Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Anniversary Trip - Part Quatre: Montreal

We followed the road along the St. Laurent River to get to Montreal. We passed tiny communities and a lot of farmland. For lunch we went to a hamburger stand called Casse-Croute of Neuville. These burger joints dotted the winding road, but this one was perched along the bank of the river with picnic tables for one to enjoy the view. We ordered Hamburger Fromage and Frites (2 personnes). The burgers came with a toasted bun and the fries were thick-sliced and heavenly.

Montreal is a bigger city than Quebec and looks much more like a city even though part of Montreal is also called the Old City.

We stayed at Acceuil Chez Francois B & B located across from La Fontaine Park. This area is populated with row houses and reminded me of the Fan District in Richmond. The one big difference is that the stairs to the second floor of these townhouses were located outside. Francois was a great host, very laid back, and a great cook. We had scrumptious and filling breakfasts every day. Francois was also a wealth of information about the city, how to navigate the bus and Metro, and where to eat.

Let's start with places for lunch:

In Vieux Montreal at Place Jaques Cartier, a variety of French-style cafes line each side of the cobblestone square. Touristy, yet also quaint. Each cafe had tables inside and out. The weather was grand and we chose La Maree because it was on the shady side of the square and it had a bright blue awning. We were seated in a prime people-watching spot. For wine we selected Chateau de Roquetaillade-La-Grange from Graves. One of the few Bordeaux wines we had all trip. And going against the red wine grain and against my usual personal preferences I ordered trout. It arrived slightly smoked accompanied by an orange cream sauce. So good! Hubby had the hangar steak and was quite satisfied. Around Place Jaques Cartier there are many art galleries and a little enclosed shopping area called Bon Marche. It is the building with the silver dome...

Near one of the commercial/business districts we had lunch at Rosalie located on rue de la Montagne. More upscale; men in suits; waitresses in short, low cut dresses with 4 inch black heels; outside dining; men in suits having extended alcoholic lunches. We decided this might be the high end "Hooters" of Montreal. I told my husband to enjoy the view while he could. In any case it was amusing to watch the other diners, especially the group of men ordering bottle after bottle of wine and asking for an extra glass so the waitress could also partake in the merriment. Once again the weather did not dissapoint and we ate outside. My husband decided to try the Rickard's Red Beer. He thoroughly enjoyed the Canadian brew and is trying to find it here in the States. I opted for a half bottle of Cotes du Rhone, which paired well with the Onglet (hangar steak accompanied with sauteed green beans and au gratin potatoes). My other half had the Rigatoni. After the meal we had plenty of time to enjoy the rest of our wine and beer, and the street scenes and the other views. And we contemplated dessert. And then we saw the list of after-dinner drinks. And we saw it - Belle de Brillet. We discovered Belle de Brillet at a wine shop in Washington, DC. The amber nectar comes in a pear shaped bottle and is indeed pear cognac. It is about 30% alcohol and has a slight sweetness, thus, it's not as harsh as an eau de vie or a typical cognac. For us, it's perfect after a meal and can be sipped alone or imbibed with a light dessert. We had never seen it listed in a restaurant until Rosalie. Of course, we ordered it and lingered a while longer in the sunshine.

We also had lunch at the Casse-Croute in the Botanical Gardens located near the 1976 Olympic Stadium. We had the typical burgers and the (once again) great fries. What was great was the view from our picnic table and then the subsequent garden scenes...

A place for afternoon refreshment:

The Botanical Gardens were quite extensive. When we returned to our B&B that afternnoon we decided to seek out a place to relax and quench our thirsts. We happened upon Studzio. A small little cafe on rue St-Denis with little cafe tables located out front. We were atrracted to this particular place because every occupied cafe table had a pitcher of sangria sitting on it. Red wine, fresh fruit juice, and slices of oranges and lemons. Very refreshing. And while at Studzio we also discovered something peculiar about Montreal. If you have something alcoholic to drink, you have to also order something to eat (even if it's only a dollar's worth). Studzio happened to have a light tapas menu and we ordered a tapanade trio with bread.

