Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Insult to Clam Chowder

My dad was a born and raised New Englander. A fan of all food stuffs New England, I would say he wasn't exactly your most sophisticated or adventurous eater, but he certainly would treasure the fine art of cooking and consuming great chowder, clam cakes, stuffies, grape nut pudding, among other delectable edibles native to this region. Unfortunately, on occasion, in spite of his ravenous appetite, which he luckily passed along to yours truly, his face would turn to utter disgust and bitter disappointment. Then he would say, "Look at this swill." 
So in his own words, "Look at this swill."
It really pisses me off when people f*ck up clam chowder. And when a restaurant in this region screws it up, they usually go big, and then go home, as in close up shop. Can you imagine being a local restaurant on the North Shore of Massachusetts, situated only steps from the harbor, serving up something that looks like this?
It was so thick that the resemblance to glue should be illegal. That's right: so gooey that the mounded cup of chowder actually formed a stable little muffin top above the actual cup. A single spoonful only confirmed the disgusting texture and overly flour or corn starch thickened gloop set before me. Perhaps it was canned chowder as it had that kind of pasty look that would "sssshhhhwwwwiiiiirrrrppp" out of the can. Maybe the chef has a clear affinity for the texture of room temperature canned gravy. Needless to say, I couldn't believe what I had seen today. Sure, I've had horrible clam chowders before, but usually in places where you kind of let it go. Like California for instance. What are they supposed to know about New England clam chowder, so therefore you quell your gag reflex eat a few spoonfuls and then nod politely at the person who brought you to the restaurant hoping to have discovered a place serving up authentic clam chowder. But this? This was shameful... a crime against anyone who loves this very local treasure.
One more look at the
chowder abomination
I'm not going to disclose the name of the restaurant, because if they continue to serve up cuisine like this, I'm figuring that they're not going to be in business for all that much longer, especially since they're a fairly young restaurant to begin with. However, as we strolled in for lunch, I will say that the bigger half and I were the only two people in there that were in fact not working there. A dozen or so servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff, all except one looking to be of college age or younger, roamed around the restaurant sort of psyched to be there and joking around. When the soup did arrive, it appeared steaming hot, but no, it was just nuked... given a single twirl in the micro-nuker. The single spoonful I did choke down was only warm, and that's being overly generous.
The other items we had for lunch were mediocre at best and not worth the calories at worst. But I think our server knew how bad the chowder was. Perhaps it was intended for a tourist palate? That's kind of insulting to the tourists. Lessons to be learned: don't serve overly thickened chowder. Let the clam flavor come through. Creamy is good, gluey is bad.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This is why they call it Turkey Day

Mid-Dry Brine
After Dry Brine, Dried Overnight
Buttered and Ready for the Oven
A Glorious Roast Turkey
So turkey day has arrived, and our turkey from Misty Knoll Farm in Vermont has gone through the important process of dry brining and drying in preparation for its starring role. After three days in the fridge with a dry brine of 1 tablespoon of salt to every four pounds of turkey, along with other spices (sage, rosemary, all spice), the turkey was removed from its storage bag and left to dry overnight in the fridge. Today it went into the oven for half an hour at 425, and then an hour and a half at 350, stuffed with only a few aromatics, and it's just popped out at an internal temperature of 161.
See what happens when you take the time to pamper your bird? Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Doing Battle: Pumpkin Pie

Prior to baking
Thanksgiving approaches with every passing minute, and I can't frigging wait. I've just gone through the process of preparing the crust for my pumpkin pie. For the crust recipe, as I've mentioned in entry Doing Battle: Apple Pie, you should really be using the steps detailed by the New York Times. It turns out perfect every time. Few tips: Keep your butter/shortening clumps to kidney bean size instead of cottage cheese. Also, don't be afraid of the vodka. It evaporates rapidly leaving a brilliantly flaky crust. Next, make sure that your wet ingredients stay wicked cold prior to using them. Finally, prep all your ingredients ahead of time, and store ready for use with paper plates and solo cups. 
After prebaking with
pennies and foil
For the filling recipe, I turn to Epicurious. Easy, and delicious. After prebaking your crust, reduce temperature of the oven to 350 degrees. Mix an egg white with a few drops of water. Pour in your filling, and then brush the egg wash over the crust so that you get that nice shiny look to it. Into the oven for an hour, and enjoy the smell for the next sixty minutes. 
After making your pie, you can refrigerate for a day. I am doing mine the night before the big show, because I only gots one oven, yo. But if I were bringing the pie, I might wake up mighty early to do this the day of. 
Pumpkin Pie
As with all pies, they're a complete pain in the butt. However, if you take the time to do it properly, you'll get a flaky crust that will awe most crowds. Prebaked crusts suck so bad. Pilsbury crusts are damned to anyone with a palate. Plus, once you do one pie crust the real way, you'll have enough self respect to show people what a bad ass person you are. Proceed.

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (6 1/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter , cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, cold, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons vodka, cold (see note)
2 tablespoons cold water
For the filling:

1 3/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (about a 15-ounce can)
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

P.S. Tonight I'm also doing my famous salty, candied nuts. Another crowd pleaser. See entry: Dirty up your salad with candied nuts!
Candied Nuts: Always a
huge hit

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Thanksgiving Menu

If you listen to the good people of Food Network, one of the best pieces of advice they can give you as Thanksgiving approaches is to make lists, make time lines, and be prepared. You don't need luck. You need preparation and science.
So in following said advice, I am now writing out my formal menu.

