Friday, April 6, 2012

Crossing the Border, Day 1

A cosmopolitan city of 1.6 million, the majority of whom are Francophone, Montreal is a world away from small-town Vermont life. It’s also a wonderland for food lovers. Chris and I try to make it up to Montreal at least once a year, usually in early spring around my birthday when there are fewer tourists and you can get a deal on a nice room in one of the chic boutique hotels in the Old Town.

This year, our friends Katie and Pete came along. They’re the kind of friends that you feel like you’ve known your whole life. I remember when they first moved to Bristol around thirteen years ago, when our youngest kids were both babies. I saw Katie on her front porch, a few blocks down the street from our house, and thought, I want to be friends with that woman. Not long after that we met, the four of us went out to dinner, and the rest is history. We celebrate Christmas Eve with their family every year, they came to visit us in France, we’ve been to their cabin in the Adirondacks with them, but mostly we just have a lot of fun together. Montreal was no different.

Pete and Katie drove up a little later than we did, so we made plans to meet them before dinner Friday night. Chris and I got to the city around noon and started out the weekend with our customary leisurely lunch, a real luxury at this point in our lives. We tried a new place that had been recommended by a friend, Brasserie T!, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s owned by the same chef who runs the kitchen at Toqué, one of the most upscale and celebrated restaurants in the city. A more casual and affordable resto, Brasserie T! boasts the same seasonally fresh ingredients and innovative preparations, but brasserie-style (the French word for brewery) instead of haute cuisine. Located in the arts district, the dining room is sleek and mod with a sun-filled atrium that was a welcome spot on a chilly day.

For an appetizer, I had a salad of red and yellow beets and fresh chèvre formed in the shape of small mushrooms. It was topped with a frill of scallions and drizzled with a fruity EVOO and balsamic vinegar. All of the ingredients in this classic combination were of superior quality and combined to create a forkful of near perfection.

Chris tried the soupe du jour, a creamy fish soup, not overly rich, with a goodly amount of fish morsels and thankfully a small amount of potatoes. Topped with snipped chives and a few drops of EVOO, the soup was mildly fishy with a nice depth of flavor. 

We knew we had a heavy dinner ahead of us that night, so Chris and I shared the lunch special: skate with red peppers, onions, and a caper parsley sauce. I often find skate to be bland and overly delicate in texture, but this time it was served on the bone and roasted, making for a denser texture and fuller taste. The copious amount of butter, true to French cuisine, didn’t hurt. It was accompanied by halved red potatoes, which we couldn’t finish, opting instead to sop up the sauce with a piece of crusty baguette. Add to that a small carafe of a light red wine from the south of France, and we had officially kicked off our weekend. 

After lunch, we strolled over to rue St-Denis, the heart of the French Quarter. The Francophone university is nearby, so this area has a youthful vibe. Lined with cafés and quirky shops, the street was buzzing on a Friday afternoon. Before heading back to our hotel I felt like having a little dark chocolate, so we stopped in my favorite Montreal chocolate shop, Les Chocolats de Chloé. There are lots of talented chocolatiers in the city, but Chloé’s creations stand out for their artistry and irresistibility. Her tiny shop feels like mash-up of a toy store and an artist’s studio, with its abstract mural on one wall and brightly wrapped confections displayed in surprising ways. 

All of the chocolates are made on the premises, by hand, using the freshest ingredients. Unusual flavors are de rigueur right now in the world of chocolate, sometimes resulting in bizarre and unpalatable combinations (such as les Vosges's concoction incorporating mushroom powder: non merci). Chloe’s are interesting, but not over the top: five spice, basil, fig and balsamic vinegar, litchi. The flavors are subtly infused in a ganache and then enrobed with dark Valrhona chocolate. We chose a small selection and also a packet of Caramel Crac, a buttery, salty, sweet, dark chocolatey covered toffee with a delectable snap. 

A few hours later it was time for dinner. We met up with Pete and Katie and then all headed back to the French quarter to Au Pied de Cochon (translation: at the pig’s foot), a restaurant renowned for its infamous celebrity chef Martin Picard, decadent comfort food, and lively atmosphere. It was Katie’s birthday and she was ready to celebrate. We had a difficult time deciding what to order, except for the wine: we knew we wanted a bottle of Cahors, a deep red wine from southwestern France that is the ideal accompaniment to rustic food taken to towering heights.

To start, Pete and Katie ordered a beet and goat cheese layered salad that looked and tasted more like a dessert: rich and sweet, with the beets seeming almost to be candied. Chris and I raised our waitress’s eyebrows by ordering a cone of the legendary fries cooked in duck fat. We had been to this restaurant before and, good French fries being one of my guilty pleasures, I wanted to savor them as an appetizer rather than having them compete with my main course. Crisp on the outside and melting in the middle, with a hint of salt and the plump bird in which they were cooked, they’re likely the best fries I’ve ever had.

None us opted to order the pig’s foot, pig’s head for two, foie gras (which commands a whole section of the menu), or poutine (a fabled Québécois invention of French fries blanketed with cheese curds and gravy). The gruff waitress seemed disappointed in us, especially when I wimped out and ordered the catch of the day (the only fish option on the menu). Hardly light, the generous piece of cod was swimming in a fumé broth that was mostly butter. Accompanied by fingerling potatoes and wilted greens, the fish was tender and lemony and very satisfying.

Chris decided to go with the “Happy Pork Chop,” which when inquired about elicited this response from our waitress with a shrug of her shoulders:  “It’s just a pork chop.” Just a pork chop turned out to be enormous, on the bone Flintstonesque, and smothered in braised purple cabbage and mushrooms. Chris was a happy boy.

Pete ordered the refined sounding Magret aux Champignons. Ample slices of tender duck breast were accompanied by earthy sautéed mushrooms, potatoes, and springs of thyme: a classic combination ramped up to Au Pied de Cochon indulgent heights.

The birthday girl, however, got a gold star and went with the waitress’s recommendation by ordering the Duck in a Can. At $46.00, it was one of the most expensive things on the menu by far, but Katie couldn’t resist. Besides, when her mother had handed her a birthday check, she had said to “spend it on something you normally wouldn’t buy.” Duck in a Can fit the bill. We were all curious about the dish, especially after the waitress’s rapid-fire description of half a duck, combined with a whole lobe of foie gras, bacon,  garlic, and braised cabbage all slathered with a balsamic demi-glaze (I think that’s accurate, but I may have missed something) and stuffed into a soup can.

About a minute before it was served, a plate containing a piece of toast topped with celeriac purée was set before Katie. Then the waitress arrived with the sealed can. I wish I had caught the ceremonious opening of the can on video, especially the audible slurp as the meal slid out of its container onto the toast; someone else did have the forethought to capture the moment, in case you’re interested.

It’s a once in a lifetime gluttonous dish—the definition of richness—but Katie managed to finish most of it, with a little help from the rest of us. I can’t say I loved it, although for canned food it was pretty darn good.

After such a meal, none of us had room for dessert, so we sang to Katie over the last few sips of  wine, and even the waitress joined in for good measure.

To be continued....

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