Sunday, July 7, 2013

Montreal: Great food and all that jazz

Crisp-skin arctic char with cucumber flower, mustard and sour cream, above, one of the five courses in a meatless tasting menu served on July 2 at Vanhorne, a modest storefront in Montreal with only 30 seats, below.

Vanhorne offers "cuisine du marche" or "cooking from the market." The tasting menu was $58 (Canadian dollars) per person, but taxes totaling 15% are added to all restaurant checks. The Canadian dollar is worth about 95 U.S. cents.

Our first course at Vanhorne: warm peas, beets, green beans and two kinds of radish in a tiny puddle of butter.

After the arctic char, we were served crunchy broccoli with salty lumpfish roe that rested on dollops of creme fraiche, a rich, thick cream.

Following the broccoli, we had warm, sashimi-like swordfish with grilled cauliflower.

My wife didn't care for the swordfish, even though it was extraordinarily fresh tasting, so I ate her portion, and the chef sent out this wonderful fillet of halibut with a beautifully crisped skin for her. I tasted that, too, and it was a great piece of fresh fish.

Vanhorne served a dessert for people like us who never eat dessert: cherry tomatoes, raspberries, tiny mint leaves and rose petals on sorbet. I left the puff pastry.

The meal started with an amuse bouche of fried lichen and sea urchin. During the meal, we were given complimentary strawberry water and sour cherry juice. And after we paid the bill, Chef John Winter Russell saw us off with another wonderful sorbet.

The colorful, informal interior of Vanhorne, above and below.


Montreal is a French-speaking city that moves on its stomach.

Seen from from a passing taxi or bus, every other storefront seems to be a market, restaurant ("resto" for short) cafe or coffee house.

Marche Jean-Talon is a public market selling produce from about 350 farmers and other producers, and the only one I know that offers free samples of vegetables and fruit. 

There were plenty of free samples at Marche Jean-Talon, but no toothpicks.

Parsley from Quebec Province and other fresh produce.

Near the market are stores devoted to local cheeses, charcuterie, wine and other culinary delights.

If you go to Montreal and want to eat well, bring money -- lots of money.

Federal and provincial taxes on restaurant meals total 15%, and if you're not careful, you can be tricked into tipping on the taxes, as well as on the food and drinks.

"Entrees" are what we call appetizers. "Plats principaux" or main plates are what we call entrees, and often they are priced in the high 20s or low 30s in fine-dining bistros and restaurants.

Finding a glass of wine for under $10 isn't easy, and at Vanhorne -- where we enjoyed a 5-course, $58 tasting menu -- I declined the offer of a $21 glass of wine from Oregon.

Butter and cream

With bistro cooking, it's hard to avoid artery clogging butter and cream.

When I told the server at Vanhorne I wanted to try the 5-course tasting menu, but don't eat meat or poultry, she said it would be no problem.

But when I added I'd also like to avoid butter and heavy cream, she laughed and said I shouldn't worry, because the chef uses only a little of each.

Jazz tour

I've visited Montreal on my own in both winter and summer, but this time, I went on a group tour to the Festival International de Jazz, a 10-day celebration of world music that ends today.

The small group, organized by WBGO-FM (88.3), the 24-hour National Public Radio station in Newark, got a combined jazz, food and city tour -- plus behind-the-scenes meetings with festival producers.

Tour members had brunch with WBGO host Michael Bourne ("Afternoon Jazz," "Blues Hour" and "Singers Unlimited") in the Maison du Festival or festival headquarters, above, where I enjoyed fresh fruit, juices and three portions of heart-healthy smoked salmon, but didn't touch the bagel half or cream cheese, below.

The smoked salmon was garnished with caper berries.

The next day, tour members had lunch at a branch of Bourne's favorite restaurant, Pizzedelic, above, a bistro in Old Montreal where we were offered choices from a set menu, including a glass of wine and espresso or tea. Bourne ordered two of Pizzedelic's square pizzas, ate one and asked for the other one to go.

I really enjoyed an appetizer of grilled goat cheese with almonds and cranberries, accompanied by seasoned diced tomatoes, center, and salad.

My entree: Black Tiger shrimp over linguine. Whole-wheat pasta wasn't available.
Dessert was Raspberry Sorbet with fresh mint leaves.

A list of dinner entrees -- with soup or Cesar salad, dessert and coffee -- at Pizzedelic, below. 

