Montreal: Laugh, Eat, Shop!

2012 has been the Summer of Comedy for us. Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Leggere, John Oliver, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, and Jerry Seinfeld. Today we are heading off to Montreal in the midst of its annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival to see a favorite of ours – Jim Gaffigan.

A perfect July day awaits us as does the open road. The sun is high in the sky and insects buzz happily (I’m only assuming here). Cottonball clouds dot the field of  blue sky like sheep. The highway is lined with a colourful blur of oncoming wildflowers. Our entertainment of choice today is a Nerdist podcast featuring guest Seth Myers. A good way to get in the mood for the festival.

As we pass neat rows of corn with silos rising soft in the hazy distance, I am reminded of the Indiana of a previous road trip. Could just as well be passing through there. When we cross the border into Quebec, the clouds flatten out and hills rise up in the distance. After a pleasant hour and a half we cross part of the St. Lawrence River and begin to see the outcroppings of a major metropolis. We are here!

Despite the brutal 30-plus degree heat, we head out to the festival grounds and beyond to explore. We are staying at the Hyatt and the festival is in full swing outside. Just for Laughs is a Quebec creation and it has spread to other parts of the globe. We visited the Chicago edition in June. Montreal’s festival is of a totally different and unique flavour. Quebec culture is very much in evidence here in all its government-funded, polka-dot fluorescent satin, mime-y glory, despite the fact that the majority of the comedy is in the English language.

Dinner tonight dinner will be at Laurier1936 BBQ, chosen because it is the 80-year-old original model for all the St-Hubert rotisserie-style restos, a classic Quebec tradition, curiously called BBQ, yet having no element of BBQ whatsoever. More famously and recently, the restaurant engaged Gordon Ramsay of Kitchen Nightmares to reinvigorate it, with a much ballyhooed falling out and competing lawsuits a-flying. Online reviews are alarmingly mixed but I am going with an open mind.

Laurier1936 is in a nice little university neighbourhood about 3 miles from the Hyatt. Many restaurants are not open in the city on Sunday evenings but Laurier is. We pull up out front and nab easy parking. We are greeted by a friendly staffer and the dessert case. She leads us from the main dining room, decorated in very modern white, to a back dining room which is faux distressed white french farmhouse with tin ceiling tiles, milk painted wainscotting and rustic brass fixtures.  Clean and warm. The dining room is sparsely populated with two other couples and a small party, but the patio is hopping.

I must state right here that the chairs are the most uncomfortable in which I have EVER sat. Hard metal, cafe style with a narrow back braced at the seat that even my small butt could not fit between without bruising. I had to sit on the chair midway and spent the entire meal trying not to slip off. Why do restaurants never give their chairs a second thought?

The table boasts a complimentary jar of dill pickles, a salt shaker and the now rarely found, private pepper grinder. We place drink orders, pinot for me and beer for Rob. Both come in appropriate glassware which is a good sign. Nothing like a nice glass of red in a crappy, tiny, thick rimmed  50 cent wine glass.

I order the crispy chicken with fries and a buttermilk biscuit. The chicken comes with a honey mustard sauce but no gravy. I order a $1.50 side of gravy for $3. Rob orders the rib and chicken combo, with fries, gravy and coleslaw. Our meals arrive very quickly. My meal is presented in an artistic cone but needs to be emptied out onto a plate to eat it. Three pieces of plump crispy chicken, a biscuit, fries and a sweet, satisfying honey mustard sauce that actually compliments the chicken more than the gravy does. A note about the gravy: it is a good consistency, not overly salty and does not congeal. Strongly flavoured with herbs and  tasty – but – tragically – and not a reflection on this sauce – I love the crap they serve at St. Hubert. THAT is hot chicken gravy to me and I cannot be swayed. Therefore I cannot judge the gravy here at Laurier. Rob, on the other hand, feels perfectly qualified to judge as he hates the gloppy, over-processed sludge that passes as chicken gravy at most rotisserie places (guess who added this sentence!).

My chicken is crispy and the homemade batter is lightly spicy. My only complaint is that the chicken is not deboned, which would be fine if the bones were large, but they opt to leave very tiny bones in the serving which you can’t really see, but you can feel with your tongue. You are left trying to politely spit them out. These pieces are all but boneless. Why choose to leave these bones in? In other news, my biscuit was barely warm and dry. It needed butter but it was not offered. I did not eat it. I have traveled in the southern US, home of the biscuit. I am ruined, yes, but even so, this was not a good biscuit.The fries were fine if not slightly over done for my taste. Rob enjoys this style — crispy, golden and not greasy.

