The last time I was in Montreal the Expos had just moved to Washington, D.C. At last year’s Starchefs ICC, Stelio Perombelon, previously the chef at one of my most memorable Montreal meals ever (Les Chevres along with pastry Chef Patrice Demers) asked me why it had been so long since I’d been back to Montreal. Given that Montreal had been one of my favorite food cities in North America, I found that to be a valid question. It wasn’t a place that I looked to avoid, but there were several reasons I hadn’t been back, none of them to do with the quality of the food. As an avid NY Mets baseball fan, it was always fun to visit Montreal when the Mets were in town. Tickets were cheap and great. Our young children could see the players up close and even get autographs. Once the Expos moved, we no longer had that excuse to pop up there. Perhaps the most important reason though, was the comparative change in value of the national currencies. Back in the early years of this millenium, the Canadian dollar was well below that of the US dollar, making the city as well as the entire country an incredible value similar to what Europeans experience when they come to visit the US now. In more recent years, the value of the Canadian dollar has risen such that it is now ahead of the US dollar, though for all intents and purposes they are currently around par. While Montreal may not be the steal that it had been, it is still cheaper than Europe, while still having a very European feel to it.Stelio was excited enough about what is happening in his city that he invited me to visit so that he could take me to some of the most interesting new places (new since I had last been there, anyway) in the city. Unfortunately, Les Chevres, a daring and wonderful restaurant that had opened in 2003, closed in 2007. Both he and Patrice Demers moved on to new projects with each chef doing their own thing. Stelio’s was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I would just have to find the right time to take him up on it. finally, the perfect time came a little over a week ago. I had some vacation time from work and Stelio was in between jobs, having left his old positions to take over the restaurant at a major hotel.
I arrived in Montreal the evening before we were to meet up for my tour, staying at the well situated and very nicely appointed boutique Hotel Le Germain (I sat at the next table over from Rafael Nadal at breakfast my last morning there) and dining that evening at the superb Bouillon Bilk. One must-visit restaurant, Joe Beef. wase closed for vacation the week I was planning to come up, so I made a point of popping up with my two eldest sons for a special visit the week before. It was worth the special trip.
The morning after my arrival was beautiful. After a light, but satisfying breakfast at the hotel, I set out on foot to explore the city. Stelio and I would meet that evening. Walking through the impressive campus of McGill University, I wound my way to Boulevard Saint-Laurent and eventually to a place that somehow, in all the times I’ve visited Montreal, I had never tried – Chez Shwartz’s, the venerable bastion of the Montreal Hebraic smoked meat tradition. I got there early enough to snag a seat at the counter before the lines formed outside. Ordering here is not terribly complicated as the menu offers a few, but not a bewildering array of choices. In any case, I was there to sample the smoked meat. Since I didn’t really want to fill up (yeah, right!), I ordered an open faced medium fat sandwich. I could understand why people would swoon over this, even if it didn’t actually make me swoon. Nevertheless, the place is a legitimate classic and was worth the visit.
Another place that I had to try was right on the corner just up from Schwartz’s. Coco Rico is a restaurant particularly well known for their Portuguese style rotisserie chicken. With memories of killer pollo a’last from Sitges in Catalunya floating in my head, I entered the fast moving line and since their bread looked so good ordered a roasted chicken sandwich with gravy, roasted potatoes and a pasteis de nata. This sandwich was more up my alley, with juicy, flavorful chicken, bread as good as it looked and old style roasted potatoes. The only disappointment was the pasteis de nata, which was quite a bit too sweet for my liking, dashing my hopes of a New World Pasteis de Belem.
I rolled out the door of Coco Rico fortunate to find a Bixi bike stand just just up the street on Rue Duluth. I had noticed them outside my hotel and in numerous locations as I walked to Schwartz’s. For $5C for a 24 hour rental, I was intrigued. One can take out a bike for up to 30 minutes before replacing it at another location. If one takes longer than 30 minutes there are additional charges. This reminded me of what it must have been like to ride the Pony Express in days of old, changing horses at spaced intervals.
Needing some exercise to work off the calories I had just consumed along with a desire to see more of the city than I could get to just on foot, I bit. I rode northwest up Rue St. Urbain to to Avenue Laurier to at least see another restaurant that I couldn’t make on this trip because they were closed for vacation – Mario Navarette Jr’s Peruvian inflected Raza and after a bike exchange, I continued on to visit the St. Viateur bagel shop, a place to which I would return prior to my departure from Montreal.
From St. Viateur I rode down to Vieux Montreal where I parked the bike and strolled through the cobblestone streets and markets before getting another bike and riding back to my hotel just off Sherbrooke and the McGill campus for a quick shower and rest.
Stelio picked me up at the hotel at 6:30 and we were off. Our first stop was for cocktails at the nearby, historic Taverne Square Dominion on Metcalfe. Re-opened as a restaurant in 2009, this wonderfully atmospheric space serves “bistro-style dishes with an accessible French Canadian palate…infused with a British sensibility.” With much of its old time charm maintained in the form of the original chandelier, terrazzo floors and ceramic walls, the place feels like a throwback and in many ways it is. We each had a cocktail. Stelio’s Royal Gin Fizz was expertly and deliciously balanced while my Hendrick’s Gin & Tonique showed yet again how much individuality and personality a gin and tonic can have. Made with their own house-crafted “tonique,” this was an inspired preparation. We couldn’t knock down some cocktails without some food so we knocked down some first-rate, house-made charcuterie from Chef Eric Dupuis and his team. The selections included outstanding head cheese, lardo and duck prosciutto amongst other delights.
