Sunday, July 29, 2007

Montreal - O'Chalet; Tres Gay

I wanted to sample the nightlife in Montreal, so we made a reservation at O'Chalet, a quaint family-run place at the edge of "le Village," the uber-gay area of town. This was to be followed by a cocktail and sight seeing at one of the local watering holes.

We enjoyed O'Chalet's simple finely tuned approach to French Canadian fare. We started with two appetizers - Tempura Shrimp with a finely chopped sprinkling of pineapple (not sure how this is Canadian) and a veal ravioli in a rich butter/egg sauce. The shrimp were delightful but the ravioli sauce was a bit rich and and the meat texture too rustic for my taste.

For my "plat", I enjoyed a duck confit with roast potatoes and a lightly dressed salad. I'm not used to seeing a duck confit served on the bone (chefs in high-end US restaurants tend to shred the meat and serve it in an over-engineered manner), but the flavors were simple and satisfying. Given that I only understood about 20% of the French menu, I think we fared well.

As we dined, we found the surrounding tables were filled with gay male dining parties which seemed odd among the rather drab surroundings. Clearly regardless of decor, solid good food appeals to all.

After dinner we walked Rue St. Catherine searching for a good place to cozy up for a drink, but nothing seemed quite right. It was only 10pm and Montrealers are notoriously late-night people so many of the promising locations looked too empty to bother.

We made our way back to the east side of downtown (Centre Ville est) to catch a little of the Montreal Jazz Festival. We saw one poor singer (Robin McKelle) fighting to keep her dress from blowing up and revealing her high notes in the mid-summer breeze. Moving on to a stage uphill, we encountered a massive crowd dancing almost club-style in front of a stage where a DJ, guitarist, 2 horn players and a woman with a traditional African percussion instrument (which looked to be a gourd wrapped in beaded netting) were whipping the crowd into a frenzy. As we stood enjoying the beats of Moses Mayes, I noted that this was a very appropriate end to a night in a city jostled between languages and cultures in such a 21st century manner.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Montreal - Senegalese Super Shrimp at Ferreira

The last time we went to Montreal, we counted on our wandering instincts to find some of the great food we kept hearing about. We weren't very successful. Turns out that to eat well in Montreal, you need to do your homework and make reservations well in advance for the choice dinner spots. La Ferreira was no exception.

After some email volleying a couple of weeks before our arrival, we snagged a prime 8pm slot at one of the hottest chow spots in the city. La Ferreira focuses on Portuguese-inspired fusion cuisine with an emphasis on unique preparations for seafood.

The scene screamed "hot spot" with several tables of power dining in-filled with couples dressed for ultra-luxe action. The center of the scene is an open kitchen where you can see the white-clad staff churning out the fresh cuisine.

I opened my meal with a spicy gazpacho topped with a mixture of chilled poached Mexican seafood & avocado. Although the portion was overly generous, the flavors were fresh, bright and well-balanced such that the freshness of the tomatoes and herbs took center stage.

The appetizer course was the highlight of the evening - grilled giant shrimp from Senegal. Each shrimp was about 10 inches long and had been halved lengthwise and grilled to perfection. they were served with an amazing combination of sweet/spicy sauces at the base of the dish. If the sizes of the shrimp was not eye-popping enough, the intense and near-orgasmic flavors were enough to throw us over the edge.

My entree of black pepper crusted seared tuna over wasabi mashed potatoes would have seemed pedestrian (though good) had they not taken the extra step of broiling thin slices of foie gras on top of the tuna to add a rich buttery dimension to the dish. While I could have quarreled over the selected tuna cut (it was very chewy in places) the preparation was exquisite. I am not an expert on Portuguese cuisine, but I would have to agree with the critics that La Ferreira is a must-visit point on any culinary tour of Montreal.

Put that nutmeg in yo margarita

I love margaritas. On the rocks with no salt. I am enjoying this one at Innuendo in Saint Paul. With Patron Silver, it is a very good drink. With a little whole nutmeg, it is fabulous! I had to suffer through several Cher songs and a losing game of pool to experience it but the bar is cool so I will be back.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Montreal - No Butter, No Coffee at Tim Horton's

Tim Hortons, originally uploaded by johncarney.

