Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Montreal Part 5: Ville Saint Laurent, heavenly Lebanese pizza, and our friend Russell

Sorry again for the hiatus. All this training for the race has me exhausted. So, where we were we?

The next day we skipped the run, had some bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon at home, and then headed out for a field trip to Saint Laurent (the suburb; not the street) to visit our dearest Russell as well as go to a Lebanese bakery called Andalos that Darcy used to go to when he worked in Montreal.

Saint Laurent is quite a trek from downtown, but the subway has such great coverage that it was pretty easy to get to (10 subway stops and a 10-min bus ride). Russell was working during the day, so we went first to Andalos for some 'Lebanese pizza'.

Andalos Bakery: Delicious pita, but no pictures allowed!
Darcy was very fortunate to be introduced to Andalos by his Lebanese friend, Fadi, who has since moved to Sudan. It's an enormous bakery with tonnes of goodies, both sweet (baklava-like pastries, olive oil-based cookies) and savoury (fresh pita bread, stuffed pastries, 'pizza'). They had a counter where you could choose the kind of 'pizza' you wanted (Darcy ordered cheese for him and a Lahmbajoun for me) and they would top it as you liked with fresh ingredients (mint, lemon juice, tomatoes, onions, etc.) before rolling it up like a wrap.

While Darcy was ordering our sandwiches, I, of course, started walking around the shop taking pictures. Darcy told me that the guy making our sandwiches saw my camera and started motioning frantically to another guy to stop me. That guy did catch up with me. He wasn't terribly angry, but he was serious about it. I should have asked why, but I never do. I can't think of a reasonable explanation. Trade secrets? In any case, I won't post those pictures since they felt so strongly about it. Darcy was just glad that I didn't offend anyone enough to deny us the Lebanese pizza.

We sat outside on a picnic table in front of the shop and enjoyed our pizza. And it really was so incredibly good. This was the first time I'd ever had a freshly baked pita and it was out of this world: soft and slightly crispy on the outside. My Lahmajoun (ground beef and lamb) pizza was amazing, but I think Darcy's was better (goat-like cheese topped with fresh mint, tomatoes, and lemon juice). This place is so far from downtown, but I think that every time we come to the Montreal, we're going to have to make a special trip.

Marche Adonis: Lebanese Loblaws
We killed some time before Russell got back by browsing in Marche Adonis, a huge Lebanese supermarket pretty much right in Russell's backyard. Much like Arz in Toronto, it's a Loblaws-sized grocery store but everything is Middle Eastern. They had tonnes of fresh baked goods, homemade cheeses, produce, and meats. I didn't take any pictures though (sorry) because I was fresh from being scolded in Andalos.

Russell and his three ladies
Russell lives in a small apartment complex just beside the 15 (very busy highway). The traffic there is incessant and Russell thinks it sounds like waves crashing on a beach. It does actually. Count on him to see the bright side. After a wild ride to the grocery store to get beer (Montreal drivers are as nuts as they say), we settled in and watched 300 (never seen before; great movie) with his three cats, Data, Spock, and Worf (yes, Russell likes Star Trek). It's amazing how cats will grow into the name you give them. Worf turned out to be the most corpulent one and Data lives up to her name by seeming to have no emotions at all.

Our Matchmakers, Russell and Paula
Russell has a new job where he has to be at work for 5AM (yikes!), so it was an early night, but it was great to see him. It's actually thanks to Russ and my childhood friend, Paula, that Darcy and I met. Darcy encountered Russell back in university when they were both in the Army Reserves during the summer. It's not what you think though. Their tour of duty involved playing in the marching band (Darcy played clarinet and Russell was a percussionist). In 1994, they both moved to Montreal to join their then significant others. On the May long weekend of 1996, Paula (who also played in that same marching band) came to Montreal to visit me. The four of us spent some time together and the rest is history. They didn't try to fix us up, but it just turned out that way. Thanks Paula and Russ, you guys are the best.

