Ironic eating as I Tip my Chapeau to the Big Ham (aka Le Gros Jambon)

I love breakfast places.  I don’t mean places that serve an array of croissants, scones and in-house baked goods.  I’m referring to a place that serves hardcore, greasy spoon type petit dejeuner  which push beyond the boundaries of eggs and bacon.  I was on a recent trip to Montreal and during one of the boring sessions I was watching I started to flip through urbanspoon and yelp looking for an escape from the monotony of the day.  I narrowed down the list before consulting with my buddy who lived  in town about where to go.  When he mentioned Le Gros Jambon, I quickly agreed and was on my way.  The website didn’t rock my world  by any stretch.  It’s simply a freckled-face kid drinking a glass of milk with a link to a menu.  However, it has  great reviews and it was close so it made sense.

I enjoyed the Sunday morning walk through Old Montreal.  A mosaic of pedestrians littered the street.  After dodging clueless cell phone users and many spaced out shutterbugs, I arrived at the doors of this breakfast and lunch nook.  It was bustling with people cramming in and slipping out but I managed to weasel my way in the front door.  There were a couple of stools at the counter, so I was seated immediately.  A look around told me this was my kind of place.  It was set up like a 50’s soda shop that had been remade by somebody with a basement full of nostalgia including  posters, retro advertisements  and a mosiac of  licence plates.   Within a minute a pleasant waitress with no bias against anglophones came over and poured me a decaf. I gandered at the menu, skipped the burgers and sandwiches and went right to brunch.  There were typical items like eggs Benedict and french toast as well as trendy  items like huveros  rancheros and fried chicken and waffles.  In particular, I was interested in the mushroom toast which was described as “creamy mushroom sauce with smoked meat, two fried eggs served on toasted rye” which sounded perfect given it sounded like a nasty mess inspired by local flare. By sitting at the counter facing the open kitchen, I got to watch the meticulous and fluid construction of this interesting dish. First, the jalapeno-potato hash brown thing was dropped in the oil.  Next, the eggs were cracked onto the flat top.  The smoked meat and rye bread joined the party.  Then, within seconds of each other, the bread, meat, egg and mushroom gravy were piled precisely on the  pig shaped plate along with the aforementioned potato and a side of baked beans.  It wasn’t the prettiest dish on earth but my taste buds didn’t care. Although a tad more gravy would have been sloppy fun , it was delicious.

Mushroom Toast $12
Mushroom Toast $12

My Take

When it comes to breakfast, I’m in for either a cheap diner-style spread or something a little more creative and unique.  Le Gros Jambon is the latter.   Instead of  sipping French press coffee and biting  into flaky pastries, devouring the mushroom toast with pictures of  Mickey Mouse and a creepy freckled kid watching over me along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal was as ironic as not eating a stitch of pork off a pig-shaped plate in a place named “big ham”.  More so, the service was not at all pretentious, busting  apart any stereotypes an anglophone in Montreal might have. In fact, it was as genuine as Mabel at the Streamside Diner speaking of her cat’s latest adventure with a ball or yarn or stories of her daughter’s success as the local hairdresser.

In the end, le Gros Jambon is a destination for foodies and which was built by smart culinary minds and those with a knack for interior design inspired by an outdated man cave.  It’s has a  busy, yet pleasant vibe complete with the ability to watch the cooks construct plate after plate in a melodic and methodological manner. For that I tip my chapeau to the big cheese, or maybe in this case, the big ham.

 

Le Gros Jambon on Urbanspoon

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Review:Montreal:Mezcla

I have a colleague who I trust immensely when it comes to recommending excellent restaurants.  In some cases, they have gained fame through great online reviews or features in newspapers or magazines.  In other cases, they fall off the beaten path and offer a unique culinary experience. For example,  I followed him to Carnitas Don Pedro to suck back some pork brain tacos in Chicago.  So when I was in Montreal in October, I had no worries when he recommended Mezcla, an upscale Latino place that serves dishes  a bit more sophisticated that Don Pedro’s.  Located in the the middle of what appears to be a mainly residential street a short cab ride out of the downtown core, it has a modest storefront which blends in nicely with the surrounding residences.

