Suite 701

19 Jan

For my second Happening Gourmand meal of the year, I found myself at Suite 701 in the Place d’Armes Hotel – a place I have gone by numerous times over the past few years without trying it and a spot that I will be revisiting shortly for my best friend’s wedding. Regardless, one of my friends was sufficiently intrigued by the table d’hôte that he organized a lovely Saturday night meal – and I am certainly not one to say no to that!

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Suite 701 is probably best described as a lounge with a full dinner menu – the decor and ambience is certainly more lounge in nature. High ceilings with ornate mouldings, huge windows with large drap-like curtains, beautiful wooden tables and chairs with a few leather banquettes, a glorious long bar, low lighting using mostly chandeliers outside of the purple accent lights, the otherwise all white color palette… Suite 701 is definitely a looker. The live DJ – playing for the most part great old R&B/ soul music – was definitely too loud though. When it is hard to hear the conversation at the other end of 5 person table, you are probably a little too close to bar/supper club territory than you should be as a lounge.

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Menu-wise, Suite 701 describes itself as modern brasserie which, when I see that, strikes me as a catch all term for a menu that is quite varied. That seems to fit the bill here – the menu was definitely interesting but an strange mix of dishes. First up, the table ordered two platters of their homemade charcuterie with mustard, grilled chorizo, deviled eggs and chipotle dill pickle. A nice mixture of blood sausage, porchetta, salami and prosciutto. You can never go wrong with good charcuterie.

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Next, I got to try the organic salmon tartar with celery leaves, granny smith apples, grapefruit and mild wasabi cream. Presentation was nice as was the execution. I hate grapefruit so while I understand the desire to add some citrus to the tartar, I wish it had been something different. The fish was nice and fresh with every other element working well for the dish. I particularly enjoyed the subtle heat from the wasabi cream.

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The other starter I got to try was the roasted eggplant, tomato confit and marinated zucchini pissaladière. None of us had any idea what a pissaladiere was… but we figured why not? The rest of the dish description seemed worth a try. Ended up looking like a spring roll – which isn’t what a pissaladiere is according to my web searches but regardless – and tasted pretty good. The pastry was nice and flaky and the eggplant/zucchini combo had great flavour.

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Moving on to mains. I could not resist the duck so I went with the duck magret with pomegranate gastrique, charred farro risotto and braised kale. The duck was perfect – rich and fatty, cooked rare as it needs to be. The risotto however was a bit off to my liking. The use of farro, unknown to me prior to this, instead of rice was interesting but created a much firmer texture to the risotto than I was expected – I will mark this down to wrong expectations on my end.

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The other main I tried was the pan-seared black bass with Jerusalem artichoke purée, black olive sauce and braised endives. The black bass was beautifully flaky and slightly salty. The artichoke puree and endives paired nicely to the fish. I skipped the sauce as olives really aren’t my thing.

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Dessert-wise, there were two options – a mocha cake with blood orange compote and a white chocolate mousse with raspberries. I hate mocha so I didn’t try it but it seemed to be a hit at the table. My choice was the mousse which was well executed texturally – wonderfully smooth – but good lord was it sweet… too sweet to be honest which is saying a lot coming for a guy who absolutely loves his desserts. The tartness of the raspberries were not enough to offset the sweetness here. It almost needed a cookie or dark chocolate bites to offset the extra sweetness.

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Suite 701 was a nice evening overall with a few minor issues that didn’t make it an amazing one food wise. I definitely see coming back for a cocktail hour with a bite or two – which ironically is what will happen at that wedding I mentioned earlier – but I don’t have a strong desire to return for a full dinner. For a lounge, that is what one would expect so on that account, Suite 701 probably hits its objective. Worth considerable to start an evening in Old Montreal at the very least.

Cheers!

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Suite 701
701 Cote de la Place d’Armes
514 904 1201

Suite 701 on Urbanspoon

Taverne Gaspar

17 Jan

The start of the new year also means the start of Happening Gourmand in the old port. This food “festival” brings together all the restaurants of the Antonopoulos Group and provides a special reduced price table d’hôte at each of their 8 restaurants. Events like these are enjoyable for me simply because it allows me to try Old Port restaurants without costing me my arm and perhaps a leg to enjoy. Ironically this year, I wasn’t a driving force amongst my friends to participate as is usually the case… two separate friends set up two reservations and invited me! I guess this is a sign of the event gaining a foothold in people’s consciousness. Either way, I won’t turn down a good meal so away I went. The first of the two dinners was at Taverne Gaspar – the Group’s Gastropup located on de la Commune with a view of the Saint-Lawrence.

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Visually, Taverne Gaspar attempts to blend the pub or tavern look with elements of the old Montreal building it is located in – a nice long wooden bar with wooden seats, leather banquettes and chairs, tile flooring and roofing, low lighting with the exception of the christmas lights set up along the center of the room. That choice along with the use of dark tones elsewhere to put emphasis on the old stone walls creates a very relaxed old world kind of feel. The night we were there the entire street actually lost power so at one point for a bit, the lighting was almost completely candlelight so that intimate feel was cranked up further! Thankfully the lost power didn’t affect our meal…

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Now, as for the food, the menu is definitely gastropub fare with touches of more local influences. As a group of 3, we each picked something different in order to try as much as we could. First up, a classic onion soup – a hardy and meaty broth with good quantity of onions nicely caramelized topped with gooey cheese and a crouton. Well very executed and enjoyable.