Let's talk dinner:

There are a slew of great places to eat in many areas of Montreal. We concentrated on one area a few blocks from where we were staying - the intersection of Duluth and St. Denis. The reason: Apportez Votre Vin (Bring Your Wine). This area of the city and only this area contained a myriad of establishments that allowed you to bring in your own wine with NO corkage fee! Amazing! And, of course, right on this corner there is a SAQ (Societe des alcools du Quebec): the Province-run wine and liquor store. Every night the wine shop was packed and the check-out line was long because everyone bought wine to take to dinner. And even though the taxes on the wine were significant, buying wine retail is still much, much cheaper than buying in a restaurant. We ate French our first night at La Prunelle. Fabulous duck confit. All of the large windows open up, so, even as we sat inside, it felt like we were at an outdoor cafe. The next night we had Italian at L'Academie. A hopping three-story place. We ate on the 2nd floor and were, thankfully, seated by the window which put us out of the mainstream of the hustle and bustle. Across the street was a hair salon that was just closing up. We were able to observe the staff relaxing with friends in the client chairs. The fried calamari was run of the mill but the veal parmagiana and the veal with roasted red peppers were excellent.

On our last night we headed out of our culinary comfort zone and tried Khyber Pass - an Afghan place. After securing our bottle of wine from the SAQ, we headed for the Pass. We tentatively peeked in and the place seemed almost abandoned. Did we make the right decision? But, we wanted something different and forged ahead. As it turned out no one was eating inside. Everyone was on the terrasse, the outdoor patio in the back. And we happened to get the last available table. Good for us! For starters we were presented with a soft flat bread and three different sauces: green coriander, white yogurt, and red pepper (not hot). I liked to mix the green and the white together. The Table d'Hote included soup, appetizer, main course, dessert, and coffee. The soup was noodles with beef in an herb infused cloudy broth. I have no idea what the herbs were, but what a great tasting soup! So different, yet, so good. The appetizer was herbed gound beef fried pastries - it looked like a flaky empanada. Once again, good, but, a little on the heavy side. The main course was grilled chicken kababs served with three different preparations of basmati rice - cardamon (green), garlic (white), and cumin (brownish red). The cardamon rice was the best. The chicken was moist and tender. Dessert was a white custard or pudding. Very sweet with ground cardamon on top. A different take on dessert for us and not something we would seek out on our own. I'd have to say the soup was the best and most surprising dish. And I would recommend this place for folks who would like an out of the ordinary culinary adventure.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Anniversary Trip - Part Trois.Un: Le Champlain Restaurant at Chateau Frontenac - Just Say "Non"

For the big night we knew it had to be Le Champlain at Chateau Frontenac (a Fairmont property). A no brainer. I had made reservations 4 months in advance and had alerted the reservationist that it would be a special night. And I must say that the food was great. The salad presentation was artistic and lovely. My caribou and my husband's pork was delicious. But the service was absolutely ABYSMAL! I have now discovered where inept, pretentious French waiters work. They are not in Paris; they are shipped to Chateau Frontenac. No one remembered our anniversary. We were not seated in a nice spot with a view, even though the place was not busy. The waiter opened our wine bottle, poured the first glass, and no one poured us more wine except for my husband - and we had so-called "waiters" walking by us every 5 minutes (they just did not bother to look in our direction). Every other place we went to in Quebec had better wine service, including the casual pizza joint! They mixed up our orders and served me first. My spouse did not receive his meal until 5 minutes later. At the end, they messed up our bill. We were very disappointed and upset to have a so-called 5 star establishment completely ruin our special evening.