1. The bird - a 14 pound turkey has been purchased from Misty Knoll Farms in Vermont. It is busy working some dry brining magic right now. 1 tablespoon of salt for every five tablespoons of turkey four days ahead of time with pepper and other spices, stored in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge, turned twice per day.
2. Mashed potatoes - This will be brought by my mother in law, who makes SPECTACULAR mashed potatoes. Her secret? There is a ratio of turnip to fluffy russet that makes them creamier and more buttery.
3. Cornbread sausage stuffing - We will not actually be stuffing our turkey and therefore I suppose I should refer to this as a dressing. The bigger half has made the executive decision to go cornbread/sausage this year, because we have some beautiful pork sausage from Jen and Pete's Backyard Birds. This is a little bit of a departure from our greatest hits oyster stuffing which we normally stand behind.
4. Maple-glazed carrots - Fresh carrots from Kimball Fruit Farms and maple syrup from Fadden's Sugar House in New Hampshire, plus some butter, and you have one hell of a side dish.
5. Pickled beets - Goddamn I love pickled beets. They are currently simmering on my stove, waiting for the rest of the process. See entry Refrigerator Pickled Beets.
6. Brussels sprouts - Again, these will come from Kimball Fruit Farms. I make an effort to purchase my veggies from the farmers, especially at this time of the year when I'll soon be devoid of my farmers market fun. Keeping it simple here, we'll roast the brussels with olive oil, balsalmic vinegar, and salt and pepper.
7. Cranberry sauce - I love homemade cranberry sauce. So easy, and since it's one burner, stove only, you've got a fantastic and simple way to wow people, even if you've got little experience in the kitchen. (Note: Don't know how to cook? Going over someone's house for turkey day? Bring cranberry sauce.) 3-4 cups cranberries, plus 1 cup sugar, plus 1 cup water. No brainer.
8. ::sigh:: A pie... bitch's always gotta make a pie. Fine. I'll make pumpkin, because it's my favorite. Wednesday night is going to be a bitchin time.

The timing will be as follows: Pickled beets and pie will be done by Wednesday night. Carrots and cranberry sauce are on the stove while the turkey is baking. Brussels and cornbread stuffing goes in after the turkey is resting. Mashed potatoes are being brought. I think the greatest spinach dip of all time is also coming by way of the in-laws (seriously, it should be its own food group...I'll see if I can extract a recipe and post). I'll also probably rustle up some candied nuts, and perhaps some shrimp cocktail or hummus, we'll see how I feel on the previous day after the pie is finished.

I'll keep you all posted.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Au Pied du Cochon

