June 22, 2014

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride: Slovenian-Style

Yesterday we drove from Austria’s wine country to the Bovec basin, in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. When I Google-mapped the route, I found three options, all of which went around the imposing mountain mass called the Triglav National Forest. But I could see on a map that there was a road, up and over that range, the Vrsic Pass. The road is renowned, a mercilessly steep ascent and descent with a combined 50 hairpin turns that redefine the word hairpin. It was built across the pass for military purposes, to supply the Isonzo front of World War I. Opened in 1915, it is known as the "Russian Road" in honor of the Russian prisoners of war that were forced to build it. 

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I was nervous about driving a road that Google Maps tried to hide from me, but was intrigued enough to give it a shot. Things started smoothly out from Kranjska Gora, the border town with Austria. We climbed, twisted and turned, awed by the surrounding mountain peaks. There were very few cars on the road (we enencountered fewer than ten in the whole hour-long adventure) but many motorcycles driven by lunatics.

About 15 minutes into the adventure, we came to a screeching halt when we rounded one hairpin and found an enormous tour bus stuck on the next turn. With its butt scraping the road and one of its back wheels suspended in air, that bus was going no-where. Scores of people lined the road along with police cars, tow trucks and a few totally perplexed worker bees attempting to right the ship with long wooden 4x6s.

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With a U-turn was out of the question, we figured we’d be stuck there for hours. But after much feverish chitchat by the assembled cops, I was told I could squeeze around the far side of the bus. Really?  There seemed no possible way that that was going to happen, but I gamely inched my rented Hyundai toward the back of the bus and saw on the other side a strip of road that MIGHT have accommodated half of my car.

The cop in front waved me forward. Really? As I crawled forward, rounding the left corner of the beached whale, my husband gasped and said I wasn’t going to make it, that I was less than an inch from the bus. The police woman continued to wave me forward, directing me to steer straight which put my left wheels off the road, onto a steeply declining shoulder. With gravel crunching and breath held, I crept a few more feet and was free. Stunned and relieved, I chugged upwards, passing a few parked downhill cars that the police had deemed too big to make the turn.

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At the top of the pass, we parked on the side of the road to admire the views, and found a steep, gravelly hiking path that took us in 15 minutes to even better views. Returning to the car, we found yet another “roadblock.”  This time, a posse of some 40 or 50 baaing sheep jammed the three-foot trail -- an obstacle we could not by-pass even with the help of 4x6s or Slovenia’s Finest.

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The downward spiral of curves was hair-raising but spectacularly beautiful, and our destination town, Bovec, with what I am calling my Hershey’s Kiss mountain, was a welcome sight.

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June 14, 2014

What Marie Antoinette COULD Have Said

Early on my first morning in the coffeehouse-crazed city of Vienna, Austria, I did the unthinkable. I went to Starbucks. It was strictly a matter of necessity. I hadn’t had time to stock the kitchen in our rented apartment; and the city’s elegant, centuries-old coffee houses hadn't yet opened for the day.

 But, I’m glad I went, because I also discovered the Duffin. 

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I knew nothing about this muffin-donut hybrid --- in the U.S. the cronut seems to get all the press.  But I now know that it was developed in a London tearoom a couple of years ago, and that last fall “Duffingate” exploded when Starbucks UK’s factory supplier (Rich Products) trademarked the name, threatening the livelihood of poor little Beas’ of Bloomsbury.  (Photo above by Bea's of Bloomsbury.) Nothing like a flap over global corporations trampling the under-baker to work up your appetite for a funny-shaped donut.

The Guardian and Grubstreet can tell you all the details. I’m here to tell you that it was pretty darn delicious --- moist and cakey, with a hint of buttermilk tang, a tiny pocket of raspberry jam, and a dusting  of sugar on top.  It’s the only decent pastry I have ever tasted in a Starbucks, on any continent.

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It seems fitting that I had my first encounter with a Duffin here, smack in the shadow of Vienna’s Hofburg, family palace of the Hapsburg dynasty.

You see, this was the birthplace and home of Marie Antoinette, one of Empress Maria Theresa’s 16 kids. From my windows I can see the wing of "palace apartments" and the Burg garden where the kiddies played.

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The Starbucks Duffin is photographed on my terrace roof, with the Hofburg in the background.

If only Marie Antoinette had let the angry people eat Duffins instead of cake, she just might have held on to her head a bit longer.