Rob’s rotisserie chicken — 1/4 chicken, leg — was marvelous. It was plump, juicy and with a lovely golden skin. It was served on top of an open biscuit with fires and a small rack of pleasant, smoky ribs with a maple BBQ sauce.

We did not consider dessert as we were full. We waited over 15 minutes for our bill which was unacceptable despite the excellent service otherwise. Because it’s rare that I would deliberately go out for rotisserie chicken, I would probably not seek Laurier1936 out but would come back for the chicken if I was in the neighbourhood.
Laurier 1936 on Urbanspoon

Series: Diner breakfasts

A while ago we asked for advice on where the genuine Ottawa diners are. We realized that left a lot of room for interpretation. One of the ways we’ve narrowed down the criteria is that we’ve chosen breakfast as a good indicator of a diner’s offerings. The menu can be easily compared from place to place and the quality of the ingredients and techniques can be easily judged. So now, we’re chronicling our search for great Ottawa-area diner breakfasts. Here’s what we’re looking for:

An authentic diner establishes its credibility and authenticity over time. It’s an honest natural thing. It’s in the food it serves, the environment in which it’s served and the personality of its servers. The food is not a secondary thing. For breakfast, there are standards. Classic short order breakfasts — flat-top griddle foods, like eggs, breakfast meats, potatoes, and pancakes. Coffee, juice, and toast round out the roster. There ARE standards, though. A great indicator is the potatoes. There’s not a lot of leeway in making eggs in a particular style, or cooking breakfast meats, but potatoes are the hallmark of diner quality. Are they little deep-fried cubes or disks or pre-formed patties of potato that came from a freezer bag? FAIL. Flat-top home fries, cafe potatoes or shredded hash-browns are proof of diner cred.

Sorry, but Zak’s, for example, is NOT a diner. It’s a corporate restaurant with a theme that is specifically designed to emulate a diner. The city is littered with restaurants like this. They don’t count. It’s a manufactured environment, an imitation experience. Their food may be fine, but that’s not the point.

Many folks have suggested some small-town restaurants in surrounding areas. After visiting a couple, we’ve decided to not include them in our search. In the city there’s a fairly clear distinction between restaurant and diner. We find that smaller towns blur the lines.

We’ve already visited the Fontenelle, The White Horse, Hamie’s and Louis’, all east-end places that satisfy the definitions above.

Diner: Louis’ Restaurant

Louis’: home of my favorite Canadian-style pie. You know, the kind with the thick bready crust, good tomato sauce, a classic combo with green peppers, mushrooms and peperoni – chewy with cheese. A great Saturday use to include bowling at MacArthur lanes and pizza at Louis’. Late nights after Rob’s band played often included a stop at Louis’ which was hopping like it was noon even in the wee hours despite not having a liquor license. Family owned Louis’ has been a Vanier institution for 52 years. Our waitress, gravelly-voiced and sweetie-calling, has been there 34 years.

Louis’ serves breakfast, so we head over to check it out this fine, scorching Saturday. The place is full with regulars being questioned by another gravelly-voiced sister, “Where have you been?”, “Where is your husband this morning?”, “Have a great birthday!” We grab a table in the window,  one of very few available at 10:30. Our server asks us if we need menus. We do as this is our first time for breakfast. Coffee – decent – and bottled minute maid OJ arrive, I order the breakfast special, $5.10, and Rob orders a western omelette and we wait.

Decorated in classic-diner, orange vinyl booths and formica, Louis’ walls are charmingly plastered with unframed photos of family and I presume regulars, kid’s artwork and local hockey club paraphernalia, cementing its neighbourhood-fixture status. A small confectionery is attached to the restaurant. Lottery tickets and Advil are sold at the cash. Dessert cases are filled with mile-high cream pies. On the way in and out you can waste a quarter on the love meter. If you score “kinky” you get a free pack of gum.

Breakfast arrives. Two eggs cooked perfectly. bacon – for me – very crisp (Rob notes that no one ever asks you how you want your bacon. I like mine a little less crispy but not limp), home-fried potatoes cooked on the flat top with fried onions, very good, white toast (brown available and rye as well – no extra charge). No jam is offered or on the table. Minor peeve. The plate is adorned with a nice sweet orange wedge and a lame slice of tomato. I would take issue with this except that breakfast at Louis’ is very cheap and I don’t appear to be charged much for this.

