Sunday, April 22, 2007

To Market to Market

"We're eating like we're poor!"

Members of my family (my parents and I) like to quote this cranky outburst, which came from my brother's mouth on a trip to Canada. My parents, aware of the culinary possibilities, stopped the car at a local grocery store to buy bread and cheese for our lunch. Evidently Evan wasn't supporting their decision, and both of us stayed in the parking lot while my mom and dad selected our next meal.

There is something to Evan's statement, considering that my friends and I survived six weeks in Europe off of market food. However, the cheese from that Canadian store was sharp and savory, and I certainly learned my lesson. Going to a city's food market or grocery store for lunch is one of my favorite vacation activities. The fruit, bread, and cheese are fresh and unique, and the attitudes of the other shoppers and the stall owners are too entertaining to pass up.

Buying goods in a town where you don't speak the native language is challenging, yet fulfilling. People look at you like you have no idea what you're doing, because you're buying lunch while they're getting produce for the week. I always find it amusing when I perceive those reactions; I'm having fun while most of the shoppers are going through the motions of a regular chore.

The guidebook I brought to Montreal claimed that the city has two prominent food markets, one of which is more "upscale" than the other: Jean-Talon, in Little Italy, and Atwater, downtown on the Lachine Canal. I did notice a distinction between the two, although it was caused more by the clientele than the quality or prices of the commodities that were available.
The consumers at the Jean-Talon market were pushier and louder, and the market itself is scattered between a couple buildings and slightly confusing to navigate. The Atwater market is two floors of even rows, and there were tables on the second floor. Both locations house the same local bakery chain, which carries delicious baguettes.

Our meal at the markets, as I mentioned before, didn't vary much from the basic staples. In Little Italy we got tasty clementines and two types of cheese to eat with our baguette. One was locally made and creamy, similar to brie, while the other was from the Basque region, and it was hard and peppery. I also tried some type of sausage from a cart outside, which hit the spot, and got three chocolate truffles at a specialty shop (hazelnut, mocha and mint).

At the "sophisticated" Atwater market, I spoke briefly with one of the guys at a cheese shop who grew up in Montreal but has Italian heritage. He talked me into getting a luscious French cheese that melted in my mouth. It was mild but still interesting. The other cheese we tried was a more familiar variety, similar to a havarti, and it went well with the prosciutto we purchased.

The highlight of the Atwater venture was tasting maple syrup taffy. From the end of February to the end of March, the weather in Quebec Province is warm enough that the sap starts to flow from the maple trees, and Canadians celebrate with all sorts of syrupy products. For the popsicle-like delicacy I had the privilege of tasting, thickened maple syrup was poured on a table of crushed ice and rolled onto a popsicle stick. I'm not sure if it's the texture or the chill that makes it special, but I saw Montrealers of all ages enjoying the candy. Apparently, enjoying a seasonal treat isn't exclusive to any market.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bilingual Cuisine

One of the biggest mistakes I made ordering food in a restaurant involved a Canadian all-you-can-eat mussels joint. I don't remember the exact town we were in, or what I chose instead of the fragrant buckets of mussels, or why, but I can still feel the disappointment that marked my meal. My family members were generous and sympathetic enough to share with me, so I wasn't completely deprived of mussels. I learned my lesson and made sure that we found a similar venue on our next Canadian trip, which occurred a couple years later in Montreal. I'm not sure how those mussels compared, but they did leave me with a favorable impression of the city.

I returned last month, after about five years, armed with positive memories and a decent guidebook. I had to order room service on the first night (after fourteen hours of traveling), and I was a little upset about having to eliminate one of my restaurant choices. Luckily I found hazelnut mousse on the dessert menu, and nothing else seemed to matter after I started eating it.

Within a block of the hotel was a cafe called Chez Simon, and their muffins were just about perfect. I tried carrot and lemon poppyseed muffins during the trip, and they both melted in my mouth. The muffin tops had the slightest bit of crunch and were larger than average.

The first dinner I had out of the hotel room was at Red Thai, which turned out to be a dimly lit, chic room with Buddhist statues and crisp white tablecloths. The waitress brought warm towels before our food came, which was consistent with the exotic atmosphere of the room. I ordered a beef dish, which is somewhat uncharacteristic, but it turned out to be both subtle and spicy at the same time - a common enigma in Thai food. I didn't pay close attention to the name of my meal; it was made with tender pieces of filet along with mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, dried chile peppers and onion.

Patati Patata was listed in my guidebook as a good place for burgers and authentic Montreal dining. The restaurant consisted of two small bars, with about 8 chairs between them, and four two-top tables. There was a menu high up on one of the walls, written all in French, and two employees cooking, taking orders, working the cash register, and assuring customers that they'd have seats within a few minutes. They were right too - for such a small place, the tables turned every ten minutes or so, I guess because the menu was limited and the food was quick. Small burgers, tofu burgers, and fish burgers (for $2.25 Canadian at the most) were grilled shortly after they were ordered. A fresh salad or a hearty serving of hot, browned fries accompanied the sandwiches for $3 each. Pitchers and half pitchers of local beer and poutine (gravy, french fries, and cheese) rounded out the menu. Patati Patata wasn't a tourist stop at all, although I felt like a tourist eating among French-speaking students. Even though the waiter had to help me with some of the menu, eating there was one of my favorite traveling experiences.

In contrast, La Moulerie was in one of Montreal's nicer neighborhoods, and the average diner was probably fifty years old. I had to try it because of my fondness for mussels, and I certainly would recommend dining there. My mussels - mussels sicilienne - came in a sauce of pesto, roasted
tomatoes, goat cheese, and pine nuts, and they were fantastic. It's easy to distinguish good seafood from bad seafood, and I had no complaints. Nor did I have any reason to complain about the homemade ice cream that I got down the street, which was rich and smooth. Montreal may only have a few months of warm weather, but it's a city where even frozen treats are made well.

Stay tuned for another installment from my Canadian vacation...