You have arrived.
This is at least top three in my favorite restaurants of all time. I will not come to Montreal without booking a dinner at APDC. It's unapologetically, kill you with cholesterol, so suffer the little birdies, I'm going out with a bang, haunt your memories AMAZING. I love this restaurant, and once per year, if I'm fortunate, we can go there, and feast with things that are unforgettable and LMFAO good. 
Again, located somewhat away from the typical tourist attractions of downtown, you wouldn't suspect one of the most iconic restaurants of Montreal to be located on the street where it is actually found. There isn't even really a sign. All you'll see is a sort of narrow looking restaurant, with a long bar, and maybe 25ish tables. Everything is constructed with blond wood with a few odd decorations, including a stuffed goose which hangs from the ceiling. 
House Lager and Pinot
On this occasion we were seated near the restaurant's front window. The bigger half went for the house APDC lager, which is brewed specially for the restaurant. It was a basic lager, clean and crisp, and successfully washed down all the stick to your ribs, coat your mouth offerings of the restaurant. I chose a glass of Pinot Noir from Alsace, though I must apologize since I can't remember exactly what it was called. Wine pours are generous here, so if your party can't decide on a certain wine, or between beer and wine, I'd say go ahead and order by the glass. 
Now onto the menu. 
Foie Gras Cromesquis
When coming to APDC, you are morally obligated to start out with the foie gras cromesquis. Imagine a little battered, crispy cube placed before you. The server instructs you to eat in one bite, after allowing the cube to cool a minute. The single cube goes into your mouth, you bite down, and the richest, warmest liquid foie gras explodes to fill every crevice of your palate. Warm, unctuous, rich, and ridiculously luxurious, This is a preparation that isn't normally found with foie where the acceptable culinary sentiment is generally less is more. Regardless of what you order at this restaurant, you must start out with these. More is more. Yes, more is more.
For appetizers, the sky is really the limit. Many people stand behind the codfish fritters which arrive in a little paper cone. On other occasions, I've enjoyed their guinea hen liver mousse, which arrives in a little glass jar, sealed with a layer of hardened fat, and toasted crostini on the side. But today, the bigger half and I wanted to try something different.
Duck Carpaccio
He went ahead and ordered the duck carpaccio. It arrived with a thin, pounded, sliced layer of raw duck meat, topped with scattered thin slices of mushroom, shaved Parmesan, parsley, and dabs of mustard and spicy mayonaise, and a beautiful golden egg yolk. He was instructed to break the yolk, and then spread the mix of all the items over the duck meat. Every slice of meat was wonderful. The sauce created by the yolk, mustard, and mayo was delicious. The other nice thing about this dish was that while it was texturally interesting, it also was somewhat on the lighter side of offerings for this restaurant. Salty cheese, tender, delicate duck meat, and the richness of the egg yolk, as well as the bite of the herbs. This was a delicious appetizer.
Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée
I went slightly more classic and heavy with my choice in dish. As previously mentioned, I've an unhealthy obsession with french onion soup, and allegedly, APDC does a version that is the end all be all of french onion soups. For the second time in a couple days, my bigger half said that on the initial taste, the corners of my mouth curled upwards, and my eyes grew wide with delight upon the first bite of this revelation of a soup. We all know the classic soup: cheese, crouton, stock, cooked down onions. This was all of the above, but perhaps the richest, best of all ingredients that one could possibly use for the soup. I assume that the cheese was a Canadian Gruyere style cheese, as well as actual Gruyere. It was melted, and had that perfect sour funk that you would expect from the proper type of cheese topping a french onion soup. They didn't cheap out on the crouton, as several properly crisp pieces of crusty bread lay under the perfect blanket of melted cheese. But now for the shocker: the APDC soup uses a pork soup base, complete with large chunks of pork meat and pork fat. It was easily the richest soup that I've ever tasted, saturating every last bit of cooked down sweet onion. This is another must order for when you come up to Martin Picard's restaurant. 
Onto entrees. If it's your first time here, you really should order either the foie gras two ways (hamburger w/ foie plus an order of the poutine) or the duck in a can. These two dishes are so good, that it's not fair. You're also going to have to monitor your cholesterol for a few days after you eat them, but it's totally worth it. On this occasion, we actually were all too tempted by the specials, however. 
Venison Kidneys
The bigger half went for a special featuring roasted venison kidneys over spaetzle with a rich red wine/mustard sauce. It arrived in a little cast iron pan, a perfect serving of about five or six little venison kidneys, sliced so that each received a nice textural sear, and then finished roasting to incorporate all of the sauce reduction. It was mustardy, gamy, earthy, and above all, so savory and rich. I recommend this dish, if they have it on the menu to you, especially if you are a fan of all game meats and offal. 
Another special that they had on the menu that night was a pot au feu. I thought, how wonderful! The dish is most known for containing a bunch of "peasant vegetables" including cabbage, carrots, and onions. This being the type of restaurant it is, they also said that the meats included duck, foie gras, quail, bone marrow, and chicken. So I went ahead and ordered the slow cooked pot of all things delicious. After we'd finished our appetizers, and ordered another round of drinks, a little plate of salt and mustard and a tiny metal bowl of "green salsa", which looked like it was a mix of vinegar, oil, parsley and other herbs arrived on our table. "How sweet," I thought.
Pot au Feu
The next moment, I looked up and saw a man walking toward me, no, striding toward me with not a little pot of feu, or a plate of vegetables or meats, but what might as well have been a full sized dutch oven of meat and vegetables. God damn. It was big. A whole pot full of a huge slice of duck breast, a chicken thigh, a whole quail, a slice of foie gras, and a marrow bone staring at me with a little spoon sticking out of the gaping hole. Then there were the vegetables, including a quarter of a whole cabbage, two carrots, turnips, and onions. The broth produced at the bottom from simmering for hours was so rich, like the best stock you've ever had. Shmearing bits of mustard or salsa, or a sprinkling of salt over each little element, every bite was delicious. Was it a lot? You bet. Perhaps too much of a good thing, but there really was nothing quite like the gasp of excitement and intimidation that exited ones lungs as the pot au feu first arrived at the table.
Dark Chocolate
Pot de Creme
For dessert, having battled with an entire dutch oven of meat and vegetables, we decided to split a single order of the dark chocolate pot de creme. Despite being a little concerned about the size of the actual "pot," recall that I had just been overwhelmed by my choice of entree also including the word "pot," the pot de creme arrived at the table in a little glass jar, topped with a layer of creme, and a sort of maple sugar crumble. The dark chocolate mousse acting as star of the dessert was wonderful, one of those things that the husband does not leave behind. I thought he was going to go feline with the glass jar for a few minutes. It actually may have been worthy of licking the cup now that I think of it. Another fantastic dessert.
Overall, I'd say that the items we chose at APDC were all worth ordering. When I go back next time, I will order the cromesquis, the onion soup, and then probably go for either the duo of foie gras or the duck in a can and will leave the pot au feu to competitive eaters. But once again, an excellent meal, and a not to be missed destination of Montreal.

