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Vacation Tamales

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

A hearty south-of-the-border “Hola” from here in sunny Mexico, where, resplendent in cheap sunglasses, I’m about to hunker down for a vacation week spent entirely prone on sand.

CHOW Tour’s over. But, as I said in the previous report, the CHOW Tour’s never over. So while my destination is the village of Sayulita (a vacation-from-chowhounding wonderland, in that none of the food’s bad, yet none is great), I can’t resist a bit of chowconnaissance on my way in from Puerto Vallarta. And since I have my camera along … well, you know.

So here we are again: you, me, and my food. But remember, I’m on vacation. It’s not my job to be reporting this. The following tamales are entirely from the goodness of my heart.

But my heart’s nowhere near as deep as that of Maria Candela. My lord. Did I ever really have tamales before? These are so much more vivid. I am moved, I am dumbfounded.

I was told to visit María Candelaria Tamales Artesanales (Guadalupe Sánchez no 851, Col. Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; 322-222-4603), which seems to be situated in Maria’s house. In the back, an eclectic assortment of vagabonds, hangers on, eager gringo intern girls, and grim masa wraiths sit at a long table, turning out tamales to feed an army. Yet I am the only customer seated in Maria’s parlor, eating this stirring food with the heightened emotional blaze and aroused flaring nostrils of a telenovela character. Keep the interns safely away, madam; the blood boils and I am not in full control of my bestial impulses.

Vacation means not having to focus the camera.

In front: the stunning tamal de costillita de cerdo (pork rib). In back: the blessed Oaxacan tamal (chicken with homemade mole negro).


The blessed Oaxacan tamal torn asunder to reveal its copious inner treasures.


Unthinkably soulful hot sauce. Would drink it down if it weren’t so scorching. May drink it down anyway.


Agua fresca. An entire two-week beach vacation in a ceramic mug. Impossibly tangy, frothy, fresh. Perfect sweetness.


Smutty leering close-up of the stunning tamal de costillita de cerdo.


I’ve called for more tamales. This time, Salvadoran tamal (with black beans, crema, and queso).

I finally understand crema. Not sour cream. Not runny white gook. This is a proud and distinct thing. I get it now.

I am not worthy of this tamal. Nor are you worthy to look at it. Don’t you dare click.


English menu.


<

Spanish menu.


I would feel unbearably regal, a Little Lord Fauntleroy relishing his edible riches in the silent, colorful parlor while squadrons of faceless serfs pound masa below, desperately trying to keep pace with my decadent consumption. Except it’s not like that. Maria is a gracious hostess, but it’s abundantly clear who’s got the power.

+ + +

We think of Puerto Vallarta as nothing but gringos on a beach. María Candelaria, as authentic and pure an oasis of Mexican culture as one can hope for, is only a couple of blocks from the beach. Once again, treasure is ripe for the picking even in unlikely places … so long as you’re willing to ferret it out!

Also great: Marisma Fish Tacos, an outdoor stand staffed entirely by Amazonian women who craft godhead fish and shrimp tacos in the middle of Naranjo Street, between Basilio Badillo and V. Carranza, near the exit of a tunnel.

There’s one place I spotted but didn’t get to try: great-looking spinning chickens in a nameless corner stand right near a very big, old, famous-seeming cigar store north of Marisma Fish
Tacos (just barely up in the main section of Puerto Vallarta).

+ + +

Sorry, but you can’t come with me to Sayulita. I will be, as I said, prone in sand. Not a posture lending itself to incisive reporting. However, I’ve tossed you the following relic, a video shot of some unfathomable religious event that went down one night in the town square. Don’t expect much to happen (though there are some moments). Just soak up the flavor and the music: Movie file.

Chow Tour Redux (or, Lots and Lots of Millet)

Queens, New York

I’ve been back home for a while now, steaming millet, leeks, and organic Swiss chard, and generally recovering. It’s time to wrap up nine weeks on the road, and to account for nearly 8,000 miles driven (plus many more flown) and several hundred restaurants, bakeries, and noshes sampled in 16 states and three Canadian provinces. To quote Johnny Cash, I been everwhere, man. I been everywhere. (Except, that is, for the Midwest, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, etc. ... future trips all!)

What I’ve Learned

1. You can go surprisingly far, surprisingly fast, by driving just two or three hours per day.

2. Vietnamese food is just about everywhere, something I hadn’t realized. When did pho become so ubiquitous?

3. Rooibos tea, a noncaffeinated herbal product from South Africa, is great. I first tried it in Lunenberg, and while I didn’t love it right away, I found it to be one of those things you must learn to appreciate. And it’s well worth the effort. Once you “get” this stuff, you notice subtle flavor undulations. Rooibos comes at you in waves. The brand to get seems to be the Gathering Place Trading Company. I recommend straight rooibos, though vanilla and other flavored variants are popular.

4. Tips for chowhounding in the South:

• Don’t be lured in by “creamed” potatoes (a mesmerizing name for regular old mashed potatoes, invariably instant).

• No nukes! (don’t let them microwave your dessert!).

• If you’re from New York City, one possible reply to those who ask, “Where are y’all from?” (a question carrying more baggage than carousel six at O’Hare), is that you’re from Seattle. I tried this just once, with good results. Seattle, I think, is the new Canada. Utterly neutral.

5. GPS units are a great chowhounding aid. This tour, like any true chowhounding adventure, was all about seat-of-pants whims and on-the-fly compulsions. Eartha, my GPS, made it vastly easier to range around freely without getting bogged down in plans, maps, and agendas.

As a bonus, Eartha could list, on command, all restaurants near the present location. This feature was used in two ways: I’d pick out a likely sounding restaurant (“Bubba’s Barbecue” good, “Ye Olde Rib Shack, LLC” bad), or I’d simply find a cluster of venues. That is, if I was in the middle of nowhere and hoping to find a commercial strip to hunt around in, I’d key in on nexuses. Even if all the listed choices seemed lame, I’d at least be in an area with possibilities.

The Big Conclusion

As I look back on some of the best—and most surprising—of the more upscale places I visited—for example, Canyon Grill, Damariscotta River Grill, Magnolia’s Grill, L’Orcio, Bianca’s, Au Pied de Cochon, and even, sort of, 12 Bones—I notice a common thread. They seem to exemplify a new style, which could be called “New Regional Cuisine.”

They share a deep respect for local foodways melded with unusually high standards in ingredient sourcing and preparation. The result isn’t brashly clever updates on local favorites (Au Pied de Cochon’s flashy foie gras poutine notwithstanding). Rather than straining for “inventive new takes on tired classics,” these kitchens perform a feat of culinary archaeology: reversing decades of shortcuts and bastardizations to rediscover the living soul of traditional preparations.

You won’t find such restaurants in New York or Los Angeles. They appear further from the trends and groupthink, where tradition runs deeper. These bicultural chefs are deeply steeped in tradition, yet are as hip, urbane, and skilled as their big-city counterparts. Their touch is deft and smart. And they are revitalizating, rather than reinventing, regional cooking.

The chowder, fried chicken, barbecue, fish cakes, catfish, gnocchi, caribou, and maple pudding I had at these places were more than crowd pleasers well done. Despite the seeming contradiction, these chefs manage cooking that’s both authentic and personal. Sophistication serves only the end result; pretentious touches are unthinkable.

