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

Home of the Brave: A Celebration of the American Culinary Trinity of Cheese, Gravy and Sauce

Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco.   Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa.  The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.

Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst.  Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene.  I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat.  I sat and looked around.  A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner.  The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way.  They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list.  They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light  and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.

The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes.  In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three.  In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy.  They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in  a shallow pool of fat.

Tater Tots
Tater Tots $7

It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts.  The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine.  They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best).  The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings.  Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour  of the abundant sauce.  My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.

Home of the Brave Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12
Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12

 

I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order.  Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy.  I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears  was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.

Asparagus with cheese and gravy
Asparagus with cheese and gravy $7

I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.

 

My Take 

Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly.  The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept.  Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance  to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend  HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke.  If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right?  Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but  I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy.    In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food.  I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.

 

Home of the Brave on Urbanspoon

Review: Toronto: Food Truck: Hogtown Smoke

Reminiscent of Big Foot or Rob Ford jogging, food trucks are a rather elusive sighting in Toronto. Bound by by-laws which do not allow more trucks to attain  permanent residency in the downtown core, they are forced to travel like Nomads making it a bit of a feat to find one that is open on any given day. Check out http://torontofoodtrucks.ca/ for information about food trucks in Toronto.

As I approached the corner of Front and Sherbourne in search of Hogtown Smoke, I caught a whiff of the smoked meat about a block away. I happened to be second in line so I was able to sample some of the brisket right out of the smoker before I even ordered.   Although it took a while to get rolling after a minor gas malfunction (which I appreciated because it allowed me to stare at the small menu like an idiot for 15 minutes without  a clue what I was going to order)., the window opened and I was greeted by the friendly staff members. Specials included a kimchi grilled cheese and side ribs in addition to the traditional pulled pork, poutine, brisket, po’ boy sandwiches and kicked up grilled cheese.  I opted for the ribs, brisket and poutine to get a taste for a bit of everything. The staff  joked with the building crowd,  apologizing for the delays and asking everybody their names.

Must

St. Louis Side Ribs ($10)

New to the truck, I was a little leery since side ribs are not as forgiving as back ribs and are easy to mess up.  They came through by fulfilling  the holy trinity of rib triumph; crunchy bark (although a bit salty), a deep pink smoke ring and fall off the bone tenderness.  They were supposed to be  served with  baked beans and slaw but in the lunacy of opening I did not get the slaw so I can’t comment.  The beans were very saucy, had  great texture and bubbly flavours driven by the unmistakable sassifrassness of root beer. Imagine a baked bean flavoured Jelly Belly jelly bean and you’ve got the taste.

St. Louis Side Ribs with Root Beer Beans

2 lb Pulled Pork Poutine ($10)

This alliterative aliment almost achieves all acclaimed attributes (of a good poutine). Poutine has its own holy trinity characterized by fabulous fries, great gravy and cheese curds.  Hogtown almost reached divinity.  The fries were a good size, taste and texture (which is tough since poutine fries get really mushy, really fast).  The pulled pork got bonus points.  It had a huge, juicy pork flavour and good seasoning. My one criticism was the  final execution because the curds didn’t melt under the gravy. A small thing, but a traditional poutinist may pou-pou it.

2 lb Pulled Pork Poutine

Patron Jalapeno Mango Sauce

Use the Patron Jalapeno Mango sauce in anyway you can.  It’s fantastic and can best be described as Big Mac sauce on steroids. I would go as far as baking up six High Liner fish sticks and bring them in a zip lock bag  just so I could taste this sauce over and over again.

Maybe

Brisket ($10)

The brisket sandwich was sliced thin, piled fairly high and served on a good size swirly rye-type bun.  At the recommendation of the staff,  I topped it with the spicy barbeque sauce and horseradish aioli.  The meat was busting with flavour with minimal grit but it was a bit dry. The sauces helped to moisten it up a bit,  making  it  quite a good  sandwich.

Beef Brisket Sandwich

Mundane

Not much other than the early service disruption and the fact they forget my slaw!

My Take

Hopefully food trucks are here to stay because they provide limitless variety and creative license.  Hogtown smoke didn’t disappoint, offering traditional smoke house flavours with modern twists. The ribs approached divinity. The poutine may have reached sainthood.  Like many trucks, the biggest issue is execution and speed of service.  These are good guys with a good  attitude and a good concept.  I’d endure minor traffic and a small crowd to come back. Hell, I might even start going  to church again.

Hogtown Smoke on Urbanspoon