Monday, 4 May 2015

Le Vin Papillion- Montreal's locavore destination

2519 Rue Notre-Dame O, 
Montréal, QC 

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- From the first look at Le Vin Papillion's chalkboard's menu, it is blatantly obvious that these guys love their veggies.  The produce-forward menu is revamped daily, keeping some old favourites and adding some newbies based on what they can get fresh.  On the night of our visit for example, they had a good number of vegetarian dishes but also a  "shellfish theme" as they were able to get in a lot of fresh, local seafood that day.   As you will read below, they were able to transform vegetables into dishes that could satisfy even the most hard-core carnivore.  Who could miss the meat when eating your veggies is so darn tasty?    

Being in Montreal for a whole month for work, I was excited to try all the best that Montreal's food scene had to offer.  When I polled people who knew the city, the overwhelming consensus was that I needed to visit Toque (done!- see here) and Joe Beef.  Because I am pescatarian, I did not think that Joe Beef would necessarily be my thing, but I was very intrigued when I heard about Le Vin Papillion, their vegetable-centric sister restaurant.

Le Vin Papillion is located just a couple doors down from the infamous Joe Beef and their other sister restaurant Liverpool House (an oyster bar) in Old Montreal.  It is the smallest of the restaurant group, with just enough space for 25 guests inside the rustic, sparsely decorated interior.  On one side is a white brick wall and booth seating, while the other side houses the kitchen/bar which is covered in a variety of cheeses and breads.  When we arrived at 7:30 on a Friday night, we were told it would be a 45 minute wait and that we should come back then (no reservations allowed, and they do not take names at the door).  We knew it would be worth the wait so we went to a little coffee shop right next door to bide our time and returned about 35 minutes later to scout out the prospects.  While the inside was still full, we were fortunate that the patio out back had opened a few short days earlier and there was a seat available for us there.  It ended up being a beautiful evening and, while it got a bit chilly after the sun had gone down, it was a nice April al fresco dining experience.

The service at Le Vin Papillion is just as low-key as the atmosphere.  The servers are nice enough, but do not expect any bells and whistles.  While our server was happy to answer all of our questions about wine and food, I could tell she was very busy and was only able to come back to our table a handful of times to refill water and check up on us.  It is certainly possible that we got a bit less attention, being out on the patio instead of inside.  Dishes come out of the kitchen whenever they are ready, in no particular order.

The only menu you will find here is on a chalkboard right as you walk in the restaurant (all in french) and because the do not offer printed menus, we snapped a picture and brought it back with us so we could decide on our meal while seated in the patio.  Every night, there are about 15-20 sharing plates to choose from, as well as a nice selection of cheeses and a few desserts.  On the night of our visit, there were also a few special seafood dishes available including local sea urchin and snow crab.  In keeping with their name (vin= wine), they also take great pride in offering a very unique selection of organic and biodynamic wines.

Our server recommended a particularly great Burgandy-style blend called Deux Terres from the south of France that had incredible depth of flavour.  They take great pride in serving superior wines and are happy to let you taste before committing to a glass.

Here are the dishes that myself and my two dinner companions enjoyed on the night of our visit (***= table favourites).  We were much more full than we thought and could probably have done with one less dish but I was glad to have tasted them all!  

***7-layer dip-  Although it is quite a toss-up, this is arguably my favourite dish of the night although with so many great dishes it is tough to choose just one favourite.  It had muitple luscious layers of beet, eggplant, hummus and goat cheese (to name a few) with some crunchy nuts on top, served with an indian-spiced flatbread.  I cleaned out the bowl!  I could have easily made a meal out of a few of these and been more than satisfied!

Oeaf a la Cane Remoulade- This was quite a unique dish, with soft-boiled eggs served with julienne veg and a creamy yet light sauce.  With an egg for each of us, it was easily shared.

***Smoked steelhead with pickled turnip-  Another unanimous table favourite.  The fish was simply prepared so you could taste all of its wonderful fresh flavours.  It was served with a light dill cream sauce underneath which was a perfect match (gotta love fish and dill!) with chunks of the pickled turnips.  Alongside was a piece of their braided bread (made at a nearby bakery from what we understood) which was incredibly light and fluffy.  Even for someone like me who can usually take or leave the bread, this was impossible to resist. 

Celeriac bagna cauda- It is rare to see celeriac front and centre in a dish like it was here so this was a special treat for the taste buds and the imagination.  The celeriac was served in thinly-shaved pieces, still with a slight crunch, and served with a light cream sauce and salty capers.