Finally, whereas most upscale restaurants feel obliged to justify premium prices via overt gestures of status, these places do it via quality alone. Status buttons are never pressed; deliciousness is both means and end. As a result, you are pleasantly surprised by experiences that are better than you’d expected. The luster of this overachievement is irresistible.

The Even Bigger Conclusion

Every few years the Food Gods recalculate the value of various cuisines. When I was a child, raw fish was a disgusting, barbarian thing to eat, German food was deemed fancy, and Italians, who melted cheese over everything, were not to be taken seriously for anything more than a colorful “ethnic” experience.

Since then, the list of anointed cuisines has shuffled as frequently as the list of good-for-you foods. This fickle inanity has eroded the notion that any given group cooks better or worse than any other. Diners who’ve experienced standout meals in less-respected genres learn to pay less attention to cuisine and more to individual rendition.

The Gods decided some time ago that Cantonese banquet food is as sophisticated as French, and that we needn’t deduct points for all the lousy Chinese takeout places. The lesson should be this: Bad doesn’t detract from good. Cuisines are deliciousness-neutral; quality is in the rendition. This once seemed like outrageous rhetoric, but diners are catching on to the fact that deliciousness is deliciousness, period.

But though we’re getting hipper about other people’s food, we still harbor prejudices about our own. The Midwest is bland and drab, Canada east of Montreal is a wasteland, everything in the South is fried, and New York City is awash with great delis. We take these truisms—all wrong, by the way—as gospel, dismissing vast realms of potential deliciousness. Great renditions dispute generalizations everywhere you go.

If I didn’t fully believe that before, I sure do now. After something like 600 meals in mostly unlikely locales, I can confirm that deliciousness can be found most everywhere, and that anything can be great if cooked by the right hands. Treasure is ripe and low on the trees, easily discovered if one ignores conventional wisdom and plunges in with openness and passion.

The End?

When I was assigned this project, my employer confirmed that I’d be entitled to weekends off, which helped the assignment seem more viable.

What was I thinking? Here’s how it really went: I’d wake up on the morning of my supposed “day off.” Before long, I’d grow hungry and head out to rustle up a bite. What do you suppose I was going to do, grab some Wendy’s? No, I went out and chowhounded, of course. And, because I’d hate to miss good material, I’d grab camera, notebook, and recorder. And you know how the rest went. Off I’d go on adventures, tantalized by the hunt.

So … no days off!

But what is a day off from chowhounding? Eating poorly? This question haunted me throughout the trip. Even at the airport in Montreal with my stupid fajitas at a waiting-room bar, feeling as off-duty as I could possibly be, it was all still fodder for an unholy amalgam of work/play/life. There’s a fine line (OK, no line whatsoever) between “the tour” and 1. other reporting I do, 2. the general chowconnaissance necessary to keep my knowledge up to date, and 3. my own personal life, given that we humans not only live to eat, but must, several times per day, eat to live … and I strongly resist doing so undeliciously.

All this troubled me in a way it never had before. The sheer intensity and staggering length of the assignment held a lens up to the chowhound’s existential abyss. My friends keep asking me when the CHOW Tour will be over. I just stare glassily into space. I don’t know how to explain to them that the CHOW Tour is never over.

Physical Toll

As noted in report #8, for the first few weeks I actually lost weight. At home, every day is Ramadan; I tend to forget to eat until dinner. The tour forced me to have small bites throughout the day, which is healthier—that’s what, like, models do!—so long as the bites stayed small.

And they did stay small for many weeks. My discipline was strong; no matter how delicious things got, I managed to sample rather than devour. The prototypical moment came at the Farmer’s Market Restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I brought to my mouth an achingly beautiful leg of fried chicken, took a bite, numbly pronounced it the best I’d ever had, sighed, and asked for the check.

But then came Maine, where strawberry shortcake is everywhere. You’ve got to understand—I’d been in a state of strawberry shortcake frustration for decades. I always want it, and can never get it (at least not a good version). So I can’t resist it. And one can easily appreciate how, darting as I did into a dozen or so venues per day, most of them serving sensational strawberry shortcake, I’d find myself ingesting several helpings per day.

Even then, it was just a few bites per shortcake. But still, it added up. And as time rolled by, discipline slackened. It started getting bad in report #50, where I found myself too full to order anything of substance in a particularly great restaurant. At the end of that report you can hear a wailing, raving podcast recorded in the parking lot of a diner where, later that same evening, I’d gorged on walnut pie.

After that, it’s all a blur, culiminating in a full-out bacchanal in Newfoundland, several days of giddy delirium in Montreal, and finally, two weeks spent lost in a malarial blaze in various hotels California.

Even at my overconsumptive peak, I wasn’t doing, like, competitive eating. Overconsumption in this context means finishing a cup of chowder, eating several bites of shortcake, and clearing the occasional whole plate of cod tongues. But when you’re hitting several restaurants per day, even that is going too far.

I’ve given myself a nasty case of high blood pressure, and my blood sugar fleetingly edges toward the danger zone. I’ve gained 10 or 15 pounds, and thus we’ve opened this report with an image of me with my millet and organic Swiss chard. The millet, sans salt or sauce, tastes great to me, though. Baseline, sweet baseline!

My Dream

In my dream, I discard camera, notebook, and recorder, and do the trip all over again … but only hitting the best spots. And instead of darting in and out like an appetite-less mercenary gripped by looming deadlines, I’m fully hungry for each and every meal. I take my time. I linger. I indulge in more than a single bite of each item. And rather than sniff around for interesting stories, I simply enjoy the experiences.

Chowconnaissance is rigorous advance work that one does in order to suavely say, at some future point, “Oh, I know just the place …” Pleasure is deferred in the interest of compiling knowledge and finding finds. But at this point I’ve got more deferred assets than Warren Buffet’s 401(k).

If I were to live out this dream, however, I have no doubt that I’d soon fly off the map, chasing leads and gleefully trying to top my own finds. And, hey, where’s my camera?

Letters from Detox

Here’s an instant-message conference I had with my friends Pat and Chris (both of whom you met during the tour) as I launched my detox:

Jim:
It’s a historic night! I actually cooked my own dinner!

Pat:
Tell us.

Jim:
Millet. Swiss chard. Broccoli. And carrots.

Chris:
Yea for you!

Jim: Now here’s the thing
As this lite cuisine filters through my digestive tract,
the question is:
will I be able to go to sleep without running out for tacos?

Chris:
Make popcorn

Pat:
Drink water

Jim:
I thought you guys might want to get a betting pool going.

Chris:
hmm

Pat:
You’re not going anywhere.

Jim:
You must wager amongst yourselves

Pat:
Well, I bet no

Jim:
No salt
Just freakin’ millet
Do I know how to live or what?

Pat:
Never had millet

Jim:
It’s what the Chinese ate before they found rice

Pat:
Any good?

Jim:
It’s like couscous only heavier and mealier. It’s quite literally birdseed.

Pat:
Oh

Jim:
But it’s not all grim. I have dessert awaiting me whenever I’m ready.
It’s…
an ORANGE

Pat:
Don’t go overboard, Jim.

Jim:
I feel like I’ve stepped onto this strange planet
It’s all very trippy
Like the final scene of 2001
Low gravity…
Scary music…
Tall unfathomable monoliths hulking in the distance…

Pat:
Maybe you’re hallucinating

Jim:
Might well be.