While we adored the accommodations at the Hotel Godin, we had no interest in the $25 / person room service options for breakfast. J, the BF and I were trying to keep up with our work-outs while vacationing and nothing sucks more than trying to exercise on an empty stomach, so skipping breakfast was not an option.

There was an ESSO station across the street with a Tim Horton's inside. Tim Horton's is Canada's answer to Dunkin' Donuts and features all manner of fat/carb/sugar combinations to fuel the Canadian populace.

Both mornings we were in the city, we stepped across the street, through the line of fueling vehicles to get J the BF his bagel. Both times, the conversation ran thus (after some formalities to establish that we did not speak French):

Us: "One plain bagel with cream cheese and a cheese croissant"
Tim Horton's: "Plain bagel - okay! Butter?"
Us: " No, with cream cheese"
Tim Horton's: "With cream cheese - butter?"
Us: "No butter"
Tim Horton's: "No Butter!!??"
Us: "No butter"
Tim Horton's: "Coffee?"
Us: "No coffee - just the plain bagel with cream cheese and the cheese croissant"
Tim Horton's: "No Coffee?!?"
Us: "No Coffee!"

Apparently, it is unfathomable to enter a Tim Horton's and leave with no butter or coffee. Aside from all the French being spoken around us, I was jarred to realize that this really was a different country. Who puts butter AND cream cheese on a bagel? Those wacky Canadians do, I guess.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Montreal - Cafeteria: One Plush Lunch

Cafeteria :: Plateau, originally uploaded by markj.

A city with a strong cafe culture like Montreal requires an ample supply of establishments that morph throughout the day from coffee house to lunch spot to happy hour to dinner to after hour bar. Last year, we delighted in Java U as a stellar example. For this trip, Cafeteria seemed to have been designed to fit the bill and was a new experience for us.

After our first thwarted attempt to get lunch at Schwartz's Deli, we defaulted to Cafeteria. The name is slightly ironic as there are no lunch ladies or melamine dishes to be found in this joint. The decor is plush red velvet seating, dark luxurious wood tables and a melange of textures in every wall, floor, and lighting treatment. The entire facade of the restaurant opened out into the street beaconing us in with a hip rhythm-driven vibe that almost seemed out of place at 12:45pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

Inside were a couple of young dudes surfing on laptops while sipping on draft beer, a few groups of young people noshing on burgers & sandwiches and the too-cute bartender casually providing drinks to the servers who nonchalantly kept the show rolling.

I opted for one of the 3 selections of Moules et Frites (mussels & fries). This version was cooked in an arrabiata tomato sauce that was mildly spicy. In Minneapolis, I noted that a lot of high-end bars/lounges offer mussels or fries, but this was the first encounter I had with them paired as an entree. The mussels were delightfully fresh and the sauce was flavorful enough to invite my bread and fries to play. At $12CAD, it was an excellent value and an appropriate lunch to welcome me to Quebec before setting my credit card on fire at more extravagant venues.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Montreal - Schwartz's Smoked Beef, Do NOT call it Pastrami!

Upon arrival in Montreal, we dropped our bags at the Hotel Godin (which has since been acquired by a new owner and re-branded Opus Montreal) and immediately stomped up the street to Schwartz's Deli in search of its infamous smoked beef. We had read several times that Montreal smoked beef is a culinary marvel and Schwartz has perfected to a level that they get orders for it to be shipped around the globe

According to some travel/food guide I consulted (can't find the reference), Montreal smoked beef brisket is typically cured for several days, smoked for hours and then (as if this beef hasn't been through enough) shoved for several hours more into a spice loaded steam box resulting in a fall-apart tender delight of gastronomical proportions.

Upon arrival at Schwartz at 12:30pm, we found a line out the door and 1/4 of a block long. Given the hungry frenzy we were in, we defaulted to a less busy place (Cafeteria) down the way but returned promptly at 11:20am the next day to beat the rush.

On our return visit, we successfully scored a seat immediately and we both ordered "lean" smoked meat sandwiches (you can order different levels of desired fat) with an order of fries and a pickle. The sandwiches promptly arrived piled on soft thin slices of rye slathered with mustard. The meat was literally dripping off the sandwich as we picked them up to feast. Sure to the promise, the meat was tender and well seasoned, but less decadent than I expected (likely due to our opting for lean). Next time, we'll take up the fat level to see how that impacts the experience. Whatever you do, don't call it Pastrami, lest you get a prompt tongue lashing from the Quebecois.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Montreal - La Poutine - Don't try this @ Home

While one would think that the Québécois would choose to embrace a dish that illuminated their French heritage in a refined manner, it is a bit ironic that the bite with the most iconic standing in the province is resolutely Canadian.