The funny thing is that between 1994 and 1996, Darcy and I lived around the corner from each other in two different neighbourhoods. In the '94-'95 school year, we both lived in the McGill Ghetto and went to the same depanneur to buy beer and junk food. In '95-'96, we both moved to the Plateau and frequented the same laundromat. I like to think of us back then passing each other on the street and not knowing that in less than 10 years, we'd be married.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Montreal Part 4: Happy Birthday to Me!

Sorry again for the delay. Last week turned crazy and the weekend training for the race had me completely exhausted. So, where were we?

Atwater Market: Farmers' Market in the City

Tuesday, the 14th was my birthday so we spent the day doing whatever I wanted, which of course involved a lot of food. We started by visiting Atwater Market, which is a farmers' market very much like St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. During the summer, there are lots of fresh produce stands with beautiful fruits and vegetables. They remind me of those really fancy and expensive grocery stores I saw in Tokyo where every piece is perfect so you don't need to choose; you just pick one. In the winter, the market stays open, but all the activity is indoors with the butchers, cheese shops, gourmet food stores, and bakeries.

La Fromagerie Atwater

There was an amazing cheese shop called La Fromagerie Atwater that had very advanced-looking cheeses and a smell that punched you in the face when you opened the door (always a good sign). In the open cooler was a macabre cheese called Valencay Cendre that is a goat cheese made of raw milk and covered in black ash. I read online that the ash is edible and is made from burning junipers, white pines, grape vines, or the remains of vegetables such as bell peppers and eggplants. I was dying to try it, but we had a long, unrefrigerated day ahead of us so I had to leave it there.

Boulangerie Première Moisson

At one end of the market was a gorgeous bakery called Boulangerie Première Moisson whose name basically means 'first harvest'. In addition to their delicious-looking and smelling fresh baked bread (some loaves were the diameter of a medium pizza!), they had display cases full of pastries and sandwiches. Since it was my birthday, I asked the lady in my best French for a slice of my favourite cake, strawberry shortcake (light sponge layered with whipped cream and strawberries). The French speaking went tolerably well, I think; I didn't have to resort to miming. I also got a slice of this tomato pizza that is everywhere in Montreal, but nowhere in Toronto. It's a soft crust with just a thick tomato sauce on top. Yummy. The cake was absolutely perfect too.


After lunch, we headed to nearby AMC Forum 22 to catch a movie. AMC Forum 22 is a huge cineplex that is housed in what used to be the Montreal Forum, which was the city's major arena and home to the Montreal Canadiens for 60 years. Rather than gutting the entire place and erasing all that history, they preserved Section 210 with a life-sized statue of a Canadiens fan sitting in one of the seats and built the rest of the cineplex around it.

In keeping with the food theme of the day/week/my life, we saw Ratatouille, the animated movie about a rat who longs to become a chef in Paris. It was a very cute movie with great food-related animation. My favourite character was the evil restaurant critic, Anton Ego, whose voice was performed Peter O'Toole. Food critics are always portrayed in film as celebrities who stride into restaurants, demand to be served the best, and take pleasure in bringing about the downfall of an establishment. In reality, working critics try to remain as incognito as possible to get a realistic picture of what an average diner will experience. In any case, Peter O'Toole was hilarious and the animated treatment of when he is transported back to his childhood by eating the rat's ratatouille is priceless.

Amir: Shish Taouk, it's nowhere else

After the movie we were a bit peckish, but dinner was a long way off so we squeezed in a visit to Amir for shish taouk. Amir is a very large chain of Lebanese fast food restaurants with a tonnes of locations in the city. I don't know why this is, but if you buy a shish taouk in Toronto or Ottawa or anywhere else, it's not the same as in Montreal. The Montreal version is a small pita stuffed with shaved, roasted chicken, lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce, and these pink pickles, which I think are radish. It's so so good and you can't find it anywhere else. When in Montreal, you have to have it.

Downtown West: Hey, that place is gone!

We walked all the way back to my sister's place along Sainte-Catherine/de Maisonneuve and looked in at a few familiar old places. Some were comfortingly still there like Le Paris restaurant, Sharx Pool Hall, Winston Churchill bar on Crescent Street, while others were distressingly gone. Le Faubourg used to be a bustling shopping centre with a fantastic bagel place (as good as Fairmount Bagel or St. Viateur Bagel), an enormous bakery, and a pristine fresh fruit and veg store. Now, it looks like they will be doing some serious renovation because everything on the first floor is gutted except the bagel place.