Recap

Here is a slide show of nearly everything I ate, in chronological order. Warning:
This is for die-hard chowhounds only! It goes on … and on … and on …

Acknowledgments

Muito obrigado: Jan Albert, Stella Amar, Jennifer and Lucy Bain, Officer Bill Barrett (of the Mount Vernon, Kentucky, Police Department), Les Blank, Elizabeth Bougerol, Jim Cianiolo, Dick Demenus, Eartha, Bob Feinn, April Furey, Leo Gaev, Bob Garner, Peter Genovese, Costas Halavrezos (and the gang at CBC Halifax), Bob and Cindy Hamburger, Pat Hammond, Jack and Thelma Hewitt, Joel Hirsch, David Hoffman and Bea, David Kahn, Jon and Pam Kalish, Michael Krall, Renee Krimsier, JB Leibovitch, Limster, Fred Manny (and Fred’s dentist), Yuri Meyrowitz, Robert Mitchell (and Natasha), Thi Nguyen, David Normann, Kristie Perry, Jacques Poitras, Tom Philpott, Jeff Pinney, Wesley Reid, Shuji Sakai, Jacquilynne Schlesier, Dave Sit, Barry Strugatz, Elisa Sunshine (who sings the Chowhound jingle in the podcasts), Steve Sutherland, Keith Underwood, Chris Vander Rhodes, Claire Yannacone, Robert and Minnie (of Minnie’s Restaurant in Bardstown, Kentucky), Daniel and Jonathan (the parking guys), the staff of Davies CPM emergency room, and the girl in the Methodist pancake tent who taught me how to use my camera.

And at CNET/CHOW: Emily Hobson, Elissa Rabellino, Davina Baum, Eric Slatkin, Douglas H. Crawford, and, of course, Jane Goldman and Mike Tatum.

Thanks, most of all, to everyone who cooks with heart and soul and aims for more than maximal profit from minimal effort. And to all my fellow chowhounds who, in refusing to settle, help keep those holdouts, geniuses, and kooks going.

The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement

Lagunitas, California

After several days spent unbudgingly horizontal, I’ve segued from my slimming diet of Gatorade and Pedialyte to a heartier regimen of BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast). I’m relatively strapping with good health and decide to take my scheduled flight to San Francisco. A change of venue will do me good! At the very least, it’s an opportunity to switch my diet from BRAT to BART.

The flight goes well, and I arrive in San Francisco feeling wobbly but more or less human. I get a good night’s sleep and wake up far more ill than ever before. Bam!

And I remain sick as a dog for several more days. Finally, CHOW editor-in-chief Jane Goldman intervenes, shuttling me to an emergency room for rehydration and antibiotics (I may have started with a virus, but it’s definitely bacterial at this point). I fall in love with the Davies CPM emergency room. After spending the better part of two weeks stranded alone in impersonal hotel rooms trying to cope, people here are taking care of me, smartly and efficiently collaborating to make me feel better. The nurse turns out to be a fan of Chowhound, and I somehow manage to banter weakly with her about restaurants, though at this point I haven’t eaten solid food for as long as I can remember. I don’t want to ever leave the emergency room.

Several days later, on the eve of my flight back to New York, I’m nearly 100 percent, so I drive north to pay a visit to the legendary David Hoffman. Dinner with David (a tea authority who founded the legendary importing company Silk Road Teas, which he subsequently sold) is the appropriate reward after such an ordeal.

David has been, for years now, building a temple in the mist—a series of structures and installations ranging up the flank of a mountain in Marin County. He asked me not to photograph the grounds, a sprawling in-progress work of art with wooden boats afloat in concrete seas, pagoda-roofed temples, glass-enclosed tea-tasting dens, and millions of worms feeding on human excrement (David’s a pioneering expert on natural recycling, and his entire compound runs on, well, shit). But I did squeeze off this shot as I passed through the tunnel under the Buddha pool:

The great fascinations of David Hoffman’s life are poo and pu-erh (pronounced “poo AIR”), an earthy tea, often sold in blocks, that can be aged for years. He brings it back from his innumerable trips to China, where he’s fond of trekking into remote mountain villages, barging uninvited into the homes of perfect strangers, and doing tea with them. He is inevitably welcomed, in spite of his lack of Mandarin skills, out of a combination of utter stupefaction and a nonverbal understanding that this dude Really Knows Tea.

David, a stubbornly iconoclastic rascal, has worked as a race car driver, a recording engineer, and a dozen other things. He has some murky association with Tibet that I don’t fully understand, and he lives with his wife, Bea, who, along with a slow-burning silent Mexican assistant (whom I think of as Gromit to David’s Wallace), is helping to build this complex, whose ultimate purpose seems somewhat fuzzy in concept but downright Olympian in ambition.

Bea is as much of a character as David. She’s Thai, whip-smart, hysterically funny, and an incredible chef. She and David (who’s also a fine chef) cook their own unique cuisine in their dark, dank, charming wooden kitchen halfway up the mountain. One can taste touches of Thailand, Tibet, China, California, Brooklyn, and many other places in everything they make, but the sum is an impossibly delicious amalgam unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. I’ve spent hours watching them both cook … not taking my eyes off their hands for a moment, yet never catching the trick behind the magic.

Each has a station. David hunches on a low stool in front of a huge wood-burning stove that appears to date back millennia, where he methodically whittles down knobs of ginger and other earthy things fetched from burlap sacks deep within a storeroom, some items grown here on the mountain, others brought back from various journeys. He builds a mighty fire in the oven and, while telling tales of varying tallness, gradually flings tubers and lord knows errant what into a cauldron. Bea, meanwhile, mans the range near the sink, sustaining a pitch of highly controlled frenzy, darting around stirring, chopping, teasing her husband, and wailing about how the entire meal is going catastrophically wrong.

It seems like you’ve spent hours squatting on a wooden block in the midst of this scene, feeling as if you’ve been transported to a yurt on the Tibetan high plateau, complete with wind whistling outside past the eaves. You’d swear the kitchen’s dusky lamps are fueled by yak butter, even though it can’t possibly be so. Neither David nor Bea could possibly be so, either, so your compass can’t entirely be trusted.

You descend to the table to sip some of David’s aged beers and a good bottle of wine you’ve brought along (for those who bring merely ordinary wine, David tends to brew relatively ordinary tea).

Then, suddenly, the rafters rain food. Zillions of dishes (did they really make all that stuff?) appear, set down on the low table where you eat reclining on burlappy cushions scattered with pillows. You eat and eat and eat—familiar things that taste completely different than expected, and unfamiliar things whose flavor can be neither described nor later recalled. Not one recipe has a name, and not one bite is less than superb. It’s spicy, garlicky, magical cooking that evokes no previous dining experiences. The photos can’t begin to capture it.

After dinner, David passes you a mysterious bottle …

... and you find that it’s snake in herbed brandy:

You choke down a small cupful, and the strong medicinal herbs and unctuous sweaty reptilian juju knock you further off compass.

Then David casually asks whether you’d like some tea. Even though you don’t ordinarily drink tea after meals—even though it’s late and you’re afraid that tea at this point might keep you up—you immediately and enthusiastically agree. Yes, David. Sure, I’ll have a little tea.

He retreats into one of the tea aging/staging areas, and emerges to hand you a tiny thimble of a cup, filled with about six sips of greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue. You sip. And you quietly gasp.