Au Pied de Cochon
536 Duluth Est
Montréal (Québec)
H2L 1A9

Dieu du Ciel

Beer brewing in
a side room
It's generally a requirement that with every city we venture to, even places that are not known for a beer culture, we have to find a great beer bar. In Montreal, this is not a problem. Fortunately for me, the bigger half already had his plan in place, and made it quite clear that during our weekend in the city, we would be heading over to a little place, away from all the touristy stuff, called Dieu du Ciel.
Beers available
From the outside, the microbrewery looks so low key. You'd pass it on the street without a second thought. Upon entering, there's a wood floor, and to the right are smaller size vats of beer, making themselves ready for the moment where drafts can be poured. A list to the right of the bar identify the beers that are next in line from the brewing room. Aside from this, the restaurant appears to be perhaps a few too many tiny tables, a smaller upper level where there are additional tables, the previously mentioned bar, and then a couple chalk boards featuring the beers available by the brewery, a few key wines, and then the scotches of the day. Locals and regulars sit at the tables, and, as is always a good sign of a great bar, there are a lot of people sitting by themselves, writing in notebooks, and waiting for other regulars to show up. 
We actually arrived soon after the bar opened for a few drinks prior to getting ready for dinner later in the evening at Au Pied de Cochon. The dark chalkboard on the left wall dictated what we would need to taste. 
Rosee d'Hibiscus (front)
Grand'Messe (back)
Rosee d'Hibiscus: This was a beer I'd never experienced before. If it were any other beer, I would have said, "I've never had this type of beer before." But honestly, this beer was an experience. It tasted like a combination of ginger ale and sprite. It was sweet, but not cloying. It didn't taste like beer, and it didn't really taste like a rose wine. It was completely unique. There was a light carbonation, a touch of pink in color, and honestly, it drank like a good soda, which can be dangerous in the beer disguised as soda realm. You know what I'm talking about. The most delightful element of this beer was the soft hue and the sweet scent of tropical flowers that danced around the light wheat beer.
Grand' Messe: What an amazing alt beer. It was slightly bitter and slightly sweet, with the background flavor of an English style pale ale. Low in alcohol, this is a fairly steady beer to introduce on a cold evening. 
Noice de Soie
La Noice de Soie: This was the bar's saison. I'm pretty fond of saisons as most microbreweries put a lot of effort into producing something that is characteristic of the land. This was no exception. For whatever reason, the saison at Dieu du Ciel had flavors and aromas of yuzu, which I can completely get behind.
Peche Morte
Peche Morte: This was my husband's favorite beer of the evening. It's intsensely black, looks like it was poured from a nitrogen tap from the very tiny bubbles floating slowly up to the top of the tulip glass. An imperial stout with rich coffee flavor and the oddly appropriate pairing of sweet peach, the heavy alcohol content is mildly masked by the bitterness of the wonderful coffee flavor. While sipping the high alcohol beverage, his eyes grew wide with delight. 
Crispy Canadian Nachos
The WTF moment: How many people in the USA have gone to a little brewery, and found that the food is going to inevitably be awful? If you don't think this, you're probably only there for the beer, and there's nothing wrong with that. But you know what? I almost always go to these places and go ahead and order some french fries or some chips and hope that they won't be god awful. And while the fries are almost always ok... the nachos just fail on an epic level. They're droopy, saturated with the salsa and toppings that sog out the chips. So when I saw nachos on the menu at the little brewery, I had to order them. If the Canadian nachos fail, then maybe nachos everywhere simply fail. But these nachos were good. See for yourself. They were placed on a sheet of paper in a single layer, sprinkled with spring onions, tomatoes and cheese. Everything was crispy, and served with sides of sour cream and salsa. Why is this so hard to find in an American beer bar? ::sigh:: Canadian nachos. Go figure.

Dieu du Ciel
29 Laurier West
Montréal, Québec
Canada H2T 2N2

St. Viateur Bagels

An unassuming store front
A lot of people really love bagels. I get the New Yorker "our bagels are the best" thing. Unfortunately for me, I've never had a great New York bagel. Now, this is not to say that I don't love bagels. My carbohydrate loving self goes in and gets a bagel from Bruegger's almost every morning. But the best bagel I've ever had is neither from a chain breakfast joint, nor from New York. It's a sesame seed bagel from St. Viateur's in Montreal. 
Hand rolling bagels
Though I've not experienced bagel greatness in New York, my understanding is that a terrific bagel has both the crisp on the outside, and the feel good chew on the inside. They are first boiled, and then baked to achieve this perfect texture. The bagels at St. Viateur are known for being thinner than the characteristically more famous bagels of NYC, complete with a wider hole in the middle. However, they also have the added bonus of being fired up in this huge oven over in the shop at 263 St. Viateur West. You see the skilled workers rapidly hand rolling the dough. These bagels are later boiled in honey water, which accounts for their delicate sweetness. At this stage, in batches, they continue onto huge palates, and then these are placed straight into the blazing wood oven. After a few minutes, the bagel master removes them from the oven, and then piles them onto mounds and mounds of other bagels that have just been also fired and separated into the categories of plain, sesame, and poppy seed.
Mounds of bagels! And the
charming bagel master!
You wouldn't believe if I told you how wonderful this shop smells. It's intoxicating. Located a bit out of the way from the rest of downtown and the popular Montreal tourist areas, one parks his or her vehicle on the street, and follows their nose toward the smell of roasting bread. There's no place to sit. There's a case full of milk and juice, smoked salmon, butter, and cream cheese. And that's about it. Maybe there's a spot to buy a newspaper. But basically you are going in, buying your bagels (multiple... I can't really imagine that anyone goes in here and orders just one), and getting the hell out. You can't get a bagel sandwich. They're not going to spread your damn cream cheese on the bread for you. Again, get in, and get out. Smile, pay, run outside, and devour.
Steaming hot bagels
The bagels are crispy. They smell of the wood fired oven. They're sweeter than other bagels that i've had, and the unique chew of the sesame seeds adds another nutty element and a nice texture to every single bite. Every time we come up to Montreal, I require that we grab a dozen or two of these beauties before returning home. They freeze nicely and area always a nice reminder of what is clearly one of my favorite cities in the world. 