Le Poutine Québécois (pardon my slaughtering of French grammer) is a gastronomic monster. Don't try this at home kids! They take a big plate of fries and cover them in brown gravy and finished with a heavy sprinkling of cheese curds. It's heaven and a heart attack on a late. I give myself permission to do Le Poutine just once when I'm in Montreal and I chose to do it at Peel Pub in the main shopping district off Boulvard St. Catherine.

Peel Pub was recommended to us during our visit in 2006 by a sales clerk at the HMV across the street. She suggested it was a reliably good, cheap place that she enjoyed visiting after work. The menus are printed on the place mats (English on one side, French on the other) while every direction has TVs and projection screens beaming sporting matches and coverage. The tables at noon are filled with a broad cross-section of Montreal urbanites all excitedly enjoying massive platters of brochettes, burgers, pizza, fish & chips and of course, poutine!

While watching coverage of the Wimbledon semifinals, I ordered "The Canadian" - 2 grilled hot dogs "all dress" with a poutine Quebecois and a side of cole slaw. I fear I broke some cultural code by adding my slaw to the dogs atop the "all dress" fixings of mustard, pickle relish and onions, but the result was fantastic. I didn't finish the poutine for fear of shortening my life by a few months (+ the gravy was strangely sweet). Nevertheless at $4.99CAD, the value was stunning after 2 nights of $100+ meals around town.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

NYC(5of5) - The Room - a very dark place

thomas.jpg, originally uploaded by herman melville.

After a night of gorging and pool-playing with our agency partners on a recent trip to NYC, my boss and I were sidetracked from our route back to our hotel and lured by a colleague into a tight and lively little bar called "The Room". I am usually a bit suspicious about any place that goes by nondescript names or titles. In New York, however, I think minimal names signify, "Yeah, that's all there is to the name - shut up and appreciate how cool this is!" Okay, when in Rome . . .

The Room was terribly dark - darker than any place I ever expected to be with my boss, but the crowd had the right casual neighborhood vibe and there were a few stools at the far end of the bar so we got comfortable. They featured a broad selection of obscure beers written in chalk on the wall and dispensed from a series of taps protruding from a brick wall behind the bar. I fail to remember what beer I had there, but I'm sure it will not be on offer again if ever I return. Some things are best left to the moment and some menus are best if they are allowed to expire.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Whitey's and boobage

I got diverted from my normal Tuesday night hangout to a saloon called Whitey's in NE Minneapolis. Had a Blue Moon. Okay bar but I was shocked to witness the Minnesota breast enhancement society walk in and make a scene. I didn't realized gross boob jobs hung in threes!

Monday, July 16, 2007

NYC(4of5) Billiards y la cerveza Presidente

On my recent business trip to NYC, our agency was generous enough to follow a lavish meal with a couple of rounds of pool at a rather dim, but functional place called Soho Billiards. The fact that the place wasn't really in Soho as I understood it seemed to only bother me (but I'm from Alabama - what do I know?)

To get into the vibe for the place (which serves beer and only beer - in bottles & cans) I ordered a Presidente which can best be described as a Dominican Budweiser. I was going for the ghetto chic look, but ended up just looking pissed as that's what the beer tasted like. I'm not sure why it can't be fun like the Presidente ads - this one for example has levity, rhythm and some dudes dancing - rather well. All my beer had was a stale after-taste.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

NYC (3of5) Dos Caminos - Heavenly "Mexican" in Soho

Our agency partners in New York set up some "team development" time at a Mexican restaurant in Soho called Dos Caminos. When I arrived, folks were huddled around the bar looking out onto the impossibly glamorous patio enjoying their signature margaritas and south-of-the-border inspired cocktails. I sparked the curiosity of my business colleagues by ordering a "Cosmo del Diablo" which was as wickedly good as it sounds. Svedka Vodka infused with 5 Chiles, Pineapple, Passion Fruit all shaken and served on the rocks. It reminded me of my favorite margarita - the Mango Mariachi - at my neighborhood standard Bar Abilene. Sweet and spicy with a little kick-in-ass where it counts.