Only after the ingestion of much snake brandy does David permit you to photograph him (not wanting to push your luck, you don’t even attempt to photograph Bea—who, being a sprite, likely can never be recorded on film anyway):

Could there possibly have been a better reintroduction to the pleasures of the table than this? It’s a pity that my West Coast trip was such a disaster, but as I learned in Kentucky, the loftiest peaks appear only after you pass through a ring of fire. There’s a certain purity to ending my long voyage with a single intoxicatingly delicious meal in the dim, warm, yurtlike kitchen on the misty mountain of David and Bea. I may be only a half-hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I feel, as I settle back into the pillows and savor my tea, like I’ve traveled unfathomably far.

Big Dog Down

Los Angeles

A horrendous stomach flu is ravaging the West Coast, and my digestive tract is ground zero. After waking up violently ill with high fever, I somehow manage to trek from my hotel to a nearby 7-Eleven to pick up an array of stomach medications and electrolyte-rich sports drinks.

Next to the 7-Eleven is, somewhat miraculously (a hallucination?), a great-looking place called M & M Mississippi Home Cooking (5496 West Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, California; 310-215-8186).

This find under these conditions could only be providence, and providence must never be ignored … however much I’d like to run screaming in the other direction. So I stoically pull myself together and walk in to place my takeout order. In light of my utter lack of appetite and stomach like a vortex of everything evil, I stick to vegetables …

... plus the good corn muffins that came with:

I don’t eat very much, and am not of much mind for detail, but I manage to grimly determine that this is some relatively serious soul food.

I somehow get back to the hotel, where I spend the better part of a week not venturing from my room and consuming only Pedialyte and Gatorade. My sole contact with the outside world comes from the increasingly urgent pounding on my door by housekeeping ladies who’ve begun to wonder whether to ask the rescue squad to break in and remove the corpse.

Adopted by Fijians, Moved by Koreans, and a Defense of Apple Pan

Culver City and Los Angeles

It’s showtime at Fiji Market (10305 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-559-9218). As I recounted in report #63, I’d arranged with the disembodied husband of a smiling Fijian grocery counterwoman for said wife to whip me up some Fijian victuals. I arrive at the appointed hour and find husband (in the flesh!) and wife giddy about this unfamiliar transaction, which seems to have broken up the doldrums of market management.

This encounter is so far off their script that the happy Fijians don’t know how to handle me. Apparently never having prepared food as a commercial endeavor before, they bestow my order as if I were family, with such heartfelt hospitality that I, a perfect stranger, feel almost embarrassed. Money has not been mentioned. I offer $20, and, eager not to linger on financials, the husband hastily nods and abashedly scrunches the bill into his pocket, immediately resuming his heartfelt sendoff.

I leave with about 15 pounds of takeout containers. There are three
dishes, in all, whose names (as dictated by the owner) I’ve noted on
this scrap of paper:

Portions, as expected, are enormous. I now find myself the owner of a vast pile of tubers …

... a sea of thick, gurky taro leaf in coconut cream …

... and countless plump segments of crudely hacked fish peeking from beneath piles of wet English cabbage.

It’s ingenuous, artless, sturdy cooking whose soul is in its grounded earthiness. I have been plunged into the full, unfiltered Fijian experience, as if I’d magically appeared in someone’s home for lunch. And I couldn’t be happier.

+ + +

Apple Pan (10801 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, California; 310-475-3585), a venerable greasy spoon, is controversial. Some Angelenos love it, often with an apology, but many deem it utterly generic. I’d never eaten there, because natives beg me to save limited digestive real estate for the city’s really good offerings.

But I was craving baseline, and what’s more baseline than burger, fries, and pie? Indeed, do photos exist that can more deeply stir one’s red-blooded American heart than these?

There are those who summarily reject french fries made from frozen, burgers made from preformed patties, ice cream with low butterfat content, and generally any food item prepared from ordinary, unrefined ingredients. While I have an abiding respect for strong food preferences, I feel sorry for these ingredient materialists, because they miss realms of deliciousness.

Some of us are used to our food hitting certain buttons and striking certain notes. Nothing at Apple Pan clears the gourmet’s high bar. Their fare can’t possibly do for you precisely what ground-to-order sirloin and hand-cut fries will do. But one must learn to sometimes drop expectations, and be submerged in an experience.

I’m more concerned with what’s done with ingredients than with their individual characteristics. The goal of cooking (as with any art) is to produce a result exceeding the sum of its parts … so why get hung up on the parts? To me, poor ingredients brilliantly applied are preferable to terrific ones applied even slightly less deftly.

All kinks have long ago been worked out of Apple Pan’s system. These guys produce a flawless rendition of what they aim to produce, and that’s only a problem for those whose expectations are fixed and inflexible. There is personality and perfection in Apple Pan’s cooking that only a snob could fail to appreciate.

+ + +

I’ve been slightly obsessed with a little restaurant called Korean Folk Cuisine (4251 West Third Street, Los Angeles, California; 213-384-7147) without ever having tried it. I spied the place while driving by during my last visit to Los Angeles, my chow-dar redlined, and ever since then I’ve nursed a groundless conviction that they serve North Korean cuisine. It’s been a top priority to check out on my next trip … and that means now!

I was half-right. It is definitely great … but it ain’t North Korean. Just straight-down-the-middle Korean victuals, prepared with uncommon care and aplomb, and served by a happy crew of nice women. I’d need a few more meals to be sure, but Korean Folk Cuisine (I’m guessing a better translation might be “Korean Soul Food Restaurant”) is a strong contender for being my favorite Korean restaurant.

Most righteous panchan (freebie appetizer plates).

Oh, sublime luxury: pajun (crispy pancake) served as gratis panchan!

Poetic sprouts.

Stir-fried octopus in spicy sauce. Superb.

Raw oyster, boiled pork belly, and, pickles, all for wrapping up in raw napa cabbage. A voluptuary experience like no other.

Near-perfect haemul pajun (seafood pancake).

Happy table.

The menu.

+ + +

Thi Nguyen is crazy about the cold, refeshing, palate-and-soul-cleansing hand-pulled noodles at Ma Dang Gook So (869 South Western Avenue, Los Angeles, California; 213-487-6008), and he drags me there after the Korean banquet for what he bills as nothing less than a spa treatment via noodles.

Naengymul (spicy cold noodle).

Here are three shots of soybean-milk cold noodles:

+ + +

Habayit (11921 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, California; 310-479-5444) looks like a good falafel place. I snap a photo as I drive by:

Chowus Interruptus En Route to L.A.

We’re off to California! Swimmin’ pools! Movie stars! (cue banjo music).

The goal had been to more or less do the continent in a little over two months, but that proved impossible. I couldn’t move faster than I did and still find finds. In fact, I’m surprised that I found as much as I did, given the frenetic pace. But what’s needed is some regional balance (and, of course, East L.A. fish tacos), so here I am, winging my way westward.

I had scant time back home to indulge my escalating desire for tofu and oatmeal. It’s been particularly difficult to suppress my wild hankering for skim milk—you know, the extra-thin, almost blue-hued sort of skim milk? I can’t get it out of my mind. But that must wait. There’s reporting to be done.

I’m meeting Angeleno friends for dinner, and am reserved at the swell Hotel Ambrose in Santa Monica tonight (the sole night this week they’re not stratospherically priced). I’ve got my shades and my tanning lotion, and here I am, walking, in a blaze of hunger, around some godforsaken frozen suburb of Chicago at 9:30 p.m.

