Monday, January 21, 2008

Don't wait until Mañana

There are approximately 2,000 restaurants in the area of Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. I have been to probably fewer than a dozen of those, and I’m sure I’ve not yet experienced the most transcendent dining experiences that this rich and vibrant neighbourhood has to offer. But Saturday night’s meal was deeply satisfying on just about every level.

Down at the slightly quieter end of the St-Denis strip, just a block in from Sherbrooke and across from the tony Carre St-Louis, sits Mañana, a cosy half-basement space crammed withheavy wood furnishings, brightly dyed woven Mexican fabrics, cactuses, sombreros, painted terracotta dishes, thick bubbly glassware, and friendly if slightly absent staff. I discovered it last May, on the last day of a girls’ weekend in Montreal with my friend J. We were hot, tired and thirsty, in need of a snack and a place to chill for a bit before it was time for me to catch my train home to Ottawa. A fresh mango juice, spun with some ice in the blender for a moment, was the sweetest and most refreshing I’d ever had. Their guacamole, chunky with tomatoes and onions, was equally outstanding, rich and buttery, with superlative house-made chips.

When it came time to choose a restaurant for this year’s Auto Show day (where the boys look at cars, and my best friend P and I go shopping on Ste-Catherine), Mañana floated into my mind and turned out to be the perfect place. Both the P’s enjoy Mexican food, and when I called ahead they were more than happy to accommodate my friend’s nut allergy. This meant no molé at our table, but happily there were plenty of other delicious dishes to choose from. In addition to the fajitas (which I imagine are probably a concession for unadventurous diners who come with others) they have enchiladas with red sauce, molé sauce or green tomatillo sauce, steak tacos, burritos, red wine marinated goat and beer-braised duck. They do a cactus and chorizo soup, a ceviche, a spicy chile relleno, and snapper Veracruz. It took us all a good ten minutes to decide what we wanted.

In the end, familiarity won out and everyone but me ordered the chicken enchilada with red sauce, while I went for the exotic and ordered the duck. I honestly just can’t being myself to order a chicken dish in a restaurant unless that’s their specialty (because hey, I can make that at home) but I did try a bite of Chris’ and it was very tasty indeed, with juicy shredded chicken, cheese and plenty of mild red salsa inside a soft flour tortilla drizzled with sour cream. Generous helpings of rice and black beans rounded out their plates – I tried the beans and they were seriously good, packed with flavour and soft but not mushy. Everyone waxed rhapsodic about their meals, which made me very happy as I’d been the one to suggest the restaurant!

My duck was divinity on a plate: two good-sized legs, braised to melting perfection in a thin but rich-tasting sauce of dark beer, sweet peppers and onions, alongside a mound of rice speckled with peas and a crispy pile of salad drizzled with the house dressing, a creamy blend of avocado and tarragon. I kid you not, this was the best duck I’ve eaten in years, and definitely the best I’ve ever had in any restaurant in Montreal, L’Express included. The sauce was only ever so slightly sweet from the peppers, but balanced well with salt and the distinctive tang of the beer. A judicious sprinkle of chopped coriander, something I’m not a huge fan of, worked beautifully here. The meat practically threw itself off the bone and onto my fork in moist shards; the gently seasoned rice mellowed the sauce and the salad offered a fresh, bright counterpoint, spiky with the tarragon. Despite the richness of the meat, the portion was dead-on if one doesn’t order an appetizer and arrives hungry; I polished it all off and even had room for a modest dessert.

P’s husband had ordered the table d’hôte, which is available with the enchiladas, burritos, or tacos; it comes with soup of the day, eggplant gratin, or salad to start as well as the daily dessert and coffee or tea. He started with the cream of vegetable soup and pronounced it excellent; his dessert was less of a hit – tres leches cake, which is a dry white cake soaked in sweetened milk and drizzled with a dulce de leche sauce. He said it tasted good but the texture was odd – but he has some texture issues, so who knows, I might have enjoyed it. I asked after the rice pudding but it was unavailable that night, so I went with the “Nieve Tropical” (tropical snow), a passionfruit mousse served in a small martini glass. It tasted exactly like the best versions of this dessert I’d eaten in Brazil, which is to say, it was amazing, perfectly balanced between tart and sweet. Chris tried the pastel de queso – cheese pie, with a berry sauce. It was drier and denser than cheesecake, but he enjoyed it.

I should mention the margaritas, of which my best friend and I both partook. She’s a purist and prefers the straight-up lime version, while I love the mango ones. Our first round was fine, nothing more, but the second round was perfection, leading me to believe they were made by a different person. The boys had beers – the small selection includes Corona, St-Ambroise, and Griffon. They also have a short wine list, mainly South American, available by the glass, ½ litre and bottle.

After the food, the best part of the evening was the bill – a screaming deal for the quality of the food we ate. I’ll just mention the price of the duck, since it was such a steal: $16.95 for my plate, with TWO duck legs. The service is leisurely (though very friendly and sweet), so this is not the place for a quick meal before a play or a movie, but if you’ve got time to spare, it’s a wonderful place to spend the better part of a chilly evening.

3605 rue St-Denis, Montreal

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