June 13, 2014

Poutine: Another Taste

If you found my recent post about Poutine mouth-watering (or weird or gross or inspiring), you'll definitely want to check out an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece on the notorious Canadian conccotion of fresh cheese curds, french fries and gravy.

In "Quebec's Baddest Poutine," author Adam Leith Gollner tells about "Poutine Week" in Montreal, an event where chefs, professional and otherwise, attempt to gild this already-over-the-top lily. (WSJ photo by Will Lew.)

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The article is informative --- "For a cheese (curd) to squeak its utmost, it needs to be less than a day old;" and pretty funny, too --- "The problem with aiming to make poutine fancy is that the dish is meant to be trashy. Trying to improve it is like adding a penthouse to a mobile home."

Gollner goes on a roadtrip in "poutine heartland" and shares with us the good, the bad and the inedible. (Chez Ben, below, falls into the "good" category.

"This may all sound a little off-putting (off-pouding?), but I can testify, as a native Quebecer who grew up making poutine as an after-school snack, that a good poutine is often a bad poutine. When you're craving one, you don't want something exquisitely prepared with seasonal heirloom veg. You want a down-and-dirty dish."

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"Unlike other lowly-yet-delicious foods like mac and cheese or pizza, there's not much of a range between the best and the worst poutines. Even at its zenith, poutine is still kind of gross. As pleasurable as it can be to eat one, you never feel better afterward—unless you're hung over."

Read it (in WSJ) and weep. Or make your own. Or book a flight to Quebec.

May 27, 2014

Summer in a Bowl

That’s what I discovered last week at Market in Del Mar, where chef Carl Schroeder continues to wow fans some 12 years after hitting the San Diego scene at Arterra Restaurant.  

A large, shallow white bowl was backdrop for the riot of color, aroma and flavor that Schroder calls Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho. Elegant dice of avocado, cucumber, red onion and red bell pepper shared the stage with halved heirloom cherry tomatoes, shaved radishes and micro basil.

The underlying “soup” was a refined blend of vegetable broth, garlic, leek, herbs and large Cherokee purple heirlooms, gently simmered together then strained.  Cherokee purples are not just about color incidentally; these beauties are prized for their dense, juicy texture and rich, complex flavor.

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Schroeder further boosted the “summer” flavors of his gazpacho with judicious sprinkles of Aleppo pepper and Banyuls, the French red wine vinegar known for its beguiling sweetness.

Served with a spoonful of bracing citrus granita and a few “spiced” corn chips, it was a feast for the eyes and for the tongue, which got to navigate around a lot of different textures. And, as any good “starter” should, it provided a subtle, aromatic entry into the rest of the dinner (which included terrific miso-glazed black cod and sautéed John Dory with caponata ravioli).

I still have fond memories of the gazpacho I made in the ‘70s when we baby-boomers were learning to cook. Every summer, we’d make gallons of the chic and trendy, cold Spanish soup, tossing tomatoes, veggies, garlic and vinegar into the blender with gay abandon and, five minutes later, serving the totally pulverized red potage with a few nubbins of cucumber and onion sprinkled on top.

But now, happily, I have even fonder memories of gazpacho – Carl Schroeder’s Mona Lisa to my own “Paint-by-Number.”

May 26, 2014

Prosecco & Frosty Paws: The "New" Cocktail Hour

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When our beloved black Lab, Geena, turned 10 earlier this month, we celebrated at a sunset cocktail party. There were Aperol Spritzes for the two-legged guests and Frosty Paws ice cream cups for the dozen dogs who gave new meaning to the term "party-hearty."  (Photo by Joyce Johnston.)

Aperol is an Italian apertif that's been popular in Italy, Austria and Germany for a hundred years and is now a hot cocktail in the U.S. too. (See what I wrote about it in 2011.) It's a tantalizing blend of flavors --  rhubarb, gentian flowers, bitter orange and cinchona (the source of quinine). Aperol looks like Campari (and is now owned by Campari) but has none of the bitterness of that other Italian aperitif.

The "Spritz" cocktail is made with a splash of Aperol, then half Prosecco and half sparkling water. It's delicious, refreshing and very low in alcohol. It's also very pretty. Make one for yourself and everyone else at the party will want one too.

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Frosty Paws, from Purina, are a dog's equivalent of winning the lottery. It looks like the little paper cup of ice cream baby-boomers bought from the ice cream truck and ate with a tiny flat wooden spoon. (Folks who grew up with me in New England know this phenomenon as the "Hoodsie Cup.") I don't know what it tastes like because Geena doesn't share.