Why am I here? I missed my connection. Airline has put me up in some glaring fluorescent airport barracks, far from downtown (while I simultaneously pay for the Hotel Ambrose). All around me is nothing but chain food. And I haven’t had supper.

I sit in my dank room surfing furiously for local tips, and Chowhound delivers a few. I organize and prioritize, call a cab, and discover that 20 Chicago blocks is nothing like 20 New York City blocks. We drive and drive—about $22 worth—finally arriving at an eatery that’s dark as a cave. We try a second option, and it, too, is closed for the night. I concede defeat (the cabbie feels awful for me), and return to my hotel … another 22 bucks. Nearby is a Marriott, and I hit the bar (Dempsey’s Irish American Grill) for a sullen bite. Behold, if you dare, my supper—an unthinkably greasy corned beef monstrosity, a misbegotten Irish fusion dish with “Reuben” in the name:

(It’s blurry ‘cuz you’re viewing through layers of bitter disappointment.)

I should have eaten at the airport. Midway’s food court, it turns out, is one of the best in the nation. I even spotted Unique pretzels in the gift shop.

+ + + + + +

A new day. Let’s start again.

Ah, California! Swimmin’ pools! Movie stars! Here I am being driven on the jaunty cart in shimmering sunshine across the massive Hertz parking lot at LAX (that’s more like it!):

And here I am, ogling French pastries in a bakery whose legacy sign promises strudel (the current regime, which is French, still makes strudel, but it doesn’t look very good … though Frenchier things look great):

Here I am peering into the kitchen (that’s strudel they’re rolling out in the back):

And here are a very nice lemon curd tart (smooth and sharp), an even better peach tart (cookie-like crust dovetailing into moist, almost ricotta-like wetness just beneath the filling). And a vestigial éclair.

A friend and I (with a reporter in tow) had spotted the sign for Old Vienna Strudel Company—now Artisan Tatin (10836 1/2 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-280-0282)—while heading down Washington Boulevard, and we continue along this promising corridor.

+ + +

Fiji Market (10305 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-559-9218) has an exciting sign, but there’s dismayingly no ready-to-eat food in this grocery store.

Desperately disappointed, I turn to the woman behind the counter, and ask if she cooks. Oh, yes, she certainly does! Wonderful; then is there any chance I can commission her to make me some take-out? Well … I’ll have to talk to her husband.

She dials her cordless phone and hands me the headset. I’ll recount, Bob Newhart-style, only my side of the conversation:

“Uh … hi? I’m at Fiji Market and I’d like, uh, your wife to make me some takeout food, and she said I needed to talk to you….

“Wow, great. Shall I stop by at lunchtime?...

“No, I’ll eat anything. I only want really serious Fujian stuff, though. Very very spicy!...

“OK, hold on, here’s your wife …”

And thus did the disembodied voice make it so. A rendezvous has been arranged for several days hence.

+ + +

Fassica Ethiopian Restaurant (10401 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-815-8463) looks good and is good. It may not be the best Ethiopian I’ve ever had, but it’s in the upper echelon. Very friendly people, and the coffee ceremony is unskimping—lots of metal spoon scraping at the metal pan in which the beans were roasted over fire (music to my ears!), the waitress bringing the beans for not just us but all other tables to sniff at as well, etc., etc. Nice!

This looks and tastes just like corned beef hash.

+ + +

Surfas Restaurant Supply & Gourmet Food (8777 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-559-4770) is a cool gourmet and cookware store, and I get a bunch of things next door from Café Surfas (8777 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 310-558-1458), all quite good:

A worthy potato chip brand, previously unknown to me.

As we munch canelés outside, the reporter interviews me about Chowhound. I note that I don’t always agree with all food opinions on the site. He interrupts, with a smirk, “Right, and you delete those.” Horrified, I point out that I explicitly encourage contrary views on even my favorite places, because the mission is to gather the widest spectrum of diverse opinions. The smirk only widens. Ah, I’ve been set up. But thankfully my appetite’s unaffected. There’s lots more to giddily explore on a beautiful sunshiny day!

+ + +

Beverage Warehouse (4935 McConnell Ave, #21, Los Angeles, California; 310-306-2822) is hidden in back of an obscure little wholesale-food park. Great bourbon selection, interesting beers and wines, and low prices.

Nearby in the same eerie cul de sac, 43 Eleven is an Italian-import place with a very modest handpicked selection (including some serious cheeses), but the owner’s nice and really into it. I bet there’s treasure here for those willing to take the time to ferret it out.

Update: it looks like 43 Eleven just went out of business. Shoot …

+ + +

Father’s Office (1018 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, California; 310-393-2337) looks like a boxy drag on a pricey strip, but good food and drink create their own ambiance. They have a great, carefully selected draft beer list:

... and equal care goes into their wine choices:

(we opt for beer):

... and into their delicious, over-described dishes:

The dregs of an Office burger (with dry-aged beef, carmelized onion, applewood bacon compote, Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, arugula).

Braised pork bellies with beer and yadda yadda (heavy on the yadda, but delicious).

Magical Lebanese Time Portal Bakery

Montreal, St-Hubert, and St-Lambert, Quebec

Boulangerie Zaatar (151 rue de Castelnau Est, Montreal; 514-274-4775) may be the find of the week. To all appearances, it’s a generic little Middle Eastern bakery. The owner, a sad-eyed older Lebanese gentleman, keeps an extremely low profile. There’s nothing about the shop’s exterior or interior, in the speech or manner of the proprietor, or in the display or range of his wares to indicate that anything special is going on here.

Even the baked goods themselves taste so artless at first bite that their grandeur is easy to miss. They’re neither fancy nor painstaking; this is a commercial bakery. But those weary of syrupy, vulgar Middle Eastern pastries ought to thrill to the quiet subtlety and soulfulness of Boulangerie Zaatar. You can taste the lineage—this is how Middle Eastern baking tasted a very long time ago. When this wizard—long may he live—is gone, a rare tunnel to Pastries Past will close. You can see him in the window in this photo (though unfortunately not his kind, intelligent, sad eyes):

Baklava is stupendously light. I wish I could adequately recount the profound experience of teeth penetrating the pastry’s inner reaches.

One trick is the use of slightly “ripe” ghee. Middle Eastern pastries lack the requisite nutty complexity if fresh butter’s used; tradition is to let the butter turn a bit … but not too much. You won’t find this mentioned in cookbooks (which is one of the reasons not to take cookbooks too seriously!).

These sesame cookies are masterpieces.

... as are these butter cookies.

Half zaatar/half cheese bread is the epitome of class.

He makes a few savory items, which show a deft touch even though they’re not his forte. Crispy sambusas are oily as all get-out, yet don’t at all taste it. I admire the bracing hit of vinegar in the grape leaves. Here’s the last one … clearly not long for this world:

Kibbe, perfectly fried, with lots more flavor layering than usual.

The remnants of some spinachy item that I, for some forgotten reason, felt obliged to show you before its final decimation.

The wizard watched me out of the corner of his eye while I munched, thinking I’d not notice. He’s used to people not noticing. I get the feeling nobody’s paid any attention to him in a long, long time. And I hope that changes.

+ + +

Montreal is such a wonderland of worldwide dining that it’s easy to forget that the city has its own culinary traditions. The acknowledged mecca of French Canadian soul food in Montreal is La Binerie Mont-Royal (367 Mont-Royal just west of St-Denis, Montreal; 514-285-9078). I love their breakfasts and their lunches, so we got both.

