Dec 4, 2013

Miss MAK Designs: quaint boutique on St- Laurent Boulevard

By Lydia Lawrence     

It was nearly 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrived at Miss MAK Designs; a quaint boutique on
St-Laurent Boulevard, where I was to be awarded a guided tour of the renowned family-owned handbag manufacturer, H&V Leather Goods. The company was founded in Lebanon in 1967 by two Armenian brothers, Harout and Vartan Keverian. However, the increasing chaos brought on by the Lebanese Civil War urged Harout to immigrate to Canada in 1989 along with his wife and two young children.Harout and his family settled in Montreal in 1990, where he resumed the business of handcrafted luxury goods. Since then, Harout and his wife, Arsho have undertaken the task of promoting Due Fratelli, an exclusive brand renowned for its flawless quality and timeless designs.
The tour was to be given by their daughter Mary-Ann, a childhood friend of mine, who at the age of twenty, single handedly launched her own brand of handbags which she aptly named “Miss MAK,” an acronym of her full name. At twenty-eight years of age, she is already considered to be one of the most revered women in the industry, and her customers are as much in love with her as they are with her designs.  

The buzzer went off as I opened the door and walked into the sun filled store, where I was instantly surrounded by walls lined with multicolored leather purses and accessories.

“Hello?” said a voice from the back.

I turned a corner and found mother and daughter seated gracefully at their desks. They both rose to greet me with warm hugs and kisses. They were both busy, I knew, taking note of the pile of hastily drawn sketches of germinating designs on Mary-Ann’s desk and the flood of emails blinking on her computer screen. Remarkably, her façade of cool sophistication is genuine. I couldn’t help but look her over, taking note of her perfectly groomed thick main of shiny chestnut hair that fell around her shoulders and down her back, the bold jewelry at her hands, her trim pants and designer top and the funky zebra print flats at her feet. In that moment, I concluded that Mary-Ann’s position as a creative designer was not only a title she assumed, rather she was a personification of her brand; versatile, bold and innovative.

“Do you want to have lunch now?” she asked, “or would you rather we have the tour first?”

“The tour,” I replied, full of curiosity.

“This way, darling,” she said, motioning to me with her manicured fingers.

I had never been inside a factory before, and I was taken aback by the foreign environment. It was an organized mess, with heaps of fabric clumped together between heavy machinery and assembly tables, but watching her smoothly navigate me across the threshold I could sense she was in her element. I knew close to nothing about handbag manufacturing and had neglected to do any research prior to my visit. As I was about to find out, bringing a handbag or a purse to life was a deeply involved process.

It all begins with a sketch, which a skilled pattern maker will use to create a paper model of it out of cardboard. Before this can be done however, the materials and colors must be chosen. We walked over to table strewn with identical square pieces of plastic-covered-material. Mary-Ann picked one up and removed the plastic, revealing a soft matt of baby-ostrich-printed leather with a base of blue suede.

“So, what we do,” she said, “is we get the suede and then we get the foils from Italy. This allows for many options.  So the material can either be baby ostrich, calfskin, cowhide or even a boa finish.” She guided me to the assembly table next.

“These are the assemblers,” she said, making the introductions. “What they will do is assemble the leather cutouts and stitch them all together. Once that’s done, it will go to the hardware section where the handles, zippers, pockets and any other accessories will be added. The next stage is the finishing,” she said, pointing to another table. “That’s when each product is checked for defects and then boxed and shipped.” She was making it all sound so easy, but I knew it was far from the truth.

I followed her back to the entrance of the factory and she led me back down the hall to the showroom. I walked into a bright rectangular room lined with samples of both the Due Fratelli and Miss MAK brands.
“The showroom is where I work with the retailers,” she explained.

 “So, how do you do it?” I asked. “You draw these, make samples and then sell it?”
“Exactly,” she replied. “I spent over three months on a collection for one of our current clients. All my products are guaranteed for life, so if ever a client has a damaged product and they send it back to me ten years later, I will still repair it.” I stared at her, amazed.
“And they are all light weight,” she said. “Go to any other well known brand, such as Michael Kors, Fendi, Chanel…these are some of the heaviest bags on the market. A woman should not carry more than ten percent of her body weight,” she added.  Unconsciously, I reached up and adjusted my overstuffed shoulder bag.
Miss MAK designs is also a very functional and versatile brand,” she said, holding up a cross-body purse which she easily converted into clutch and then into a belt bag.

Due Fratelli has more classic shapes,” she said, walking over to her father’s side of the collection. “The bags all have clean lines and many are designer inspired shapes but modernized,” she said, holding up a classic Grace Kelly purse.