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I also had some fresh oysters because I’m a sucker of oysters so if they’re on the menu, it’s hard for me to resist. Paired with a nice mignonette, there were great.

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Next, we had the lobster sliders with house chips. Firstly, when the menu says sliders, we would have expected more than one but no… just one. Thankfully it was pretty flavourful although I would have prefer more lobster versus mayo. The house chips were nicely seasoned with a good crunch. The salad felt like it was there to make the dish seem larger. A solid dish flavour-wise but disappointing in terms of portion – especially when this was a dish where they charged extra for it within the table d’hôte.

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The last starter was their beef poutine with cheese curds and cipollini sauce. In my eyes, this was the best of the bunch. The beef was rich and fall apart in texture and in combination with the cipollini sauce, gave the poutine a much hefty feel than your standard poutine. Add solid fries and the correct cheese curds – melt just a bit but still keep its texture and squeak – and we have a great starter.

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Moving on the mains, the first one was their beef bourguignon. Once again great texture to the beef – chewy but fall apart. Carrots and potatoes cooked nicely as well but that reduced sauce was really the key here. Brought everything together and really made the dish nice and hearty – exactly what one seeks in a beef bourguignon.

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Next was the mac n’cheese with cheddar and smoked lardons. Baked off nicely in a onion soup dish, the cheddar brought some sharpness to the creamy gooeyness that is mac n’cheese and of course the fattiness of the lardons was well appreciated. A solid dish.

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The last main was the Gaspar BBQ burger with their house fries – another dish where they charged extra for but thankfully in this case it was worth it. Portion-wise this was by far the biggest and enjoyable across the board. More of the house fries plus a side of coleslaw to go with the burger. The beef patty was cooked perfectly topped with some melted cheese, bacon and slaw. A little spicy mayo was provided to go with the fries as well. Another solid dish to round off the second course.

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Finally, we had the desserts. The table d’hôte provided two options – chantilly brownies and a bumble berry cheesecake. The brownies were decadent and very chocolatey. The chantilly cream provided a nice counterbalance to that. The cheesecake was nice as well – the right level of creaminess without being too rich. Solid way to end our meal.

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Overall, Taverne Gaspar was a solid and well executed meal pretty much across the board. I’m not a big fan of how they charge extra on certain dishes within the table d’hote especially when they are some of the more appealing options there but I suppose it was just up to us to not order them. I like the vibe of the setting and the quality of the food on the menu. If one is seeking a worthwhile gastropub in Old Montreal, Gaspar is worth your consideration.

Cheers!

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Taverne Gaspar
89 Rue de la Commune Est
514 392 1649

Taverne Gaspar on Urbanspoon

Tejano BBQ Burrito

7 Jan

My first experience of what I would qualify as true BBQ occurred a few years ago now when Blackstrap BBQ opened down in Verdun. I remember hearing about this new Southern BBQ joint opening and being interested enough to go on the first Friday they were open – getting in just before they ran out of meat – and being in awe of the level of smokiness and juiciness that the crew achieved with their meats. From that moment on, it was pretty clear to me that I would go whenever Dylan Kier and his pit mastery would go next. That thought process is what brought me a few times over the past month to his most recent project, a small burrito joint called Tejano BBQ Burrito.

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Located in St-Henri right beside Bar de Courcelles and nearby many of my favorite different culinary spots – quick shout out to Campinelli, Rustique, Leche and Grumman 78 – Tejano feels primarily set up as a take out joint although there is a small sitting area with about 7 stools. The space is sparse – plain white walls with old partially sanded down wood used for the counters. Some smooth laid back music in the background. The menu printed on paper tacked above the ordering counter. The look is definitely in keeping with its older brother Blackstrap BBQ – functional and sparse with just enough of a style and vibe keeping with a southern BBQ joint.

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But let’s be honest – you don’t go to a Burrito space for the decor. It’s all about the food of course. At present, the menu is short and concise – burritos (regular and XL sized), tostadas, salads, guac, salsa and chips. For the burritos and tostadas, there are 3 meat options (smoked chicken tinga, chorizo pulled pork, rancho cumin brisket) and one vegetarian (black beans and hominy). Once you make your selection of a base, you can add either re-fried beans, black beans and hominy (if you went with a meat) and/or rice then a collection of different vegetables (pico de gallo, red onions, radishes, jalapeños, peppers, corn, etc…) followed by cheese, fresh lime juice, house guacamole, hot sauce and/or sour cream.

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In terms of the burritos, all those options leave you with a fully stuffed burrito and a rather filling one as well. I tried both the pulled pork and the brisket options in burrito form. In keeping with Dylan’s work at Blackstrap BBQ, the quality of the meats is impeccable. The pulled pork has that little heat from the chorizo and is wonderfully tender and juicy. The brisket is the same with just a subtle touch of the cumin which gives off a smokier element than the pork. In terms of the other ingredients, I enjoyed both bean options although I’m not sure I would enjoy a black bean and hominy burrito on its own – a meatless burrito just seems wrong to me. All the vegetables are fresh and crisp. Loved the creaminess of the guacamole although I’m not a huge fan of it being the only ingredient that costs extra to add in. Overall, excellent burritos that would be a regular lunch option for me if I worked anywhere nearby (which I don’t sadly in this case).

