana. We were fortunate to be able to take advantage of the restaurant’s 5 a 7 policy: three amuse-bouches for $15. As a matter of fact, we did it twice, because it was a screaming good deal and the food rocked.

Our first round went like this: mushroom and garlic bruschetta, spinach and potato croquettes, and caponata, a warm roasted vegetable and marinated green olive antipasto. (All of this preceded by very good bread with fine, yellow-green olive oil and coarse sea salt for dipping.) The bruschetta were deeply flavourful and generous in size, with a goodly rectangle for each of us, oozing garlic-and-olive oil-sauteed mushrooms, mostly brown, I think, but possibly some portobellos as well. It made no claim to wildness and we expected none, but domestic mushrooms are very good indeed when treated this well.

The croquettes were a surprise and delight: two potato, and two spinach, rather than the ingredients combined within the croquette. Both were awesome, flavourful and infused with mild cheese and lightly coated with breadcrumbs before their dip in the fryer. Beginning with quality ingredients raises even fried snacks above average. But it was the caponata that blew all of our minds: like a jarred antipasto, but fresh and packed with good, slow-cooked peppers, eggplant and onions, fat slices of green olive, all bound together with a little tomato paste and plenty of olive oil. It came served in a bowl with crostini for topping – we practically licked the bowl, and ordered another one with our second round.

Along with our first three amuses, we chose an “assiette BU” from the list of cold appetizers. Billed as mixed plate of charcuterie, grilled veggies and parmigiano, it came heavy on the meats – prosciutto, pancetta, sweet capicollo, salami and something else I couldn’t identify, sliced thin, cured to a dark burgundy, and oiled gently, it was smoky and woodsy and delicious – and light on veggies, with a small pile of thinly sliced roasted peppers, a roll of grilled zucchini, another of eggplant, a single pickled onion, and two oddball pickled peppers. The small pile of parmigiano chunks were coveted and perfect, both sweet and sharp, crumbly and oily. We left one sad pepper decorating the plate and devoured the rest.

By this time, we had decided not to order mains for each of us, but instead to try more of the delicious amuses-bouches and one main shared between us: the daily risotto, billed as mushrooms and mascarpone. It sounded decadent enough that we’d each want only a little taste. More caponata, as mentioned, accompanied by crostini misti (one each of artichoke spread, a mild creamy cheese, a black truffle tapenade, and shaved pancetta). And finally, a wedge of taleggio cheese torta drizzled with crème de balsamique. Oh, goodness, was that torta spectacular. I’d go back just for that. Rich, warm, yielding, slightly caramelized from the oven and accompanied by the sweet sharp vinegar reduction – a marvel. The crostini were a mixed bag for me – I adored the artichoke paste one, was meh on the cheese one, disliked the pancetta one (which had a distinct scent of urine to me which I’m sure is normal, but was not to my taste) and tried to appreciate the seriously intense truffle one. I’ve only just been introduced to the flavour of truffles, and it’s something I can only handle in very small doses, though I do like it. This was just enough – two small bites. The caponata, of course, thrilled us all again.

The risotto, sadly, was disappointing. None of us mentioned it at the table, but the lack of exclaiming over it was obvious. It was underdone, for one thing, and lacked the creamy texture of something supposedly infused with mascarpone, so there couldn’t have been much of it in there. The mushrooms were clearly button, and lacking garlic to boost them, they were a bit flavourless and rubbery. It needed something to brighten it – arugula, garlic, maybe a sharper cheese? In any event, it was edible, but a low point of an otherwise excellent meal.

And after all that, we still found room for dessert. The great thing about small plates meals is that one eats more slowly and gets less full, theoretically. Once D heard that the daily special was house-made chocolate mousse (all the desserts are made in-house, except the tasting of Amadei chocolates, of course) he was all in. Chris followed suit; I opted for the chocolate tart, while J went rogue and selected panna cotta with balsamic drizzle. All were delicious; the mousse was a tour de force, while the panna cotta was beautifully executed and unusually tasty. My tart had a spectacular crust, buttery and crumbly, but I felt that the ganache filling lacked flavour somehow. It was rich and smooth, but not strong enough of cocoa flavour to really have an effect on the tongue. I’m told they used Amadei chocolate; maybe another brand would work better. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the superior quality of, say, the chocolate tart at L’Express.

Decaf espresso allongé was perfect, and came with a square of that 70% Amadei. The best part was the bill, though, which was screamingly reasonable after a two and a half hour eating extravaganza. Did I mention we had the best seats in the house – small 1950s style armchairs grouped around a vintage formica table? Comfy AND fabulous.

BU is now on my short list of places to eat in Montreal. I highly recommend you add it to yours. The kitchen is open until 1 a.m. The waiter rocks. The wine is amazing. The food sings. What else could you ask for?

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