The innocent-looking sausage below is actually stellar—plenty of snap plus an erotically creamy interior. And the toast (what Anglo Canadians call “campfire toast”) is great, and definitely not the sort of thing you’d ever expect to find in a restaurant. This is the place to hit for the sort of stuff you’d never expect to find in a restaurant.

That’s “toupie ham,” and those crepes are ever so buckwheaty.


No sugar in these beans at all; just tons of fat.


Some lardy condiment.

Nonalcoholic “spruce beer” offers all the pleasure of sucking on patio furniture, but Montrealers are very proud of it, so I pretend to like it:

The affable waiter demonstrates the ritualized pouring routine, inverting the bottle to be sure all the resinous sediment (mmm … resinous sediment!) makes it into the fragrant pour:


I don’t recall which dessert this is, but it was charming simple goodness.

+ + +

After many weeks of ceaseless rambling, I was feeling pent-up in the city, so we crossed some bridges and drove around the ‘burbs, letting serendipity do its thing. I lightly freaked out upon spotting Bistro des Bières Belges (2088 Montcalm, St-Hubert, Quebec; 450-465-0669)

We ordered a number of esoteric Flemish and Walloon ales from the meticulously handpicked beer list:

And we asked for an order of carbonnade, the hearty Belgian stew dosed with strong, fruity beer:

Though these guys are Canadian, their carbonnade precisely evoked versions I’ve had in Belgium. The beef was properly tender and pot-roasty, and spicing was right on (lacking salt, though). Frites were crisp on the outside but luxuriously soft and potatoey inside. They came with homemade mayonnaise for dipping, and it was tangy, creamy perfection—even better than the mayo at Frite Aloors.

The owner’s a true believer, and it saddens me that suburban locals may fail to flock to his tidy place, quaff his weirdo beers, and acclimate themselves to Belgian home cooking. We were discussing food, and he recommended a charcuterie near the border called Charcuterie Stefan Frick (69 rue de l’Église Nord, Lacolle, Quebec). He also raved about duck from Knowlton, which by the time you read this he’ll likely be serving at the bistro. I subsequently found an interesting article on Knowlton duck.

+ + +

I found this awesome little cheese shop: L’Échoppe des Fromages (12 rue Aberdeen, St-Lambert, Quebec; 450-672-9701).

The store was crowded, so I didn’t make much headway into the cheese offerings, but I did pick up a brownie and a pastel de nata from their small but intense selection of baked goods. The former was exceptionally fluffy, with a brittle parchment-like top, and the latter was brilliant, though quite sweet. It’s impressive that Portuguese culture penetrates even out here in the boonies!

+ + +

I’d always wanted to try Restaurant Daou (519 Faillon Est, Montreal; 514 276-8310), especially because there’s such a dearth of good Lebanese in New York City these days. My friends Yuri and Stella have made a religion out of the place, which specializes in grilled meats of unusually high quality. Service is awful and ambiance feels like 1958 suburban bourgeois, but it’s all about the food.

I’d never had kibbe made with raw meat (kibbe nayyeh) and figured a restaurant known for quality meats would be the perfect venue. But they were out of kibbe nayyeh and served us, instead, kofta nayyeh—a.k.a. steak tartare. It wasn’t terribly interesting, but was nicely moist and unctuous, and a terrific combination with the mint and onion, eaten with bits of pita bread.

Excellent fattoush (salad with pita croutons and a dusting of sumac).

Daou’s mezzes (appetizers) are just OK.

Again, it’s about the meat, and I thrilled to a platter of shish-kebab and grilled chicken. The latter was highly marinated and impossibly moist. The shish-kebab was made from filet mignon, which was pure luxury—not just because of the unusually high-class meat, but because of the kitchen’s careful timing in broiling this finicky cut. Meats come with good saltless french fries and good-not-great toom (homemade fluffy garlic mayonnaise).

Desserts are as exemplary as the meats. In the photo below, the red cruet contains rosewater syrup for pouring on the pudding in the foreground.

The pudding’s real good, but the tayef is astounding:

+ + +

The next day, I find myself ensconced in the bar at the Montreal airport, where there’s been a major flight delay, and I have no idea when I’ll get home. The very cultured bartender just told me the chicken quesadillas were the most survivable option, and I snickered as I realized I was about to ingest my first meal-as-sustenance in over two months. My camera’s stowed away, and it’s time to mindlessly just eat.

But no. The quesadillas here at Le Bar Sportif inside Trudeau airport are surprisingly good. Authentically Mexican? Of course not. But I gobbled them happily. Plus, the bar pours Trevini Primo, a delightful merlot from Mondo del Vino MGM.

An airport score is the sweetest score of all.

I’m typing away at the bar, unsure which city I’ll be sleeping in tonight. But I’m unconcerned. Between the fajitas, the wine, and my uprootedness—and, above all, my conviction, much reinforced over the past nine weeks, that greatness is everywhere—I just don’t see why it matters all that much where I wind up. Even the airport’s pretty good!

+ + +

EPILOGUE: Montreal Leftovers

A few places I tried but couldn’t fit into my reports:

Patisserie Chow’s Pastry Shop (16 de La Gauchetière Est, Montreal; 514-904-0650) Good pork buns and coconut buns at a little bakery that’s somewhat hidden in Chinatown.

Restaurant Uyghur (1017 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal; 514-393-8808) was disappointing, but it’s a rare and interesting cuisine (that can be better sampled in Toronto and in Queens), which falls squarely at the intersection of Central Asian and Chinese.

La Casa del Habano (1434 Sherbrooke West, Montreal; 514 849-0037) is a cool cigar lounge that’s part of a Havana-based chain! Cool, elegant décor—you feel like you’re in an upscale cigar box. There’s a full bar, but they maintain the atmosphere of a relaxed living room. And the cigar selection’s great, including the luxest of lux, the holiest of holies: Trinidad Robustos (which we puffed expansively).

And I failed to follow up on a tip from my redoubtable chowhound friend Yuri:

“I encourage you to try my Chinese place … Bon Ble Riz on St-Lawrence between De Maisonneuve and Ste-Catherine … on weekend evenings the chef does a demo of noodle-making … the Bon Bon chicken and Orange Beef are world-class, as are the peanut-flavored dumplings …

As I surfed the Web to grab address/phone info for these reports, I found some impressive Web pages:

The Montreal Poutine site.

Good article on Montreal bagels.

Jeremy & Vinita’s Montreal Restaurant Guide.

Mallory’s Vegetarian/Vegan Guide to Montreal.

Astounding Macrobiotic (Not a Typo!)

Montreal

La Pâtisserie Belge (3485 Avenue du Parc, Montréal, Quebec; 514-845-1245) makes some of the best croissants in town.


Ah, to be an ant endlessly devouring my way through this mother lode of crisp, fluffy croissants …

+ + +

Aux Vivres (4631 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-842-3479) is both macrobiotic and enormously delicious. That’s a radical statement, I know. For some perspective, consider that Googling “macrobiotic” and “enormously delicious” yields precisely zero results.

Why can’t other vegetarian places be one-tenth this good? This is not merely “great for a vegetarian restaurant.” It’d rate deliriously in any category (thanks to filmmaker Adrienne Amato for the tip!).