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The new menu item for me here was the Tostada which I had never heard of before. Basically, a burrito bowl – all the same ingredients pilled over top a crispy tortilla shell. The crisp shell was good but honestly, other than the texture change with that crispiness, it’s not all that different from the burrito. A different presentation but given how I loved the burritos, I think I’ll stick to those personally.

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Reasonable price, good quality and quantity of food and quick service – All in all, Dylan, Clara and Co. have a great concept going with Tejano BBQ Burrito. It has only been open for about a month now but given what I’ve enjoyed, I suspect we will hear about this spot a lot more and very quickly in this new year. That particular corner of St-Henri is quickly becoming one of my favourite areas to enjoy food wise… I think i’ll be visiting even more often in 2015!

Cheers!

Tejano BBQ Burrito
511 Rue de Courcelle
514 303 3500

Tejano BBQ Burrito on Urbanspoon

Sumac

7 Dec

Outside of a few specific food items, I considered myself pretty adventurous food wise. While my parents did expose me to many different things outside of our French-Canadian customs, it wasn’t until I moved downtown for school did I learn to enjoy some more “obscure” (at least from my perspective) food cultures – proper Indian cuisine, great Ramen, true Mexican eats etc. Now, my adventures have not made me an expert in these fields yet but I continue to enjoy these experiences enough to keep them up and staying adventurous. All of this came to mind when I heard about a new restaurant in St-Henri – rapidly becoming one of my favourite neighbourhood and possible future living spot – seeking to be a true falafel shop and serving up great Middle Eastern cuisine. This type of cuisine is still a huge blind spot in my food knowledge so I was very hopeful that Sumac could show me the way.

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Located on the main strip of Notre Dame just west of the Atwater Market, Sumac has a very clean and sharp look. They beautifully utilize the brick wall of the old building and compliment it with pure white walls, light hardwood floors and solid wood tables. The ample lighting create a very bright space that creates a warm feel. They also add some nice music in the background to make the space feel comfortable. They have a slight different ordering procedure where you order at the counter and then serve you at your table using number cards. The issue, in the two times I have been, was that because the menu is only on the wall right by the cash, people take a little too long to order as they figure what to order. As such, the lineup at the counter gets long and takes longer than it probably should. The line spills into the seating space which isn’t great either for the patrons seating down. Also, there isn’t really a good spot for takeout people to wait either. Note that I went on two Friday nights so probably the peak period for this problem. I imagine it is much better the rest of the time – not a big deal, simply a minor observation.

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The menu is one befitting a falafel shop – falafels, chicken shawarma, beef kefta with a assortment of salads, grains, fries, hummus and baba. On my first visit, I decided to start with the hummus fries with hummus, tahini and s’rug. This dish was one of the first things I saw online from Sumac and peaked my interest tremendously. Just wonderful all around – the fries were nicely crispy on the outside and fluffy inside. The combination of the creamy tahini, the spice of the s’rug and the rich hummus worked exceptionally well – I had no knowledge of s’rug prior to this and my limited time with tahini never made me think of this combination. Great starter and a huge portion as well. A must-have for sure!

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Given the size of the fries, I decided to go with a chicken shawarma pita to finish off the meal. When you order a pita at Sumac, it is grilled and filled with hummus, tahina, chopped salad, white & purple cabbage and pickled turnip on top of your meal of choice. First off, the pita bread at Sumac is insanely good. Borderland obscene. Wherever they get them, I need to find out because they have put every other pita bread I’ve tried to shame. Thick but yet soft and chewy, the pita bread provided a great vessel for the rest of the ingredients. The chicken was nice and juicy and the vegetables fresh and crisp. An excellent pita all around.

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I was so enthused by my first visit that I decided to return two weeks later for a quick takeout. In this instance, I broke my own rule and didn’t order the fries in order to try some more of the menu. First, I went with the garlic labneh served with bulgarian feta, dukkah, paprika oil, mint and a side of grilled pita bread. A wonderful appetizer that needed a lot more bread than I got! I loved how the labneh and feta mixed together – combining the saltiness and firmer texture of the feta with the yogourt-like creaminess and sour taste of the labneh. The nutty mixture of the dukkah with the fresh mint and spicy paprika oil helped to ease up the heavy richness of the dish. Very nice all around and made for a great snack using the leftovers.

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My main course this second time was the falafel plat served with pita, hummus, tahini, pickled turnip and my choice of two salads. I went with the fried eggplant (with harissa, preserved lemon and coriander) and the Moroccan carrots with currants, cumin and parsley. Enjoyed the carrots although they weren’t as spicy as I expected. As for the eggplant, it was okay – something didn’t grab me and frankly I’m not sure what. As for the falafels themselves, loved them. Great crunch to the exterior but they still kept a nice moistness inside. Nice depth of flavour as well.

