Monday, October 13, 2014

Eating Québec (And Elsewhere)

The vacation I ended last week was intended to clear my mind in preparation for the hard work of writing my book, which I have just a year to do. I couldn't think of any better way to do it than to fly to New York, meet a friend in Jersey City, eat Indian food there, then take the train up to Montreal for a week. I figured it'd be coming on to peak foliage season, and I was right. So right, in fact, that the Monday I went up was the first day Amtrak added the Dome Car to the run: a car with a glass dome on it for maximum sightseeing.

It's not easy to take pictures from a speeding train, but this gives you an idea. The glass is thick, so it mutes some of the colors, and I decided to check out the special equipment to see what advantages it would bring.

The view was nice, but the car was crowded. The head in the picture belongs to a fat woman who sat down at a table meant for six and spread her crafting supplies all over it and played with them while ignoring the scenery. So this was as close as I got. I spent most of the time listening to green-shirted folks with "National Parks Service Volunteer" on arm-patches talk about the landscape and the history ("Ethan Allen, who ran the Green Mountain Boys? He was a thug. They were all thugs. Fortunately, they were our thugs." Pretty accurate assessment, actually) and passed on the occasional bit of misinformation: water hyacinth is not an alga, sorry. But Lake Champlain, like most places with water in them, is pretty choked by them now.

Having a ten-foot raise in your view doesn't really help, especially when you can't get to it, so I listened to the Parks Service folks for a while and went back to my seat. The upper reaches of the hills were bursting out in color, particularly the red maples and sumac trees, which do a darker shade of red. It was a great show.

Then the sun went down and the rather boring ride between Plattsburg and the border station at Rouses Point and then into Canada ends in a rather dramatic view of Montreal all lit up, which I, of course, forgot to snap.

No matter; I was among friends, ensconced in an ultra-deluxe hotel I'd scored rooms in via a discounter, on the edge of Old Montreal, which is picturesque, at least, although it tends to be clogged with tourists. My usual guides, Terry and Patricia, were on hand to help me through a city I learn just as I leave -- every time! -- and we decided on a well-reviewed fish-and-chips place not far away. It was pretty good, especially for someone like me who hasn't had fish and chips in an age, but only pretty good, and it had all kinds of breadings, which I didn't understand, and a lot of other kind of nouveau trappings. I lost the address, so if you feel inclined to challenge my opinion or check it out yourself, it's on the edge of Old Montreal. Somewhere.

The next night, though, was filled with anticipation. Ages ago, Terry and Patricia took me to Cuisine Szechuan on Avenue Guy. Its huge menu was filled with stuff I never thought I'd see in a restaurant outside of China, and it's always been superb. Terry reported a downward slide in the two years since I'd been, but he'd heard it was back in action. There was no way we'd miss this, so off we went.

Left to right: fried lotus root sticks, twice-fried fish, Chinese spinach with pickled Szechuan chiles.  Grease stains in bowls and on plate due to Szechuan dumplings in chile sauce and Szechuan dumplings with peanut sauce.
The bad news was there were only three of us, so the amount of stuff we could order was limited. Not shown was a dish a guy cooks in a wok on your table, which was very good. The lotus root was like French fries, they're that starchy, but with a completely different texture and, of course, green onions and two kinds of chiles lending their flavors to the oil the lotus root's fried in. The fish was also wonderful, although I didn't get as much of it as I'd liked, and the spinach wasn't overwhelmed by the pickled chiles, although they were certainly powerful, and I intend to find some next time I'm shopping at the Vietnamese-Chinese supermarket. The appetizers were, unsurprisingly, also great: those cloud-like dumplings with a little ball of pork hidden in them somewhere, one batch swimming in a delicious deep red sauce, the other napped with a peanut butter and soy sauce with other ingredients. You don't want to know how inexpensive this place is, but you definitely do need to know how to find it next time you're in Montreal:

Don't forget to tip: the place attracts lots of Chinese students from China, and the staff complains loudly of their parsimony.

The next evening we somehow managed to pull off a coup. Patricia had been wanting to go to Joe Beef, which seems to have replaced Au Pied de Cochon as the in restaurant in Montreal. Like Pied de Cochon, it's been visited by, and raved about by, Anthony Bourdain. Unlike Pied de Cochon, it doesn't post its menu on its website, but I pulled it up and the first thing I saw was a photo of Ai Wei Wei with a kitten, so I figured it'd be okay. Then followed a comedy of sorts in which Patricia attempted to use the website to make a reservation and discovered they were booked up until Christmas or something, then called and was told there'd be a table tonight -- or was it tomorrow? At any rate, we headed down there secure that we'd made a reservation and stood in line in the freezing evening temperature and the young woman with the iPad came and told us she couldn't find our reservation. So we stood around a bit more and finally got escorted to a tight table with windows onto the street, and discovered there's no menu.