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What I can tell you is, whip one of these out of the freezer and you will have a friend for forever. (Frosty  Paws also come as bite-sized treats similar to the Dibs enjoyed by the two-legged set.)

If Geena could talk, she'd tell me birthdays aren't so bad. She'll gladly turn 70 years old any day, if there's a cup of ice cream in it for her.

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May 22, 2014

Toqué! --- The Book, The Blog, The Beautiful Food

When I wrote earlier this week about the many wonders of Montreal chef Normand Laprise's kitchen, I attributed the blog All Toqué'd Out to him. Turns out this very cool blog with exceptional photography is the work of a French-Canadian food-lover who is methodically cooking his way throught Laprise's book, Toqué! Chef Normand and his restaurant, Toqué!, have no connection to the blog.

On the blog, David, the cook, and his "close-minded, picky vegetarian" partner, Melissa, share mouth-watering photos that show their glamorous final dishes as well as all the sometimes-tricky steps along the way. The blog's tone is conversational and user-friendly.

Check out the blog; then head to Amazon to buy chef Normand Laprise's book for yourself.

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May 20, 2014

Touting Montreal's Toqué! Restaurant

It’s hard to say what I love most about Normand Laprise.

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His effervescent personality that shines through even when he’s hard at work in the high-pressure kitchen of Toqué restaurant in Montreal.

His impressive ability to translate the hard-to-fathom machinations of Modernist Cuisine into something simple, down-to-earth and divinely delicious.

His gorgeous cookbook, Toqué, which won the James Beard Award last year for Best “Professional” Cookbook.

Or, let’s get real here, his food. Silken Pink Banana squash soup with bacon and thyme-scented whipped cream. Pan-seared wild mushrooms with poached egg, melted Gruyere cheese and cherry tomatoes. Gratin of chevre cheese and potatoes. Puckery lemon tartelettes piled with toasty meringue. Classic escargots in all its bronzed, garlicky glory.    

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Last fall, I dined at Toqué on the recommendation of my good friend Julian Armstrong, former food editor of the Montreal Gazette. I loved the airy space and stylish design, the welcoming staff led by Laprise’s partner Christine Lamarche, the thoughtful wine list on which I discovered a  yummy new friend, Monthelie, from Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune, and the food.  Creative, but not precious or contrived. Delicate, but with robust, satisfying flavors.

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Scallops (above), served in their shell, were thinly sliced and floating on a pool of fragrant apple water, with a hints of daikon and pear mousse doing the bitter-sweet balancing act. A stunning tomato “carpaccio” featured lovely late-harvest specimens, their flavor intensified by fresh basil and lime-spiked mayonnaise. Bits of pancetta added oomph to the dish and a subtle tomato vinaigrette made all the different flavors play in perfect harmony.

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Mushrooms had a starring role on the menu. A first course of pan-seared wild mushrooms was terrific. Ditto the main course of cavatelli pasta (above) tossed with wild mushrooms shiny with a gossamer cream and parmesan cheese glaze.

 I was so taken by the show at Toqué that I went with friends the next night to Laprise’s newer, more casual restaurant, Brasserie T!, in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles.  At this French-Canadian gastropub we feasted on opulent Coquille St. Jacques and garlicky escargot – the proverbial ‘blasts from the past’ --- as well as admirable duck rillettes, glossy salmon tartare with crisp French fries, and fat, handsome homemade sausages with white beans and salad. (Photo by Hand Laurendeau, Shoot Studio.)

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And, finally, on my third and last day in Montreal, I dropped in on Laprise in the kitchen of the city’s Mont Royal Club where he was consulting on a new menu. That’s where I got to see the passionate perfectionist, the tireless experimenter, the creative, independent trend-setter with the flawless classic techniques.

That’s also where I learned how to build a better béarnaise sauce.

To lighten the fat and calorie count, yet deliver the equally seductive mouth-feel of classic béarnaise, Laprise uses a whipping siphon. That’s the contraption that the rest of us reserve for making whipped cream, the ISI Cream Profi Whip, which you can find on Amazon.com. (There’s also a cookbook devoted to this Modernist Cuisine tool.)