I was too upset to complain that night. I did email Chateau Frontenac upon our return. And surprisingly the hotel manager called me and apologized profusely and thanked me for the feedback. He also said that he would be mailing a gift certificate that I could use at the Fairmont in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, I am still waiting for the "check in the mail."

Update: On 6/19/2006 the check did arrive in the mail. We now have a $100 Fairmont gift certificate. I'll give an update on another Fairmont experience when we redeem it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Anniversary Trip - Part Trois: Quebec

We arrived in a sunny Quebec after a very boring road trip on the autoroute. On the way we did, indeed, stop at Tim Horton's to have lunch and a doughnut. Word to the wise - all of the traffic signs are in French. We rented a large studio apartment on rue St. Pierre in the Vieux Port section through Very reasonale rates. Rue St. Pierre is paved with cobblestones and houses a number of art galleries and restaurants, as well as a furrier. We stayed on the third floor of the middle building:

Another word to the wise (or to the out of shape) - the old part of Quebec is made up of the port which is at the river level and the old city which is at the top of a very steep hill. We climbed and gasped a great deal and then climbed the three flights of stairs to our apartment at the end of each day. Of course, with all of the multi-course meals we had, we needed the exercise.

Most of the old city contains shops catering to tourists, but it is well worth checking out the Inuit art gallery. The dancing bear sculptures were our favorites. Le Petit Champlain is the famous Quebec shopping quarter...

If shopping is not your bag, just walk and sightsee...

But, we can't forget the food! First of all, everywhere we ate we had delicious food. And we also had great service (with one notable exception). If the weather is decent make sure you eat outside. There are lots of options for al fresco dining. On our first evening we decided to go Italian with Restaurant Gambrinus. Our table was under an awning and we had a great view of Chateau Frontenac and the street where the clip-clop of horse and carriage accompanied our meal. The penne with a spicy red sauce was filling and unpretentious. The wine was decent but pricey (most wine in Canada is more than one would shell out in the US).

The next morning we picked up coffee and toast and proceeded to visit the fort. Of course, we took the long way around. We ambled along the St Laurent until the found THE STAIRS. These stairs led to the fort. It is our firm belief that we when we arrived at the top we had climbed a mountain. For lunch we headed back to the old city and settled upon L'Entrecote Saint-Jean. The host seated us at a cozy table for two by the window facing the street. All of the large windows were open, thus, we felt like we were dining in the open air. We started with a demi-litre of Montepulciano. A light Italian red wine - a good choice after our "mountain climb." My husband ordered the Plat du jour (or table d'hote) consisting of soup for the first course, shrimp with a white wine sauce and rice for the second course, and profiterolles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce for dessert. I ordered duck confit (cuisse canard) and a cafe au lait for dessert. Wait service in Quebec is very similar to wait service in Paris. A lot of attention to detail, ensuring all parties are served at the same time, replacing utensils after each course, refilling wine glasses if the volume has been reduced by half. We were also encouraged to take our time and enjoy the meal (which we did). And this restaurant also ensured that we had a great table with a street/people-watching view...

L'Entrecote Saint-Jean gave us a wonderful lunch experience for our 20th anniversary. For the big anniversary night, we had decided to splurge on Restaurant Le Champlain at Chateau Frontenac. I'll relate our experience here in a separate post.

Another great place for lunch is Portofino - Bistro Italiano. Do not judge the place by the brochure picture. The picture is so cheesy that I never would have considered the place. Thank goodness we were in the mood for pizza and happened upon it in the Old City (the cheesy brochure maps out 6 other Portofinos in Quebec). We ordered Italian wine, a Montepulciano, I believe - they have an extensive list. And we split a sausage pizza. Simple fare, yet, delicious. Very thin crust, copious amounts of cheese and thick slabs of wonderful sausage (not the non-flavored stuff that we usually get at home). The pizza was baked in a wood-fired oven. And, as usual, the service was excellent...even in a pizza joint!

