Friday, June 09, 2006

Tastes of Montreal

I’m slowly coming back to life, jetlag is not as overbearing, and I am sleeping through the night now. At work I’ve managed to get a grip on the emails waiting for an answer, and have completed some tasks that were waiting for me to get back.

Rifling through the papers I brought back, I realize I can’t find the menu from the last group dinner we had in Montreal. It was a lovely tasting menu from Europea, recommended by our hotel’s concierge. While the conversation tended to lean heavily on work matters, and some of our dinner companions were not welcome, the food was lovely and how I wish I could find the menu to rekindle some of the taste memories.

One aspect of fine dining that I never fail to appreciate is how much more you receive in terms of service and food than you initially need. You order a steak, but you also receive the amuse-bouche, and the palate cleanser and the petit-fours before you’re ready to return to the cold, harsh world. The service is attentive, and, within reason, accommodating. There is that sense of being coddled and protected, no matter how cold and wet it is outside.

Although the menu may be lost, I can pull out of my mental magic hat some of the more impressive moments of the meal: the foie gras that was pure velvet and cream on my tongue, not to mention warming to the blood; the goat cheese crumble, tart and nubbly, accompanied by that earthy walnut bread; the filet mignon of J’s, which was perfectly rare, and as tender to the cut of her fork as it was to the knife; the deer steak of T, an amazing learning experience of what game can be to someone who loves Bambi. And what is a tasting menu without the array of desserts: a cheesecake that wasn’t a cheesecake, the hint of lemon cutting the cloying richness, and an interesting sorbet full of layers and textures of fruit and ice.

On the more casual side, I did get to try three Montreal food groups: smoked meat, poutine, and bagels. I originally didn't appreciate the artisinal texture of the latter, as it is not the same as a New York bagel. But once I got to Sacramento and started sharing them, then a new way of looking at them emerged. The bagels remind me of the german pretzels I had in Munich last year, with a homey texture, a chewiness, and one friend commented that they taste different. So I'm not joining the New York vs Montreal bagel debate, if there is any, but I will enjoy them both.

Poutine was as I expected, gloppy. Fries smothered in gravy (listed as barbecue sauce) and cheese curds. Can there be anything less appetizing to hear than the word "curd"? Fresh cheese bits would be preferable. Poutine won't be on my must-try-again food groups, but it was a definite must-try at least once while in Montreal.

And finally, smoked meat. The phrase first made me think of a tough, slice of jerky, smoked over hickory chips and dried to a dark mass, good for long rides on a horse, following cattle. Don't know why that was what it evoked, but that's what I thought I'd be eating. Then I saw the real thing, and tasted it. It's pastrami! I thought, but softer, and definitely flavorful. The meat is marinated in herbs and spices, then cooked, either steamed or perhaps parboiled, before smoking it. It's tender, and lean cuts taste quite healthy (unless you're eating it with poutine). Good with a spicy mustard and dill pickles.

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