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Laprise starts his sauce with the basic ingredients -- egg yolks, salt, white wine –- but uses none of the butter demanded for the traditional recipe. Instead, he employs the whipping siphon  -- with two cartridges instead of one -- to create a super-light sauce that won’t curdle or separate. I was blown away by the silky-smooth texture and the delicate flavor of this bearnaise. And, since bearnaise or hollandaise made this way can be kept warm in the siphon in a waterbath, it becomes far more do-able for the home cook.

Read more about Laprise, his restaurants and his fascinating version of apple mousse (below) at his blog, AllToquedOut.   

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April 20, 2014

Coqueta: The Best of Spain meets the Best of San Francisco

There’s a good reason why Coqueta is on the final ballot for the 2014 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award.

Actually, there are quite a few good reasons why this San Francisco newbie made it onto the list of the five best eateries to open their doors last year. (Winner will be announced at the annual Beard Awards in New York City on May 5.

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Reason #1:  Pintxos, dozens of them, Spain's traditional skewered snacks lined up on wooden platters like a glamorous Rockettes chorus line. Pronounced  peen-chos, these are one- or two-bite offerings that pair perfectly with the house’s cocktails and wines, and that give diners a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. I loved the hopscotch game played by the pintxo of Spanish chorizo, roasted artichoke and piquillo peppers, as well as the skewer of Serrano ham with Manchego cheese and an apricot-Sherry chutney. (Photo by San Francisco Chronicle.)

Reason #2: Luscious duck and pork meatballs, with crisply grilled edges, a tart cherry puree and crackly fried shallot rings on the side.

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Reason #10 (Don’t worry, we’ll get to 3 through 9 in a minute.) Coqueta has one of the the coolest vibes in town, thanks to a packed house of attractive, animated guests and a dramatic décor complete with cowhide rugs,  handsome wood floors, rough-hewn columns holding the ceiling high overhead and a bustling open kitchen.  Woven leather chairs encircle rustic wood tables set with hammered copper water cups. There’s also an inviting “patio” (enclosed in cold weather) that was abuzz with party-hearty diners on the January night I visited.

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Chef Michael Chiarello, famed for his Napa Valley restaurants Bottega and Tra Vigne, captures the sexy, vivacious vibe of Barcelona restaurants with this, his first real departure from Italian fare. He deftly marries the Spanish menu to the local, seasonal and organic ingredients at his fingertips.  The result is one of the buzziest and most delicious scenes in town.

OK. Back to the litany of lovable dishes.

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Reason #3. New potatoes with crisp, lightly smoked skins and dreamy, creamy insides. Salsa brava and a spot of garlicky alioli (Catalan’s version of aioli) doubled the eating pleasure.

 #4. A pintxo of quails eggs “Diablo” with pickled mustard seed and Serrano ham.

 #5: Brilliant baby beets on a toothpick with Cana de Cabra (soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese), grilled spring onions and a spritz of citrus.

 #6: A chickpea flour pancake with juicy nuggets of shrimp inside and a drizzle of saffron alioli on top. (Photo from Yelp.)

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 #7 Grilled beef shortribs, fork-tender and slick with a lip-smacking fino sherry-chocolate glaze.

 #8 Beet salad dressed up with just-picked watercress from Sausalito and the Spanish blue-veined cheese called Cabrales.

 #9 Rice, rice and more rice. Though Chiarello’s glamorous paella is a specialty of the house, our merry band of tapas tasters opted for the simpler Arros con Setas and loved the comforting fusion of caramelized mushrooms, slightly smoky Idiazabal cheese, braised kumquats and Bomba rice. (Photo by San Francisco Chronicle.)

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By the way, Coqueta’s liquid offerings are as exciting as the food.  Would you believe seven racy riffs on the classic Gin ‘n Tonic?  And a by-the-glass list of some 25 interesting wines? With tantalizing cocktails like the "Castro" (tequila, fino sherry, Fresno pepper, lime and pickled carrot) and homemade sangria (red wine and sherry, plus ginger, berries and chamomile), it takes some self discipline to move on to the eating portion of the menu. (There are  creative non-alcoholic refrescos too.)

The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world. Coqueta’s competition in the award for Best New Restaurant: Betony, Carbone and Estela in New York City, and Peche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. For a complete list of the awards and the nominees, see the James Beard Website.

 

 

April 10, 2014

Local Color: Katz Orange Restaurant, Berlin

On a short visit to Berlin last summer, I fell in love with the darling of that city’s booming dining scene: Katz Orange.