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Sumac provided me with a wonderful trip into Middle Eastern cuisine which was my hope. My initial visit got me interested enough to head back to try more and my second visit did more of the same. I may lack knowledge in this cuisine but I know enough about great cuisine to know that Sumac does it very well. For a quick lunch or a relaxed dinner, Sumac is a perfect option. Some of you may be scared away simply by the type of cuisine but believe me, you would be doing yourselves a grave disservice to ignore the wonderful food coming out of this little shop in St-Henri. Luckily for you, you should have time on your side if you change your mind – I suspect Sumac will be a staple in the neighbourhood for some time.

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Cheers!

Restaurant Sumac
3618 Notre Dame Ouest
514 935 1444

Sumac Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Chez L’Épicier

16 Nov

For my final MTL a Table dinner, I went back to the Old Port to another longstanding member of my “need to try” list – Laurent Godbout’s Chez L’Épicier. About to open a sister restaurant down in Palm Beach, Chez L’Épicier has been a highly regarded restaurant in Old Montreal since its opening. A friend of mine continues to states that one of the best meals of his life has been here. Talk like that has made my visit long overdue. Hype level was high which can be scary when dealing with restaurants. There is nothing worse than overly heighten expectations setting you up for a disappointing experience. In these instances, you just need to go in and have faith that the restaurant can shine through with excellent dishes and a fine touch.

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Pre-starters, we were greeted with a cocktail of maple syrup and apple cider as well as an olive and goat cheese macaron amuse-bouche. Loved the combination in the cocktail – the acidic nature of the cider dull by the maple syrup while keeping the sweetness level strong. The macaron was a interesting idea – I had never had an non-sweet macaron before. My hatred of olives had me skeptical however the use of the creamy goat cheese eased that olive taste which I despite. Very nice level of technique.

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Our first starter was a squash velouté poured over homemade sour cream, onions, squash seed nougatine, parsley juice and brown butter vinaigrette. Cool little presentation element as the velouté was poured at the table over the bowl of accent ingredients. Loved the smooth and earthy nature of the soup and how each extra item brought a nice element to pair with the squash. A perfect fall starter.

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Our second starter was a slowly cold smoked trout filet with a miso and maple reduction, shallot fingerling potatoes and a maple vinegar mousse. Wonderful flaky texture to the trout with a subtle hint of sweetness from the reduction. The mousse was a quirky but nicely flavoured addition and the potatoes brought some more heft to the dish. Very good.

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The first of our mains was a sea bass fillet with herb polenta, lobster juice bouillabaisse and vegetables glazed with water butter. The real star here is the bouillabaisse – if only because the lobster juice overpowered everything else. The fish itself was solid. I am not a big fan of polenta up front so while this one was well done, it didn’t speak to me in any way. The vegetables were good but nothing to write home about (which is ironic as I am writing about them). Overall an okay dish. I feel like the fish should have had more of an impact in this dish.

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Our final main was beef shoulder lacquered with orange and olives served with onion and rosemary butter brandade and reduced juice with Cointreau. Huge winner in my eyes. The beef shoulder was cooked perfectly – to the point where you early had to touch it for it to fall apart. Great richness to the beef and the hints of orange and Cointreau came through nicely. The brandade was excellent as well.

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The first dessert was a carpaccio of compressed apples with tarragon granita and caramelized pecans. Sadly I didn’t get to try it because my friend finished it off so quickly which one can definitely take as a good thing. Loved the concept overall – the tarragon being an interesting addition to apples and pecans.

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The other dessert available was a tempura brownie with greek yogurt cream and white chocolate jelly. The brownie itself was moist and chocolatey – a key for me with any brownie. Personally, while the tempura was well done, I’m not sure how much of an addition it brought to the dish other than texturally. It kind of felt like an afterthought – added at the last minute to make the dish “unique”. I enjoyed the smoothness of the yogourt cream as well as the presence of the white chocolate and strawberries. A solid finish to the dish.

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I had high expectations for Chez L’Epicier and they were mostly met. Very high level technique was visible throughout the meal – the highs were oh so high. However a couple of dishes had a few elements that left us wanting more. Not things that were a big deal but when compared to the rest of the dishes, they stood out more than they should have. All in all, I was quite happy to finally cross Chez L’Epicier off my list. Looking at the regular menu after my visit, I was intrigued enough to want to come back which I suppose is all that needs to be said.

Cheers!

Chez L’Epicier
311 Saint-Paul Est
514 878 2232

Chez L'Epicier on Urbanspoon

Tapas 24

9 Nov

My trip to Spain last year was a wonderful experience through and through. Among the many things I enjoyed was all the wonderful food – especially the tapas “scene”. To be able to enjoy true Spanish tapas in Barcelona night after night was a thing to behold and made me realize that much of the “tapas” we have in Montreal isn’t quite up to snuff. Fast forward a year and we hear about Chef Carles Abellan and that his Tapas 24 concept is coming to Montreal. I didn’t get a chance to visit any of his restaurants while in Spain so the notion of trying his cuisine at home is quite appealing. The restaurant opened earlier this summer and finally, for the occasion of my grandfather’s birthday, I found a good reason to head over.

