Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Brunching & Lunching it in Montreal Part 2: McKeirnan

McKiernan, the new-ish addition to the Joe Beef, Liverpool House, McMillan-Morin family on Notre Dame West is an incredible Montreal gem. This tiny lunch and-sometimes-supper spot has but 18 indoor seats in the winter, and a lively jamming terrace out-back when the spring-summer-fall weather permits. The vibe is sunny and cozy (love the four seater tables in the window banquettes), with a menu that boasts a wide range of items that are made with the restaurant's home-grown vegetables (from their patch out-back!). The more affordable McMillan owned spot brings the sud-ouest hipster crowd, Westmount lunching mommies & artsy business lunch crowd together for some of the best food the city has to offer. The decor is in theme with JB & LH, what seems to be a collection of mason jars, crates, collectibles, funky wall art and other rustic furnishings. The place is hopping at lunchtime but no matter how busy it is, chef Marc-Andre Leclerc, Curtis Vargo and his crew are bustling about, humming to the (great) music, and making it all look easy. It's casual, and it's styling.

Let's start with lunch. Everything on the menu is sublime. Everything. I have been hitting McKiernan for lunch for some time now - and it's the perfect lunch experience every time. Some of my favourites include: the Mckiernan Salad: beets, goat cheese, pine nuts, greens, radish & tomato. A mixed salad that's just filling enough. The pear and pecorino salad is perfectly executed, thinly sliced pear and coarsely grated pecorino cheese, pine nuts, arugula, and onion. Pear and pecorino have always been a favourite combo of mine, and I'm so glad it's there for the taking. The Chicken tikka sandwich was great too. And then there's the Cobb salad. Let's face it. Cobb salad is just the bomb - and that much better when it's done the McKiernan way. The club roll was good (served overflowing out of a toasted hot dog bun), but not exceptional, so maybe skip it when dining in a place with so many exceptional choices. The gnocchi special I had this past visit (today), was totally mind blowing. I didn't initially order it, but added it at the last second when I saw one being delivered to another table. Wow. Perfectly tender, with soft sun-dried tomatoes, greens, and lightly cheesed- it was rich but light. The pulled pork tacos were also amazing, and the turtle brownie made with pistachios was so good, I was still taking the last bites as I put my coat on and swearing I was too full for more. The menu is diverse and changes often, so you really have to go and see what makes your mouth water. It will definitely be an outstanding Montreal eating experience that will keep you coming back time and time again.

Pulled pork taco

Two girls, one brownie

In the summer they also make an amazing fruit lemonade. I can't wait for its return, but in the meantime, a lunchtime glass of vino will do fine.

About brunch... 3 important things: 1) it's only available Saturday; 2) it's heavy; and 3) it rocks. The lineup is about 30 minutes or so, but the hostess will call you when your table is ready, so you can peruse the antique stores nearby while you wait. If you can't handle the monster that is brunch at McKiernan, they always have the lunch menu (with salads) to fall back on. But the brunch is a not to be missed experience. The last time I ate there at 1pm, and I was not hungry again until about 9. The menu often changes, and is always imaginative and makes for a difficult ordering decision. The breakfast sandwich is colossal: it comes on a thin toasted (homemade) bun, with egg fritatta, lettuce, tomato, cheese, sausage, ham and of course bacon. 1 sandwich, 3 meats, no biggie right? wrong. I thought my friend (who can normally handle his breakfast meats) would have a heart attack just looking at the thing when it arrived at the table. But he polished it off an proceeded to move in on my grilled cheese (4 cheese & bacon grilled cheese= amazing). Lots of items on the McKiernan menu feature or include bacon in some way, and since everything in life is better with bacon, they get big points for that. Oh ya, the coffee is really awesome- my americano was first-rate.