For the evening we went traditional and ate in the "Oldest House" in Quebec - Aux Anciens Canadians. The place is indeed geared for tourists with 17th century costumed waitstaff and ye olde colonial decor. The restaurant is rather large and accomodates large tourist/school groups on the upper floors. But the food was decent and reminded my husband and me of Botin's in Madrid (the oldest restaurant in the Madrid serving traditional food). For the wine we selected a 1999 Chassagne-Montrachet. Once again a lovely Burgundy. If we were not imbibing Italian wines we seemed drawn to the Pinot Noir nectar. Upon a lengthy discussion of our menu options we went for the Table D'Hote. Lots of restaurants here have table d'hote for both lunch and dinner which is a multi-course special. We began with a pureed root vegetable soup. For the second course (or entree) I opted for a salad with chives and creme fraiche; my husband selected the traditional pot of baked beans. For the main course it was grilled turkey fillets with a hazelnut sauce for me and chicken in a flaky pastry served with a cream sauce for him. Nothing knock your socks off, but, still, very good, and a decent change from the dinner fare we had consumed the past week. For dessert hubby had vanilla ice cream with a mixed fruit sauce and I had the baked custard with maple syrup. And please note, that no mention of dessert was made until after we had finished our wine (I hate being rushed into selecting dessert if our bottle of wine has not been finished). Coffee after dinner was included as well as a traditional shooter send-off - a small shot of vodka with cranberry juice. Vive la tradition! And here is a shot of the restaurant...

For our final evening in Quebec, we did a 180 and ate at the modern comteporary Restaurant Toast (non-smoking establishment) housed in the Hotel Le Priori in the Old Port. We were seated by the window that housed a dozen red votive candles. Our view consisted of cobblestone streets and paintings from the art gallery across from the restaurant. Very romantic. The wine was Chateau Ermitage from the south of France and for staters we shared an Italian-style antipasto with proscuitto and fresh mozzarella. My husband ordered the Thon Rouge (rare tuna) and I had the pork tenderloin. For enders it was a Chocolate Obsession and Creme Brulee. As usual, the food was great, service was spectacular. A nice way to say Au Revoir to Quebec.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Anniversary Trip - Part Two: Lake Placid, NY

Lake Placid is what I pictured a ski town to be. Some fake Swiss chalet architecture, a Main St. with tourist-focused retail shops, a beautiful lake (called Mirror Lake, Lake Placid is on the other side of Mirror Lake), and surrounding mountains. And the tallest mountains still had snow! Lake Placid has two seasons - Winter and Summer. We arrived in the in-between time where shops and restaurants opened if they felt like it, and nothing was hurried.

Here is are some of the food and drink highlights:

First of all, if you visit during the in-between time there is no excuse for you not to eat dinner with a view. Virtually all of the sit down restaurants are located on the lake side. We experienced great romantic views every evening. Just the thing for a 20th wedding anniversary celebration.

For high end elegance go to The View. This is the restaurant associated with the Mirror Lake Inn. It does indeed have the best scenic view of the lake, mountains, and town. We gazed at the sun sliding off of the surrounding mountains and sighed. Because it was off-season we were seated in a small dining room that until the very end we had all to ourselves. (Another sigh.) Our waiter, unfortunately, seemed a little green as far as experience. He was unfamiliar with the wine list, including the only New York State wine listed on the menu and featured as one of the sparklings by the glass. He did make up for it by being very pleasant and attentive. We started with a glass of Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc. Nice and crisp, not as citrusly as ones from New Zealand. The white wine paired very well with our first course, Shaved Fennel and Citrus Salad. Very light and imaginative. For the main course I selected the evening's special: Beef Tenderloin topped with a Lobster Salad. My husband could not resist ordering the Roast Chicken Brunswick served with Succotash of Corn and Lima Beans. Of course, we ordered red wine - a 2000 Bouchard Pere & Fils Pommard. Yes, a very yummy choice and a good selection given the varied entrees we ordered. Alas, my meal appeared and the tenderloin was overcooked, no pink at all. I had to send it back. The waiter was very apologetic and returned from the kitchen with another meal. Not as medium rare as I am used to, but acceptable. The lobster salad was divine. Large chunks of lobster claw tossed with tiny greens and a hint of citrus for the dressing. The roast chicken was a big hit with my husband, especially the succotash. Personally, I hate the combination of corn and lima beans (butter beans, really), thus, hubby does not eat the dish at home. Even though our waiter could have been more experienced and there was a kitchen snafu, the picturesque setting in a seeming private dining area went a long way to smooth the way. If given the opportunity, we would gladly eat at The View again.

For old world Italian (or maybe NYC Italian) step into Jimmy's. Once again a great table with a view. They serve the only fresh pasta in town. Jimmy's seems to be like a lot of family-run Italian restaurants - great food, but a wine list that isn't even trying and usually too pricey even for the cheap stuff. But never fear we found a 2000 Codirosso Vistarenni Toscana. For my entree I ordered the special - Chicken Spedini. My other half had Ziti with Meat Sauce and Meatballs. The entrees came with bread (not homemade) and a typical restaurant salad. My chicken was thin sliced and sauteed with roasted red peppers, olives, proscuitto, and artichokes. Very tasty. It was also served a side of pasta. It, too, was mouth-watering. Needless to say the Ziti was a big hit as well. On top of it all check out the twilight view...

We also ate dinner at The Brown Dog Cafe. And, you guessed it, a great table side view. The Brown Dog is a wine bar with great brown dog art by a Vermont artist. We had good food and good wine. What we had, I don't have a clue. I must start writing this stuff down!

If you only go to one place for lunch, you must go to Tail o' the Pup. It's a road side BBQ, Bar, and Lobster/Clam Bake hangout. Booths inside and picnic tables under striped awnings outside. It's located in Ray Brook, a spot in the road between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. Hubby had the Clam Chowder and Pulled Pork BBQ. I got the ribs. Not bad for BBQ from the north. My ribs were not as smoked as Buzz & Ned's in Richmond, but the BBQ sauce was right on the money. The pork was a little on the sweet side and needed a fair amount of hot sauce.

We also happened upon a fabulous wine shop - Terry Robard's Wines & Spirits. We found a 1993 Bouchard Pere & Fils Volnay for $30. What an incredible Burgundy find. If we had not been crossing over to Canada on our next leg we would have filled the trunk.

A place not to stay - Northwoods Inn. It was cheap, but there was a reason. Just a rundown motel that saw better times years ago. Try the Best Western Golden Arrow for reasonable rates. If you want to splurge, stay at the Mirror Lake Inn.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Anniversary Trip - Part One: Lenox, MA

Our first stop was Lenox, MA for a couple of nights. We stayed at the Cornell Inn, which is located on Main St. - a couple of blocks and an uphill walk from the center of town. If you go, say Hi to Lyn (with one "n" not two).

Lenox is the home of Tanglewood (the summer hang-out of the Boston Symphony) as well as numerous art galleries and high end retail shops. In fact, Casablanca, a clothing store for men and women, had some outrageous racks with equally over-the-top prices. It also boasted a male clerk with patent leather slides - one bright red and on black. Fascinating.

We were fortunate enough (for us, at least) to visit in the off-off season. Well beyond ski season, the arts scene did not begin until June/July, and no Fall colors. Some of the locals regaled us with traffic horrors in the Summer as well as rushed dining experiences in order to make the evening concert or play. We like the arts, but don't rush our dining experiences!

In Lenox there is also a hiking park near the Church on the Hill. Hubby and I decided to do a morning hike. We soon discovered locals jogging or walking their dogs in the early Spring scenery (early Spring at the beginning of May is a new one for us native Virginians!). We also admired the numerous horses that carried trail riders. Then we discovered the black flies. Tiny black insects that would buzz and light on you as soon as you stopped to take a picture or to peer at the spectacular view of the valley below. One must keep moving! What I enjoyed the most was the whiteness of the birch bark shining out against the blue sky and the newness of Spring.