Or, rather, there's a menu, but it's written on a chalkboard above the bar, surrounded by tiny Christmas lights, and impossible to read. That's all the menu you get. So you twist in your seat, squint at the words (all of them in French, but that usually doesn't faze me), try to make stuff out, and try to construct a meal out of that. Eventually, crafty Terry and Patricia chose two things I don't like, with him getting "veal liver" (which I remember being called calf's liver) in a red wine reduction, and her getting trout prepared some way that she deemed excellent, neither of which I was going to try. I got pasta with lobster, since I hadn't had lobster in over a decade. Oh, and now it's time for the wine: this menu is written in even smaller letters on its chalkboard and is in all kinds of languages. Naturally, a party of three can't crowd around it with the waiter to discuss it, so I volunteered myself and wound up with a very, very good Ardèche Syrah. Luck of the draw, I assure you.

So by the time the starter arrived (salads for T&P, croquetas made with Montreal smoked meat for me) I was pissed off. Not allowing diners full access to the menu and wine list is just plain arrogant. Diners at a place as upmarket as this need time to weigh choices when spending this much money. (Well, actually, it's not that expensive, but it's expensive enough that you want to choose well). They definitely need extended access to the wine list to make a good choice. Hell, during the meal, Patricia spotted the word cheval on the blackboard. I probably wouldn't have ordered horsemeat, but the waiter hadn't even mentioned it while running down the list. Who knows what I missed during my hurried confab at the wine board? We left feeling a bit mistreated -- or I did, at least. I felt like I had a shot at a wonderful meal but hadn't had the opportunity to make a fully informed choice. I liked what appeared to be, from our small sample, Joe Beef's approach to food, but I definitely did not feel like going back. I should also note that the "croquetas," a common Spanish tapa that, in its simplest form, is sort of like a Tater Tot made from mashed potatoes and then gets more complicated as you put other things in with the potatoes, didn't have potatoes in it. There was a sour taste, and I never tasted any of that famous smoked meat (aka pastrami in the USA). I was enjoying the wine too much to pay attention, but boy, when I got back to the hotel and ran into the bathroom, I realized what had happened: they'd substituted goat cheese, to which I'm violently allergic, for the potatoes. That's what the sour taste I didn't like was. Not their fault, but a printed menu might have mentioned that. And there wasn't one.

It's worth noting that across the street from Joe Beef is a pizzeria called Geppetto, and later that week, after I'd come back from Québec City, Terry got three pizzas to go from there. They could have been the best designer pizzas I'd ever had: all three had a tomato sauce base, but in each case, the sauce was different, aimed at complementing the toppings. Just subtle differences, true, but it's the mark of a serious place, and I'll happily go for a sitdown meal there any time.

I interrupted my Montreal stay for a quick trip to Québec City, the provincial capital and scene of a lot of Canadian and American history. I wasn't sure what was there, actually, just wanted to see another piece of the province I've been visiting off and on since the '70s. Unfortunately, when I checked in at my hotel (a charming place where my room was just a tad too small), I was told there would be five cruise ships in the harbor the next day, and 25,000 tourists in the street. Fortunately, the lady in the hotel said, they'd stay in the "lower city" and wouldn't be rampaging up where I was. I had no idea what she was talking about, having just arrived on the train, but I'd find out the next day.

Dinner that evening was at one of the older houses in town (not as old as the town by any means because the Brits bombed the hell out of it in 1760, and caught the mostly-wooden city on fire), a semi-hokey-looking place called Aux Anciens Canadiens, featuring Quebecois food. It was an impressive menu, although I knew that the real deal was fairly simple, and, in fact, that's what I went for: the mixed plate with two kinds of meat pie (tourtière), pig's knuckle, meatball stew, and "salt pork rillettes," which sure looked like cracklins to me. The leg of Inuit-caught wild caribou with Labrador tea spice, cooked sous-vide with a green alder sauce was extremely tempting, but not the price, not even at 85¢ to the Canadian dollar.

