Saturday, May 24, 2008

Toqué!, Montreal

Amazing…AMAZING…A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!! That’s the word that keeps coming up in my mind when I think about Toqué!

It was the last day of our whole trip; just short of two weeks. Our trip has been full of food, mostly good, some mediocre, and some disappointments. Since it was our last dinner, I really hoped that the meal we were about to have would be good to say the least, but the result way more than what we bargained for.

For our last dinner (May 13), we booked a reservation in Toqué! Originally, we didn’t plan to spend time outside of Montreal’s airport, but knowing about Toqué!, we had to stop just to eat at the restaurant.

Arriving outside the restaurant, the Toqué! sign stood tall. It was a tall yellow flower with a smile. It felt very playful and inviting.

Walking into the restaurant gave the same feeling. The restaurant was nicely lit; it wasn’t dark and intimidating like some fine dining places are. The restaurant itself was big, but it wasn’t too big that it felt impersonal. The acoustics were done well since there were plenty of people, but it didn’t feel annoying noisy.

We were welcomed right away. The servers wore light coloured uniforms: white shirts, light grey pants, and nice sneakers. All these components contributed to the same feeling I had before walking in. The ambiance makes you feel comfortable, it allows you to be yourself, unconscious of how you should behave and just be there to enjoy the food.

Oh! The food! The experience that night cannot compare close to any other meal I’ve had. Our table all ordered the gourmet menu, which offers seven courses. On the website it states, “Chef Normand Laprise will offer an elaborate mystery menu of seven inspired courses : seven dishes to be discovered one after another, presented in small, sampler portions; seven servings each more surprising than the last, with an optional selection of wines that are sure to enhance the seasonal products.” In this case, it’s one of those rare occasions where it really delivers every word promised.

The food came slowly course by course. Each course we received, we oooh-ed and aaahh-ed at it after taking the first bite. Then we would just quietly enjoy what each bite has to offer; savoring the flavours and textures. As we ate each course, we wondered what was next, if it would be better than the last. And each time, it was! Each course was distinctively different from one another, but everything cooked perfectly and flavours were always balanced. Each ingredient complemented each other. What was amazing was that each ingredient in the dish was pronounced and distinguishable. The flavours were very clean and fresh. It was all so delicious.

We really appreciate and admire the commitment Chef Normand has put into his food. Not only were we floored with the flavours, but also the components of each constructed dish. It could seem simple to an average person, but it’s so complex and intricate. It’s obvious that detail matters.

The service was impeccable. There were no hiccups and even the servers were aware of what ingredients each dish had and the process of how to make it. This is really impressive. It shows how everyone is working together and good communication is present. Most of the time, in other restaurants, the servers need to refer to kitchen staff regarding food questions.

Not only were the front of house people great, but also everyone in the back of house, especially Chef Normand Laprise. When I first walked past the kitchen, I was surprised by how big it was. It’s quite large for the size of the restaurant. It was also one of the cleanest kitchens I’ve seen and it was at the peak of service. Managing a kitchen like that is one talented Chef and crew.

Our server allowed us to enter the kitchen after our meal because I wanted to take some pictures. In the kitchen, we met Chef Normand. He greeted us and chatted with us for a long time. He is indeed a great character; someone generous, talented, passionate and humble.
By the end of the night, the whole experience inspired me about food again. The feelings and memories came flooding back; the long checklist of mis-en-place, the rush I got during service, the kitchen yelling out orders, the non-stop printing from the printer, and the 5 hours that felt like 30 minutes. It was a gratifying feeling that I’ve missed.

If ever given the opportunity to get back into the industry to work for Chef, I would have no hesitation. I would give up a few years; give up the 8-10 hour days, holidays, having lunch breaks, and getting to sit all day back to the 12 hour work days with no breaks, no holidays, and bad pay. The experience learned here will out weight all the luxuries of life.

It was a perfect meal, with perfect service. It was a perfect ending to our vacation. We left the restaurant satisfied and inspired. It was exactly what I needed. I’m glad that we saved the best for last.

Our Meal:

Cold Tomato Soup with herb foam.

Scallop ceviche with strawberry, strawberry water, rhubarb foam and herb oil.
Lobster with tomato and asparagus with foam of milk and asparagus.
There was also the foie gras option instead of the fish, which I didn't get. It's too bad I forgot to take a picture. I'm not a big fan of foie gras, but the one they has was so delicious!

Trout with zucchini, sour cream, beets and bell pepper chips. Yes! Bell pepper chips! I'm going to try making it at home.
Rabbit with spinach and rabbit confit.
Squab with elder berries, white asparagus, morels, french radish and guinea fowl sasuage and cauliflower puree.
Fresh goat cheese with potato foam, olive oil crouton and chevil.
Strawberry sorbet with white chocolate mouse, mable water sponge cake and strawberry chips.
Petit fours.