“One of our signature Due Fratelli bags is this clutch,” she said, picking up a caramel toned hand bag from off the shelf. “It converts into a hand bag and then it converts into a shoulder bag. It’s a three in one; a day to night. So you can carry this with you during the day and at night you don’t have to change your purse, all you have to do is fold it over.”
“Did your father invent that?” I asked, stupefied.
“Yes,” she replied, very matter-of-factly.  
 “That is incredible!” I exclaimed, genuinely impressed.
“Well, that’s my story darling. The one-and-only-MAK. Shall we do lunch now? I know this fabulous place in little Italy that you are just going to love.”
We walked back to her desk where she gathered her purse and keys and then we went out the back entrance of the factory. As we walked through the parking lot, we passed by a large graffiti mural and she stopped to study it with a twinkle in her eye. A new idea was being born. We reached her car; a polished white BMW, and we climbed in. There was a pile of fresh sketches and notes next to her seat and she glanced at them briefly as she started the engine.
“What do you think of a purse that has GPS tracking?” she asked, with a smile. I turned to face her and began to laugh. What a girl!

Miss MAK Designs
110-9600 Blvd. St-Laurent
Montreal, Quebec H2N1R2
(877) 382-9889
Monday to Friday (excluding Holidays), 10am-6pm

Sep 22, 2013

Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of New York's Eleven Madison Park in town September 30

Will Guidara (left) and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park
by Alexandra Forbes

I know it's a very bad idea to think of restaurants in terms of rankings, to compare them mentally, assigning marks. But at the same time, it's hard not to.

I'm constantly thinking about the restaurants that seem to demand another visit, that leave me feeling giddy and emotional at the end of dinner. They are no more than five or six: Faviken in Sweden; 41 Grados in Barcelona; Pujol in Mexico City, Etxebarri in the Basque country, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona.

Eleven Madison Park is another one of these places. My favourite in North America and truly one of the greatest I've ever been to.

Pure magic, starting with the beautiful ballet of the servers, never pompous but never overly casual, always on their toes and ever-so-courteous.

So it's exciting to hear that the co-owners of EMP - front-of-house master Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm - will be in town next week, on Monday, September 30.

They'll be here for one night only (one of the many reasons why EMP is so damn good is that they are always there, running the show).

It'll be an early evening of food, drink and book-signing (I Love New York: Ingredients and Recipes).

I was lucky enough to receive the book at home, as a gift, and have to say it's a beauty, a true love letter to New York.

Montreal chefs Michelle Marek, Seth Gabrielse and Patrice Demers (the latter this city's most famous pâtissier) will prepare hors d'oeuvres, and drinks will be served. The EMP duo will give a short talk.

Tickets are on sale here.

The event will take place at the FoodLab, 1201 Boul. Saint-Laurent, 5-9 PM

Sep 9, 2013

Omnivore Montreal: a culinary festival for chefs making their mark

By Erica Radey, special collaboration.

It was a fun filled weekend this past August 17 and 18th at the SAT in Montreal as the Omnivore took place. Culinary demos were given by local chefs as well as chefs from abroad. Omnivore is the culinary festival of young chefs making their mark on the gastronomic scene.

The ambiance was great under the dome at the Société des Arts Technologiques—yes you read right under the dome. It does sound slightly trekkie but no, I assure you Comiccon is not until a few more weeks. You do, however, have the impression of being under the stars, just like at the planetarium, that is if stars where food and culinary demos in action. You felt as though you where peaking into the chef’s universe for a short while and caught a glimpse of what makes them unique and the best at what they do…

The ambiance was laid-back and anything but pretentious. It allowed chefs to unveil their philosophy and their art. It was all about going back to the basics: mastering techniques, simplicity of ingredients and local and seasonal produce.

One of my favourite demos had to be the one by Charles-Antoine Crête, chef at Toqué! It was somewhat more of a conference than a demo and it was just as colourful as his personality. He talked about his philosophy; the way he sees the art of cooking. It was simply going back to the basics, thinking like our grandmothers that could not waste a single scrap because they just could not afford to. 

Here is a picture of the so-called scraps: samples of jellies, salts and powders that Charles-Antoine and his team create turning scraps into gastronomy! 

Cooking for Charles-Antoine is more than just fear of waste; it’s a profound love of food and respect for products, be it a 600 lbs. tuna fish or potato peels. All produce deserves to be used to its full potential. That’s where creativity kicks in. He calls it cooking from scrap, yes scrap not scratch. At Toqué! The idea is to use everything by being creative all the while serving high-end gastronomy.

