Tuesday, December 9, 2008

This food really pops

Yesterday was our annual Christmas shopping trip to Montreal, accompanied by my sister J and her husband D. Despite snow early in the day and well-below-freezing temperatures on the way home, we had a delightful afternoon of shopping on Rue Ste-Catherine and picked up some lovely gifts for family members.

This year we decided to try someplace new for dinner, and after much research on various Montreal foodie websites, we settled on Pop! Bar à vin. Pop is the little brother restaurant to Laloux, a well-established bistro on Avenue des Pins in the Plateau. Though it’s just next door and I believe it shares a kitchen with Laloux, Pop is a very different space and menu. The décor is firmly and decisively Danish Modern, with teak tables, chairs, and a sideboard that immediately evoked my parents’ dining room when I was a child. Slatted wood panels on the walls, shelves of food and wine books, comfortable leather lounge chairs around a fireplace and low lighting soften the look a bit. There’s a tiny glassed-in courtyard at the back that housed several lit-for-Christmas pine trees dusted lovingly with the snow that had fallen earlier.

We were, aside from some Laloux staff and another couple with their baby, alone in the place on this frigid Sunday early evening. (A word about bringing chatty children under two years of age to a quiet wine bar: don’t. While charming, the child was very noisy and fussy, not things I’m looking for in an adult environment.) Our waiter was friendly and solicitous but not overly familiar, an excellent balance. I began with a kir cassis (white wine and blackcurrant liqueur) and Chris ordered a gin and tonic. Both were lovely though I like mine a bit heavier on the cassis.

For apps, J&D ordered the house charcuterie plate and a dish of marinated salmon with lemon pepper yogurt sauce. The charcuterie, all made in-house, included jambon blanc, thinly sliced smoked duck breast, paté maison, duck rillettes, and head cheese alongside a small jar of lightly pickled vegetables. I sampled most of the offerings and found the rillettes delightful, the duck delicious, and the head cheese a bit off-putting until I realized it was the jellied bits that bothered me. I ended up being the one to finish the lovely meaty bits of slow-rendered pork (leaving the gelatin behind) as neither my sister nor her boy were fans. The salmon was three thick slices marinated gravlax-style (that is to say, raw) and tasted buttery and perfect.

Chris and I began with the arancini and the chickpea puree with yogurt and espelette pepper (a dried ground red pepper similar to paprika), served with warm chewy flatbread triangles. Both were utterly divine, in completely different ways. The arancini, which are breaded fried balls of rice, came served in an escargot dish and were gooey with mild cheese (tasted like fontina) and studded with bits of spicy chorizo. Rich and warm and spiked with heat, these were the ideal winter appetizer. For $5, they cannot be beat.

The chickpea puree was an absolute revelation. It somehow managed to taste meaty, with a round rich flavor on the tongue but a lightness too, not cloying or heavy. The dusting of espelette gave a tingle to the tongue but no real heat. Smeared onto the lightly oiled, chewy flatbread, it was heavenly. I must attempt to reverse-engineer this recipe at home. I’ll even make my own flatbread.

Thus, appetites whetted, we moved onto one of the house specialties, savoury “tartes” done in the Alsatian style. More of that gorgeous flatbread beneath inspired toppings like clams, leek, lemon confit, mushroom marmalade, mimolette cheese… there are five tartes to choose from and it was tough. J&D went with the classic Alsatian “flammeküche” of crème fraiche, lardons (chunks of unsmoked bacon) and onions. Chris and I opted for the combination of cured beef, arugula, goat cheese and roasted red pepper with another smattering of espelette. Both disappeared in very short order with plenty of oohs and aahs and no complaint whatsoever. Our chewy crust was smeared with a rough puree of red peppers, baked, then topped with the springy, peppery greens, paper-thin slices of bresaola-like beef, and clumps of the best soft goat cheese I have ever eaten anywhere. The kitchen kindly cuts the rectangular tart into smaller rectangles for easy sharing, which was nice. With my tarte I enjoyed a glass of Côtes-du-Marmandais, Arradim, Clos Cavenac, a privately imported red wine that was coarse and fruity and dry all at once. Not the best match with my food, but certainly tasty. (To be fair, I didn’t ask for a match, as most of the other red wines by the glass were a little beyond our budget. The waiter offered me a taste first, as I was unfamiliar with the wine – very classy.)

The best thing about sharing plates in this fashion is that it leaves one room for dessert, and so we ventured into sweet territory boldly. The chef at Pop is one Patrice Demers, who at the tender age of twenty-seven is famed around Montreal already for his desserts. We couldn’t pass it up.

D, the chocolate fanatic, was transfixed by the chef’s signature dessert, a chocolate pot de crème with Maldon sea salt and caramel. It arrived in a tall slim jar, layered gorgeously, and the waiter explained it thus: the bottom layer was chocolate ganache, the middle a chocolate and sea salt crunch, the top an airy caramel mousse. It is essential, he said, to use one’s long spoon to reach to the bottom and pull up a bite containing all three layers at once, to get the full effect. Well, I tried it, and my head nearly exploded, it was that good. I immediately resolved to return and eat one of my very own in future.

As for Chris and I, we went for the other chocolate option, described on the menu as “Araguani chocolate tart, pear, hazelnut, red wine and spices”. It arrived looking like this:

Three tiny rich chocolate tarts with sweet shortbread bases, dusted in hazelnut oil powder (tapioca added to render it powdery), with a quenelle of pear sorbet, dotted with spiced red wine caramel. Unbelievably good and so creative, without resorting to too much molecular gastronomy for fireworks. All the flavours were perfect on their own but combined were somehow transcendent. I declare myself extremely impressed with M. Demers’ artistry.

This is how much I loved Pop: I would go back and eat exactly the same meal again, and be perfectly happy. I hope that day isn’t too far off.

Photos courtesy my sister J.

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