The decor had sort of a dark beauty to it and was somewhat reminiscent of a cleaner version of the cave Indiana Jones yanked the Chachapoyan fertility idol from in Raiders of the Lost Ark (although there was no sign of the idol anywhere).  The waitstaff were cut from pages of Vogue Peru (if there is such thing) with gleamy smiles and pristine manners.  We were seated near the window and offered a decent wine list featuring a sampling from Europe and South America.  We opted for a nicely priced Lorca Fantasia Argentinian Malbec ($54). I find they can be either really good or really bad and this one was on the good side.

The menu stratifies land and sea by offering fresh seafood and hearty meat dishes sourced locally and prepared with traditional South American flavours and techniques. The size of the dishes ranged from sharing plates to large hunks of meat meant for romantic yet carnivorous sharing.  According to the Spanish to English dictionary, Mezcla (not to be mistaken with Mezcal..the red headed stepsister of tequila) is Spanish for mixing which makes sense given the fusion concept.  However, it may also mean “meat” because if you are vegetarian you are basically limited to fingerling potatoes with an egg on top (there may be alterations the kitchen can make for vegetarians but I didn’t ask).

From the sea we chose the ceviche mixto, cazuelita de pulpo (octopus) and almejas y yucca (clams). The ceviche was a perfect balance from both a flavor and ingredient perspective.  Each bite had uniform contrast with the odd explosion of intensive flavour. Simply delicious.  The octopus was reasonably tender and seasoned with a magical mezcla of Peruvian and Quebec traditions  with the panca and maple respectively.  The clams were decent but lacked the punch of some of the other dishes even with the smart addition of the small wire basket of yucca fries.

$27
Ceviche Mixto $27
$18
Bad picture of Cazuelita de Pulpo  $18
$19
Almejas y Yucca $19

From the land I chose the tiradito de venado and fois gras and the courte cote de bison briase.  The first, which loosely translates as deer carpaccio, is paired with a fois gras torchon and seasoned with Peruvian hot peppers and peaches.  This dish could start a fight at a table over the last piece if  you’re not careful and at the same time be used to strengthen international relationships between North and South America. Luckily, my dining partner is not a fan of red meat and I got to enjoy the whole thing myself. I carefully watched the preparation of the bison ribs.  A glass dome was placed over them and heavy smoke was infused and they were delivered to the table like that. I was allowed to stare for a moment until the waiter skillfully lifted the lid and swirled the smoke in a confident manner. The ribs appeared out of the smoke like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson at Wrestlemania and were equally meaty and buff but tender at the same time (now if you don’t think the rock is tender go and rent the Tooth Fairy).  Thankfully, the mushroom and vegetable medley were a much better side kick than Seann William Scott in the Rundown.

 $22
Tiradito de Venado and Fois Gras $22
$39
Courte Cote de Bison Briase. with Smoke  $39
mezcla ribs2
Courte Cote de Bison Briase. after Smoke $39

For dessert we ordered the glace lucuma, a earthy yet sweet blend of nuts, cocoa bean and caramel.  It didn’t push the boundries of the rest of the menu (maybe I was expecting it to be strewn in bacon flavoured maple syrup or something) but it was a fitting end to a great meal.

$9
Glace Lucuma $9

My Take

Mezcla is a new joint ultimately making  a loud and avant-garde impression on Montreal’s dining scene. The fusion of the relatively untapped tastes of South America with more common European methodologies produce dishes with bold yet refined flavours. It’s as if Jacques Cartier blew by the St. Lawrence and busted down to South America and threw down the gauntlet in an Inca Chef showdown. The service is impeccable; classy and attentive.   Water glasses are never empty and the smiles never stop. The staff are exciting, knowledgeable , and exude pride instead of pretension.

The impact of the robust flavours that hit your mouth are synonymous with getting cold cocked by the Rock. In fact, I can summarize the experience of this amazing restaurant in the words of Dwayne Johnson himself… “Can you smmmellll…what Mezcla..is cooking?!”

Mezcla on Urbanspoon

Review:Montreal:Park Restaurant

One thing that gives me a headache is trying to figure out what to do for brunch.  Usually, it a combination of overpriced breakfast foods in the midst of foodies who are worse than dinner ones (they may in fact be the same except the dinner foodie is drunk and somewhat pleasant whereas the brunch one is hungover and even more miserable).  Add the fact I was in Montreal and my head was going to explode.  So, I did an online search and stumbled across a really good blog which does a stellar job focusing on the most important meal of the day:

http://www.montrealbreakfastreview.com/

After scrolling through numerous and well written posts, I stumbled across Park which met all my criteria:

1.  They..gasp!…take brunch reservations.

2. It’s located in Westmount, a neighborhood outside of the downtown core which meant an opportunity to explore an alternate part of the city.

