Sunday, June 22, 2008

Yummy Montreal Revisited

Janice, myself and Alex enjoying a glass of wine outside Maestro S.V.P.

Bonjour again.

I had a great meal for lunch and dinner every day this week without exception. That’s rare. Usually there is at least one meal in a cafeteria or fast food somewhere. But working and staying in the Rue St. Laurent district of Montreal means you could go somewhere different every day for some time before eating at the same place twice. Plus, our lovely Montreal colleague and un-official host, Caroline took us to Peel Street in Downtown Montreal one night for a very unique meal as well. I can’t describe everything but I’ll hit the highlights for sure.

OK… close your eyes and picture this business idea. We’re going to open a restaurant. Cool, huh? We’ll put it in a well traveled and pseudo-chic area of town so it’ll probably be a bit pricey from a real estate standpoint but this is a good idea, so it’ll pay off. We’ll upscale it a bit too. White linen. Small intimate setting. French name. Sounding good? Now for the menu… the make or break piece of every restaurant puzzle. A steak. Yep. That’s it. Oh OK, yeah maybe some good crusty bread to start, then a salad with a few walnuts. French fries on the side (but we’ll call them Pomme Frites since it’s a French restaurant) and the same French pastry dessert every night too. And the cut of steak doesn’t even have to be prime. Now, we could change the size of the stea… Hey wait. Come back!!!! This is a great idea!!!!!

L'Entrecôte St-Jean

Well, I’m not sure who had this absurd plan for a restaurant because it most certainly would fail, right? Wrong. L'Entrecôte St-Jean is set downtown on a busy street. Passers by might not give it a second look. It’s one of those rooms with a boxcar layout, long and narrow from front to back. The seating is a bit cramped too but most would call it cozy (what I like to call Euro-typical). The menu has one thing on it. I’m not sure why they hand you the printed menu but they do. You get to basically chose if you want the steak or the steak “meal” as described in my business pitch as above. The slight twist on the meal is even more simplistic. There is a fantastic French mustard pan sauce that is drizzled over your steak. It was spectacular (and amazing with the fries too). My plate looked as though it came out of the dishwasher when I had finished. The other bit of a hook is that they’ll give you more steak if you want it at no additional charge. They don’t advertise this “all-you-can-eat” feature but it is well known amongst the locals. No one at my table was audacious enough to request a second steak but I think Alex wanted to (I thought about it myself). It was a business dinner after all and besides, Caroline is a thin, health conscious aerobics instructor. No need to look glutinous. I enjoy my steak rare and this steak was cooked to the perfect rare doneness. Rare is supposed to have a “cool red center” and this one did. I find that so many restaurants (even good restaurants) define “cool” as quite cold. I define cool as that temperature just before warm. Lukewarm perhaps. Not cold. But L'Entrecôte St-Jean has it down. The desert was a quintessential French puff pastry filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a chocolate sauce and sliced almonds. Another hit. The recipe for this “from scratch” prefect finish was up on their website when I checked. I guess if you’re only going to do one thing you should do it well and L'Entrecôte St-Jean does it even better than that. It is a popular Montreal landmark and a must for the Montreal visit list. By the way, dinner and a glass of wine will set you back about $30 Canadian. That’s a great price.

Amazingly simple and delicious dessert

Ok the next “must” has to be Schwartz's . Billed as a Hebrew Delicatessen, this hole in the wall on Rue St. Laurent has been a Montreal fixture for 80 years. No reservations accepted. Plan to wait in line. Another small room and while they serve more than one thing, they are famous for just one. Smoked Meat. I wasn’t sure what that meant although everyone talks about it. When I arrived at my hotel on the 1st day of my 1st trip here, I asked the concierge as I often do where the “must eat” places are. Without hesitation, stutter or pause, Schwartz’s fell from his lips. “Smoked meat”. He said nothing else. So for that visit and this week as well, I have mentioned this place every day. Unfortunately, our aerobics instructor colleague (who DOES have great taste in food) has a longstanding boycott going on with Schwartz’s for her health conscious reasons. Something to do with fat and artery clogging grease. Blah, blah, blah. So what was to be my last day in Montreal for the foreseeable future, I stated that I was going to this place whether anyone came with me or not. And purely by coincidence, it was the one day Caroline couldn’t join us for lunch. So, 5 of us went and it was worth the wait.