An even bigger surprise was that Ben's, the famous deli specializing in smoked meat, is gone. I read a bit about it and it turns out that they suspended operations in July 2006 due to an employee strike and by December they had decided to close the restaurant and sell the building. The restaurant had been in business since 1908 and at that Art Deco-styled location since 1950. Sad, isn't it?

Another disappointing closure is of the Spectrum de Montreal, a 1200-seat cabaret-style venue where I first saw Ani Difranco back in the day (1996) when I was a young, impressionable thing as well as just last year as part of the jazz festival. The sign said that it closed on August 5 after 25 years.

Some Things Never Change

While everything is closing and changing, Super Sexe, a downtown strip club with flamboyant signage, is still alive and well. Unlike other cities, the sex clubs in Montreal are right out in the open interleaved between coffee shops and Bell phone centres. Not that I ever went here, but it's nice to see a familar facade that has lasted after all this time. In the picture, note the configuration of the currency symbols on the currency exchange's sign just below. Clever monkeys.

Saint James United Church: Uncovered
Close to Sainte-Catherine and University, we passed by St. James United Church, which has kind of a cool story. The church (cathedral, really) was built in 1889, but due to financial difficulties the adminstration allowed a commercial building to be built in front of it which completely concealed it from the street. It stayed covered for 78 years from 1927 until 2005 when the blocking building was demolished and the beautiful church was uncovered. Isn't it amazing that it was hidden all this time?

Le Nil Bleu: Eithopian Birthday Dinner
In the evening, we went for dinner at the Blue Nile, which is yet another nostalgia place.
Strangely, there was a sign saying no cameras allowed, so I don't have even one photo of the food or the facade. It has changed quite a bit since the last time we were there, which may be 7 years ago. In the interim, it's gone more upscale with a sleeker interior, higher prices, and an expanded wine menu. I can't say that it's an improvement. I miss the old place.

But, we'd been looking forward to this dinner for so long and even though it wasn't the best, it was still very good. We had a combination of dishes that included stews made from lentils, chicken, beef, and lamb. Everything is served on a large plate covered with injera, a sour, spongey flatbread that you also use as a utensil to eat the food (like eating Indian with naan bread). We ate absolutely every morsel and shared a bottle of ice cold South African white wine called Fleur du Cap. So much fun.

Champagne on the Terrace
I don't usually drink much, so after half a bottle of wine Darcy had to deal with a lot of incessant chatter and wobbly walking from me on the way back. Nevertheless, my sister had left a bottle of champagne in the fridge for us to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, which was just a few days before on August 9th, so we had to crack that open. We dragged her loveseat out on the terrace (massive terrace facing Rene-Levesque), sat back, and sipped our champagne feeling very happy and lucky indeed.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Montreal Part 3: Chinatown and NDG -- more old stomping grounds

It was very strange to see Montrealers heading to work on Monday morning. I assumed that the entire city spent their days recovering from the night before and planning the evening ahead. But, even so there were a substantial number of tourists and others people of leisure on the streets taking in the cooler, but still sunny weather.

Pho Bac: Why isn't there a place like this close to my office?
We took the day off from running, so after a late start we went to Pho Bac across the street (in Chinatown) for an early lunch. Old Montreal is just to the south and the main business district is immediately east, so Chinatown, and Pho Bac, really fills up at lunchtime with office workers. They are so lucky. You can have a healthy, satisfying, delicious meal here for around $5 and it is served to you within 3-5 minutes of ordering.

We've been to Pho Bac many times before and we keep coming back for the amazing pho, cold salad rolls, and imperial (fried) rolls. The pho comes with a heaping plate of garnishes, including bean sprouts, basil, chiles, and lime. Darcy always gets the one with rare beef, which is probably the most popular. If you're going for the first time, you should definitely have that. It's fragrant beef broth full of rice noodles, onions, and thinly sliced raw beef that cooks from the heat of the soup. Delicious. I love it too, but I usually get the one that has tripe added to it. I know; I'm the only one who likes tripe.