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Being a new restaurant in Old Montreal, Tapas 24 certainly tries to make a visual impression and succeeds in doing so. With the front of the restaurant being entirely windowed, the major use of natural coloured wood on the walls and at the first floor bar, when added to the ample lighting, makes the whole restaurant pop from the outside. The second floor mezzanine allows for the high ceiling to be utilized and gives the room a big presence. Part of the kitchen is visible from the bar downstairs as is the prep kitchen/ grade manger on the second floor although that part isn’t as nice to have visible as the kitchen. The music was present but unremarkable. The noise level was relatively loud but nothing abnormal for an Old Montreal restaurant on a busy Friday. Conversation could still be had but I wouldn’t said this is where you would have an hugely in-depth talk with a meal. The service was pretty good for us throughout the night unlike some of what you can read elsewhere so I guess this can be hit or miss. In our case, we had absolutely no complaints.

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Foodwise, we had originally planned to go for the MTL a Table menu but decided instead to simply order from the regular menu and share everything in order to enjoy a greater variety of dishes. These are the perks of being a larger group in this instance. First up, a few staple Spanish tapas. There was the Coca con Tomato – simply put tomato and olive oil on fresh warm bread. Simple but oh so good… especially since the bread comes from my favourite bakery Hof Kelsten. We then had the Iberian chorizo – freshly sliced and a perfect compliment to the bread dish. A spicy kick on top of the usual fattiness. The last of the staple trio was the patatas bravas – potatoes (in this case, french fries) with an aioli and the spicy tomato “brava” sauce. The fries themselves were nice and crispy but the key was the combination between the heat of the brava sauce and the creaminess of the aioli. These were so good that we had 3 separate orders over the course of the evening!

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The next set of dish were a little more unique. First up, la bomb de Barceloneta – a potato and meat croquette topped with the same aioli and brava sauce as before. Pretty good overall. Each individual croquette was rather big – lots of potato and meat stuffed inside. Great crunch on the outside without losing any moisture inside.

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Next up were the Gambas Al Ajillo – garlic shrimps with hot peppers. A solid dish but one that, compared to the rest, lacked any real punch or spark. Enough so that I even forgot to take a picture, so there you go.

We also have the strangely named Bikini Comerc 24 which essentially are mini grilled sandwiches of tramezzini, Iberian ham, mozzarella di buffalo and truffles. Extremely delicious – the combination of iberian ham and cheese is always a winner… and that is even before we add the truffles. The only complaints are these were how small they were. When a dish would need to be ordered more than once to purely satisfied hunger, you probably a sizing issue.

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The Atun con tomate y ponzu – or tuna with ponzu sauce – was a hit at our table. The tuna was beautiful – nice sized pieces well seasoned also. The ponzu added a nice hint of citrus to mix with the sweetness of the tomato. A light but well executed dish.

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Next were the alias de pollo con salsa “alegre” – boneless chicken wings with alegre sauce. Here, my camera failed me due to poor lighting but take my word for it, they are worth ordering next time you visit. The chicken was wonderfully moist and tender – simply fell apart using a fork. Great dish.

The final main tapas was actually a main that we added – the rabo de toro – oxtail stew with potato puree. The oxtail was amazing. The meat and fat was so cooked down that the two bones in the plate appeared to have never had any meat on them once we pulled the meat off them. Beautifully meaty and fatty goodness.

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Now, after all of the food, we may think that we were too full for dessert… and you would be wrong. There is always room for dessert, especially these ones. We went with three to share amongst the group. First, we had the molten chocolate fritters – bunuelos del tio nelo. Hot dark chocolate in a fried ball with some powdered sugar… what is there not to like!? They may be too tart for some as it is dark chocolate but delicious nevertheless.

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The second option was fresh ricotta and honey – Mel y Mato – a huge contrast when compared to the previous dish. Personally I loved the combination – a fresh and light alternative to standard dessert options. The sweetness of the honey worked very well with the creaminess of the ricotta. May not be everyone’s jam from a texture point of view but it worked for me.

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Lastly, we have in my opinion the best of the group – chocolate, pan, acetic y sal or simply put chocolate, bread, olive oil and fleur de sel. Milk chocolate mousse with a hint of olive oil, a touch of salt and a crunchy crouton. Simple but so wonderful in execution. Loved every bit of this one.

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All in all, with all the food and a few good bottles of wine, we left full and very satisfied of our experience at Tapas 24. The one stickler would be price point as this definitely wasn’t a cheap evening. This was a pretty penny for tapas. Be prepared to pay more than you probably expect. I saw a lot of negative reviews for this restaurant early on… other than the overpriced issue, I experienced none of what others have apparently faced here. In my eyes, Tapas 24 is definitely a worthwhile visit. It may not be Barcelona but I’ll take it. I suppose that your mileage may vary however.

Cheers!

Tapas 24
420 Notre-Dame Ouest
514 849 4424

Tapas 24 on Urbanspoon

Les 400 Coups

3 Nov

Pardon the writing break… life does in fact get in the way sometimes even when it comes to delicious food! Here in Montreal, we are currently in MTL à Table, a wonderful week-long period when many of our fine restaurants offer a special table d’hôte to allow people to try their fare at a relatively reduced rate. With so many wonderful restaurants to choose from, the challenge is always deciding where to go (and that’s even if there is room left in said restaurants). This year, I decided to hit up three different spots – 2 of which are longstanding members of my “to-go” list. The first of these was the current Old Montreal staple Les 400 Coups.