By the time we were seated for dinner, several of the group of 20 diners had followed me down the Diablo road. They went down a little too quickly and I certainly did not want to be "that guy" at the company function who drank too much, said too much and got way too comfortable in mixed professional company. Good thing I metered it out, otherwise, I would have missed the nuances of a fabulous meal.

Appetizers were pre-ordered for us and came out in bountiful quantities - a decadent cazuela de queso dip, crispy stuffed seafood empanadas and fresh colorful salads. I feared that I would be too stuffed to enjoy the main course - a gorgeously grilled skirt steak with this amazing sauce drizzled over the top - superb and melt-in-your-mouth tender. I ended the meal with the Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake, spiked with morita chile and accompanied by pistachio ice cream. Sounds almost over-the-top, but with the mousse foundation it was actually a lighter, well rounded end to the meal. My list of must-returns for NYC is definitely growing.

NYC (2of5) When Italian goes BOOM!

When J the BF suggested we have dinner at a place called Boom in SOHO - Manhattan, I wasn't expecting Italian. A name like "Boom" suggests a nightclub or some over-wrought fusion cuisine hotspot full of beautiful people sipping cocktails and eating cuisine of indeterminate origin. While some of the above was true about Boom, the cuisine was nothing to sneeze at.

Yes, Boom was full of beautiful people including the servers who all seemed to be cut from the same mold of tall, dark, lean and just-off-the-runway young dudes. They were a terribly friendly attentive bunch dressed in their black "Make Food, not War" t-shirts (or something like that). A fabulously worldly looking woman in impossibly flat-soled sandals (and was clearly the restaurateur) continuously zipped between the tables and the folks languishing in front enjoying a smoke to ensure all was well.

They brought us several delicious updated Italian standards including items from a variable bruschetta menu that you just have to experience to do it justice. We experimented with a special that they had for the night with shrimp and avocados - yum! My entree of petite scallops over pasta was very well prepared in a richly decadent (but well proportioned) sauce. Boom is definitely on my list for a return visit.

NYC (1of5) Wilting expectations at Witchcraft

J the BF decided to tag along with me on a business trip to New York to do some "trend shopping" for his business. We flew in on a Sunday morning to get a full day of tooling around town together before going our separate ways for business purposes. The miracle of the fact the I made it to NYC at all could be subject for another post on a different blog where late-night parties, excess gin, 7am flights and pissed-off boyfriends are germane to the editorial direction. Therefore, I digress . . .

I had read a short post in some foodie or travel mag several months ago extolling the virtues of Witchcraft - a sandwich purveyor in NYC that was taking the town by storm. The picture of their slow-roasted pork sandwich with slaw and fresh sliced jalapeños on ciabatta captivated me and had been on my mind for a long time, so we had to find one of these magic sandwich places post-haste upon arrival in Manhattan.

The closest location to our hotel that we could Google up was in the lobby of an Equinox gym in Soho. Looking at the menu, the fare at Witchcraft seemed to be a bit out of place in a fitness center, but judging from the uber-urbane clientèle and the post-modern industrial chic interior, I figured it all must fit if you are a New Yorker and can get it.

I ordered my long desired pork sandwich and was frankly disappointed. The meat was dry, the jalapeños overpowering and the slaw relatively tasteless. Add to that the over-done chewiness of the bread and I felt more than a bit let down after pining over that image for so long. There is something to be said for overwrought expectations sucking the wind out of a new experience (as well as how a hangover leaves nothing tasting right). Given the circumstances, I can't say I won't make another go at the Witchcraft handiwork next time I'm in NYC, but I won't go in with the high hopes I had originally.

Friday, July 13, 2007

LA (2of2) 0 to Packed at Chaya Venice

After a day of meeting with a partner company about plans, ideas and what-not, their team offered to take us out to a nice meal at Chaya Venice. In order to assure we got a decent seat, we were told to meet them promptly at 6pm, which seemed to be an obnoxiously early time for dinner, but I'm glad we took their council. Within 25 minutes of our arrival, the place went from pin-drop empty to every table being filled with the vaguely beautiful, but pained set that only southern California can produce.