St. Viateur Bagels (original bakery)
263 St. Viateur West
Montréal, QC H2V 1Y1, Canada

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Restaurant DNA

Months prior to actually venturing to Montreal, I knew that I wanted a reservation at Restaurant DNA, the brainchild of Derek Dammann and Alex Cruz. They specialize in produce, products and wine available from the different regions of Canada, apply a nose to tail eating philosophy, and some of the simpler, less fussy techniques most notably of a rustic Italian style. I'll admit, I hadn't heard of the place until seeing it on Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods. A good amount of this show is cringe-tastic, however, there are the few shining moments of fine dining or street food that leaves me with a puddle of drool scooting down my chin. The feature on Restaurant DNA did just that.
The dining room
Now, I'm not really one to give a damn regarding the design of a restaurant. Sure, I want the noise level to be low enough so that I can hear the unique jabberings of my own party, but that's about as far as my pickiness goes on the atmosphere of the room. I will say that DNA's look and feel has a little bit of magic inherent. It's going to throw you off. The clean, almost sterile/industrial, plexiglass-rific look of the dining room could prompt one to believe you are about to endeavor on a quirky, fussy tasting menu like that of WD50 in New York (extremely delicious, but also very delicately plated). The food that you are about to receive is not fussy. It's full frontal and in your face. For this reason, this contrast, I can fully appreciate the design of the restaurant. Plus, those chairs are plenty comfy.
Enough screwing around. Onto the big show. If you are an adventurous eater, bothered by no offal, order the tasting menu which will set you back $85 CAD. Tell your server that you love all things adventurous. Tell them that you submit, and you will be pleased. If you're scared of hearts, kidneys and the like, what the hell are you doing in Montreal?
Orofino Pinot Noir from BC
I've been told many a time that I don't make enough money to really know anything about wine. And I think that's true. Except that I've got a good wine guy out in Salem that has taught me, at very minimal prices, what good wine tastes like. And so I know a few good vineyards, my favorites styles, and definitely how to pair wine with food. However, one look at the wine menu here, and I had a bit of a moment. Many of the wines that they feature are Canadian, with over two pages of Canadian red wines, and then maybe a half page of wines "from other countries." Considering the emphasis on local products, it was only appropriate to call over the sommelier, mention that we had ordered the tasting menu, and would prefer a red wine, something medium-bodied. He suggested a Pinot Noir from BC, called Orofino. It was a little more than I wanted to spend at over $100, but I couldn't shrug the suggestion for something cheaper. If you're anything like me, then you go out to some of these incredible meals maybe a couple times per year, or maybe it's even once in a lifetime. Let me suggest to you, if its within your means, splurge on the wine when out for epic meals like this. A tasting menu, if you're not going for a pairing (which I admit is often a little too much wine for me), calls for a wonderful, complementary bottle of wine. And this Orofino was one of them. It was easily the finest Pinot Noir I've ever tasted, with a smooth, earthy, unfiltered flavor, and yet not a hint of aftertaste. I tasted cloves, and perhaps a little vanilla, but little beyond the classic flavor of a lovely red wine. If you see the Orofino Pinot Noir, please order it. It was a wonderful recommendation from the sommelier.
The Amuse
Amuse: A small round of meaty albacore tuna with a leaves of flat leaf parsley and mint, thin sliced shallot, a slice of radish, buckthorn berries, and buckthorn berry juice, with a touch of sea salt crystals adorning the tuna. This was a unique way to begin a meal. Have you ever had a tasting where the amuse was the best thing that you ate? It's a trap that I feel many restaurants fall into. Their best bite is the first bite, and all the rest are a let down. However, this was a very clean introduction into the rest of the flavor-punch dishes to come. The meaty tuna was perfectly complemented by the tart juice of a berry that we call sea berries back home. Each berry had a little seed that would crunch within your teeth, only met with the freshness of the herb adornments and that wonderful kiss of sea salt. But this would not be the best course of the night. Absolutely not. And therefore the chef succeeded in giving an opening band its due, but in no way allowing you to see a young Metallica open for a drunken over the hill Ozzy, if you get my meaning.
Antipasto course: House-made charcuterie galore! Speck - salty and smokey, yet not as chewy as other specks that I have had. Little rounds of salami and peperoni - salty, savory, and for the pepperoni, only giving way to a tiny bit of spiciness at the end. There were two slices of what looked like a very tender and slippery-in-the-best-way prosciutto, which was absolutely delicious, thoroughly penetrated by fat and pork richness. The capicola - again, two slices of charcuterie that are intensely porky on the first taste, and then only at the very end reveal the spiciness of a sophisticated use of smoked paprika. These slices were clearly the star of the plate. Then there was the headcheese made from the jowl of the pig, speckled with bits of gelatin and the thin slices of ears. Again, this was incredible, salty, texturally interesting, and we wish we had more. Finally, as an effective palate cleanser between bites of salty, perfect pork meats, there was a small pile of marinated vegetables, including eggplant, spicy, tangy peppers, pickles, and one of the most wonderful bites of briny, salty turnip I've ever had.
Goat Liver and Kidney
Fra Diavalo
Appetizer 1: Goat liver and kidney fra diavalo. There was nothing bashful about the spiciness level of this dish. It comes up and hits you, diminishing any gamy favor of the innards of a goat, which I hear can be a bit burly. The difference between these offal and those that you might see prepared elsewhere, is that they were all lightly seared and then saturated, somehow, some way with the red, peppery sauce. It was delicious. It awakened the palate, and gave way to that delicious, elastic chew of the kidneys and the melt in your mouth quality of the outer seared layer of liver, and then the bite of the lightly cooked center. What a delicious dish.
Liver and Mostarda Parfait