Marche Jean Talon (Market), Montreal

Jean Talon Market has been a popular market to buy fresh fruits, produce, and flowers. We came a little late in the morning so many of the farmers have already sold out their products. However, there were still plenty to see.

Fruit Stall. Everything looks so nice and fresh.
Apples....all kinds of it.
Different types of beets.
Big green artichokes.
Yellow and green beens. So nicely arranged.
All types of berries....I didn't know it was in season.
A vegetable stall.
Grape varieties.
It was a fun market to walk around in. There were so plenty of different types of prouducts. It was clean and everything was fresh. I wish we had one in the Philippines.

St. Viateur Bagel, Montreal

Bagels, bagels, and more bagels! On our second day in Montreal, we decided to have the famous hand-made bagels from St. Viateur Bagel for breakfast. It's more than 50 years old and still ran by the people and family that started it. Up to this day, they are still hand rolling and baking them in the wood fired ovens. Walking inside, we saw how they made the bagels. First, they make the dough in the mixer, then they roll and shape them into bagels by hand.
After shaping, they boil the bagels, then bake them in the wood fired oven. It was pretty fascinating to watch. They've been doing it for so long that they were so quick at it and still happy/energetic to be doing it.
When the bagels are done in the oven, they are placed to the side to cool to be packaged or purchased.
Although you can't eat at the bakery, we bought a couple bagels and went to the coffee shop (Cafe Olympica) next door. It served really good coffee and with the bagel and cream cheese, it was one of the best breakfasts I've had. Simple, yet tasty and satisfying. The bagel was so good, the outside was crunchy and the inside was still warm and soft. The bagel was not your ordinary bagel, it wasn't as dense and it sure was not flavorless like most commercial bagels out in the market.
I think the secret is the ingredients of their dough, their wood burning oven, and the love they put in making it. There are 2 bakeries on the same street, both opened 24 hours a day. We liked it so much that we bought back to take home and went back at midnight to have more fresh bagels. This place is definitely worth going to. If I lived in Montreal, I think I'd be there every morning.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

La Banquise, Montreal

We only had two days in Montreal, so we had to be efficient. On the first night, we decided to try the ever popular poutine, which originated from Quebec. A poutine consists of French fries, hot gravy, and cheese curds; pretty much a heart attack on a plate. I am a poutine lover so I wanted to try it.

There is a popular place among the Quebecois called La Banquise. It’s more than 40 years old. According to the taxi driver, it is the best in the city and it’s open 24 hours so that’s where we decided to go on our first night.

La Banquise offers different kinds of poutines, from the plain to fancy, such as Italian and Mexican. We just decided to try the plain one. It was pretty good. The fries are fried fresh and salted, the gravy is kept hot, but it was not enough because the cheese curds didn't melt.

I’m not sure if I was expecting something spectacular, but it didn’t wow me. It still didn’t beat my best poutine memory. Back in high school, we went up to Whistler during winter. On that day, it was so cold and there was a poutine stand outside. We ordered one and it was so hot that it melted the curds, each time you forked the fries, it would come with strings of cheese. The hot fries were really hot and so was the gravy. Each bite made you feel warm.

I guess maybe on the night we went to La Banquise, we should have ate outside where it was a little colder. It was a very interesting place and I’m glad we went to try it out.

Panache, Quebec City

On our last night in Quebec City, we ate in Panache. I don’t have too much to say about this place. The service was lacking; it was extremely slow and the servers do not elaborate on the dishes when it is served.
In terms of the food, it was pretty good. They have the best duck sauce I’ve ever tried. It’s was so fragrant and flavorful. The secret was the spices.

Here are some of the dishes we had:
My appetizer of lobster risotto. Nothing special, but it was not bad, except for some small shells in the risotto.
Special appetizer of the day: Oysters. Totally not worth $27.
My main course, caramelized scallop with lemon butter emulsion. Again, nothing special.
Duck for two. I didn't get a picture of it because when the server plated it on the plate it was such a mess. The sauce is the winner here, it's the best I've had so far. I can still remember it vividly today. I asked what was in it and the spices in the picture is it.

Chocolate tart for dessert. It was not very good, the pastry was so hard and the chocolate was so runny. They also had some cocoa nibs tuile on top, but it was too sticky and hard that it was hard to break and didn't taste good.
Overall, this restaurant wasn't was good as we expected it. If ever you come, make sure to order the duck and avoid the oyster and chocolate tart.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Laurie Raphael , Quebec City

The previous post was with one of my dining companions. Obviously, she did not have a good experience. I choose not to write about my experience because for me, it was just mediocre, the dishes I ordered were luckily good; however, I would like to share my thoughts with the concept of “mystery dishes.”