I was also very impressed by both chefs of the SAT’s Food Lab: Michelle Marek, Pastry Chef and Chef Seth Gabrielse. During his demo, Seth made a brioche. It looked so simple, as he explained the basics and science behind baking a good brioche. He educated us on the importance of mixing the ingredients in the right order and the crucial part fermentation plays in achieving the perfect dough.  It’s no wonder he was greatly influenced by the very respected James MacGuire. No picture to be found of the delicious brioche, it hit my lips before I could snap a shoot of it with my buttery fingers! 

Michelle Marek is a great technician. She reinvented classics in a very creative fashion with impeccable presentation. She used simple ingredients with great flavour combinations and a delicious play on textures. Her ingredients might be simple but, her cuisine is not simplistic. She made a point to use the right amount of sugar as not to denature the fresh seasonal fruit she was using, bringing out the delicate acidity of sour cherries and the deeper flavour of the blueberries. I think the pictures speak for themselves!
 Blueberry and dry curd cottage cheese buns
Figs, fresh goat cheese, sunflower buds and crunchy graham drizzled with sunflower oil      

Light dumplings coated in sweet toasted breadcrumbs served with sour cherry jelly and whipped cream

A fresh take on rum baba using spelt flour by Mlles Gâteaux

We have exceptionally talented young chefs here in Montreal and have nothing to envy of other great culinary cities. The next generation of chefs are inspiring, but most of all, they are inspired by local products and have a true passion for their terroir. Indigenous ingredients are being rediscovered in this young cuisine that delivers well thought-out dishes. A cuisine that sets itself apart and that’s growing its roots in home soil and giving local foods the place it deserves. 

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Jul 17, 2013

Tapeo is getting ready for it’s 10th anniversary and is celebrating with Villeray!

By Erica Radey - special collaboration

Tapeo restaurant will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in June 2014 and is starting the party early. They are giving back to the community that helped them grow over the past decade.

Tapeo has set up the Villeray Urban Design fund that will be supported by the sale of their original monthly tapas created by Chef Marie-Fleur St-Pierre.

Sébastien, Marie-Fleur and Victor

“The creation of the Villeray Urban Design fund is to thank all those who support us. The Special Fund will be financed by sales of a different tapas every month and will, ultimately, embellish the neighbourhood that has welcomed the restaurant and helped it grow for the past 10 years. Citizens are invited to submit projects. The idea or ideas chosen will be selected in June 2014 with the help of Villeray district city counselor, Elsie Lefebvre.”  Explained Victor Afonso, co-owner of Tapeo. 

The very talented chef Marie-Fleur St-Pierre has created unique tapas for each month of the year in support of this fund, which I got to taste at the media launch of their project. I loved the flavour combinations and the play on different textures.

Here is the list of tapas that will be available throughout the year:
July: truffle, BBQ duck magret
August: corn-paprika scallop tartar
September: cider muscles
October: Russian salad croutons
November: Escargot stuffed mushrooms
December: foie gras parfait
January 2014: piri piri chicken wings
February 2014: blood pudding and chorizo ​​cassoulet
March 2014: fried marrow and manchego
April 2014: warm anchovies and egg white salad
May 2014: lobster panade

The tapas were served throughout the evening and dare I say they were delicious. I really liked the corn-paprika scallop tartar; loving seafood and tartar, this was the perfect match for me. I’m definitely coming back in August to get more of these.

My favourite tapas of the night

The Spanish tapas culture is the spirit of togetherness and the sense of community, which is deeply rooted in Tapeo’s philosophy. Over the years, Tapeo has contributed to the Villeray neighbourhood by offering great food and an even greater ambiance to those who surround them, embodying the essence of giving and sharing that are tapas. I live in Villeray—the best neighbourhood in Montreal if you ask me—and I’m exited about this project and the idea of making it even better!

Members of the community are invited to share their ideas on how to embellish the Villeray neighbourhood on the restaurants’ website:

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Jul 8, 2013

BarBounya: A new fish in the sea of Montreal restaurants!

 By Andrea Doucet Donida

Montreal has many restaurants, so what would this new one bring to the plate? The answer after tasting a few dishes was clear: originality, inspired from Turkish cuisine infused with local ingredients and taste.

BarBounya is the creation of two very talented people that have a great deal of experience as restaurateur and chef, the chef and owner of the praised Su restaurant, Fisun Ercan, and the owner of both successful restaurants Chez Victoire and Confusion Tapas, Edward Zaki. Barbounya is the Turkish name for the fish red mulletfish. But the ‘bar’ in ‘BarBounya’ also echoes well with the seating arrangement of the space, where everyone is seated at the bar. I personally love being at the bar, you can see the kitchen, talk with the bartender, get a more dynamic feel of the place. For those who prefer a tête-à-tête, don’t worry, a couple of seats have been reserved for you. The majority however would be on a very comfortable bar-height chair, either sharing the table-bar with strangers, or with your group of 8 or more (new) friends.