The kitchen’s staffed by magicians. Muffins come on like nothing special, with very little sugar. Then you notice fruit flavor building to a climax so intense that you can’t imagine how the baker pulled it off. You find yourself coaxing every last drop of salad dressing out of its little cup. Leftovers are likely to be ravaged moments after leaving the restaurant.


It’s quite the low-profile operation.


Two complete brunch choices—at an absurdly low price.

Their chapati with vegan butter is worth a plane trip. I have no idea what “vegan butter” is, except that it’s too good to be legal. The combination with melt-in-your-mouth chapatis could make a strong man weep.



I couldn’t help gnashing at leftovers, despite heavy traffic.

+ + +

Fun between-meal activity: a trip to the Biodôme (4777 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, H1V 1B3, Montreal; 514-868-3000), where one walks transportively through exotic ecosystems. There’s a phone link where you can ask questions of people in Antarctica. Cool!

+ + +

The residents of Spain’s northwestern corner get around. At one time, there were Galician (“Gallego” in Spanish) social clubs in many major world cities. Assimilation having taken its toll, such clubs are rarities nowadays. So I was especially happy to come upon the creaky Centre Gallego De Montreal (4602 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-843-3821).

The food tastes as if it had been made by a South American chef. And there’s a Portuguese waiter. And menus are in French as well as Spanish. But the room is stocked with the requisite 5-foot-5 older bald guys in sweater vests playing cards and smoking cigars, so the experience took me utterly back to Iberia.

Service is a shambles—for example, it took a half-hour to pay the bill. But who am I to complain? This is a private social club; I shouldn’t have even been allowed to wander in in the first place.


Tortilla—one of my favorite things in the world!

The tortilla (potato omelet) sported a palpable Latin American touch, but is clearly made from a Galician recipe, with lots of onion, potatoes diced in non-uniform chunks, and extremely runny egg (request “buen hecho” if you want it more fully cooked). Bread’s authentically Spanish. Flan looked top-notch. To those who’ve spent time in Spain, or those who’d like to soak up the last remaining ripples of the culture that Hemingway wrote about, this is a remarkable place.

+ + +

When a Chinese woman in a French Canadian bakery (Boulangerie Séraphin; 5008 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-277-9290) hands you a little tart filled with eggy custard that could be either Cantonese or Portuguese, how do you decode what you’re eating? What if she turns out to speak good Portuguese?

I rambled theories into my voice recorder while walking through cold, windy streets, munching away contentedly. Hear the short podcast: MP3.

This, for comparison, is a different pastel de nata, and it was a lot better than Seraphin’s. I remember its flavor vividly … but can’t remember where I bought it. That and the unidentified Chilean alfajor—both evidence of encroaching Chowzheimer’s—will haunt me forever.

+ + +

St-Viateur Bagels are typical in a town where bagels spill off the line, hot to the touch, at all hours of the day, and clerks throw them snappily into a paper sack, from which they tantalize you as you strive to get them home intact.

Montreal bagels require some explaining. I wrote the following some years ago, and it still holds true (except that both Fairmount and St-Viateur now have satellite locations).

Just as San Francisco, compared to Montreal, is not really a bread town, neither is New York a bagel town. We have nothing to match the buzz, the palpable bagelicious life force streaming out of the city’s two most renowned bagelries, Fairmount Bagel (74 Rue Fairmount Ouest, west of St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-272-0667) and St-Viateur Bagel (158 St-Viateur, Montreal; 514-276-8044).

Montreal bagels are very different from ours. They’re a bit tougher in the skin, and a bit breadier (though certainly not fluffy) in the interior. They seem to have virtually no salt or malt or sugar, so it’s all about the wheat, which gives them a pretzely flavor. And they’re very roasty, with much more oven flavor. They’re much better plain and unadorned than ours are, but I suspect they wouldn’t toast nearly as well.

While Montreal bagels come in various flavors, it’s always the sesames that are hot and fresh (and they’re ALWAYS hot and fresh at these places; only a moribund bagel culture like ours in New York would have their goods sitting around for minutes on end).

I thought both bagel shops made excellent—and very similar—products. But in a side-by-side comparison, St-Viateur won. A St-Viateur bagel is a deeper toasty brown, with zestier, more robust texture. It’s bigger, browner, tastier, chewier … simply “more” in every facet that makes a Montreal bagel distinctive.

Refreshed Troops Wallow in French Fries

Outremont, L’Île-Perrot, and Montreal

This was a day of transition, as one group of overfed, exhausted, cranky chowhound friends headed home and was replaced by fresh, zippy, happy eaters.

The final nail was driven into Barry and Joel’s dietary coffin, I think, when we grabbed deli sandwiches for breakfast. I’ll recount that (and the rest of the day’s chowconnaissance) via photos. Everything’s as good as it looks, unless otherwise stated.

+ + +

Lester’s Deli (1057 Bernard Avenue West, Outremont, Quebec; 514-213-1313) is slightly out of town, in Outremont.

Montreal “smoked meat” is often described as somewhere between corned beef and pastrami, and the landmark venues stake out their position at one or the other end of that spectrum. Lester’s is more pickly corned beefy, less peppery/spicy pastramiesque.


Warm, wacky welcome.


Deli stalactites.





The smoked-meat sandwich.


The smoked-meat sandwich illuminated by God.


A “smokeburger” of grilled smoked meat.


Brisket sandwich.


Some insane sausage thing Joel ordered.

Barry (about the savviest chowhound I know) displays his winning form:






Fantastic poutine, steeped in tradition and gravy.


Excellent dry fries, too.


Spice along at home!

+ + +

I welcomed Jennifer, Jacquilynne, and Lucy in my customary manner—with horse-fat-fried french fries at Frite Alors (3497 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-840-9000), previously described in report 58. There were some items I still needed to try on their menu …


... like, for instance, lots more pommes frites.


Again, this place is all about the sauces.


Merguez sandwich (with fries!) on startlingly good bread.


Lucy makes fry scarfing look stylish …


... but attention rivets after her impressive first bite.


Only in Montreal could cheesecake in a french fry chain be delicious.

I love Frite Alors. Charming ambiance … kind service … great food … stylish everything. I keep describing just about every Montreal place in those terms, but that’s the beauty of Montreal!

Oh, one thing. The “Aie! Aie! Aie! Burger Piquant” would seem to yelp spiciness and verve, but it was a strangely compacted and funky-tasting affair. I later found out these guys are famous for their disturbingly weak hamburgers. Insiders know not to order them.

+ + +

Rotisserie Serrano (161 St-Viateur West, Montreal; 514-271-3728) is Peruvian, but the chicken has more of a Jewish aesthetic (indeed, it’s a Jewish nabe), which even comes through in the photo. Good potatoes, not too greasy.

+ + +

Across street from Serrano is Chocolats Geneviève Grandbois (162 St-Viateur West, Montreal; 514-394-1000), which sells fancy chocolates in flavors like balsamic and
fleur de sel. Good if you like that sort of thing. Me? For some reason, I’m left cold by the fanciest high-end coffee and chocolate.

+ + +

Bilboquet (1311 Bernard Avenue West, Outremont; 514-276-0414) is a world-class landmark for one particular thing: their grotesque, preposterous, irresistible “coupe à la tire dérable,” an enormous, sprawling maple concoction that’s a dessert buffet unto itself, with maple ice cream, maple-y cotton candy, a delicate crisp buttery cookie, and maple “snow.”