The next day I was hoping for a kind of historical museum of the province, but the nearest thing was to walk a bit up the hill and into the Citadel, built by the British to protect their investment in this city at the narrows of the St. Lawrence River once they'd bombarded it and chased the French away. Security was high due to the visit of the Governor-General, who has a residence there, and our excellent teenage guide ordered us to stick close to her and not go off and investigate stuff on our own because there was a good chance people disregarding this would be frog-marched off the property and/or arrested. (Not that this stopped a couple of Japanese tourists from running towards a landing military helicopter at one point in the tour. I was kind of hoping it'd either shoot them or land on them, to be honest.) It was a bracing walk on a chilly morning, but I rather enjoyed it.

Québec means "narrows," and, at 700 meters, this is as narrow as the St. Lawrence gets. Enemy in sight at far left. 
At noon, we got to watch the firing of the salute.

The museum in the Citadel proved to be boring, concentrating on the regiment's time in World War I rather than the history of the Citadel, so a quick turn and I was gone.

Next was the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield where, in 20 minutes, the French lost Canada to the British and both sides lost their generals. The French one, Montcalm, was from Montpellier, where I used to live and where his family's seat is now a tourist restaurant.
Ground Zero for the Cajuns? Uh, no.
This battle, of course, meant the final expulsion of the French farmers from Acadia, the parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia where they'd been living happily for about a hundred years until forces larger than they decided the land could be better used.  A couple of shiploads became homeless people who drifted down the Atlantic coast of America, finally arriving in Haiti, where they hated it and eventually escaped to Louisiana, whose governor gave them a ton of land. Mostly swamp, of course, but at least the peasants didn't settle in New Orleans. I wanted to pay a visit to it as the place where the whole Cajun story started, but as it turned out, the French had been moving them on for some time by the time the battle happened. Oh, well.

I then decided to head to the Museum of Civilization, a kind of undefined museum in the lower Old Town where Terry told me he thought a historical exhibition on Québec had been moved. I knew they were having an exhibition of classical Greek stuff that was being heavily hyped. And after a bit of getting lost, I found my way down the steep hill, not looking forward to going back up, and gazing over the edge at one point to see a street deep in tourist gridlock. Pickpockets would faint for the choices down there, I thought, but fortunately where I was going was elsewhere. Turned out that the Greeks were from the Greco-Roman museum in Berlin, where I'd seen them years ago, and, idly wondering whether the pornographic pottery was in the show (I'd come upon it when a high-school art class was sitting there, impassively sketching and I noticed that the pots showed a bunch of very graphic hetero- and homosexual goings-on; this being Germany it's likely nobody cared one way or the other), went down to the Québec stuff. I was pretty bushed by now, so I didn't really give the exhibit as much attention as I should have (and I have to say it was mounted and lit oddly, so it wasn't as easy to decipher as it should have been). It did manage to clear up the whole British-French thing, as well as the anti-British thing that had Canada declare its independence (albeit within the British Commonwealth), as well as reminding me of the incredibly destructive iron grip of the Catholic Church on French Canada, which lasted well into the 20th century. Another bit of history was in a park at the top of the hill: this statue of a man Terry's descended from, the first settler in Québec City.

Limping by now, I went back to the hotel to put my feet up for a while, and later went down to a place I'd seen earlier, the Clarendon Hotel, whose menu looked as good as any (attempting to get my network to come up with suggestions was unproductive; the only concrete suggestions were Schwartz's and Au Pied du Cochon, both of which are in Montreal), and turned out to be quite good, although the hotel itself seems locked in the past. The food was excellent for the '80s, and I was given a couple of rolls with this little device, which I figure must've been in the basement for decades:

Not a world-beating photo. Sorry.
If you look carefully at that thing in the distance, it's a pewter cylinder with a grid in it, on which sit little spheres of butter, each with nubs on them. The most antique serving-device I've seen. The rolled-up smoked whitefish and salmon was very good, and the roast wild boar tremendous. Not as au fait as Joe Beef, nor was the wine as good, but perfectly okay.

It rained the next day as I headed back to Montreal, but it was finished once I got there, and that night was the night of Geppetto's. Fall had fallen on the province of Quebec, and I was headed back to New York for a meeting with my publisher and a visit to my agent. And a quick shopping trip to Chinatown in search of an odd ingredient, which I found.

I'm back now, the book has been started (albeit not to my total satisfaction, since I'm still finding my feet, having not attempted a narrative this large in a while), and it'll be a while before I hit the road again. But this sure was fun.

* * *

Intrepid readers who were as excited about the Indian cuisine in Jersey City as I was will want to read this report of a place I wanted to try but didn't. I'd gladly attempt a story for some magazine about this neighborhood if they'd fly me back!

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