Just like Olive & Gourmando, Mckiernan is tragically closed on Sundays & Mondays, but again, everyone needs time to relax and recharge. If you are visiting Montreal- I must reiterate, you cannot miss lunch at McKiernan (or dinner at Liverpool House for that matter) for a real authentic, original, and memorable Montreal meal.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brunching & Lunching it in Montreal Part 1: Olive & Gourmando

Montrealers know what it's like when the sun starts shining, the ski equipment gets stored until next year, and the first few warm weekends arrive... we just want to get together with friends on a sunday morning, head out into our beautiful city and eat with reckless abandon (well I do anyway).

Over the next few days, I want to talk about 4 places I love for brunch & lunch. Because hell, even though it's snowing (lightly) as I write this - it's spring! Time to whip out your shades & leather jackets and go wait in line for some great brunch food!

These four places are some of my favorite of all time, anywhere, and we're lucky to have them right here at home. If you are coming to visit our great city, you simply cannot miss eating at these legend-status-worthy local spots. Not all of them serve brunch all week (who's brunching mid week anyway?), but they all have an excellent weekend brunch, and some of the most amazing weekday lunch around, spots I hit for a midday bite on an almost weekly basis. So here goes.... first stop; Olive & Gourmando.

As you approach the lineup pouring out the door of Olive & Gourmando in Old Montreal, you may want to turn on your heels and run in the other direction. If you do, you clearly have never eaten at O+G. Otherwise, you'd excitedly be placing your name on the list at the door, and waiting patiently outside on the bench like a good little puppy - soon to be rewarded by a world class eating experience.

O+G has always been one of my favorite places to be in Montreal. On a sunny day, with the open windows and breeze blowing through, or, as a cozy refuge of warmth from the rain and snow. O+G seriously serves up some of the best brunch & lunch I have ever come across. The cool design & the vibe hits you as soon as you walk through the door. Dark reds and purples, wooden counters, good lighting, nice fixtures, great music. At the back where you make your order, the food is beautifully styled and displayed on dishes inside the glass counter. There are pots of spices and tomatoes growing in all the windowsills. Beautiful. From the style of the words and graphics on the walls to the perfect placement of each bag of potato chips, (that seem as though they were tossed into a basket)... the place is right on.

The restaurant was opened and is owned by couple Eric and Dyan (and now another partner, the wonderfully sweet Shelley Garinther), and the fact that they are never too far from the shop really shines through in the quality of food and service. These owners are hands on, and passionate about their establishment. Eric checks each plate as it leaves the kitchen area before hitting the table (I mean EVERY plate), and Dyan works the front making sure clients are happy and the customer flow is running smoothly. I have rarely been in there when both of them weren't present. Strangely, their staff lack some warmth - it's not always service with a smile, but it is fast and professional. The rest of the sweet O+G package more than makes up for it.

Owner Eric Girard checking each plate for perfection.

Breakfast here is really all about the pastries. One more delicious than the next. The rustic and consistently incredible quality of the baked goods is like a magic trick happening to your senses. It all looks, feels and tastes completely unreal. The "Egg on your face" sandwich is a bite into something special: oven roasted tomato, chopped poached egg salad and proscuito. A treat for your taste buds. They also have an excellent yogurt and granola dish if you are on the healthy plan (a plan you will soon throw away as you walk by the pastry counter), and as though that's not enough, they also serve a way-better-than-average coffee.

A few of my favourites from the pastry counter include; personal banana bread loaf (a great companion for a morning coffee and Gazette in hand), valrhona chocolate brioche (Eric's fave), Jami's Bar (named after the former pastry chef at O+G), Apple turnover, and I can't seem to leave the premises without a chocolate chip pecan cookie.

Can't wait to see where in Montreal Jami & his sweets will turn up next...