The seating is not just an afterthought; it goes with the whole concept of this new restaurant that offers mezze, a Turkish variation of Tapas, which are meant for you to share translating into a very friendly and convivial atmosphere.

The supper I went to was offered by BarBounya during their media launch where we had the chance to taste most of the menu. The only sour note of the evening was the music reminiscent of a playlist from the 90’s!  I hope that since then they changed that to some 2013 Turkish music, more fitting with the menu. A menu that offers a large variety of mezze that you can select by checking the box, similar to a sushi menu, a nice touch!

Below are a few examples of the mezze in question. A great place is given to vegetables which I enjoyed a lot. All mezze, with meat, fish or veggies were accompanied by a thoughtful wine selection, from either Turkey or Greece. Impressive.

Barley salad, herbs, zareshk (a small Turksih berry) - a salad to try to imitate at home, it was amazingly fresh tasting

Definitely a must try: Quebec salicornia, verjus, toasted almonds 

Smoked foie gras terrine, figs, walnut - maybe the best example of the Quebec influence in this Turkish based menu

Phyllo cigar, Friulano, pastirma

The famous Barbounya fish, served seared with olive relish, pistachio and fava bean purée

Braised artichokes - one of my favourites of the night

Delicious and fresh walnut baklava

So for a different night out on Laurier St., with good food and friends, BarBounya is a great choice!  

For reservations: (514) 439-8858
234 Laurier Avenue
H2V 4J8

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May 13, 2013

Le Bremner in Old Montreal: new chef Danny Smiles has the chops

Le Bremner: cozy and dimly-lit, old stone walls   Credit: Le Bremner
by Alexandra Forbes

We all have our prejudices. Few admit it, but we all do.

I'm a bit tired of typical Montreal dude food. Tasty but heavy, pork-centric, always a piece of foie gras or pork belly used to kick things up a notch, industrial quantities of fat added to dishes with abandon. You Montreal diners must know what I mean.

So the first time I went to Le Bremner I got hit with a whole lot of dude food. Tasted good at the time, but weighed me down afterwards. Too much fat. Too much... everything. Overkill.

Subconsciously, perhaps, I decided I didn't need to go back to Le Bremner for more of that.

And then my friend Hivron dragged me back, saying: "you'll love it now, I just know it".

She's a tenacious one, too, so after some resisting... off we went. And you know what? I'm so glad. My prejudices went out the window. I was so incredibly surprised by the change. An evident improvement. Sure, there's still dude food to be had there, and I really screwed up our wine order, which put a dent in the experience, but overall I was quite impressed.

One look at my first appetizer is enough to see that it's not something you'd expect to eat at a place owned and run by Chuck Hughes:

Halibut gravlax with crème fraiche, chiken "chicharrones", dehydrated kale, fried capers

It was like an ussuzukuri, but creamier and richer, the chicken "chicharrones" giving it a welcome crisp.

Don't get me wrong: I love Chuck, used to have great nights at Garde Manger before this TV fans invaded it. But he doesn't usually do dainty like this. Yet the young guy he's not put in charge of Le Bremner does. And thank God for that!

Danny Smiles is his name. Yes, I should know, if I watched TV. He's on Top Chef Canada. But, alas, I don't watch TV so it was all new to me. And it was very hard to resist his charm and the food he sent out. 

The second course was a bit more reminiscent of Garde Manger, to me... snow crab and kimchi on rice cakes. Poor crab was a bit overshadowed but still... very tasty.

I won't describe dish-by-dish.... I wasn't taking notes, too busy enjoying the food, wine and company. But suffice to say that never once did I take a bit that seemed heavy or overly fatty - which had been my fear.

Albacore tuna, trout and cod roe, micro cilantro, crispy shallots, tahini

Of course, one can't really say that pancakes for dessert are a light ending to a meal. But oddly enough, they worked. Fluffy and only barely sweet. Plus, I liked the twist of the butter laced with Pimm's on top.

Overall, a great dinner. Prepared under the direction of a great kid. I liked his drive and ambition, his friendliness and his will to prove me wrong.