Now, on to the food and wine. We ate at one-word places: Prime, Dish, and Zinc. Imagine that! All were within walking distance of the Cornell Inn - hooray!

Prime houses an Italian Steakhouse and Bar (by the way, all restaurants and bars are non-smoking in Massachusetts - you can't imagine how happy we were!). The really cool thing about Prime is that dividing the bar and the main dining area is an area set up as small, intimate, private dining areas - seating 2 - 6 patrons. The private area is separated by opaque glass. That seemed very chic to us. We were seated in the main area with a window view (not too shabby, either!). We both ordered the skirt steak which came with a salad and potatoes. We also ordered a Brunello di Montalcino. My husband and I enjoy Brunellos. Unfortunately, we have only experienced a few bottles because of the expense (normally, the retail shops we frequent sell these little gems for $40 and up). Prime offered a Brunello for $60 ( a bargain given restaurant mark-ups). We snapped it up and I would tell you exactly which bottle it was - we wrote the information on a little scrap of paper, I swear! Unfortunately, after two weeks traveling and a week back at home, we have lost the little scrap. Mea culpa! Anyway, it was heavenly and the restaurant manager even stopped by to confirm that we had chosen wisely. As for the rest of the meal. The salad was simple fare, but the Balsamic vinegar dressing was very well-balanced. The skirt steak was medium rare and more tender than expected. We indulged in cappuchinos for dessert (unfortunately, the coffees were so-so and way overpriced - I guess the this made up for the Brunello bargain).

For lunch the next day, after our black fly hike, we selected Dish. We had considered Dish for dinner the night before, but went with Prime instead. Tiny deep hallway-type space with some contemporary lighting touches (except for the god-awful colonial reproduction chandelier near the entrance). We ordered sandwiches for lunch. Lunch just wasn't the dish we were expecting. For the price, I expected fresher bread and tastier chicken. Maybe this is the downside to visiting in the off-off season.

We fared better for dinner. Zinc was located in what seemed to be a residence in the past. Huge bay windows fronted the restaurant and were open to let in the Spring air. The dining space was open with blond wood paneling. My husband started with the Peking Duck Rolls. It was served with a hoisin and sweet chili sauce. Since I enjoy duck even more so than my spouse, it was surprising that I did not even consider it. Instead, I ordered the Frisee Salad with Lardons. For some strange reason, I adore this dish. A place in Richmond, VA called Morgan's (sadly, now defunct) introduced me to this concoction, and I have been hooked ever since. Basically, it's frisee greens (which can be slightly bitter) mixed with chunks of thick bacon and served with a poached egg. A sweet/sour dressing, in this case, balsamic dressing, is then drizzled over the salad. Heaven! And Zinc did not disappoint. For entrees we both ordered Steak Frites. Not very imaginative as far as ordering on our part, but a great Black Angus New York strip perfectly grilled. The frites weren't half bad either. As for the wine, I know we have that little scribble of paper somewhere, but, alas, it is nowhere to be found. I believe it was a 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape, and I know the wine definitely did not suck, but as to the name? It remains a mystery. My husband ended the night with a special treat - Armagnac. The last time we had the extremely strong nectar it was in Paris. We were at a little wine shop in the 6th arrondissment and the proprietor let us try a 1972 vintage. This non-vintage version at Zinc was not as smooth, but brought back happy memories of past travels together.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Back into Blogging Again

It's been a while. For the first two weeks in May my husband and I were travelling once again. This time we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Our itinerary: Lenox, MA; Lake Placid, NY; Quebec City; Montreal; and Jim Thorpe, PA.

Within the next few days, I'll post food and wine impressions of our trip along with a few words about where we stayed.