Mandatory cookie to-go

For lunch Olive has 2 soups a day, always amazing, so original, healthy, and hearty. Salads change daily, and the very original signature dishes (baked mac & cheese that will make your mouth water) change seasonally. The sandwich board has 6 choices, one of which rotates seasonally and the rest are O&G staples. 3 hot paninis, 3 cold sandwiches. They are imaginative, varied enough to suit all eating preferences (an amazing "Viva Las Vegan" sandwich with tofu can even turn my meat eating self into a temporary herbivore), and perfect every time. My favorite has always been the cajun chicken, avocado & mango sandwich on char-grilled bread, but the more new stuff I try, the more addicted I become to it all. And I have been a die-hard fan for close to 7 years.

I don't think I can hold your attention long enough to describe it all, because honestly the menu at O+G is like stepping into another galaxy of pastry and sandwich eating. I'll just say you'd be hard pressed to find other places churning out this kind of heavenly goodness anywhere in the world. So go.

Unfortunately Olive & Gourmando is closed on Sunday and Monday (yes, it is completely insane for them to be closed on Sunday, but it's all in the name of a day of rest, thus giving you 110% quality the rest of the time).

Olive & Gourmando
351 Rue Saint-Paul West

On tap for this week's brunch/lunch blog bonanza: Mckiernan, Beautys, & Le Cartet.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

OrangeX Jupiter: an extreme orange experience.

I went to visit my bro in New York two weekends ago. As soon as his apartment door swung open, I instantly noticed a bag of 24 oranges sitting on his counter next to a tall, lean, shapely, gorgeous new friend. Unfortunately for him, that beauty was... a juicer. I hadn't even taken my jacket off, and I was already slicing, juicing, and freaking. "I need one of these IMMEDIATELY!!!!....IMMEDIATELY!" I exclaimed (kind of screeched), with my weekend bags all around me on his kitchen floor. He went into his room, pulled out a massive Williams Sonoma bag, with a huge, extremely heavy box inside of it, and said "How immediate do you mean?", and right then and there, presented me with my very own OrangeX (Jupitor model) juice press, the Greek God of citrus juicers: It's tall, curvy, tough, all muscle, yet simple, and classic. A ruler of it's universe, it will extract all available juice from any citrus fruit with ease. The whole gift exchange moment was so perfect it could have been scripted, as I danced around celebrating the new addition to my kitchen.

I had done some research on juicers, as I've had my eye on one for a while, and I can report that the Jupiter OrangeX Professional Juice Press is really in a class of its own. They even have the exact same one at a favorite Miami juice bar/eatery: Miami Juice. If it's good enough for Miami Juice... it's going to kick butt in my kitchen forever.

What's the big deal about this juicer? Here's a few of the many things I love about it:

1. It doesn't slip and slide around the counter, like some of the more residential style ones (even the OrangeX juicers in those categories aren't great). It's heavy iron and has great suction cups on the base. We're talking heavy duty business here.

2. It's beautiful in its industrial simplicity. So easy to use (except for the fact that when Eric first saw it and tried to use it, he attempted to jam a full orange inside it instead of cutting the orange in half. I guess it's not completely idiot proof). It's so simple, and well built, with few moving parts, all iron and steel... which means you don't have to worry about a malfunction, an electronic problem, or replacing cheap or hard to find parts. The handle is long, ergonomic, rubber, and quality. This press should be with you a long long time.

Nice try Eric

3. It's green. No plug, no motor, no electronics, no noise, and no power required (except for the power of your bicep and a touch of tricep action to finish it off). A simple, functional, machine that delivers a universally loved, healthy, all natural, ready to eat product... quickly and deliciously.

4. It actually looks great. And it doesn't take up much space. I couldn't wait to find a permanent spot for it on the counter. It's a classic design: white, traditional, almost rustic looking, slim, and plain cool.

5. Kids love this thing. I finally have something in the house that I could entertain a child with for more than 35 seconds. We had two toddlers visit (separately) in the last few days, and both were captivated by it. Save for slicing the oranges and the power required to press it all the way down - they can basically do it themselves. My niece offered everyone in the room a glass (praying they'd say yes), and then asked us 14 times during dinner if we could make more juice.