To get an idea of his (big) personality, here is his audition vid for Top Chef:

Le Bremner: 362 St Paul St. East, Old Montreal, tel. (514) 544-0446

Apr 15, 2013

Montréal's best restaurants: a very personal list

Maison Publique
by Alexandra Forbes

I get the question "what's your favourite restaurant in town" so often that I figured I shouldn't postpone any longer listing some of my top restaurant choices. Of course it's very silly to try to rank places: I have a different favourite for each occasion. So, without giving this much thought, stream-of-consciousness style, here are my current darlings:

1- Joe Beef
For a fun-filled, white Burgundy-fuelled night out, it's always my top choice. As my friend P-A tweeted yesterday, "there are restaurants, there are meals. And then there are those where time stops".

2- Park
To satisfy my sushi cravings, when I don't want to go very far (I live a few blocks away). I avoid sitting at a table at all cost: a seat at the bar, across from chef-owner Antonio Park, is a million times more fun if you're into food.

3- Nora Gray
Same advice here: the bar is so much more fun, because that's where co-owner Ryan Gray holds court. And does he ever know his wines! Fun, casual, great Italy-inspired menu, sexy dimly-lit room (sometimes too noisy).

4- Grumman 78
Best for dinner with kids, if you, like me, run away from "family-friendly restaurants". In a refitted garage lit with Christmas lights, in a very relaxed and cool ambiance, you'll eat a Montreal re-reading of Mexican pub grub.

5- Club Chasse et Pêche
My favourite dining room: sexy, romantic. In fact, it's my favourite restaurant for a date night. Never ate a bad dinner here.

6- Ferreira Café
The best fish and seafood in town. The best service, too. At lunch, the vibe is very expense account, at night, much less so.

7- Kazu
My favourite hole-in-the-wall, always my first choice for a Downtown lunch.
1862 Sainte-Catherine St W 

(514) 937-2333

8- Mangiafoco
If you're in Old Montreal, this should be your choice for lunch. Pizzeria and mozzarella bar frequented by locals, owned by a guy that is passionate about food, wine and all things Italian.

9- Maison Publique
Top place in the Plateau neighbourhood. My advice: don't feel like you have to go for the meat-centric dishes that made its fame. I actually find that the strongpoint at this restaurant-that-looks-like-a-gastropub is the spectacular seafood. Best crab I've ever had in town was here, for example.

10- Au Pied de Cochon
It's been so written up, so praised that it's almost become a cliché. Still, if it's your first time in Montreal, don't even think of skipping it.

All addresses and phone numbers, and exact location on the city map (except for Kazu) are here, in this "Montreal HEAT MAP".

And last, but not least, a few places I forgot to mention, definitely worth the detour:

Best steakhouse by far. And not as staid as some Montrealers think. Owner Lenny Lighter is very hands-on, and it shows: impeccable service, great wine list.
3961 St. Laurent Blvd., tel. (514) 845-3509

Best Italian by far - the real deal. Speaking of far.... that's the only problem, it's way up near the Jean-Talon market, which is why I don't go there as often as I'd like to. Partners Aniello Covone and sommelière Alyne Russo really know their stuff.
236 St. Zotique St. E.; tel. (514) 273-5776

Funnest oyster bar, even though master shucker Daniel Notkin has left....
479 Rue Saint Alexis

(514) 303-0479

Apr 12, 2013

Joe Beef chefs are inspiration for René Redzepi's presentation in Toronto

René Redzepi during the interview at the Terroir Symposium

So I went to Toronto for one day, just to check out the Terroir Symposium - a gathering of food-industry people and journalists. I won't bore you with my remarks - fellow food writer Renée Suen did a great job of summarizing what was said there in this post for Toronto Life, with photo slideshow and all.

Why talk about a Toronto event in a blog about Montreal? Firstly, to say that it's too bad that the Canadian city that is most talked about for its food scene had no chefs there to represent it (though local food critic Lesley Chesterman did participate in a heated debate about local vs. "imported" chefs). Derek Damman, of Maison Publique, dropped out, and no replacements were found (or seeked?)

Secondly, because the definitive highlight of the event - the moment when Noma's René Redzepi read a moving and personal story about food and memory on stage - was inspired by two guys who are the very essence of Montreal: Joe Beef's Fred Morin and Dave McMillan. I found this out when my colleague Marie-Claude Lortie asked René why he'd decided to invite the two Montrealers to speak at his very high-profile MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, which will take place in August.

What Redzepi said about the chefs is pretty much what I think of them myself, as I wrote in this confessional post. But I was surprised to hear that he'd become a fan simply by reading a feature on them in Lucky Peach magazine. Who says food magazines are becoming irrelevant, huh?

Here's some crappy video footage I shot of that part of the interview: