Sep 28, 2012

Maclean's list of Canada's 50 best restaurants leaves out Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon

by Alexandra Forbes

I just can't let this one go. As a journalist and ex-magazine editor, I know exactly how much the print media loves their top 10 or top whatever lists - sells ads, keeps them alive.

And the oldest trick in the book is to preface such lists with a disclaimer saying all lists are subjective and controversial.

Yadda yadda yadda.

The fact is that's simply not true. The same way an overcooked risotto will always be a wrong risotto, a "50 best restaurants in Canada" list that includes the VERY unremarkable Dominion Square Tavern, and newcomer Maison Boulud but not Joe Beef or Au Pied de Cochon is simply wrong. Here's Maclean's list of top places in Montreal (the first seven are among my faves too, btw):

31. Toqué!
32. Olive + Gourmando
33. Bouillon Bilk
34. Ferreira Café
35. Les 400 Coups
36. Kazu
37. Le Club Chasse et Pêche
38. Maison Boulud
39. Dominion Square Tavern

Leaving l'Initiale out of the (short) list of Québec city restaurants is another mistake.

And... I haven't been to Toronto in a while, but I'm not so sure it's fair to claim that it has more excellent restaurants than Montreal.

I was glad to see that Montreal restaurant critic Lesley Chesterman let her opinion be known yesterday, before the list was even officially announced, on Twitter (username @lesleychestrman). She wrote:

"Just saw the Macleans 50 Best Restaurants in Canada list. Jacob Richler, you know nothing about Montreal restaurants. "

I'm sure she got the Maclean's people exactly what they wanted: controversy. Which sparks interest and pushes readership up. But really, whatever happened to responsible journalism?

Sep 23, 2012

Chef Antonio Park's Park restaurant: addressing readers' comments

by Alexandra Forbes

It seems a bit mind-boggling to me that the most obssessively-read post on this humble lil' blog is the one about Park restaurant. Enraged comments! Friends that read it, go try the restaurant and then complain to me! Drama!

I think it's about time that I address the issue.

First of all, I am unable, at this point, to write a fair and objective review of Park. Full-disclosure: chef-owner Antonio Park is a personal friend.

Having said that, I still do have a few opinions, of course. And I do sympathize with all those that write here and tell me personally that they hated the service.

The polished maître d' I wrote about in my original post is long gone. The staff is friendly but.... yeah, it could take close to half an hour to get a drink. I feel it.... It's happened to me.

And the person serving it might not know a heck of a lot about what's in the glass (though I've heard that they're getting, soon, a top-notch sommelier).

No matter: I still say this is by far the best place in town to get decent sushi.

Salmon belly niguiri, slightly torched

Which isn't too hard of an accomplishment, as there's really nowhere else serving sushi at this level. Buri - my favourite fish! - in two versions (from different-aged fish), for example, is dreamy.

Niguiri of oba iwashi (sardine family) with ginger and
a sauce made of Korean peppers, sake and yogurt

Uni so fresh you can't smell it, still whole, not briny or slimy in the least? An wrapped in crisp nori that is handed to you within 3 seconds, before it has a chance to absorb moisture and turn chewy? Mackerel niguiri so good you turn your eyes to the heavens, sighing? Buttery torched salmon belly?

And what's with that rice? Usually, only the Japanese can make that oh-so-tricky sushi rice, almost lukewarm but not quite, almost sweet but not quite, where the soft pillow of grains holds together just barely but falls apart immediately in the mouth.

The food, overall, is very good, from the bibimbap rice to the fall soup they've got on the menu now.

Buri, uni, shisso flowers

Desserts are reminiscent of something you'd have at Les 400 Coups: a panoply of overlapping textures, always highlighting fresh, bright flavours.

In short, solid cooking, first-rate ingredients. Here's chef Antonio Park showing off some of his kitchen's bounty:

Yes, granted, Park is expensive - but if that is an issue, go for lunch, when prices are lower.