***Rotisserie cauliflower-  OMG.  I honestly thought I died and went to heaven.  Golden brown on the outside and warm lemony goodness inside.  No amount of description can do it justice.  Just order it.  

***Foie gras- My dining companions enjoyed this dish, although the foie was not as creamy as others they have tried in the city.  The side of pickled cucumber, leeks and fiddleheads (my personal favourite!) was nice for both presentation and lightness to offset the foie.

Overall Verdict?
After dining at this Montreal gem, it is easy to understand why the Joe Beef clan is so well respected and well renowned.  Le Vin Papillion delivered some of my favourite dishes of the year thus far for a steal of a price ($100 for thee of us before tip).  Seems like something out of a dream.  I am still pinching myself!  

Le Vin Papillon on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Best of the Best at Montreal's Toqué

900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle 
Montréal, QC 
(514) 499-2084

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- As per their website, Toqué was born out of a desire to "to create a restaurant based on market-fresh cuisine where the emphasis is placed on local products".  From the time they opened in 1993, this restaurant has undergone many changes, including a huge expansion, but has always stayed true to its local-driven roots.  On their website, you will find a long list of local suppliers that they buy from, divided by region, and when you dig into the food you can appreciate the quality of the ingredients.  Any restaurant that is built on such an engrained locavore philosophy is bound to be become the success story that is Toqué

When the "Canada's 100 Best" restaurant awards came out this year, I was pretty excited to see that Montreal’s Toqué was rated #1 restaurant in Canada.  Although it would have been great to see a Vancouver restaurant take top spot, I knew I would be spending a month in Montreal for work in April and, of course, made plans to pay Toqué a visit during my stay. 

I must admit, my first impressions of Toqué were not quite what I had expected.  At first, I had a hard time finding it despite google maps telling me I had arrived at my destination.  While I was hunting for the entrance, expecting a compact and snazzy sign, a gigantic potted flower caught my eye.  And, to my surprise, there was “Toqué” written on it!  This seemed like a bit of an odd choice for the entrance of such a high-end restaurant but it was certainly “unique”.  

The inside, however, was much more in keeping with my preconceived expectations.  The smartly-decorated entrance led into the main room, with a nice bar at the front and a sprawling dining room at the back with dark wood panelling and red accents.  We were seated in booth seating along the wall, which was very spacious and comfortable.  The acoustics of the room were notably superior, as, despite the very busy room with multiple tables on either side of us, it was very easy to carry on a conversation comfortably without having to raise one’s voice.

Although our whole experience at Toqué was wonderful, the aspect that stood out the most for me was the superb service.  Our main server was very witty, constantly making jokes with us once he knew we were game for it (professionally of course), and he came back to check on us often.  Our water glasses were refilled constantly and seamlessly, and our multiple dishes were brought out by several servers so they arrived together.   Although some of the servers had a bit of difficulty explaining the dishes in English, they did their best to explain them in great detail, describing each component.  I can honestly say that our sommelier was absolutely exceptional, to the point that he surpassed those that I had at any Michelin star restaurant I have visited.  I highly appreciated that he spent time describing each wine carefully (sans pretention) and answering all of our questions about the selections he had chosen to pair with the tasting menu.  I often find that sommeliers sometimes speak at quite a high level, which is not always helpful for someone like me who is not an expert wine connaiseaur, but this sommelier told us very interested anecdotes about the wines (where they came from, what went into making them) that really made his explanations captivating.  At the end of the meal when the men began asking his opinion of certain more expensive digestifs on the menu, he very generously brought out a few bottles for them to try.  The icing on the cake!

So now for the question of the hour- does the food at Toqué live up to all of the hype? After enjoying the most extensive option offered, the 7-course tasting menu with 7-course wine pairings, I answer that with a big resounding YES.  Every dish was well conceived, having multiple layers of flavor without being over-complicated. The dishes were beautifully presented, using the colors of the ingredients to please the eyes instead of using gimmicky plating techniques. I considered the 7-course tasting menu to be perfectly portioned, leaving us satisfied but not overstuffed.  It was all-around an expertly constructed, cohesive progression of dishes. 

Below is a little glimpse into our wonderful meal.  They graciously adopted the menu to meet my pescatarian needs on last-minute notice, substituting the 2 meat courses with fish dishes.   The menu also gives the option for a foie gras course or a fish course, and later on, a cheese course or an extra dessert. The tasting menu changes nightly (the dishes differ from those on the a la carte menu) so it was only thanks to the menu that they printed for us at the end of the meal that I can provide the detailed names of the dishes and pairings (just another example of the stand-out service!). 

Feast your eyes on this!

Amuse Bouche

Sea urchin with ginger, sriracha, soy, daikon, shallot
Pairing- Vin de France 2012, Quartz, Les Cailloux du Paradis

Snow crab with dill mayo, white asparagus and pickle (my favourite of the night!)
Pairing- Bourgogne 2013, Chardonnay, Francois Mikulski

Black cod "charbonniere" with orange sabayon, crispy vegetables, buckwheat and young dandelion
Pairing- Alsace 2012, Bildstoeckle Riesling, Gerard Schueller & Fils 

Foie gras with orange brioche, hazelnuts, squash mustard, apple reduction (the favorite of my dinner companions)
Pairing- Alsace 2013, Gewurztraminer, Vilain Petit Canard, Domaine Rietsch

Lamb with red pepper puree, artichoke, foraged oyster mushroom
Pairing- Cyclades 2011, Mavrotragano, Hatzidakis

Walleye with potato and baby onion (pescatarian substitution)

Duck with parsnip puree, black garlic puree, shiitake mushroom, madeira sauce
Pairing- Ceraiolo di Vittoria Classico 2010, Delle Fontane, COS 

Halibut with red pepper puree and potato (pescatarian substitution)

"Le Troupeau Benit": Feta and Graviera (cheese course)
Pairing- Crozes Hermitage 2012, Les Croix, David Reynaud

Guimauve a la baie de genievre- chocolate ganache, citrus sorbet, black currant and almond biscuit
Pairing- Murcia, Vina Enebro, Meditacion, Juan Pascual

Parfait glace au yogurt- blueberry mousse, granita and fir meringue
Pairing- Maury Grenat 2012, Le Petit Baigneuse (this last pairing blew me away!)

And if that wasn't enough- a few little treats for the road!

Overall Verdict?
There is no doubt that Toqué has earned its title of best restaurant in Canada.  The experience that they provide for their guests is second to none, with all of the qualities that I look for in a perfect meal- pleasant surroundings, polished service with a smile and without attitude, and local ingredients prepared with a nice balance of simplicity and creativity.  Toqué nails it all, and then some.

Toqué! on Urbanspoon

Monday, 27 April 2015

All Kinds of Awesomeness at AnnaLena

1809 W 1st Ave, Vancouver, BC V6J 5B8
(778) 379-4052

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Chef Michael Robbins' vision when opening Anna Lena was to have a French bistro with a Canadian flair, including largely Canadian ingredients.  His current small plates menu is all about late-winter/spring ingredients (kale, spinach, cauliflower, potatoes, fennel) prepared comfort-style.  I am excited to see what he comes up with for the summer with new batch of ingredients more suited for lighter dishes.  Fingers crossed, it will be just as good!

Anna Lena is a welcome new addition to the Vancouver food scene and a big win for Kitsilano.  So many of the new Vancouver gems are popping up on the East side or in Gastown/Chinatown, so it is a pleasant surprise for Hubby and I when a promising new restaurant takes root closer to home.

Anna Lena, named after Chef Robbins' two grandmothers which made me love the place even more, is a located near Kits Beach on West 1st.  The facade is a large window which looks like it can be opened up in the summer (something to go back and check out when it warms up!).  The small entrance opens up to a cozy little space, packed to the rafters on the night of our visit.  It is a very welcoming space, with white walls that act as a nice contrast to the comfy black leather booths.   At the back corner is a very nice bar next to a sizeable open kitchen.

I give these guys major kudos for their service, especially considering the fact that they had opened just weeks before our visit.  There is not a hint of prevention here, just down-to-earth, friendly waitstaff who treat you like friends.  This happened to work out well for us, since we lost track of time and arrived almost 30 minutes late for our reservation.  Instead of giving us the cold shoulder, they promised us the next table, and invited us to order drinks and have a chat near the door while we waited.  Although it was clearly our fault for arriving late, the front-of-house staff were repeatedly apologetic for our wait and we had who I guessed to be a manager come over to speak with us about menu suggestions when he saw us perusing the menu as we waited.   When we finally got our booth, the good service continued, with very friendly servers who explained the elements of every dish in detail when they were brought to our table.  Our water glasses very regularly filled and the many dishes on our table were regularly cleared.   The friendly setting that Robbins had been reportedly striving for in his Canadian-style French bistro definitely came through in the service.

The menu is based around sharing plates of various sizes that range from $3:50-$32.  There is a good selection of dishes with a nice mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes so there is bound to be something to suit everyone.  In terms of beverages, there is a fairly extensive list of house cocktails as well as a complete beer and wine menu with local options.  Although they are currently only open for dinner, they do plan to unveil a brunch menu soon.

As we waited for our table, we decided to imbibe in a few cocktails which ended up being well worth it.  My cocktail,"The Absolutely Darling", was a very well-balanced cocktail, with gin, cardamom, and lemon, topped with egg white.  Not too sweet, just the way I like it.  "The Brainstorm", a drink that Hubby was told about at the bar that was not even on the menu was a big hit with the gentlemen in our party who enjoyed several each over the course of the evening.  For those who are looking for a non-alcoholic option, there is a section of the menu devoted exactly to this with drinks that were equally as thoughtful and creative (a rare find!).

After we were finally seated, we chose the following small plates to share which ended up being the perfect amount for the 4 of us (***=stand-out dishes).

Oysters, shaved foie gras, compressed apple, jalapeño mignonette- This little starting bite was quite exceptional in its creativity.  The foie gras lightly shaved over the top actually worked and somehow did not overshadow the much lighter oyster.

***Kale salad, mushooms, ginger tahini dressing, sunchoke chips- This was one of my favourites of the evening which is not surprise since it had several of my favourite veggies including tender kale, several varieties of mushrooms and sea asparagus which is way under-utilized in my opinion.  Even if you do not like kale, the ginger-tahini dressing gave this salad a richness that you just had to love.

***Roasted cauliflower salad- I loved this dish, and am sad to see it is no longer on the menu:( The roasted cauliflower had a lovely brown exterior that tasted almost deep fried and it was nicely seasoned.  I loved it combined with the cashews for added crunch.  Even Hubby, generally a cauliflower-hater, liked this preparation! 

***Cured Tuna, papaya salad, lime coconut broth, cilantro oil, puffed wild rice- I just adored the coconut milk sauce served beneath the tuna, and the julienne papaya soaked it up nicely.  Thank goodness they brought spoons as this sauce was too good to waste a drop!

Bison tartar, egg yolk two ways, watercress puree, potato crumb, sweet onion loaf- This was one of the least favorite of the night because of its odd texture, but having said that, the men kept on going back for more as the flavors were yummy.  The hefty buns served on the side were an unusual accompaniment with the thinly shaved bison, and some thin crisp toasts would have been preferred.

***Spinach and asiago ravioli, sweet tomato compote, pangrattato, baby arugula- Thank goodness they have left this one on the menu, as everyone who visits AnnaLena must experience this dish!  The very thin pasta was chock full of spinach and served with a delicious sweet tomato compote.  Unlike some pasta dishes that can be too heavy when ordered as part of a shared-plates menu, this dish was very light and refreshing.  A great "welcome to spring" dish!

***Seared trout, roasted carrots, pickled cabbage puree, charred onion, chive butter-  Yes another hit!  Server said this was her favorite dish and I can see why.  The perfectly cooked fish had a nice crispy skin, and was served with a dill butter sauce (gotta love dill with fish!), charred onion and roasted carrot (perhaps a bit overcooked and mushy).  As if that wasn’t all tasted enough, the pickled cabbage puree added a lovely layer of sweetness to complete this great dish.

Lamb roulade, house-made ricotta, olive-brined spinach, parisenne gnocchi, lamb jus- I hate to end with a low note, but this was the last dish served and sadly the only miss of the night.  We expected the lamb to have a bit of fat for flavor, but this lamb was SO fatty, we could not find any meat to eat.  The house made ricotta and the gnocchi were quite good but nothing could make up for that fatty meat that was inedible.

By this point, we were too full for dessert but were very grateful for a little sweet bite for the road, courtesy of the house!

Overall Verdict?
I expected good things at AnnaLena, but I can honestly say that our whole experience fully surpassed my preconceived expectations.  They totally pull off their  concept of French bistro meets Canadian flair and the result is a friendly neighbourhood gem that will definitely have me coming back for more!

AnnaLena on Urbanspoon