6. It's easy to clean. Just grab the two stainless steel round parts, both easy to remove, rinse off, and put back. No nooks and crannies where pulp might get stuck, no delicate pieces to worry about.

7. It's great for making delicious cocktails. We tested it out this weekend with a good old fashioned cocktail showdown. My brother Jonathan was in town staying with us, and we had some friends over for drinks before heading out for my birthday. Jonathan made a brazilian drink called "Caipirinha", using lime that he pressed, and Eric made the "Little Devil Cocktail" using pressed lemon (and rum and gin - by the way, not a winning combo); both recipes out of the cute Bartender's Pocket Guide book. I made my very own, original, "Bluma Bellini" with Champagne, fresh pressed blood orange & grapefruit, and smashed raspberry. I definitely won over the ladies in the house, and got points for using the press in the most unique way (which reminds me - you can also press pomegranates in the OrangeX. Pretty awesome right?). But a special mention of Jonathan's drink; that although no one actually liked- someone in the room who had travelled to Brazil said it tasted very authentic- so he would have placed high in the "replicating a traditional drink" cocktail-off. Better luck next time brohan. The only (negative-ish) comment I would make is that I love a nice amount of pulp in my juice, and although trace amounts of pulp do escape into the glass, I like to scoop some out of the top strainer and stir it into the juice.

8. It's great for cooking. If you cook with lemon like I do, it's amazing. No seeds, fast, and right there next to my cutting board. It may be a bit large for the size of a lemon, so it may extract a little less than a traditional wooden reamer. But again, fast, clean, no seeds = awesome. I've already used it more times than I can remember this week. Caeser salad dressing, roasted brocolli, piccata limone, and this list goes on. And this thing is going to make whipping up an Arnold Palmer in the summer a breeze. I can't wait.

9. Who doesn't love fresh juice? Get yourself one of these, and enjoy.

Please note; Williams Sonoma's website does not feature this model (not sure why).

A Juicy follow up! After a dinner party at our house this past weekend, the tail end of party moved into the kitchen (that's just where we hang in my house), and of course- we had to do a little OrangeX demo for our friends. Here's how it went down.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hamburger Hoedown Throwdown

I have never been one to crave a burger. As a kid I was always into chicken nuggets - and to be perfectly real with you, besides my introduction to (and subsequent love affair with) In-n-Out Burger 8 years ago, I have never eaten a fast food burger in my life. No Big Mac, no Quarter Pounder, no Big Bacon Classic, nada. However, I do like me some junk food. Like every true Quebec native, I enjoy a good poutine with steaming hot gravy and melting cheese curds... and chicken fingers with french fries will always put a smile on my face. But I don't hang with the Hamburgler and don't bow to the Burger King. That stuff just smells like garbage to me.
Eight years ago I tried the in-n-out burger, and it was amazing. Still, I didn't venture far into burger eating world, figuring that In-n-Out just happened to be one amazing item, and I would enjoy it whenever I got the chance. Cut to two years later. I meet my now husband, and the burger was forced right back into my life. He's a burger freak, and now I find myself eating more burgers and seeking out great burgers everywhere we go.
After Eric and I got married, we drove up to the Laurentians and stayed at the very beautiful Quintessence for a few nights. Of course, we had no interest in eating resort food every day - we needed some authentic post- nuptials casse- croute action. But with so many options in the area, and only one meal to spare on junk food (OK... maybe 2 meals), I needed to investigate. So one morning while we were having breakfast in the Q dining room, I poked my head into the kitchen and asked the staff where the best burger in town was.
"Benvenue" was the unanimous response.
I reported this news to Eric.
"Bull****" he said. "100% Boeuf is definitely the best burger in the area."
Now let me just preface this by saying that Eric and his snowboard buddies go to Mont-Tremblant every weekend and ALWAYS stop for burgers at a place called "Le P'tit Stop" on hwy 117 southbound near St-Jovite. They all call it "Cent Pourcent Boeuf" (which means one hundred percent beef, in french) because of the huge sign on the roof of the restaurant that says, well... 100% Boeuf. I'm going to say based on how much they talk about it that it's at least 25% of the reason they snowboard, and for some of them, much higher.