The cold salad rolls are rice paper filled with lettuce, vermicelli noodles, shrimp, and mint. They're so yummy and refreshing and they come with a sweet/salty peanut dipping sauce. My favourite. Both the pho and the salad rolls are relatively virtuous, so we always get some fried imperial rolls as well, which are little spring rolls filled with pork and veggies and accompanied by a sour vinegar dipping sauce. Sublime.

NDG (Notre Dame de Grace): Another nostalgia tour
In the afternoon, we set out to Darcy's old neighbourhood, NDG (Notre Dame de Grace), where he had his last Montreal apartment. He lived there for 3 years during the time when I was going to University of Waterloo. It's a slightly English area that is about 6 subway stops west of downtown. It's a bit of a trek from my sister's place, so we'd hadn't been back for a while.

I love walking through neighbourhoods I used to know well and see how everything has changed/stayed the same. It was very surreal. We got off the subway at Vendome station and took the familiar walk up Decarie to Darcy's old place. He had a '1-1/2' apartment there, which is Montreal-speak for a bachelor and the rent was $350/month the entire time he lived there. Was Toronto ever that cheap?

We strolled west on Sherbrooke and past our old breakfast spot (Astra Deli), Chalet BBQ (not Swiss Chalet, but similar food with more personality), our laundromat (Lavorama -- isn't that the best name?), and Cosmo (very famous and historic greasy spoon with only about 6 seats). We were sad to see that our Korean depanneur is now a window store, but the most important place is still there and is exactly the same: Villa du Souvlaki.

Villa du Souvlaki: Best souvlaki ever
I can't seem to find any information on the history of the restaurant, but I know it's been around forever and I've never had better souvlaki. The restaurant was dangerously close to Darcy's old apartment and we went all the time. Their menu is straightforward and simple (souvlaki, fries, Greek salad, vine leaves, baklava, etc.) and it never changes. Trying new things is great, but it's such a wonderful feeling to know in advance exactly what the food will taste like and that it will be fantastic.

As usual, we ordered chicken pitas (no onions), fries, and Greek salad, which comes with the most delicious garlic bread. The pitas are filled with grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, and a tonne of creamy tzatziki. So so good. I know the fries are from a frozen package, but I love them. The Greek salad has very light (not salty or oily) dressing and is topped with a generous slab of feta cheese and a couple of hot peppers. Darcy and I love smushing the cheese with the peppers and spreading it on the garlic bread. I know it sounds like a cliche, but I can totally taste it now.

Montreal Part 2: Running to Eat

Sunday was long run day (we’re training for the Scotiabank Half Marathon), so Darcy and I had to get up at the crack of dawn (well, 6:45 AM) and go for an 8-mile run before it got too hot. It was already too late; we melted. We ran down to the Old Port and along the Lachine Canal all the way west to the Champlain Bridge and back.

Just before getting back to my sister’s condo, we walked a bit to cool down and passed a few people who gave us really strange looks. We didn’t know, but Darcy’s nipple had chafed so there was a huge streak of blood running down the side of his white shirt, diffused by all the sweat. I wasn’t bleeding openly, but my sports bra had cut into my skin and I had a four-inch long raw gash at the top of my ribcage. Remind me again why we signed up for another half marathon? Oh right, the eating.

Werby’s: Breakfast of Champions (or of a 300-lb lumberjack)

Exhausted, sore, and lacerated, we ventured out into the heat to find sustenance. The wise thing to do would have been to get pho at Pho Bac across the street, but after that run (Map My Run calculated that Darcy burned over 1000 calories) I was jonesing for some trans fat so we walked to Old Montreal to hit Eggspectations.

Eggspectations is now a successful chain (there’s one at the Eaton Centre in Toronto), but it started with only one location at de la Montagne and de Maisonneuve. We used to line up on weekends and I remember the owner was always there pitching in (seating people, serving, bussing tables). I wonder where he is now that Eggpectations is an international franchise with locations in the States and India.