Anyways... for those hungry for more dish descriptions, there's always Lesley Chesterman's glowing review in the Gazette. I've tried lots of stuff that I could talk about, but it's the niguiri that really blows me away: that oh-so-rare combination of the perfect rice and the best fish.

Niguri of Albacore tuna from B.C. with mujol caviar,
and niguiri of mackerel

In short, I love Park.

Yeah, granted, the service needs work. But you know what? I'm happy to see that Westmount - a previous gastronomic Sahara - actually has a top-notch restaurant for once (so nice that I can walk to it...). And if you care about good service and the details of what's on the plate, do as I do: sit at the counter right in front of the chef.

tel. (514) 750-7534
378 avenue Victoria

Sep 20, 2012

New restaurants in Montreal: Café Sardine, Hotel Herman, etc

L'Atelier d'Argentine

by Alexandra Forbes

Suddenly, I've noticed a flurry of restaurant openings in Montreal. There are so many new places, in fact, that I haven't been able to keep up and try every one. Here is a list of the more notable ones with, when applicable, my comments:

Café Sardine
I've heard enthusiastic raves from friends. And Lesley Chesterman liked a lot, too. Here, a link to her review.
 9 Fairmount Ave. E. (near St. Laurent Blvd.)
Tel: 514-802-8899

Grumman78 HQ
What Montrealer doesn't already know the fun Grumman78 taco truck, always holding court at major events in town? For quite a while, they'd do the occasional event at their HQ in St. Henri (the warehouse-cum-kitchen where they prep all their food). Always a party.
Now they've decided to open 3 nights a week (Wednesday through Friday), starting September 26, for dinner. At this one, I'll be a regular.... love their cooking, love their vibe, love the space.
630 De Courcelle St. St Henri
tel. (514) 290-5125

This is the second restaurant of restauratrice Helena Loureiro. I've got to say I was never a big fan of the first one, Portuscalle, on Boulevard St. Laurent. One terrible experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth and I never returned. But this new one... I sampled the food at the press opening and was quite impressed. Real Portuguese flavours, with a contemporary slant. Strong execution of the dishes. And the décor and the location, at this new one, are quite a bit nicer (large dining room in Old Montreal with high ceilings and open kitchen).
438 McGill St.
(514) 878-1555

Hotel Herman
This is the top one on my must-see list. Again, I'll link you to Lesley Chesterman's review. She liked it a lot...
5171 St. Laurent Blvd. (corner Fairmount St.)
Tel 514-278-7000

 L’Atelier d'Argentine
I had to go give this one a try: Argentina is close to home (I'm Brazilian) and I know my steaks... They took over the old DNA space and I couldn't see much difference in the glass-filled décor. Same dim lighting, same loud music (too loud). The steaks were quite good, served with a ho-hum chimichurri sauce. There's much room for improvement in the empanada and pão de queijo department. Favourite dishes were appetizers, especially the corn tamal topped with shredded braised short ribs, the fennel salad and the spinach buñuelos (fritters). Nice to see that the wine list, Argentina-heavy, goes with the overall theme. I didn't love it - still trying to figure out if it was good enough to warrant going back.
355 Marguerite D'Youville,Old Montreal
Tel: 514-287-3362

Cool little pizza place and enoteca in Old Montreal that, thankfully, looks and feels nothing like a stereotypical pizza joint. The look has a hint of futuristic theatre backstage, with funky sculpted chairs that reminded me of subway car seats. Great choice of premium mozzarellas (try the house-smoked buffala mozzarella and you won't want to touch that supermarket bocconcini stuff any time soon). Pizzas are baked in a proper wood-fired oven in the back and rolled out on a funky conveyor belt. Owner is Simple Plan guitarist Jeff Stinco, who knows more about food and wine than one might think.
105 St. Paul st West, Old Montreal, tel (514) 419-8380