My friend Eric had suggested/considered Chaya for our dining spot the night before, but it was closed on Monday so it was either an odd coincidence that our business colleagues chose this place or there just aren't many choices in Santa Monica for high-end cuisine. Like Chinois, Chaya Venice aimed for Asian fusion, but with a more Japanese underpinning and a modern aesthetic that added to the vibe and energy of the place.

I started my meal with a fabulous set of seared sea scallops over Thai green papaya salad. The dish was lightly dressed with a delicate ginger garlic vinaigrette that helped to bring out the sweetness of the papaya and the scallops beautifully. I followed the scallop salad with another attempt at paella. My last experience with paella was viciously heavy and unpleasant so I feared ingesting this dish while wearing a shirt that was just on the edge of being too tight for a business dinner. This particular paella was served with half a grilled lobster on top so I couldn't resist giving it a go.

The mix of seafood and rice was superb in every way. The underlying dish was well seasoned to help the sweet meats of the lobster, shrimp and squid to shine, but the portion was reasonable enough to not leave you feeling like a stuffed horse. This is certainly a place to be if you want to dine among the sorta beautiful (but certainly well dressed) people and try to "get" what SoCal is about.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Burger for dessert

I went down to lunch at my company cafeteria and found "burger and fries" in the dessert case. It was actually chocolate cake as a burger in an angel food cake "bun" with some stale pound cake strips on the side. It looked so foul and odd, I had to have it.

Much more interesting of a picture and a concept than a dessert. Red icing does not make for a good stand in for ketchup.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

LA (1of2) - What the Puck? Chinois on Main

I had to make a quick run out to LA for business, so I called up a friend/former co-worker who is now living in Santa Monica to connect over chow. My buddy Eric clearly doesn't get out much as he kept pointing out places that he heard were excellent, but since he had never been to any of them, he couldn't say for sure. Of the options he presented, we aimed for Chinois - a long-standing Wolfgang Puck establishment on the Main Street drag.

If I did not know it was a Puck establishment, I would have been nervous. The place has clearly not been renovated since the 80's and every surface had a Miami Vice/Buddha Palace color and texture palette applied to it. The Puck folks describe the design as "timeless" with only the slightest hint of irony. Eric had heard that this was one of Wolfgang's first restaurants and that the food was excellent so we gave it a go.

The menu read like a twisted Chinese-America culinary romance novel, if such a thing existed. Dishes like "Warm sweet curried oysters with cucumber sauce and salmon pearls" and "Braised veal cheeks with plum wine and long life noodles" suggested hard-core gastroporn, so I aimed for two of the less sexy items labeled as "Chinois Classics" to get a better feel for the soul of this joint.

I paired an entree of Grilled Szechuan beef with spicy shallot cilantro sauce with a side dish of the Crispy Spinach. The beef was exceptional in tenderness, flavor and raw spirit and was brought to new heights with the side sauce.

If you have not enjoyed a good fried hardy green, the Crispy Spinach at Chinois is a sporty intro. I fell in love with the concept of taking good a tough leaf like spinach or collards and deep frying them to tender crispy perfection several years ago. Whenever I see crisp greens on a menu, I can't resist. The side dish was a bountiful massive platter that both Eric and I noshed down to the clean plate below. Fried vegetables are a beautiful thing!

While I could quibble with the decor, the food wiped it all away and made me forgive the Puckster for some missteps he's made at my local Puck hot-spot 20-21 (another place with great food, but questionable restaurant design) or those horrid Wolfgang Puck Express outlets in airports and malls. If I were him, I'd expand more cautiously.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Summer on the road

I've been logging some serious miles over the last few weeks, so I'm way behind on Bite & Chew updates. Never fear, however. Over the next few days, I'll be reviewing some of the fab and foul experiences with food I've had in Los Angeles, New York, Montreal and right here at home in the coolest place on earth (so I've heard) the Twin Cities. I'll try to keep the postings from specific cities together so bear with me as I try to recall experiences from 6 weeks ago (flavor does fade on the tongue after a time).


Monday, July 9, 2007

Homage to mom - chicken and broccoli

As a kid I complained that every weeknight meal my mom made seemed to consist of some combo of chicken, rice and broccoli. I am very tired today so I am doing as moms taught me. A little dressing up here and there but true to the original.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Happy hour before gym

This is a Blue Moon beer that I am enjoying at a happy hour at a resolutely non-chic watering hole called JJ's Clubhouse. Not something I recommend before working out but I didn't know it would be so big.