Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fourteen

Chris and I have been married fourteen years this month. We always mark the occasion with some sort of celebration, however small. Some years it's just dinner out somewhere nice-ish. In big milestone years, we travel. For five, we went to New England. For ten, we went to Old England (no, really). Next year we hope to repeat one of those experiences, but this year, we felt like we needed a tiny getaway. Both of us adore Middle Eastern food, and Ottawa is limited to shawarma joints as far as that goes, so I booked us a table at Damas, an amazing Syrian resto in Montreal, and found us a lovely hotel to stay in overnight. For good measure, I Googled "best brunch in Montreal" and booked one of those too. In for a penny.

In an otherwise dry, sunny, and unseasonably warm month, our anniversary weekend was rainy, cool and gray. Someone told me the tail end of a hurricane ended up over our area, and I believe it - the rain was epic and unrelenting for most of Saturday, soaking our feet as we walked the three blocks from the Outremont subway station to Damas at nine p.m. Yes, nine. Even booking three weeks ahead, that was the best I could get on a Saturday night. The original location on Parc was lost to a fire last year, I heard, and so Damas moved to a new location on Van Horne that's bigger, brighter, shinier, and apparently more popular. We had a late-afternoon heavy snack, and turned up for our reservation damp, but enthusiastic.

Given the late hour, we opted for a selection of mezze rather than mains. Honestly, those are usually my favourite part of any menu, so I'm always excited to get to try a wide sampling thereof. While we waited, we fortified ourselves with a pair of luscious cocktails:

That's a cucumber-mint-gin-and-tonic on the right. The gorgeous orange one is vodka, apricot syrup, apricot brandy, sparkling orange soda, and a garnish of chopped pistachios and dried apricots. It managed to not be cloyingly sweet (thanks in part to the bitter Aranciata soda) but rather exotic and refreshing.

And then the food began to arrive, in quick succession, delivered with smiles and flourishes by several genial and laid-back waiters. We began with a trio of vegetable-based dips:



From top to bottom: beet mutabbal, eggplant mutabbal, and muhammara 

We've eaten all of these before and they're all impeccably prepared, with great texture (not too smooth, not too rough) and punchy flavours. The beet one is sweet and earthy, with a smoothness and savoury boost from the tahini it contains. The eggplant mutabbal (known to most westerners as baba ganoush, though apparently that's more of a chopped troasted eggplant and herb salad, not a dip) was deeply smoky - achieved through charring the whole eggplants directly on a flame until the skin is blackened and the interior flesh soft and silky. Sweet-tart pomegranate seeds add little bursts of extra flavour as you eat it. Muhammara is probably the most complex, with red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and dried red pepper that gives it a spicy kick, without overwhelming the taste buds with heat. Toasted pine nuts and a final drizzle of pomegranate molasses add extra oomph.

Sadly, I forgot to photograph the insanely fresh pita bread that we used for dipping: it arrived screaming hot from the oven, still puffed into a balloon shape. Blew our minds.


Our other two dishes were a plate of vegetarian grape leaves and some fried Akkawi cheese. Akkawi is a lot like halloumi: chewy, salty, squeaky, it takes well to being fried or grilled. This came with a fresh tomato and olive salsa and a sprinkle of za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix with sesame seeds, thyme, salt, and sumac that's herbaceous and sour and generally awesome. I enjoyed one piece of the cheese and left the rest to Chris because it was just a smidge over my "too salty" line, but he scarfed it happily. It was gorgeously fried and perfectly presented, I will say.

Similarly, Chris left me the lion's share of the vine leaves, which had pine nuts, currants, rice and spices inside. These tasty morsels are a particular favourite of mine (I've even made them. Once. Wow, is that a lot of work) and this version was very well-executed.

Despite not really having room for dessert, we decided we wanted some anyway, since we were celebrating. So we ordered these darling little treats:


I've forgotten what their name is, but they are semolina crepes wrapped around fresh cheese, drizzled with orange blossom syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. The perfume-like scent of the syrup can be confusing to the palate at first, but you take a bite and start chewing and all the flavours begin to blend in your mouth, and suddenly it's perfectly balanced: sweet, salty, floral, rich, sticky, crunchy. Thankfully, and sadly, they were small.

It was still bucketing down with rain when we finished, so the waiter very kindly called us a taxi. We stayed up late digesting and watching Downton Abbey on my laptop, and called it a very fine day indeed.

In the late morning, we hauled ourselves out of the comfy hotel bed and back up to Mile End, to Leméac on Laurier, one of Montreal's much-vaunted French bistros. Its brunch is well-reviewed, and I am here to pile on, I have to tell you. I mean, look at what you can get as a side:

Un bol de beignets. That's fancy French for BOWL OF FRESHLY FRIED DOUGHNUTS. Yes please. (They were amazing. Warm, soft, yeasty, lightly sugared airy goodness without a trace of grease.)

But wait! There's more:

This is what the waitress referred to as "le total" when Chris ordered it. Perfectly poached egg, gorgeous not-too-crispy bacon, sausages, roasted "ratte" potatoes (a small fingerling variety that is exceptionally smooth and buttery-tasting), roasted tomatoes, and a bowl of baked beans with bits of duck confit in them. Plus (not shown) a length of toasted, generously buttered baguette and two small bowls of gourmet jam.


In case you are wondering: 1) yes, he finished it and 2) no, he didn't eat again until dinner.

Meanwhile, on my side of la table:


Yes, that's the Scandi breakfast. Beet-cured salmon gravlax, North Atlantic shrimp, cucumber-dill salad, caraway bread, golden pickled beets, hard boiled eggs (chicken and quail) and a tiny dollop of caviar for luxury. Honestly, it was all luxurious - good ingredients, treated simply and properly, make for a very happy plate of food. Lest you think I was the lightest eater in the restaurant, though, imagine my confusion when I noted the papa of the family next to us had ordered only une salade verte - not even an omelette alongside it, like his wife and daughter. I hope he had bacon at home earlier.

The coffee was great, the service pleasant, the room well-lit and not too noisy with cool mid-century styling, and we even found parking nearby on Laurier - somewhat of a miracle in this neighbourhood. Truly, we were - and are - lucky people. Even if we do make it back to Old England for anniversary number fifteen, this year's celebrations are a gorgeous and delicious memory for us both.

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