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I was first aware of Les 400 Coups a few years ago when Marc-André Jetté, Patrice Demers and Marie-Josée Beaudoin were running it. While the entire crew has changed since last year, I had heard enough great things about the new group – headlined by Guillaume Cantin, the original Les Chefs winner – that Les 400 coups remained a must-go to me. A couple of my friends were of the same opinion so off we went on a late Thursday night visit very eager and quite hungry.. mostly because a 10 pm reservation will do that to you!

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Les 400 Coups visually strikes a nice, relatively understated modern look. The high ceilings create the impression of a larger room than what is truly there. Black embossed ceiling tiles, simple black walls, leather banquettes and dark wood floors create a elegant style but the white marble bar, the wall-sized Parisian street picture on the western wall and the subtle use of brick add some punch to the room. I’ve heard that noise can be a problem (which makes sense with the high ceilings) but given the day and time of our reservation, it wasn’t at all an issue and actually made us more aware of the music – a strange collection for the setting (never thought of the Black Keys as suitable fine dining music) but still enjoyable. We were lucky enough to have the large banquette by the front window which gave us a great spot to relax, enjoy some good wine and get ready for a hopefully great meal.

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As a group, we decided to make sure that we tried every item on the special table d’hôte. For the appetizers, that gave us two dishes – a parsnip soup with smoked bison, wild blueberries, mustard and wintergreen as well as a liver pâté with peach, oat crumble, honey jelly and celery. The soup was such a treat – the use of the smoked bison and the tart blueberries meshed well with the earthy parsnip. Texturally smooth and delightful on every spoonful. The pâté was also a great hit. Similar to the soup, there was a great use of ingredients to enhance and contrast the inherently fatty pâté – the sweetness of honey and peaches, the freshness of celery and the crunch of the oats. A wonderful dish through and through – relatively simple but one that showed a great understanding of flavours.

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Next up we had the main courses: Brill with buckwheat, cauliflower, cucumber, lettuce cream and wild caraway followed up by Pork cheeks with beets, smoked potatoes, stag horn sumac and dill. Beautiful technical detail here. The brill was cooked perfectly – great sear on the outside but still flaky and moist. The insane things here were the cauliflower “crumble” and the lettuce cream. That cream was so rich and flavourful – how exactly they achieved that using lettuce as a base I don’t know but dear lord… such a elegant dish across the board.

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The pork cheeks were a perfect dish for a cold autumn night. Rich and homely with great execution. Texturally, the cheeks just fell apart beautifully and had a great fatty taste. The beets and smoked potatoes paired well with them – I simply wished there had been more to enjoy!

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We were almost stuffed at this point but there were still desserts to enjoy. First was lemon cream with sunflower, crispy meringue and melon sorbet. Now, I hate melons but I can’t argue that it didn’t pair beautifully with the lemon cream here. And about that cream….. just wow. Great richness and a nice depth of flavour. The lemon was powerful but not too tart. The meringue added some crunch to the plate and mixed well with the other elements.

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The second dessert was a Dark Manjari chocolate tart with peanuts, caramel and concorde grape sorbet. Creamy and smooth tart, the strong chocolate taste was nicely paired with the peanuts, the sweet caramel and the beautiful sorbet. Another strong dish.

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Finally, just prior to the check, we received mini chocolate and almond cakes. Rich and fluffy with that hint of the almond. A subtle but wonderful item to finish off our meal.

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I had pretty high expectations for Les 400 Coups and they were met completely. The level of execution and technical proficiency on display was very impressive. Not a single dish disappointed or left a bad impression on us. Every plate was returned completely picked clean… and not just because we were starving due to the late reservation. Add to that a nice atmosphere, a great bottle of wine and excellent service (safe for a slight technology issue at payment time) and we were left with a wonderful evening. I took me a few years to finally get to Les 400 Coups but I can safely say it was worth the wait.

Cheers!

Les 400 Coups
400 Notre Dame Est
514 985 0400

Les 400 Coups on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Magpie

7 Sep

After a great experience at GEMA (see my previous post for that rundown), I got another hankering for a pizza the following weekend. I got some friends together and planned to head back for a second try when I discovered that they were closed for summer vacation. Darn….. well we still had a desire for pizza, so where to go? Thinking about places nearby, I had a flash and remembered Pizzeria Magpie, located across the street from Chez Serge bar in Mile End. One of those places I have had on my never-ending list for a while but kept forgetting about. We drove up hoping they had room for 4 on a Saturday night and luckily for us, they did.

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First thing I noticed walking in was the overall look and vibe. A small intimate space overall with the open window in the front to give a little terrasse feel, low lighting, a beautiful dark bar on the side, the blackboard menus and the ceramic-tiled pizza oven visible to all – Magpie gives off a relaxed cafe/bar feel but with enough intimacy to be a solid date place and enough “edge” to be a cool place to bring friends for a happy hour or late evening meal. Loved it completely – this place goes on the possible date locations list (whenever the heck that ever happens again… but that’s a story for another day).