Anyways, this time we tried Benvenue. And I loved it. And so did he, except he's too biased to admit it's better than 100% Boeuf, and he actually made us stop at 100% ALSO that day. I haven't been back to Benvenue since, until this past weekend where we made our second double casse-croute pilgrimage together. The order was going to be a simple Cheeseburger and fries - we didn't want to muddy up the test scores by adding poutine or other Quebec delicacies to the mix.

The scene at Benvenue was as I remember it. In fact, it probably hasn't changed in 20 years. Benvenue's unimpressive on the decor front. I don't mind the green chairs attached to tables MacDonald’s style, but Eric says the discomfort doesn’t invite hanging with friends or taking your time while eating. So Benvenue loses points there. It does however, make up for it ten fold with the Pepsi menu board with velcro lettering - bienvenue a Quebec! The place is spotlessly clean, and the kitchen is open air, and as I watch them whizz around assembling burgers, toastees (a hotdog in a toasted bun) and poutines, I felt great about the hygiene and food care in that kitchen. Seriously.

There’s a constant flow of people lined up at the counter making orders, and then a mess of people waiting to pay and waiting for food. I ordered fries a cheeseburger, with tomato, lettuce, and ketchup, Ric had the same with the addition of “chou”. The googley eyed old man at the cash took my order, turned to the cook and translated it from French to Laurentian Quebecois French.

The burger came in a tightly wrapped wax paper bundle, and I smiled as I looked down- the burger stork had just dropped a little tightly wrapped bundle of cheeseburger love right into my lap.

The burger from Benvenue is the perfect package I remembered it to be. Let’s start in the center and work outward. The beef: By no means is this a thick and heavy duty patty. But it smells great, and it’s just thick enough to be cooked all the way through and still be juicy. It’s the perfect size to complement its neighbours, the cheese and crispy bun. The lettuce and tomato are pretty standard - shredded iceberg and a slice of tomato - both perfectly good, the right amount & not slimy. The cheese: light orange in colour, the cheese is somewhere between velveeta and a melted kraft single. It’s warm and spreadable and dolloped on with a spoon - but not quite “spread” on. I am really not sure what they are using or how they assemble the cheesy mixture, but it’s cheesy, sticky but not runny, and tasty. And they don’t use too much. If I caught a glimpse of the stuff in any other setting I would never go near it - but it truly makes the Benvenue burger special. Again, if the burger patty itself was any meatier and thicker, the taste and delicate balance of the cheese would be lost. Finally, the bun. The bun has been pressed on a griddle to toasted perfection. The entire top and bottom of the bun have a light crunch all the way across, and the bread itself is moist and fresh all the way through, so when you bite through the delicious toasted exterior, the moist inside is no let down. I may have enjoyed it even more sitting at a table and chairs, but I wolfed it down on the way to our next burger stop, and snuck in the remainder of my fries for comparison. My moxie only goes so far.... I polished off the burger in the Cent Pourcent parking lot. Bringing in beef from another casse-croute would be the ultimate insult to a proud burger joint like this place. 

It was an 11 minute trip to 100% Boeuf, and the parking lot is full when we arrive. And apparently... I’m with a VIP. Ric chit chatted with the staff and introduced me to the proprietor, who offered us a complimentary home made fried dough / “beaver tail” with the toppings of our choice in celebration of Ric bringing the miss'. The place looks like a no frills log cabin on the inside and is much brighter and more vibrant than Benvenue - which feels more like the Seventies inside (or so I’m told). In terms of decor and ambiance, 100% is superior. The kitchen is again open, spotless and staffed with 5 friendly people in all whites and hairnets. Definitely a more professional looking ("looking") operation. Here, you order at the cash, give them your name, and sit down. When the food’s ready, one of the kitchen staff walks out with your tray in hand, and shouts out the name associated with the order. You raise your hand to claim your meal. 