When we arrived, there was a line snaking out the door and we were too fragile to wait so we changed the plan to go to 5th Avenue at Parc and Sherbrooke, another university nostalgia place that had cheap, simple breakfast and a quirky interior decorated with a million plants. After a long, sweaty walk uphill, we discovered that 5th Avenue is now a Greek restaurant. Boo! Desperate, we walked north and found Werby’s, which is where No Name Cafe was back in the day.

We ordered the most decadent meals (Swiss cheese omelette with sausage and hash browns for Darcy and something called Le Quebecois for me: eggs, ham, bacon, hash browns, and a crepe). Darcy’s toast was burnt and there were these strange blue maraschino cherries presented as ‘fresh fruit’, but it hit the spot. Calorie deficiency restored (and overshot), we waddled back and spent the afternoon with kitty and Russell Crowe (The Insider; great movie!).

Schwartz’s: Yes, it’s as good as they say
You might think that after such a heavy brunch we would want something light for dinner, but you’d be surprised (or not at all) how we can bounce back. Darcy thought this would be logistically the best time to tackle Schwartz’s Deli (famous smoked meat; in business since 1928) since it was Sunday afternoon (no business traffic). Either he was right or we were very lucky because usually you can’t get near the place, but when we got there we were 3rd in line. Yessss!

Despite living in/visiting Montreal for 15 years, I had never eaten at the actual restaurant. It’s an experience in itself. Aside from the counter, there are only about 5 tables of six that are lined up cafeteria-style so you never have a table to yourself. They throw you in, sink or swim, at any chairs that are free. We sat sandwiched between two Italian construction worker-looking men on one side and three Latino metrosexuals on the other.

We ordered a large plate (heap of smoked meat with a stack of rye bread), fries, pickles, coleslaw, and black cherry pop. I’ve had this meat before as takeout, but it really is so much better at the source -- fresh and steaming hot. We had ‘medium’ meat, which is the middle ground between ‘lean’ and ‘fatty’. The meat was incredibly tender with lots of shavings from the outside of the brisket that are spicy and salty. The pickles were huge kosher dills and the coleslaw was dressed with vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise. They were both great sour accompaniments to the smoked meat. The fries were decent, but nothing to get too excited about. We finished everything except a couple of pieces of bread. If in town, you have to go. It says a lot about a place if Darcy is willing to both stand in line and sit crowded amongst strangers. By the time we left, the usual ant line had formed down the street. Go early on a Sunday!

My Favourite Apartment
After dinner, we went on a mission to find mojito ingredients in order to fulfill the fantasy I had of sitting on my sister’s terrace with mojitos in hand, enjoying the summer night and spying on passersby. We managed to find everything as well as pass by my second last and very favourite Montreal apartment at Coloniale and Pins.

At this apartment, my roommates and I discovered a skylight in our back room that we could crawl through and to get to the roof of our triplex. Up there we had an incredible view of both the city and the mountain, including the cross that lights up at night. To get up there, we climbed up a dangerous stack of tables, chairs, and books. This was at the same time that Darcy and I first met and he surprised me by building and installing a rope ladder while I was away for a few weeks in Europe. I left the ladder there when I moved because I figured I’d just keep it in a box somewhere while the next tenants could use it and enjoy the roof. I wonder if it’s still there.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Montreal Part 1: A Trip Down (Food) Memory Lane

Since I am so terribly tardy in blogging about Montreal, it would have taken me forever to give the entire run down in one go. So, I'm a week late, but I decided to dole it out in daily doses over the next while. I know, no work ethic!

Getting out of town
We caught the 5PM train out of Toronto last Friday with about a billion people and two chicken sandwiches from Churrasco's in St. Lawrence Market. I always get these sandwiches before getting on the train to Montreal and they are so good: Portuguese roasted chicken drenched in piri piri sauce, lettuce, and tomato on a floury bun. I was so preoccupied with it that before I knew it, we were well outside of Toronto.

We arrived at about 10PM in the sweltering heat and walked from the train station down Rene Levesque to my sister's place (she's in Romania for the week at a wedding, so we're cat/condo sitting/living beyond our means). She's living in a beautiful loft-style condo with a lovely, large terrace facing Old Montreal. Sigh.