The menu Chef Chef in this restaurant was something where the chef would offer the diner three courses of mystery dishes. The diner is unaware of what dish they will be offered. In the menu, it claims that the Chef comes up with his creations minutes before he cooks the dish. It is based on whatever inspires him at the moment. Although, this concept sounds interesting, I think it’s very dangerous.

Mystery dishes, not knowing what you will be served are experience enough, especially for first-time diners at the restaurant. Giving each diner a different dish on the same night can lead to unsatisfied customers because it can lead to comparisons of what other diners were served in terms of flavor, portion size, and ingredients.

Recently, after dining in a restaurant in Vancouver, who also has this concept, the chef mentioned that prior to deciding what dishes each course will entail; they look at the diners and judge them; if they can eat a lot, or if they are foodies, etc.

I fully support the Chef Chef menu concept, but only when menu is changed on a nightly basis, not on a per diner basis. In this case, I find the menu stating the Chef lets his last minute inspirations be the outcome of the dish, very hard to believe. Actually, it is impossible. A good dish takes thought and organized execution for it to be successful. At the peak of service, where the large dining room is full, and numerous tables have ordered their Chef Chef menu, perfection and satisfied diners will be an unattainable goal.

It is such a pity because two of us had didn’t have too much to complain about the food, but because one dining companion had such a horrible dining experience, it affects the whole table as well. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have such an experience in the future with other restaurants.

My Meal:

Scallop starter. No complaints.

Dior Dessert: Sniff the Dior perfume, then eat all the components on the dish, then smell the perfume again. Interesting, but was too fragrant for my taste.

Laurie Raphael , Quebec City--by Munchkin (Guest Blogger)

When one allows the promising chef to have all the control over your dining experience, one expects a spectacular performance, you’ve given the chef their time to shine. So I willingly chose the Chef Chef option silently screaming show me what you’ve got.

Unfortunately, for Chef Daniel Vezina, my enthusiasm for his food slowly dwindled as I ate my appetizer (deep fried soft-shell crab with coconut dipping sauce and fresh mangoes. The flavor combination mediocre at best, while the smooth and sweet mangoes went nicely with the crab, the coconut sauce threw the entire dish off.

It continued its downward spiral with my main course (scallops with mango and mushroom). The most memorable part of this dish is our memory of a fellow dining guest who sat beside us and ordered the same menu as me, but was given double the portion size of the scallops (if you peer closely I got 1.5 scallops and she got 3 and only ate 1!!!

I wish I could say that unfortunate incident was the worst part of the night, sadly it came when my dessert was presented to me. How the chef willingly allowed this plate to leave the kitchen and be served to a diner is beyond me. Among the three diners present at the table, not one wanted to take a bite of what looked like leftover dessert pieces piled unattractively on a plate with no concern on presentation or flavor.

Since I was the one who ordered this menu, I was also the unfortunate one to taste it, let’s leave it at that (below you can see the “finished plate.”

What made this experience even worse is the manager’s proclamation that the dining experience at Laurie Raphael should have been perfection. Maybe he should open his eyes and see that the wait staff is unattentive (how can you not notice that you’re taking away a full plate of dessert), the food is presented sloppily and diners experiencing problems are not well addressed. The best part of this experience is when I left, knowingly, I won’t be coming back to waste my time or money.

Shake Shack, New York

I’m always in search of good burgers, not those ones you get from McDonalds, or Jolibee, but better ones like from In-N-Out, or Burger King. In New York, there’s a place called Shake Shack just outside Madison Park. It’s a stall/stand stop that sells burgers, hot dogs, shakes, and even wine with benches and tables outside. We just finished our lunch and were exploring the area when we reached this place. It’s a popular burger stop so we decided to try it. We lined up for an hour hoping the hour spent was well worth it.

What I can say about the burger was….YUMM!!!! (I forgot to take a picture of it before eating, so I apologize for the mutilated picture of our almost-done burger. ) It was a fairly small burger, but it was so juicy and tasty. The bread, vegetables, and meat were all of good quality. We wished we had lunch here instead.

Daniel, New York

I am willing to spend money on food and nice restaurants, but I hate it when I pay for crap. Eating in Chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, Daniel, felt like I threw away my hard-earned money. It feels like I paid for a Nikon SLR Camera, but got a disposable one instead.

This restaurant was a disappointment. We chose to eat here because we had such a good experience in Café Boulud, we thought the same or better experience would transfer to Daniel.