Rob’s western omelet, cooked on the flat top is well made, but seemingly lacking green pepper. They’re famously a pizza place, so clearly they have green peppers on hand.

Breakfast at Louis’ overall is quite good. The price is right and the service is exactly what you want in a diner – efficient and friendly. Like family is serving you. Being there was a nice reminder that we have to go back from some of that late-night pie.


Louis' Restaurant and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

 

Cacio e Pepe

Another glorious, warm summer day in the Capital city inspires me to make a simple, light pasta for tonight’s dinner on the deck. Something a little creamy, not garlicky and goes with a nice rose. Cacio e Pepe, a dish we first encountered in Mario Batali’s now-closed Enoteca San Marco in Las Vegas, is little more than good quality egg pasta, butter, olive oil, pepper and cheese. Actually that’s all it is. And it is delicious.

Pasta is the star of the show so I recommend buying (or making if you are so inclined) fresh egg spaghetti. Italians treat fresh pasta and dry pasta as different ingredients. This dish requires fresh pasta for the sauce to coat perfectly, and it makes all the difference in the world. The simple sauce and eggy pasta will give you happy mouth. It with coat your palate with delicious creaminess and a nice black pepper burn. Such a simple creation that many people would dismiss it out of hand. How tragic for them. Serve with a nice light red or rose and some well chosen olives and voila! Dinner.

Cacio e Pepe
Serves 2

Ingredients:

Fresh egg spaghetti for two
1 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsps. butter
1 heaping tbsp. fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses (use mostly parmesan in the mix, pecorino is good too if you have it), and some for serving.

Method:

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add fresh pasta and cook 3 minutes. Drain.
2. Meanwhile in a large saute pan or skillet, melt two tablespoons of the butter with the olive oil on medium high heat. Add fresh pepper and toast for about 45 seconds. Turn heat to low. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water.
3. Toss cooked pasta with pepper sauce in pan. Add final tablespoon of butter and cheeses. Toss. Add reserved pasta water to loosen if desired.
4. Serve immediately.

Serve on a sun-drenched deck or garden patio with a dry rose and olives. Pretend you are in Roma.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.

 

 

Diners: Hamie’s

Hamie’s Diner on Beechwood Ave is the third attempt in our series to find great, irony-free diners. Hamie’ s lacks the homemade, family-run charm of our previous finds but makes up for it with simple, classic diner fare and friendly wait staff that make you feel at home immediately. The diner is medium sized, seats about 60, and is pleasantly busy with an audible but not overwhelming din on this sunny Sunday morning in early July. Vinyl booths are smallish but counter stools and a few cafe tables offer alternatives.

Street parking is easy to find this particular morning. We head inside take a window seat. Our fellow diners are clearly locals, not tourists. Hamie’s is a neighbourhood joint. Our waitress, pleasant and efficient, welcomes us and gets us coffee and juice. Juice comes in a bottle. Coffee is thin and not to my liking, but I am hardly a connoisseur. Don’t go by me, I’m a Timmie’s girl.  We peruse the menu of diner breakfast classics for the most part, and I will forgive the gender friendly Lumberjack/Jill selections and Atkin’s specials. We both order the Lumberjack breakfast which includes two pancakes, home fries, toast, bacon, ham or sausage and two eggs. Mine is coming with bacon and white toast, Rob’s with sausage and rye toast. The rye toast is $1.00 extra and jam for the toast is 25 cents. I don’t care about the money but this nickle-and-diming leaves a negative impression. Add 25 cents to to the cost of all your menu items and put jam on the table. After placing our orders I noticed a small sign that said cash only. This belongs on the front door.

Our food arrives very quickly. Eggs are perfect, pancakes are rich and fluffy – this means they have a kickass short order cook back there. Our toast is well- buttered – I forego jam because it annoys me to ask and since the eggs are a perfect over medium I’ll use it to soak up yolk. My bacon is good but could be a little crisper for my taste. Rob’s good quality breakfast links are split open and fried on the flat top which makes them especially tasty. The home fries, pan-fried not deep fried, are very good. No throw away garnishes on the plate which pleases me. On the whole, breakfast was very good and we would return if we were in the area. $26.20 plus tip.

Hamie's Diner on Urbanspoon