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For starters, we grabbed some of their cocktails to get the evening started. My friends selected the Pimm’s Cup and the Magpie Caesar. The Pimm’s Cup, served with some mint and cucumber, had exactly the kind of citrus and spice flavours you look for. Very refreshing. As for the Caesar, it certainly looked impressive – especially with the steak spice used on the lip of the glass, however I hate Caesars (yes… another thing to add to the list) so I didn’t try it. My friend certainly enjoyed it though. In my case, I went for the Dark and Stormy – dark spiced rum mixed with the house made ginger soda. Very nice balance between the sweet rum and the ginger.

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Before the pizzas came, I just had to order some oysters. On this evening, Magpie had 3 varieties – Conway Royals, Gooseberry Bay and Tresor and I asked for the mix of all three. Served with fresh horseradish, lemon and lime wedges, a mignonette and some hot sauce, the oysters were all of good size and shucked perfectly. Nice start to the meal.

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But really, the key here is the pizza…Magpie is a pizzeria after all. There are 9 regular pizzas available as well as a special of the day. Since we were four people, we decided to order four different ones and share them in order to try as many as we could. Before we address the topping options, let’s talk dough – the foundation of the whole thing. Magpie, using that beautiful wood oven over in the corner, do it pretty well. Had I not been to GEMA about a week prior, I may have said it was best in Montreal. After that experience, I would say it is very good but just a level below the best. The crust has a good levity and chewiness to it with a decent crispiness on the bottom, however to get the crunch, we end up having some burnt spots on the pizzas. I wouldn’t have had an issue with it before but if we are going to compare the best pizza joints in Montreal, we are now at that point…

Anyway, the first one up was the special of the day – a gravlax pizza with onions, tomatoes and dill. A very creative option – the gravlax itself was delicious and quite plentiful on the pizza. The fresh dill, tomatoes and onions work well with gravlax normally so of course it would work on a pizza. Loved the overall quantity of topping as well. An excellent out-of-box option which in my opinion is worth keeping around as a regular option.

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Next up was the goat cheese pizza with pancetta, arugula, basil and tomato sauce. Due to photographer error, I don’t have a picture of this one to share but regardless you get the picture anyway. Great combination of the creamy goat cheese with the salty rich pancetta to elevate this one past the traditional Margherita. Excellent pizza.

The third one was the prosciutto pizza with arugula, cherry tomatoes, bocconcini and tomato sauce. Another solid pizza – any pizza with prosciutto is good by me – although personally I felt that there was way too much arugula over top of this pizza which kinda made it overly peppered.

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The final pizza was the Bianca – with roasted garlic, spicy capicollo, cherry tomatoes, bocconcini and herbs. This is one spicy pizza – a little too much for my liking personally. I was quite surprised at just how much the capicollo overpowered everything else on this pizza. I also would have enjoyed a bit more cheese on this one. Good but my least favourite of the four easily.

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Pizzeria Magpie is a solid entry in the Montreal pizza scene – and by far the best in Mile End in my eyes. The cocktail and oyster combo with the relaxed and intimate atmosphere make it a perfect place for a quick bite or drink before a larger meal – and that is without taking the pizzas into consideration. They also do weekend brunch now which intrigues me tremendously. Not my first choice for a pizza but close enough – both in quality and in location – for me to definitely be back in the near future.

Cheers!

Pizzeria Magpie
16 Maguire
514 507 2900

Pizzeria Magpie on Urbanspoon

Dirty Dogs

21 Aug

Every week (well almost anyway…), I head up the Main to Hof Kelsten for my dose of fresh rye or sourdough bread. Thinking about grabbing something different for lunch on one particular occasion, I was reminded that Dirty Dogs was only a minute away on foot serving up gourmet hot dogs. I had first heard of Dirty Dogs in the spring via some friends but never found the moment to go. My first chance had been during the Mont-Royal street fair earlier this summer but their free hot dog special that day created a lineup that snaked off Mont-Royal and down Saint-Laurent street so that didn’t happen. Seeming like the perfect lunch option in this instance, away I went with my loaf of bread in hand.

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Dirty Dogs is a small diner space with maybe 8 seats inside but thankfully there is a takeout window in the case where seating inside isn’t possible. The interior is a rustic diner look – dark wood bar counter, wood panels on the walls. It is a sparse space but functional. At least the music is a good mix as you wait for your order!

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The menu consists of 10 special dogs each with their own unique toppings and sausages. Each hot dog can also be modified for the vegetarians among us which is a cool touch from a hot dog place. To pair with the dogs, there are a number of sides and drinks to enjoy. Given that this was a solo mission on my first visit, I actually went back a second time to enjoy other items off the menu – good time I have a build-in excuse with my bakery of choice…

The side I tried was their mac n’ cheese – made to order nicely enough and topped with crispy bacon and green onions. Creamy enough but something didn’t click with me… perhaps the cheese wasn’t strong enough. Not sure to be honest. The bacon added some nice crunch although personally I would have preferred softer to get the fattiness into the macaroni. Might as well go full glutton.