3. There’s more on the menu than bacon and eggs priced $5 higher than they are any other day of the week. In fact, they serve more of an asian-inspired lunch than a standard brunch.

So, we grabbed a cab and took the trek up to this funky neighbourhood.  It’s oddly set-up in what appears to be a bit of a rundown office building although there are rather expensive pieces of art hanging on the walls of the lobby.  I have no idea what Park was before, but I suspect it was some kind of sit down cafe which served Bunn coffee, bagels and greasy breakfast plates. It has been overhauled with a nice bar, decent decor and blackboards boasting cocktails and menu specials.

At the time we were seated, it was pretty empty but was full by noon.  It was a diverse crowd including a table of elderly people enjoying every bite of their eggs to foodie couples snapping pics the same I was. I was intrigued by the numerous cocktails on the blackboard filled with asian flavours such as yuzu.  When I inquired, however, I was told cocktails weren’t available at brunch and I was left to drink a mediocre $12 mimosa.

We ordered three very unorthodox brunch items which complied with both my whimsical tastes and my dining partner’s like for fresh, healthy flavours (what’s with that?); bibimbap ($13), Jap Chae ($13) and the deconstructed salad for two ($19).   All three dishes had a delicate complexity to them with flavours that burst with freshness and balance. The visual appeal was spectacular.   The grains in the bibimbap and noodles in the Jap Chae were done to perfection.  The deconstructed salad  was like having a personal assistant deliver the freshest ingredients from a whole foods setup on a plate in front of you without having to deal with the Lululemon wearing moms and indecisive salad bar champions. It had no less than 20 ingredients (lettuce, vegetables, pickled items such as kimchi  etc.)  as well as three delicious homemade dressings spiked with Asian flavours such as yuzu and miso. For $19 it could have had a few more protein options,vegetarian or otherwise.

Bibimbap $13
Bibimbap $13
Jap Chae $13
Jap Chae $13
Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)
Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)

My Take

This is not your typical brunch. Coming here and nestling in knarly and fashionable environments reaches noble and nouveau dimensions only superseded by the prettiness of the food. The combination of the fresh ingredients and bold flavours busts open the notion that the only cure for a hangover is grease.  I’d knock my next day pain upside the head with a dose of this stuff any day but would leave out the $12 mimosa. Otherwise, the next question I would ask when coming to Park is “what’s for dinner?”

Park Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review:Montreal:Beauty’s

With limited time and a hectic schedule in an unknown city, I often rely on the experts (including urbanspoon and yelp writers) to tell me where to go.  In the case of Beauty’s, I relied on Gail Simmons’ recent article in Food and Wine magazine for an over-the-top breakfast. In particular, she recommended the Mish-mash omelette and the banana bread.

I hopped in a cab with a colleague and headed out of the downtown core and into the Mont-Royal area.  Nestled on a corner, Beauty’s sports all the hallmarks of a classic diner including vinyl benches, signed pictures of famous people pledging their love and support and a table of old people sitting near the door engaging in some kind of social event.

The menu is a straight forward mix of diner classics such as burgers, salads, sandwiches and melts.  I stared blankly at the menu pretending like I might order something other than Gail’s suggestion.  So when the waitress arrived with diner coffee in a diner cup I ordered the famous Mish-Mash omelette which is stuffed with hot dog, salami, green peppers and fried onions and a side of home fries for $12. It was served like something called a mish-mash should; with large chunks of each ingredient busting out of the rather crispy egg. An added touch was a messy mound of home fries all over the plate.  It was good and was somewhat enhanced by those secret ingredients called nostalgia and celebrity endorsement although I’m not sure it would win you Top Chef Canada anytime soon.