Appetizer 2: This was my favorite dish of the evening. A parfait of veal and duck liver with a mostarda of squash. I've of the opinion that chefs at their best are so playful. They make a play on something from their childhood, like an ice cream or a corn dog or something. Here we had a generous scoop of foie gras mousse, this time a mix of veal and duck liver, is presented on the plate as if it is a wholesome scoop of your favorite sugary ice cream. Next to it, there is a little pile of what could be some sort of fruity sauce to top the frozen treat. But instead it is a mostarda, a pile of candied squash touched with hints of mustard tang. The huge scoop of liver mousse is to be spread on two lovely toasted slices of rustic bread. A heaping spread of this and a few toppings of the sweet squash and my bigger half said that my eyes opened widely to reveal those little dimples that only the most genuine sentiments of glee can produce. I didn't know that the squash was candied. I didn't know how rich the mousse would be. I didn't know. It looked like a little scoop of ice cream with some kind of peach sauce. And it was so much more. I think this was nothing short of culinary genius in a very sentimental, clever way: playful, and producing great flavors, with the additional bonus of not skimping on the quantity of a great thing.
Pasta Course on Steroids
Pasta course: Homemade spaghetti-like pasta, heaped into a huge bowl, sprinkled with fine olive oil and adorned with dried black currants that look like raisins, generous amounts of shaved Pecorino, thin slices of melt in your mouth garlic, grated veal heart, and a single golden yellow duck egg yolk. We were instructed to break the egg yolk and mix it with the entire dish, ultimately producing a sort of carbonara on steroids. The sweetness of those little dried currants, rehydrated with olive oil and the richness of the egg yolk, that salty cheese, the earthy nature of offal throughout every little speck of grated veal heart, and then the luxury of a house made pasta. This was an excellent pasta dish from the wow factor of the presentation, and then the full on richness on richness flavor of interesting ingredients. (Seriously? Who thinks to grate veal heart over pasta? It's pretty darn amazing.)
The Big Show: Now a while back when we had disclosed to our most gracious server that we were adventurous eaters, he got a little glimmer in his eye. After collecting the clean plate from our antipasto course, he leaned over our table and dropped a huge teaser on us: "The chef is preparing something very interesting for your main. I don't think you've ever had it before." All of the possibilities of this revelation started to dance within our brains, and oh the possibilities it could be... but at the same time also giving way to thoughts of "well, we've really hit just about everything, this could also be a huge let down." We were not let down. 
A few minutes and a few more sips of wine after the pasta course was but a memory, and the clues continued to come. First, an empty bowl on the table. Is it lobster? Is that really the "I bet you've never had this before" item? No. Too easy. Another item appears. It's a little bowl with two little steaming disposable towels. "For your fingers," says the server. What the hell? Is it clams? Is it lobster? Is it porgy? Perhaps we were to disembowel our own rabbit, which certainly would require clean up but much more so than anything could be accomplished with two little finger towels. 
Grilled Halibut Head
And then it appeared out of no where. Our server approached with a big white plate. And on top of that plate, was the grilled, lightly salted head of a halibut. Oh yes, the chef has delivered. A halibut head. Have you ever eaten such a thing in a restaurant? Because I hadn't. And we received both looks of disgust and quivering envy from other diners. A perfectly grilled, succulent, whole halibut head, left for us to pick to the bone. Every bit of flesh, from the cheeks, to the meat from the top of the head, to all those flaky bits around the collar were so tender, and so juicy, and so incredibly rich and buttery, I couldn't but feel that this may have been the least fussed over, most in your face, and absolute best-tasting ironic fine dining moment of my entire life. The head, with all of its crispy salty, and gelatinous skin, was presented over a bed of grains, cooked in the risotto style, with sweet slices of local beets. A little bit of fish, a little bit of skin, and then a little bit of beet and grains to add all sorts of interesting textural dimensions to the dish. Yes, it was messy. But it was fun. And it was a most astonishing surprise.
Pre-dessert: Caramel and mushroom ice cream. Again, didn't see this coming. It's a delicious combination of sweet caramel matched with the earthy undertones of mastutake mushrooms grown in BC. The ice cream was subtly sweet, but more notably, it was also just so smooth and creamy, with every bite melting away to reveal those tiny little bits of mushroom.
Apple Pie
Dessert 1: Apple pie and poached apples with more buckthorn berries and sauce, topped with what looked like a little scoop of vanilla speckled ice cream. While the pie was delicious, with a flaky, sweet crust, especially combined with the tartness of those local berries, the real surprise was the little dollop of what we had thought was ice cream. This was another little bit of trickery from the kitchen. The ice cream substance was really more of what I think was a mascapone vanilla mousse. Genius combination.
Hazelnut Tart
Dessert 2: Hazelnut tart with ginger ice cream and olive oil. Whole hazelnuts are filed in a single layer on a crispy tart shell, and drizzled with a caramel sauce. It had the flavor of roasted holidays, and the sweetness of a sticky tart was brought to life by the slight spiciness of the ginger ice cream, and the mellow unctuous flavor of a fine olive oil. This dessert lasted only mere seconds at our table, and was a fine "fight your other diners" for the last bite dessert.
I can't say enough how much I enjoyed Restaurant DNA from the local product philosophy, to the wonderful wine, to the fantastic and flawless service, and, of course, dish after dish adding up to one of the most memorable meals I've had to date. It was playful. It leaves an impression. They had a little bit of trickery from start to finish, guiding your eyes and what you think might be coming to one conclusion, only to reveal surprise after surprise on your palate. It's this quality that makes DNA unique, and a restaurant that I hope to come back to again and again. Please put it on your list for at least one of your dinners in Montreal, and expect to be astonished and delighted.