From downtown, we headed towards Vieux-Montreal or Old Montreal to the shiny, modern styled restaurant known as DNA, which stands for Derek Dammann “‘N” Alex Cruz, the co-0wners of this charming establishment. While the restaurant’s appearance might lead to a sense that the food would be ultra-modern, that would be wrong. Dammann’s cooking is of a more overtly traditional style. While there may be touches of Modernist technique within, they are not conspicuously displayed. The focus here is on highlighting the best features of outstanding product. We were wowed by a brilliant interpretation of gazpacho, a dish that while easy to be pleased by, rarely stands out. Dammann’s was somewhat deconstructed with the constituent parts not fully blended together. each bite was a revelation of clear and clean new flavors and textures all bound by a vibrant tomato base. Their ‘nduja with fresh favas and silky ham was also extraordinary with the fiery bite of the uncased sausage tempered by the sweet delicacy of the favas and the suppleness of the ham. Ravioli made with “sea peas” were quite tasty, while sockeye salmon from the Campbell River in British Columbia was simply the finest I’ve had in ages. While we were enjoying the labors of Chef Dammann’s kitchen (he was actually in NYC that evening), Alex Cruz’ beverage service and front of the house charm were no less beguiling. With a style that reminded me of Donato Poto, the wonderful co-owner and FOH master of Providence in Los Angeles, Cruz hit us with some fascinating and unique pairings including Le Corps Mort, a salty, smoky barley wine from À l’Abri de la Tempête in L’Étang du Nord, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Canada. Cruz’s list does a great job of highlighting outstanding Canadian wines, but is not limited to Canada. Needing to leave a little room for our next stop, we reluctantly cut short our visit to DNA,
We finally made our way over to Les 400 Coups on the northwestern edge of Vieux-Montreal. The latest venture from Marc-André Jetté and Patrice Demers* along with sommelier and FOH manager Marie-Josée Beaudoin, the restaurant is named in honor of a classic old French movie by Francois Truffaut. The space is inviting, warm, comfortable and even a little cozy. The street-side wall is dominated by a full length mural of Paris around 1959, when the movie was made. The food is unabashedly Modernist. It is easy to take Modernist cooking to excess and do it badly and difficult to do it well, but when it is done well, to my mind it is that much more amazing. The food at Les 400 Coups with Jetté as Executive Chef and Demers as Pastry Chef takes excellent local ingredients and makes them shine under a contemporary light. They do Modernism well. The sockeye salmon gravlax might as well have been a completely different kind of fish than the one we had at DNA. The texture and flavor were totally different, but also delicious. Served with beet puree, a variety of radishes, buttermilk “jelly” and trout caviar, the dish showed off a variety of techniques and was as beautiful to look at as it was delicious to eat. The same was true for the chicken liver mousse with mustard yogurt, quail egg, celery, marinated mushrooms and crispy shallot chips, which came out together with the salmon. The mousse was smooth, rich and delicious with perfect balance. Seared scallops came with an eel-filled raviolo, soy beans, chanterelles and a yellow beet emulsion. As with the other savory courses, this one walked a fine line between just right and too much, but it walked it successfully. Demers’ desserts were as wonderfully delicious as I remembered them from Les Chevres, but they showed even greater sophistication and a refined style. A pre-dessert was called “Green.” It consisted of green apples mixed with olive oil at the bottom of the bowl with white chocolate yogurt, pistachios, green apple granite and cilantro and was marvelously refreshing with complex flavors and a bevy of textural contrasts. Demers was reaffirming my opinion of him as one of the major pastry talents in North America, an opinion that did not suffer with his other desserts, “The Lemon Tree” lemon cream with coconut creme dots, green tea sablé, marinated fennel, marinated fresh strawberries and strawberry sorbet; Alpaco chocolate cream, gingerbread cake, caramelized hazelnut ice cream and powder and black cherry jelly and the last with rhubarb ice cream, vanilla and ginger foam with rose powder and “blueberry” flowers (no relation to the fruit). We were stuffed and I was exhausted!
It was about 1:30 by the time Stelio dropped me off back at my hotel. It had been a wonderful, whirlwind, food-soaked day showing a broad microcosm of what is happening in Montreal today. Stelio was a great host and guide with the only thing lacking being his own restaurant, something that will be remedied shortly. It had been too long for me, but it was reassuring to rediscover the culinary pleasures of this great city. It is as exciting as ever. Many of the old stalwarts like Toque, Au Pied de Cochon and Le Club Chasse et Peche amongst others are still going strong while the new places are as exciting as I can remember. Between what I experienced this day as well as during the rest of my visit, Montreal remains one of my favorite food cities on the continent. It won’t be so long before I return again.*Patrice Demers is a busy man nowadays. Besides creating the desserts at the very busy and popular Les 400 Coups, he has his own show on Canadian television for home cooks, making basic pastry and is also writing a book.