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Friday, October 3, 2003
All of a sudden, it's almost winter. It will snow any day now.
Some of us ventured forth nonetheless:
Le Margaux 371 Villeneuve St. E. Tel.: 289-9921
This is the kind of place we need to see more often: a young couple, opening up a small restaurant and serving food that they understand intimately. These are classic French dishes: a du Barry (cauliflower) cream soup, maigret de canard, a good steak, a simple fish—tilapia here with a curry sauce. The whole table d'hôte set off with a crisp filo pastry filled with warm goat cheese and mushrooms. There was no fault to the meal. The wine list is particularly impressive—small, well priced, and good value with some excellent bottles of recent French vintages. The service—monsieur in the kitchen, madame serving—is well balanced, and with only a half dozen dozen or so tables, warm and engaging. The tone of the room, a warm orangey-rose, is also understated but effective.
We felt as if we were in someone's living room. After all, this is the front end of a small house in the Plateau, rather than a restaurant.
My complaint is that we are at the beginning of a longer relationship. I was reminded of the relationship that exists at the downtown French restaurant Guy and Dodo. Strength in the kitchen and warm hospitality in the front. In fact, I kept imagining Guy and Dodo Morali 30 years back, starting off in a place like this.
The food at Le Margaux is gratifying and considering the price (most dishes in the $16-$20 range), exceptional value. But the imagination needs guidance.The simple green salad was too simple, with hardly any dressing. This is where a chef can be a little gutsy and give the meal a strong defining stroke. Similarly,the mushrooms in the filo and goat-cheese dough appetizer should have been field mushrooms—boletes, chanterelles or oyster (as they were in the pan-fried riced potato that went with the mains). Even dried cepes would have been good here. Instead they were generic supermarket “champignons de paris” without any substantial flavour. Similarly, the soup could have ben kicked up a notch with a judicious nod to the sherry bottle or maybe a reduced white wine in the stock. The sauces for the duck and steak also needed an honest meat reduction—a demi-glace. All this takes considerable work. That is why very good kitchens require a larger staff than only monsieur. And this is why they charge more too.
That noted, I look forward to going back. Small, hospitable and caring places should receive our commitment. They are nourishing and must be nourished in kind. — Barry Lazar
I went downtown:
Délicieux 1219 Phillips Square Tel.: 393-3866
This is a place whose name has cropped up recently in conversations about smoked meat in Montreal. Some have mentioned the "superior" smoked meat here in the same breath as the fabled oldsters such as Schwartz's, Lester's and Ben's.
Recently I accompanied a friend from 70s-era Montreal to check out the rumors. Adrian grew up in Montreal and played drums in a hard-rock band but left in the 80s to pursue his fortune in less language-policed climes, ending up in Vancouver.
"Sure I remember smoked meat," he says now. "It's called Schwartz's." Does he remember why he liked Schwartz's so much? He backs up. "Well, I shouldn't say that Schwartz's were the only ones. There was Lester's and Dunn's as well. But I remember that Schwartz's meat had a spice kick and texture that was somehow indefinably superior to the other guys. It's something that you can only know after going from one place to another in a short space of time." This was something that he admitted to having done more than once. "I was in a rock band. We ate a lot of junk food."
Délicieux (a French pun on "deli" and "cieux", meaning "heavens") is smack in the center of Tourist Montreal, Phillips Square, less than a block away from the teeming millions on St. Catherine. It abuts a very popular pizza joint to the point of sharing owners, as far as one can tell; their respective terrasses come under one roof and are only separated by a metal fence. Diners from one could conceivably trade dishes from the other over the barrier.
It's hopping on a warm day at lunch hour.
Although we are here for the smoked meat, the menu spans far more territory. There is pasta, there are grilled foods which include souvlaki, there are burgers, there are clubs and there are nachos. This is never a good sign. "Chain-resto tripe" is a term that bubbles into thought like effluvium from a gaseous swamp.
Ignoring the voluminous menu, we order smoked meat: he has the "Regular Old-fashioned" Smoked Meat Sandwich and I have the Smoked Meat Club for variety. Both are served with "our homemade french fries, coleslaw, dill pickle and rye bread". There are variations on this theme: Super Old-Fashioned, Old-Fashioned Smoked Meat Platter, Old-Fashioned Chopped liver.
The sandwiches, when they arrive, defy all expectations, bolstering the arguments behind the popular "obesity epidemic in North America" news harangues. On my plate is easily enough for four large North Americans. The sandwiches (all four of them) are stuffed from slice to slice with multi-inch-thick mounds of shocking pink smoked meat, cheese and condiments. They are so stuffed that they themselves can barely move without collapsing, anticipating the effect upon one’s system should one actually eat the whole thing. And they float in a veritable sea of french fries of the typical Montreal "greasy brown" variety.
But a bite is a revelation. "This is great smoked meat," declares Adrian, as he helps himself to one of my sandwiches after finishing his. "Mmm-mmm good."
I am nonplussed. I am not a great smoked meat afficionado, but I know Adrian is. And if he says it is great, it is better than great. The meat is redolent with hints of cardamom and black pepper and has a firm, fatty chew that merges well with the crusty rye bread and yellow mustard. However, four of these behemoths are beyond my ken.
Délicieux should dump the encyclopedic menu and offer twelve different ways to eat smoked meat. "I’d come here after a gig," Adrian declares. The other three members of his band will have to reform to help him finish his meal.— Nicholas Robinson