We ordered the six-course tasting menu that cost $175, at this price, we not only expected great food, but also great service. The night started off with having to wait in the bar because our table wasn’t ready. I didn’t really expect to have to wait in a fine dining restaurant. I thought reservations and dining time would be paced perfectly. I was wrong.

When we do get to our table, the atmosphere of the restaurant wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be quiet and intimate, but it was very large and quite noisy. It looked nice though, designed fairly traditional European. It had a high ceiling, tables set in rows, booths had red upholstery, and of course, white table cloths. It was very traditional.

What was new in the restaurant was the video cameras. There were enough video cameras to see all the tables, which is good for Chef Daniel, but as a diner, it felt uncomfortable.

At this level, service should be impeccable. We were served bread, but no butter. We had to ask for the butter ten minutes later. I ordered my six-course meal with wine pairing, yet, when the first course came, my wine did not. I was halfway through the first course when I finally had to ask for my wine, and realized they the server totally forgot about it. These mistakes are simply careless.

What really threw me off was how snooty Chef Daniel was. In the beginning of our meal, he walked around the restaurant. He chatted with the table beside ours, but as he continued to walk around, he just passed out table without any sort of acknowledgement, not even a smile! If I was the owner of a restaurant, I would at least greet each table. The diners don't just come to eat at a restaurant; they came to eat at the Chef’s restaurant! I thought it was extremely unprofessional. In fact, at the end of the meal, we asked our server if we could meet Chef Daniel, but he never came. On our way out of the restaurant, we saw him sitting in the lounge just chatting.

In terms of the food, the first few courses were pretty good, but after the third course, it pretty much went downhill. The meal started with a Pistachio Cursted Duck Foie Gras Terrine, which was pretty tasty.

Peekytoe Crab with Green and Yellow Curry. This was also good. The crab was fresh and sweet.

Trio of Sea Scallops: Ceviche with Wellfeet Oyster and Uni, Tartar with Caviear d"aquitaine, Sashimi with Yuzu and Seaweed. The dish was interesting, I really enjoyed the scallop with Uni, it's a rare combination, but all the ingredients were fresh, that it really complemented each other.
Flaked Atlantic Cod with Morels. It was terrible, the fish was so salty. The server's reason for this was because the fish was marinated in brine overnight. When a dish is too salty, it's too salty.
Duo of Dy Aged Beef: Red Wine braised short ribs with shallot confit and seared rib-eye. Elysian Fields Farm Lamb: Roasted Chop and Tenderloin. After a week later, the dish was simply forgotten.

Chocolate Upside-Down Souffle. Nothing special.
The meal was disappointing not just for us, but also for the diners beside us. The best part of the meal for me was the six glasses of wine and the flirty French waiter with the fake French accent.

This restaurant was a big disappointment and a waste of money. It was a bad ending to our great New York trip. I will definitely not be returning to this restaurant nor will I be recommending it to others.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Di Palo's, Little Italy, New York

Italians are the nicest people I’ve met. I don’t know if maybe I haven’t met enough, but I’ve met a few in Canada, Philippines, China, and the States, and they are all really nice people.

On our last day in New York, we decided to walk around Little Italy to see what the neighborhood was like and to get some coffee and gelato. Nearing the end of our stroll, just a few blocks off the coffee shop we were headed to, we passed numerous stores that were pretty quiet. Just before the end the block, we saw a store that looked interesting and full of people. What is inside that’s attracting all these people?

It turns out to be a store that sells Italian ingredients, like pasta, charcuterie, candies, and cheese. Oh, the cheese! The shop is run by an Italian family who handpicks their cheese in Italy, then sells it in their store. We were given a few samples of different types of cheese, one being parmesan, and it was all so wonderful and so tasty! Parmesan didn’t just taste like parmesan.

The people working were all so kind and hospitable. It was extremely busy, yet they manage to chat with all their customers. One customer walks from her Uptown neighborhood and waits in the store for more than half an hour just to buy some cheese. All the customers in the store were friendly as well, both local and out of town customers. I guess the store draws in different types of people with the same interest.

What we were amazed at were how nice the owners were. We bought a few pieces of cheese and chatted with the owners. One of the owners told us to come back in half an hour after we get our gelato. When we come back, to our surprise he gave us a container with four types of cheeses, another full of candies, and another with some pepperoni type meat, for our plane trip the next day. We were so touched by the gesture. There was so much cheese that it lasted us a few days.

We loved the store, the products, but most of all the people. It shows that for a successful store, it’s not just about the products it offers but the wonderful people that run it. The next time I’m back in New York, I will definitely visit the store again to buy more cheese.