Mish-Mash Omelette $12
Mish-Mash Omelette $12

I know Gail is a sucker for a good dessert so I purchased a loaf of banana bread for $10. The minute I inquired one of the older gentleman got up from the table by the door and pitched it like he was selling me a car.  It weighed a stone or two but was moist and not greasy.  I brought some back to Ontario and dressed it up with homemade caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream which was ironically the dish which allowed me to meet Chuck Hughes the week after.  I’m surprised Gail forgot to mention the rice pudding which was spectacular. I’m a huge fan of this diner (and hospital) classic and this was one of the better ones I’ve had.  I brought it back to the hotel and when I realized I was spoonless, I resorted to gluttony and consumed half the container using my first two fingers and my thumb with no remorse.

My Take

I get the nostalgia of the place. In addition to being hustled into large dessert purchases by the senior’s table, it has all the components of a classic diner and has been a part of the community since 1942. There’s a relatively inexpensive and diverse menu highlighted by signature dishes which have caught the attention of food gurus like Gail Simmons.  It’s a fun stop and allows you to explore another area of this great city outside of Old Montreal and the downtown core.  That said, if you’re not up for a $15 cab ride for a hot dog omelette,  this may not be your place.  Maybe the beauty of Beauty’s is not in the decor or presentation of the food  but in the fact that places like this, which set the foundation for the future of restaurants from fast food to fine dining, continue to thrive in 2013.

Beauty's on Urbanspoon

Review:Montreal:Old Montreal:Brit and Chips

I was in Montreal for a conference and had a bit of a lunch break.  I’m not much for the generic cafeteria food that fills the convention centre, so I decided to talk a stroll into old Montreal to see what kind of lunch options there were.  I had a few glasses of wine the night before, so some grease and a little hair of the dog was on the menu.

So I found it rather ironic when I stumbled across Brit and Chips. I mean, as an anglophone with a pedigree from the British Isles, I felt rather naughty seeking out such an ethnocentric joint in Old Montreal.  At the same time, I knew nothing would appease my needs better than a greasy piece of fish and some kind of ale to wash it down.

The place was  small and was extremely crowded although it was at the tail end of lunch hour (part of me highly suspects that lunch is rarely limited to only an hour in Quebec) but luckily there was a table available in the make shift patio which was set up outside the front door. I was quickly greeted by a server  was quick to take my beer order.  I opted for a Fuller’s London Pride ($7.50) to further flex my anglo chest muscles amongst those who may otherwise opt for a Kronenbourg or something like that.

The menu is simple.  You choose a fish and whether you want fries or not (all the choices are $10 and $12 respectively).  What’s interesting is that each fish is matched with a particular batter so it’s the first time I had to weigh the type of fish against the batter and decide which I wanted more.  I’m not sure to this day if you can mix and match, so maybe my dilemma was a moot point. I was torn between the cod and the maple syrup batter on the haddock.  In the end, I chose the latter and went with the batter.  For a downtown Montreal restaurant, it was pretty good…at least enough to forgive the fake newspaper which lined the serving vessel.  The batter was crisp enough  and was well proportioned to the moist fish within. I thought the tartar sauce, which is often overlooked, was a solid companion to the main.

Haddock and chips in maple syrup batter $12
Haddock and chips in maple syrup batter $12

Going along with the theme of the the British pub, there are also pasties, pies, sausage rolls and even some Indian influenced tandoori popcorn shrimp and curry fish cakes. I couldn’t help but order up a sausage roll and pork pie as my colleague shook his head at the amount of grease that was put in front of me.  Both the roll and pie were authentic, even down to the nasty (in a good way) mustard. I could only “mustard” up the courage to eat about a quarter each as my colleague watched in utter horror.

Sausage Roll $4
Sausage Roll $4
Pork Pie $6
Pork Pie $6

When I went inside to pay, I noticed a soft serve ice cream machine promising an authentic chunk of a Cadbury Flake if you ordered one.  I couldn’t resist and found it a nice end to a decent meal.

Ice Cream with Cadbury Flake $2.49
Ice Cream with Cadbury Flake $2.49

My Take 

If I ever chose to film “An Anglophone in Montreal”, I would definitely film a scene here.  The fish and chips and even the environment rival any chipper in English Canada. From the fish to the mustard to the greasy yet flaky crust of the pork pie, the place screams authentic even when they infuse a little maple syrup into the mix.  There is no shortage of chic cafes, adorable bistros and fine dining in this fantastic city but if you want to be a limey for an hour, this is the place to go. Not only is the food good, there is little risk of getting a sabot in the back of the head for ordering fish instead of poisson.

Brit & Chips on Urbanspoon