It amounts to no less than the Ultraman Triathlon of sugar, and I was somewhat relieved to learn it’s not offered til springtime. Fortunately, everything else is terrific, from ice cream to baked goods. Fun place, great for kids. Have a look:

+ + +

Another branch of Première Moisson (1271 Bernard Avenue West, Outremont; 514-270-2559), down the block from Bilboquet, gave me an opportunity to sample the few items I didn’t try yesterday.


You’ve got to love the Halloween hobgoblins!


At center are the exquisite napoleons you’ll be hearing more about below.


These Sablé Breton butter cookies were incredible.


Very serious meringue.


I’m a sucker for any crunchy cheesy products.


The napoleon in broad daylight.


Alternative napoleon view.

That napoleon was surprisingly unsweet except for the slight sugary topping, which releases its flavor, with Grucci fireworks precision, at exactly the right stage. This pastry was devastatingly great. In fact, a single bite took out one of our group. Check out this short but quintessential movie: Movie file.

+ + +

Whereas most delis are super-ethnic affairs (see Lester’s, at the top of this report), Pete’s Meats (283 First Avenue, L’Île-Perrot, Quebec; 514-425-6068) goes the opposite extreme. It’s a rollicking suburban roadhouse with live blues bands.


Good, soulful smoked meat, albeit oddly cut. Potato pancakes were a mistake on my part.


Perfunctory poutine.


This is not your father’s deli crowd …


The band.

A Meal in Pitch Blackness

Montreal

In less than 24 hours, we’d made a complete sty of our room at Springhill Suites:


I got stuck with this sofa bed.

I thought I’d read somewhere that this hotel had an 80-foot water slide. This was a huge draw for all of us, particularly Joel, who had his heart set on splashy fun. With great eagerness and extraordinarily unattractive swimsuits, we descended to the hell that is the Springhill Suites swimming area—the smallest, meanest pool you’ve ever seen, situated in a moldering basement. We strode back to the front desk, hoping to learn where the REAL pool was, and the clerk informed us that there was only one slideless pool, adding (I swear I’m not making this up), “We are actually well known for having zee smallest swimming pool in Montreal.”

Joel took the news especially hard. But as we dejectedly trudged back downstairs to try to make the best of the situation, he had an epiphany: He’d make his own water slide:

See the exciting video footage, wherein Joel demonstrates the resourcefulness and creativity that make him a busy Hollywood film editor: Movie file.

OK, let’s do the food.

+ + +

First we hit Jean-Talon Market, which has a very European flavor, with vendors set up in a central area ringed by food shops and little restaurants.

The produce is amazing …

... but we were conned by an unscrupulous citrus dealer, who proffered superb tangerine samples and sold us what turned out to be tough, awful fruit. We took it in stride, figuring three rubes from New York oughtn’t expect to casually waltz into a serious market like this.

We scored some fantastic, richly luscious goat’s-milk yogurt (L’ Avalanche) at La Fromagerie Hamel (220 Jean-Talon Street East, Montreal; 514-272-1161), a stupendously stocked, insanely bustling cheese shop adjoining the market:

An Italian deli around the market makes an impressive variety of tasty rice balls:

Also adjoining Jean-Talon is a branch of my favorite local bakery,
Boulangerie Première Moisson (Marché Jean-Talon, 7075 rue Casgrain, Montreal, Quebec; 514-270-3701). This is the place I raved about in my last report. They must drug their stuff; there’s no other explanation for the scarily irresistible attraction.

While Première Moisson’s bread is consistently jaw-dropping, pastries can be hit or miss. Last time, I fell deeply in love with their maple croissants, but this is the wrong season for maple. Taking the only reasonable tack, I compulsively bought one of everything in sight.

That buche bio is my favorite Première Moisson loaf, followed closely by their walnut levain.

“100% beurre” is right. These apple pastries are way over the top—and stunningly delicious.

Barry worked himself into a state over the Wall o’ Jam.

Just a few of those amazing jars.

One shouldn’t by any means overlook the humble plain rolls. Here are two views:

Extremely serious croissants (again, two views):

Obverse and reverse of the devastating long cheesy roll things:

Orange chocolate bread, a special loaf. Gawd.

Almond croissant—so fluffy, so tender.

Some other errant almondy butter bomb.

One could gaze at this expressionistically crunchy muffin top for hours.

Croque Monsieur—Croque Madame? Croque Mon Ami? I don’t know. Regardless of who’s being croqued here, the result is nothing less
than creamy, crunchy, yeasty, cheesy wonderment.

Lots of fine frothy coffee products aided us through our grueling chowconnaissance.

Note that owners Josée Fiset and Éric Blais have a (French-only) recipe book, called Pain.

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I stabbed another mortal wound into my streak by getting all excited about Champ de l’Olivier (162 Jean-Talon, Montreal; 514-495-4114), a great-looking Tunisian restaurant that’s yet another venue near Jean-Talon Market.

Take a look at the photos. Can you blame me for expecting greatness?

But no. Every single item flatlined my deliciometer. Nothin’ there. Alas.

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Several hours later, we set out with much excitement for O.Noir Restaurant (1631 Ste-Catherine West, Montreal; 514-937-9727), where you dine in pitch darkness, served by blind waiters. This set-up is actually a burgeoning international trend, the idea being that you focus more intently on your food. Like any chowhound actually needs that.

Appetizers.

Entrées.

Desserts.

Juggling a recorder with one hand (trying to cover the bright display with my palm) while eating with the other hand in pitch darkness was a challenge, so the sound quality’s bumpy.

MP3: We peruse the menu in the lighted foyer, we’re led into the restaurant clutching each other’s shoulders, and my recorder nearly gets confiscated.

MP3: Fervidly negotiating the logistical issues involved in sharing three dishes in pitch blackness.

MP3: Kibbitzing in the darkness.

MP3: “I just found like a whole new area of mashed potatoes I didn’t know existed.”

MP3: For some inexplicable reason, complete strangers around the dining room found themselves spontaneously performing “Dock of the Bay.”

MP3: We are (literally) shown the exit.

Conclusion: We weren’t sure we’d experienced our food any more vividly, but, shtick or no, the cooking’s delicious. And, heck, since dining is about experiencing other points of view, I’d be up for eating blind once in a while. Darkness is the new Chinese!

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Dinner at O.Noir had been early, so we were ready to hit Globe Restaurant (3455 Boulevard St. Laurent, Montreal; 514-284-3823) late for drinks and some raw shellfish. Do me a favor and click on their website for just a second to check out the music and Flash animation, which will totally give you the vibe.

The ultimate challenge: Can even a megatrendy restaurant with valet parking, gorgeous waitresses, and sceney dancing after midnight serve delicious food in (and only in) the magical city of Montreal?

Par for the course in such places, their expensive ($85) raw plate is mightily pushed. My cynical friends and I assumed it was a sucker order, but, just for science, we sprang for it.

The sucker shellfish plate, in what seemed a patent hell pit of noxiously poor eating (“The food’s, like, so beside the point …”) was rockingly good! And the raw-bar chef, who’d chatted amiably with us about oysters while we awaited a table, sent along, gratis, his proud, and very delicious, concoction of rock shrimp, lemon, and spicy mayo. And the hyper-comely waitress—who could act sullenly stuck up and still pull down 40 percent tips—was extraordinarily friendly and sincere. Man, how I love Montreal …