Restaurant DNA
355 rue Marguerite D'Youville
Vieux-Montréal, QC

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fourquet Fourchette featuring Unibroue Beers in Chambly, QC

Hey! I'm the Bigger Half! And in
Quebec no less! (in front of
Fourquet Fourchette)
After a lovely, leisurely drive up through Northern New England, and over the US/Canadian border, we had strategically planned out a first stop that would be a good use of time between arrival in Canada and check in time at the hotel. The stop that I speak of is on the island of Chambly, the home of Unibroue, the maker of Fin du Monde. Fin du Monde is a triple-style golden ale which holds a soft spot in my heart as the beer that made me admire all things beer, desire more knowledge on the science and many varieties of beer, and certainly want to explore interesting local breweries as I travel.
Barley and beer theme throughout
the restaurant
There is restaurant run by Unibroue in Chambly, a stones throw from the Fort of Chambly, located on the river and built in the style of a rustic 18th century Quebecoise trade house or inn. It is called Fourquet (French for the mashing rake used by beer makers) Fourchette (French for fork). It's warm and inviting, especially on a cold day as this, and while perhaps a little quirky, none of the quirkiness is out of place. Themes of grains and barley are scattered throughout the restaurant, and frankly, the beer speaks for itself.
The restaurant dining room
Upon arriving around 3 pm, oddly the restaurant was empty, though most definitely open. After a few moments of wandering around, a lovely lady descended the stairs, greeting us in French. We were soon on our way to a table next to a large picture window overlooking the river, with menus of beer and other beverages, and a one page food menu, boasting house made sausages and charceuterie, salads, smoked fish, and other delectable hearty snacks.
The bigger half ordered the flight of beers, and though we've both tasted them all previously as they are widely available at the local package store back home, we've never had them on draft and tasting so fresh.
Blanche du Chambly: A Belgian Style White Ale. This beer is light and refreshing, delicious during summer and appropriate for any lighter foods, such as a nice white fish. It strikes me as a good session beer, with a clean flavor complemented by hints of orange and clove that one could enjoy leisurely for multiple glasses.
From right: Blanche du Chambly, Ephemere, Noire Chambly, Maudite,
Fin du Monde, Trois Pistoles
Ephemere: A White Ale that seasonally changes to feature different fruit accents. The most popular of the fruit flavors is apple, which we've had before. But today, they had a Cassis Ephemere on tap. The sweet smell of cherries beckons one to drink, and while the smell is sweet, the beer still retains its integrity as a beer, not giving way to the more syrupy cloying taste of the occasional fruity beer. Honestly, the Ephemere is the beer that you introduce to a girl that you really like at a party - because it's beer and its fruity and it shows that you might have a little more sophistication past the world of Keystone Light.
Noire Chambly: A Black Ale. This is a smooth beer that tastes of chocolate notes at the end, and toasted grains throughout. Although it's not my favorite of these beers, I can imagine that it would be a lovely glass of beer to accompany any number of desserts, or various braised dishes.
Maudite: An Abbey, Double-Style Ale. This is a strong ale with bold flavors of coriander, caramel, clove. It has a slight hint of burnt sugar, but in that good way, and then there is a kick of a finish, maybe a touch spicy to satisfy someone that really enjoys a beer with a distinct, assertive flavor profile. Hell, I'll just say it. Enjoy this beer with steak.
Fin du Monde: Triple Blond Ale. This beer won my heart years ago. Everybody who loves beers, regardless of what style they tend towards after the fact, has a beer like this that really provided for an aha moment, with worlds of other beers to explore. It was just so darn interesting compared to all the Sam Adams and shittier still beers I'd consume previously. The beer was sour, both in a tart way, and with the flavor that is most pronounced from say a sour dough bread's yeast. It was prominently fruity, but not girly. There were spices complimenting the tartness of an obviously alcohol heavy brew... and while drinking it, I kid you not, all I could think about was how good it would go with a snack of Stilton or a triple creme blue. Ahhh memories.
Trois Pistoles: Quadrupel style ale (Quad). This is a dark beer, and one of my brother in laws' favorite styles of brews. Perhaps its the high alcohol content, or the sweet after taste that lingers on? Maybe it's the figs, or the smooth finish... whatever it is, this is another strong offering from the Unibroue brewery.
So the thing that really amazes me about beer-centric restaurants and brew houses in Quebec versus those found in the United States is how wonderful the food is. It is one of my greater pet peeves in life that when I go to a little brew pub in the States the menu is more than likely all too big, and always featuring some sort of ingredient that, you know, comes in from the exact opposite end of the earth. The nachos will be inevitably soggy, the pizza just plain bad, and whatever other "bro food" that they have available will basically want me to go pitchfork babies.
Why is this such a travesty? Because with our neighbor to the North, they get it so utterly right. This brew pub features local ingredients, even as the frost has set in, offering up an array of local, house made charcuterie, home made soups, Quebecoise cheese, local smoked fish... you get the idea. A pride in the land on which they brew their beer is also greatly reflected in the menu, and as a result, they don't feel comfortable shoveling out crap food.
The Raftman Plate: featuring
smoked doug (center left)
So what did we have... let's see... there was the Plate Raftman, named for one of the beers available at the brewery. On top of a delicious, crunchy little salad of mixed greens and cherry tomatoes, the restaurant featured several slices of their in house charceuterie. The star of the plate was the smoked, thin-sliced duck. I don't know if I've ever had something like this before. It was rich, and flavorful, kissed with the aroma of wood and charcoal, having been smoked to a perfect, tender pink medium. Salty local ham, creamy duck liver mousse, and a decadent duck rillette also shared the plate with the smoked duck, and we took pleasure in sipping beer and snacking on the various local meats along with some crusty bread with Quebec butter.
Soup a l'oignon
In addition to the Raftman plate, I also gave in to my primal urge to consume French onion soup, and sat wide-eyed and eager as it arrived at the table. The soup was delicious, with a lighter broth than you would normally expect in an onion soup; I suspect it was made with the Blanche du Chambly, though I could be wrong. The restaurant added thick slices of rustic bread as croutons and generous amounts of local Quebecoise cheese, lovingly melted and bubbling as it arrived at the table. Soupe à l'oignon has been a life long obsession of mine, and I am completely tickled that a restaurant run by a brewery can make such a substantial legitimate version.
Seriously, would you trust Beer Works to make you a charceuterie plate or a decent French onion soup? I wouldn't, and that's a tragedy.  But it also puts into perspective a) how wonderful the beer at Unibroue actually is and b) how proud they are of their home to produce house made food that complements the beer so well. This was a fantastic start to our exploration of Montreal.