Smoked chicken and beef

Smoked meat is Brisket I believe. I did not ask but I’m pretty sure. If I had to guess, it is somehow cured (akin to a corned beef but without the strong flavor), covered in Montreal steak seasoning (more about that in a minute), then slowly smoked. When ordered, you are offered “lean, medium or fatty”. I went with medium. Caroline might have gotten ill at the question. It was like a meaty butter. Chewing is not required and teeth are optional. The coating of spices on the outside gave a peppery bite to this perfectly smoked and tender meat. I opted to skip the fries and had their cole slaw instead. I was pleased that the slaw had a vinegar only dressing and perfectly complimented the smoke. Terrific. Since Caroline was not around, I decided gluttony was less sinful that biblically described and I ordered a combo platter that came with half a smoked chicken as well. OK this was over the top. It was covered in the same spice rub and also smoked to a juicy perfection. What really pleased me was the flavor was somewhat similar to the flavor of the chicken I grilled and wrote about a few weeks ago. It made me feel a bit proud that I accidentally got it right. Caroline later told us she didn’t know they had chicken there. When I showed her the picture, she said she’d have to try it.

About the Montreal Steak Seasoning. This is just another spice blend but a perfect accompaniment for this type of cooking. I bought a bottle to bring home. Different versions can be found in any grocery store. McCormick has a version I’ve enjoyed before but it’s a bit tamer than the bold flavor I tasted at Schwartz’s. Here's an online recipe from one of my favorite websites just to give you an idea.

Ok the last night. We got lucky. There was a street festival on St. Laurent that began on Thursday and was to run through the weekend. Since I’m on the road only during the week, I am constantly being told by the locals wherever I am what a great time I will be missing in any given city for the weekend. Invariably there is a festival or concert or event that I miss by a day. Not this time. It began Thursday. Plus since it was a work night and a tad drizzley, I got the benefit of not a big crowd.

There are two highlights from this night. First, we stopped at a café, Maestro S.V.P.,that had put up little tent out front for a street bar (several cool places did this). We ordered a glass of wine each and I noticed some oysters on ice. I ordered half a dozen. When asked, the bartender told me they were from Nova Scotia. They were moderate in size but uncommonly sweet. Perfect with a drop of lemon juice and pepper sauce. I’ve noticed from previous oyster tastings that cold northern Atlantic oysters have this sweetness like no other. Their flavor is quite different from the Apalachicola and Louisiana oysters that I originally fell in love with many years ago. While the southern Oysters are meatier, I enjoy the sweetness of the Atlantic oysters a bit more (but I won’t be turning my original favorites down anytime soon). While we were chatting, the waiter brought out 2 mega oysters that were the size of a salad plate each. I’ve never seen anything like it. I commented that I couldn’t imagine that they would be very tasty. I figured as they got that big they had to lose their sweetness. Next thing I know Alex orders one of them. It took about 2-3 minutes of fairly solid work to get this thing open. And at the expense of one of the oyster shucking tools. Finally a tool box shows up and with a screw driver, the beast was opened. I love being wrong when I think something won’t taste good. It was just about as sweet as its smaller cousins (I only assume they were kin). Janice, our new and non-raw seafood eating colleague tasted this with me and she thought it was rather pleasant too. Still eating an oyster that requires a knife and fork is a touch bizarre. All in all, a yummy surprise. I think I’d like to eat at Maestro S.V.P. for dinner in the future but I didn’t want to end the night with dinner at the same place we stopped for a drink. If Montreal hits my Radar again, I’ll give it a go. Their menu looked great.

Big damed oyster but it tasted good

After leaving the empty oyster shell in the distance and perusing the offerings of the festival, we stumbled upon a Portuguese restaurant that Caroline had suggested we try on a couple of occasions. It had always been closed when we went by. This time, we got lucky. Through the street front window, the kitchen grill at Jano (no website but here’s a review) is in full view. Over a fire we see rabbit, squid, whole fish, quail and other beautiful meats being prepared and brushed with whatever buttery mixture the cook had in his metal bowl. Another unpretentious but appealing draw. In we went. With a pitcher of Sangria between the 3 of us, I enjoyed the Grilled Sardines. I’ve never had these oversized pizza toppings as an entrée before. Fantastic choice. Now, if you ever have the chance to order Sardines as an entrée, take some advice I didn’t get. The guts are not yummy. Bitter. Of the four that were on my plate, one mistake like this was the only one I made. Otherwise, they were better than I might have imagined. There may be some official way to eat these, but my advice would be to slide the fork between the bones and the meat from the tail and work back towards the head. This seemed to pull up the meat only. The tiny rib bones were not big deal but the vertebrae were too crunchy in these larger fish. These were a lot less salty than their canned counterpart and I notices a natural meaty sweetness found in your typical small fish fillet. I must go to Portugal someday. I would order these again. Also worth mentioning was the grilled rabbit that Alex ordered. After tasting it, I was a bit envious.

My sardines. They were more appetizing than they appear.

OK... I have rambled enough for now. Next week I’m back in New England on the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. I know the area and the restaurants I want to take you to. Also, in the coming weeks my travels will take me to some new cities and new countries so I look forward to some writing. I anticipate my kitchen being back in recipe producing order after the move and all. Lisa and I have many things put away with many things to go. We ordered a pizza tonight.

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