Dim Sum at Restaurant Lotte
The next morning we went for a 3-mile run (believe it or not) and then headed straight to our favourite dim sum at Restaurant Lotte Furama (1115 rue Clark), which is just across the street in Chinatown. If you Google this restaurant, you'll find old web sites that say it is at 215 Rene Levesque Est in the Furama Hotel, but that was about 5-7 years ago. This is a fabulous spot for dim sum. I uncharacteristically forgot my camera, so I don't have pictures, but a lot of the dishes we had were the same as when we went in February: garlic spareribs, tofu with scallops (deep-fried tofu with shrimp and scallops on top), steamed taro cake (starchy taro cake with brine shrimp, Chinese sausage, and lot of five spice), shrimp dumplings, shrimp and cilantro dumplings, siu mai, and yuba rolls (pork and bamboo shoots wrapped in tofu skin). Fantastic.

Three-Decker Dream Sandwiches at Cafe Santropol
After an afternoon siesta of reading, napping, and watching movies, we headed to Cafe Santropol for dinner for some fresh food after all that cooked protein. I haven't been to this place in yonks and other than a few additions to menu, it's exactly the same as back in the day when I was a student. They seated us in the lovely back garden that has shady trees, a fish pond, and a cat who wanders through the tables like a maitre d'.

Santropol's specialty is enormous sandwiches on fresh baked brown bread with generous fillings, usually including cream cheese. I had the hardest time deciding on one thing, but I ended up order the Yelapa Moon, which is a three-decker sandwich with Hungarian cheese (creamy, spicy cheese), pickled onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and chicken. Darcy got the Number 13, which is also three-decker with bananas, cream cheese, honey, and black currant jam. Mine was delicious and everything was incredibly fresh, but I have to admit that Darcy's was better. It sounds so sweet, but the cream cheese is a little sour and the bread has rye in it, so it works. So delicious.

Our Old Stomping Grounds: The Plateau
Since we were there already, we walked around the old neighbourhood where we lived when we met back in 1996. It was so nice to have the time to take a leisurely look around and see what is still there and what has changed. Most of my favourites are still there: Amelio's, Mamma's, LaFleur, Mazurka, Schwartz's, Blue Nile, and the depanneur on Prince Arthur where we used to buy $7 wine and Durango (orange-flavoured Quebec beer). Bistro Duluth is sadly gone, but it's been 15 years since I first moved to Montreal so all things considered, my Montreal is still pretty intact, including
my last (and smallest) Montreal apartment at Jeanne Mance and Sherbrooke (less than 300 square feet!).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Lazy in Montreal

I've been terribly delinquent in blogging this week due to a combination of having lot of fun and being really lazy. My good friend Michael told me that he checks my blog every morning when he gets to work, and I feel so guilty that I haven't written a word yet about my trip. So, Michael, I started writing a huge opus on everything we've done/eaten so far and I hope to publish it tomorrow during the day. Until then, here is a picture of the heavenly smoked meat we had at Schwartz's.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Jade Pearl Rice: It's Green!

A couple of weeks ago, Tanya and I went to St. Lawrence Market looking for quinoa, which is more elusive than you would think. We finally found it at Rube's Rice downstairs. Also at Rube's was this crazy-looking green rice called Jade Pearl. I had hoped that it was a breed of rice that grows green right on the plant, but it's actually white rice infused with bamboo extract, which lends the colour. At $14.30/kg, it was the most expensive rice there, but I had to try it.

I cooked it in my rice cooker with plain water and served it with homemade Indian aloo gobi. On the little label at Rube's, it said: "when cooked produces the aroma of a bamboo forest, a light vanilla taste, and an explosion of health-giving nutrients". I could sense the vanilla, but I'm not sure if I would have picked it out if I didn't know already. I thought it tasted like tea -- very earthy.

Pairing it with the Indian curry probably wasn't such a good idea. I think a Thai curry would have made more sense. The rice was interesting and very pretty on the plate, but I don't think I'll want to have it again. Like the black chicken, I think that it's eaten for its nutrients rather than its taste. Which is not a bad reason to eat something, but I'm a hedonist.

I love discovering food that I've never seen before. Black chicken, green rice; I wonder what will be next?