The burger arrived in a tight wax paper package - dressed the same as Benvenu’s (for the sake of science). It’s slightly larger (a 4oz patty - they also offer an 8oz version) then the Benvenu burger. The patty is a bit thicker and I found it slightly less juicy/greasy, even spongy. The cheese is a basic square of processed cheddar, not put on the griddle and left for enough time to melt. Two thumbs down in the cheese department. The vegetables on the burger are the same standard stuff, but with an entire slice of onion, which requires some work to separate, unless you really like raw onion (which I do, but not everyone does). The bun is toasted - they fry both sides on a separate griddle top in the kitchen only they don't get enough surface area of the bun actually toasted and crispy (only the very top gets a spot on crispiness due to the curvature of the bun), and not soft and fresh enough to make up for the lack of toasted-ness. As for the fries, there’s no question. 100% Boeuf has the advantage. Crispy, hot, not greasy, but not dry - excellent. Even though I was asked not to mention it, 100% got our burger topping order wrong, after having written it down, while Mr. Potato Head at the Benvenue counter listened to my order, just once, and got it bang on. Just sayin'.

A female employee came by to ask what we decided on for desert - this is very unorthodox at 100% as orders are never taken at the table, but like I said... VIP treatment. My man really knows how to impress a lady. We opted to share a chocolate covered “delice d’anna” named after the owner’s mother. The boys loved it but I was too stuffed after 2 cheeseburgers and fries, and thought it was just OK (no disrespect to the man's mother).

I was warned about the food coma that sets in after you eat 100%, and sure enough, an hour later I was in bed fast asleep... tough sunday of burgers and fries.

The verdict: The burger at 100% had a distinct flavor, and I enjoyed the few bites I had, but it was a little too dry and not as tasty as Benvenue’s. For the post ski experience, maybe 100% is a touch cosier, and delivers service with a special smile. It certainly does the trick & then some (they have chicken nuggets and Benvenue does not) but Benvenue slams it out of the park in the burger category. No competition. Mmmmmm... now that's a tasty burger!

I give Benvenue a huge, hearty gold medal. But hey - if you live for 100% burgers and have never tried the heavenly goodness of the Benvenue burger, I'll bet 100% Boeuf seems pretty awesome. So rock on Eric & friends, rock on.
Here's some other burgers I tried recently and loved:

Burger Joint at  the Parker Meridian (NYC)
Step into the lavish lobby of the parker meridian, and just behind the velvet red curtain awaits a lineup to a burger to behold in the hole in the wall right there in what seems to be the crawl space of the luxury hotel's lobby. Best. fries. ever. (Please note I have also had some of the best fries of my life at Fred's in Barney's)

Taverne on the square
Big, juicy, delicious burger cooked medium and served rightfully without all the fancy accoutrements. Famous Tavern fries on the side. Bite into this sucker too aggressively and watch the burger juice spray all over your friends like a slasher movie kill scene.  
Patati Patata
A little perfect package. Excellent fries. Everyone I know loves this place, it's no secret how incredible it is.

Amazing burger, and amazing to see such an amazing burger in an restaurant where so many other menu items rank at the top of their categories. If you've never tried it, as Hymie says, "you're always welcome". 

La Paryse
It's different, and delicious- but may not be worth the long lines- I find recently there's a slight decline in quality. A montreal classic.

**Also to note, I think Mr. Steer Burger smells like dirty mop water (a major, red,  hygiene siren should now be ringing in your brain), and eating a burger in the shape of a tennis ball is not cool, anywhere, anytime.