Fourquet Fourchette
1887 Bourgogne St.
Chambly, Quebec

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Soused Blueberries Does Montreal!

Montreal is easily one of my favorite cities in the world entire. It's got oodles of charm and character, and is an easy, scenic drive from the Boston area. Despite the cold weather (but honestly, once you're below thirty, it all sucks), there's really a big draw for an escape here: the food and all things available to wash down said consumables.
There's a number of places we'll be visiting over the weekend, and I'll report back as soon as possible. But for now, I'd like to point out that today I stopped on the way to Montreal at McDonalds for a Happy Meal. I stop for at McDonalds only when there is not time for something better, and clearly I was in a desperate place somewhere right before the Canada/US border. So to tide myself over, I got a Happy Meal, the only part that I really savor being the french fries. (Own up, you love those fries too. They are the benchmark to which one compares all french fries.) And for "health reasons" McD's has begun to change its Happy Meals to include not a small fry, but about five french fries (single french fries), and a plastic packet of shitty looking apple slices. OUTRAGE. If you want your kids to be healthy, don't bring them to the golden arches, fools. I suppose you are forcing the wee ones to eat less fries, but in reality, who the hell eats those apples? Raise your hand if your kid eats the apples, or if they just want the fries and the friggin toy?
This rant has been brought to you by someone who has eaten far too much duck fat today... stay tuned...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mission Thanksgiving: Biscuits

Every year back home, it was a family Thanksgiving tradition to pop some cheap crappy, pre-baked rolls into the oven just as the turkey was finished, and completely forget about them until Thanksgiving dinner was half way done. Why did we have cheap, crappy pre-baked rolls at our house? No idea. Why did we forget about them? Probably because our hearts and minds were onto the big show after their time in the oven should have been done. Plus? Who gets excited about those rolls anyway? Or the Pillsbury whatevers that always start popping up in commercials around this time of year. Not this guy ::points to bigger half::
Major players
So, the mission this year is to prepare something for the bread plate that people actually are going to oooh and ahhh a bit over. I could purchase bread like I usually do at A&J King's, but after all that cooking, I really feel like it's kind of a cop out to have that one last thing be artisan, yes, but homemade, no.
And thus, I turn to the world of biscuits. I am most definitely not Southern, but my bigger half is kind of an adopted son of yonder parts of this country. As a navy family, he enjoyed many formative years in Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi. He loves biscuits, and is a real biscuit snob. What I personally know about biscuits is limited without his help, and the help of the google man that lives in my apple machine. But I did come across an article on Eatocracy a while back that featured a biscuit recipe from Lisa Fain, author of the Homesick Texan food blog, that seemed both easy to prepare, and built on honest family tradition. Homemade biscuits, something we don't get up here all that often, prepared on the instruction of an expert? Sign me up.
Ready for the oven
So today, I decided to test the recipe out. Note to anyone preparing their first or fortieth Thanksgiving dinner, never go all in on a recipe you've never tested before. The temptation to try something new or something with a lot of wow factor is overwhelming at times, but it can often spell disaster when you figure out at the wrong time that your oven is say dedicated to a forty pound bird when a recipe says it's time to broil something. Been there, done that.
Golden brown and puffy!
The recipe was easy, it took very few ingredients, and there was minimal prep time. I didn't have a cast iron pan on hand, so I just used a large skillet, and made sure to liberally butter the inside. Pounding the ball of dough was definitely the most fun part, and helped the whole mess to really rise up and grow flaky and tender in the middle. Also, the little sour cream glasses that my mother in law had bought us when we moved into our new place were the perfect size for cutting the biscuits. I'd say the entire process took less than a half hour, minus cook time, which was only fifteen minutes, and on turkey day, that's probably just about the right amount of time to keep people the hell away from the turkey so that the juices can redistribute, and to get everything else out on the table. Everything ready? Oh, the biscuits should be coming hot out of the oven, and we're ready to eat!
Now I just await my taste tester to get home, bring out a little Essex wildflower honey and butter, and go to town.
With butter and honey
Consensus, "These aren't Southern biscuits. They're too dense" Well, there's a big "ugh" moment. Whatever, I still think they're good, but I may be back to the drawing board. See, that's exactly why we always test recipes prior to gearing up for the big show on a certain Thursday in November. God forbid I serve dense biscuits at Thanksgiving dinner.