We had a hard time finding dinner for 2 for under $100, and when it came to tipping, the use of hand-held credit-card terminals proved confusing at first.

In Montreal, I used credit cards that give rebates, but don't charge a foreign-transaction fee, rather than paying cash.

When I did, the server brought a wireless, hand-held terminal to the table, swiped the card, then asked me to input the tip before printing out a receipt and a copy, and asking for my signature.

Tipping perils

I've always felt tipping is a scam whereby restaurant owners shift the burden to customers to provide poorly paid servers with a living wage.

That sets up a confrontational relationship between servers and customers, and allows restaurant owners to pocket bigger profits.

I wasn't familiar with the hand-held credit-card terminals in wide use in Montreal, and the first two times we had dinner out, the waiters swiped my card and handed me the terminal, asking me to indicate "the percentage" of my desired tip.

What I didn't know is that by indicating a percentage, the tip is figured on the total amount of food, wine and all 15% of those taxes.

At Vanhorne, our gracious host, Sylvie, handed me the terminal and noted I could add a percentage or a dollar tip -- by hitting a key marked % or $ -- so I was able to give her $30 or about 20% of the food and drink total of $149.50. 

Including an $11.50 glass of wine, a $14 flight of freshly squeezed juices, a $4 coffee and a $4 tea, our total bill, with tip and taxes, was $201.89.

A 6-ounce glass of red wine was $8 at Baton Rouge, a high quality steak-and-ribs chain where the waiter offered me mushrooms with my entree, but didn't tell me they would cost extra.

These twin 6-ounce lobster tails with steamed vegetables were perfectly cooked, above, as were the lobster, Black Tiger shrimp and jumbo sea scallops in my dinner, below.

Baton Rouge's twin lobster dinner, including a wonderful Cesar salad, was $40. My dinner, called Jewels of the Sea, was $39.

When I told the waiter I wanted vegetables with my seafood, he asked if I also wanted mushrooms. I said I did, and got this wonderful plate of mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, then discovered an $8 charge on my bill.

Our July 1 dinner at Baton Rouge was our second in Montreal, and I got bitten by a waiter who offered me sauteed mushrooms, but didn't tell me they were $8 extra.

He said later he thought the extra charge was "understood."

I got bitten a second time when it came time to tip him with one of those confusing hand-held terminals.

When I said I didn't appreciate him leaving out the price of the mushrooms and wanted to tip him only 12% as a penalty, he handed me the terminal and told me to key in my percentage tip.

Of course, by indicating a percentage, I tipped him 12% on the total food bill, plus taxes, or $19.66 on $109.23, bringing the total to $128.99.

F Bar is a branch of a well-known Portuguese restaurant in Montreal, operating out of an elaborate pop-up on the edge of the Place des Arts, a huge open plaza filled with temporary stages for the jazz festival.

After a 7-hour drive from New Jersey on June 30, we had our first dinner at F Bar, where a glass of red wine was $12 and dinner for 2 topped $104. Then, we raced to our first show at the Savoy, where we heard Elizabeth Shepherd, a bilingual singer-pianist from Ontario -- but all the seats were taken and we had to stand at the bar.

We shared an appetizer of buffalo-milk mozzarella and tomatoes ($16), but I was puzzled by the sauce and had to ask the waiter. It turned out that as a non-meat eater, I missed one of the ingredients listed on the menu: black chorizo or sausage.

My entree was served in a pot with a lid: two beautifully cooked fillets of a Mediterranean fish called dorade that rarely appears on New Jersey menus, served over vegetables. Without a spoon, I couldn't scoop up the last of the mashed potatoes and gravy.

My wife ordered a burger with foie gras, but told the waiter to hold the duck liver ($22). She wasn't impressed with the flavor of the beef. The wait between our appetizer and entrees was excruciatingly long.

Vanhorne Cuisine du Marche, 1268 Van Horne Ave., Outremont, Montreal; 1-514-508-0828. Reservations recommended. 

Pizzedelic, 39 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montreal; 1-514-286-1200.

Restaurant Baton Rouge,180 Rue St. Catherine, Montreal; 1-514-282-7444.

F Bar, 1485 Rue Jeanne-Mance, Montreal; 1-514-289-4558. Reservations recommended.

Jean-Talon Market, 7070 Avenue Henri-Julien, Montreal. Open 7 days.

More about Montreal tomorrow

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