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I went all in with my first visit so I ordered the “Maurice Richard” – Bourbon vanilla sausage with pan seared foie gras, bacon, 3 year old aged cheddar, caramlized onions and maple syrup. A pricy dog but one that packs a heck of a punch. The sweetness of the vanilla bourbon sausage is subtle but still noticeable which is a good thing given the sweet kick from the onions and the maple syrup. Add to that mix a general amount of foie gras and plenty of bacon and you have quite a hot dog on your hands! Only negative to me was the bun – i actually like the choice of bun used but they are barely served warm… I would preferred them more steamed or even grilled!

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For the second visit, I went a little more traditional in my choices. I ordered the “Denis Coderre” – Fine herb pork sausage, coleslaw, onions, yellow mustard and bagel seeds – with a side of regular fries and spicy mayo. Fine issue with the bun again. The hot dog itself is solid – you pick up the fine herb taste in the sausage, the coleslaw/onion/mustard combo is classic and continues to be so. The bagel seeds is an interesting addition that works well. The classic fries are exactly the kind of fries I like with my hot dogs – very reminiscent of your classic Belle Province/ Lafleur. The house spicy mayo had a nice kick to it as well. A solid second visit.

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All in all, Dirty Dogs is a solid bet from what I tried. I like the more unique approach to the dogs and the varied choices you have. The macaroni didn’t do it for me but I enjoyed the rest. The price on the higher end dogs may turn off some people used to more standard pataterie prices… same goes for waiting time since these dogs take longer than your regular steamey. Overall a worthwhile visit if you are in need of a bite near the plateau.

Cheers!

Dirty Dogs
25 Mont-Royal Est
514 508 3647

Dirty Dogs on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Gema

16 Aug

Ever since Stefano Faita and Michele Forgione of Impasto announced their second project would be a pizzeria, I have been eagerly anticipating its opening. The level of craft showed from them at Impasto left me no doubts that their approach of pizza would worth the wait. Each instagram post from Chef Forgione of his test runs made me more and more excited as we saw the level of perfectionism in its purest form. This pizza would be no slouch. Finally, at long last, I could find out for myself. Pizzeria Gema opened up last month just across the street from Impasto in the heart of Little Italy making the corner of Dante and St-Dominique an happening culinary corner.

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Gema itself is a relatively small restaurant – all of about 40 seats probably and they don’t take reservations, so you may have to wait to get in. In our case, we waited about 30 minutes. The nice part is that they will take your phone number down and call you so you can go from a walk or grab a drink elsewhere in the meantime. If you prefer, there is a takeout window on the side where you order a pizza to-go or some frozen custard. The interior is sparse but clean – old wood panels on the wall, aged hardwood on the floors with a weird light “tree” in the middle of the room adding some color to the space. The other focus point is the bar with its marble countertop although I got a good laugh that the bar chairs are the same Ikea ones I have in my apartment. The space isn’t a looker like its neighbour Impasto but that’s not an issue for me.

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The menu is small and concise. A few entrees, 8 or so pizza options and some frozen custard for dessert. As a starter, we went with the fried calamari. A nice portion of fresh calamari with a good crunch to them. They are served with a couple of lemon wedges, no mayo because they don’t need any sauce to enhance flavour. The calamari have plenty of flavours all by themselves.

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On the pizza side, we got 2 pizzas to enjoy. The first one was their basic “1889” margarita pizza with tomato sauce, fior di latte and fresh basil. The second one, because I am a huge meat-lovers fan, was the Giovanni Deluxe – tomato sauce, zampina, pepperoni, porchetta and lardo. Boy, did these pizzas not disappoint…. the pizza crust is just insane. Ridiculous. Whatever positive superlative you want to use applies to this dough. A nice crisp seer on the exterior without a single burnt spot to be seen…. and completely soft and moist inside. This level of dough mastery deserves the highest praise. Props to you Chef.

And we haven’t even gotten to the toppings yet. The classic margherita was excellent – the tomato sauce was tangy, the cheese creamy and rich, the basil brought that freshness and the overall ratio on the pizza was excellent – none of the ingredients were too present or not present enough. As for the Giovanni deluxe: house made pepperoni, the porchetta from Impasto, zampina, lardo…. this pizza had me from the description. Great combo of fatty rich meats on top of the base margherita. Simply heavenly. I just wished it had been bigger so I could enjoy it some more.

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Whatever you do however, make sure that you have room left for dessert because Gema has frozen custard… not ice cream but custard. The difference comes in terms of a richer, creamier texture which personally bought to mind a creamy version of Dairy Cream which hit childhood nostalgia for me every time. Gema has chocolate or vanilla so of course, we went with a twist of the two. There is also a handful of topping options – we went with crumbled baci, mixed nuts and butterscotch sauce. A perfect dessert for a pizzeria.

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Once again, Chefs Faita and Forgione hit it out of the park. Gema is a wonderful addition to the pizza scene in Montreal and for me, is currently the champion hands down. That crust means business. If they offered delivery to the McGill Ghetto, I would seriously be a weekly caller. At present, I will definitely be a regular visitor because they are other topping combinations I need to try and that pizza is too good to pass up for too long.

Cheers!

Pizzeria Gema
6827 Saint Dominique
514 419 4448

Pizzeria Gema on Urbanspoon

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