“The Orange Cat” is a small bistro-like eatery with a big personality and a commitment to local organic ingredients and an eclectic style of cooking. Occupying two floors of a handsome brick 19th-century brewery, Katz Orange has a rustic charm and inviting ambiance that won me over the instant I stepped inside. (Actually, as soon as I stepped into the front courtyard which is dramatically illuminated at night.) (Photo from HollywoodReporter.com.)

                            
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Inside, the lighting – mostly by huge candles -- is low and artistic; the furniture, an appealing blend of hipster modern and vintage. There’s an eye-popping red lighting installation on the ceiling, a cascading chandelier by the door, and a small “art gallery” in back. Servers are a friendly, accommodating group that includes an American sommelier in love with Pinot Noirs. (Photo by Scoop.it.)

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Katz Orange’s clientele, a mix of hip young people, important-looking older people, and everything in between, is eminently watchable. The vibe is comfortable, cool, and playful.

The food, too, is cool and playful, a deft blend of classic German, contemporary German and tried-and-true American favorites, such as Philadelphia  Cheesecake with fresh rhubarb. The focus is seasonal and locally sourced. The menu changes often and usually includes two Tasting Menus, along with a la carte options.

We started dinner with an elegant little salad of wild herbs, leafy, flavorful, and laced with raw marinated fennel, pear chutney, “sweet-and-salty” sunflower seeds, and a misting of carrot and fennel cream. Equally exciting was the soup of young spring garlic speckled with small ground lamb meatballs.

It’s not often that I opt for an all-American hamburger when I’m in Europe, but I couldn’t resist the handsome specimens being trotted past our table. It was a great choice: top-notch juicy beef, loosely formed into a massive burger, perfectly cooked and topped with homemade condiments. I loved every bite. Ditto every bite of the crisp French fries, cooked in organic goose fat, and served with lip-smacking homemade ketchup and curried mayonnaise.

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Asparagus Risotto was also impressive, its al dente rice studded with local green and white asparagus and roasted romaine lettuce, and crowned with a poached “farmer’s” egg (no store-bought eggs for this chef) and a drizzle of chervil-laced cream.

In addition to the Philly Cheesecake, seasonal mousses and a cheese selection, the Orange Cat offers a lovely little plate of petits fours that sends guests off satisfied but not stuffed.

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Since we didn’t get to taste the dish Katz Orange is most famous for ---12-hour-cooked specialty pork, with champagne cabbage, braised onion and potato puree, we have a good excuse to go back to Berlin again sometime soon.

The restaurant, in Berlin's trendy Mitte neighborhood, is open daily. Prices range from 7 to 26 Euros ($8 to $36).

April 08, 2014

POUTINE: Delicious Dish or "Dog's Dinner?"

You could call this an “Out of the mouths of babes” story. Or, more accurately, an “Into the mouths of babes” story.

You see, it was my 20-something sons who got me to try poutine. They had discovered this Canadian creation at Whistler Mountain, B.C., then at Salt House in San Francisco. They both raved about the glories of the mishmash of French fries, fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. They marveled at how it was always served in an enormous portion.

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For years, I've listened and wondered where the hell I went wrong in raising these kids. I mean, really. What could possibly be appealing about a huge load of soggy French fries trapped in (barely)edible sludge.

But last fall, I decided to give poutine a chance when I was in Montreal, said to be its birthplace. (Technically the dish is thought to have been invented in either Warwick or Drummondville, small Quebec towns not far from Montreal.)

I was lucky enough to be guided in my exploration by Julian Armstrong, the former food editor of the Montreal Gazette and a close friend of mine for decades.

Julian was quick to defend the dish, saying that it was pretty darn delicious when it first became popular sometime in the 1960s.

It came in an individual small soup bowl type of styrofoam container. This allowed the freshly fried fries to stand up in the bowl, with very fresh cheese curds dropped into the bottom where they could start to melt. Over this went a little chicken gravy. You raised a fry and it would have a slight amount of melted cheese dripping from it, as if you had dipped it in a good cheese fondue. The gravy was only a garnish,” she explained.

However, more recently, when she and a photographer were looking for poutine to photograph for her book on Montreal street food, she had a rude awakening.

I found the arrival of a low, wide Styrofoam container and a super-abundance of gravy. The look? Dog’s dinner. What hath the popularity of this simple dish done to it?”

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I opted to taste my first poutine at a popular food truck parked by Montreal's Convention Center. There were about 20 people clustered around the truck, waiting to order or pick up. Everybody was very jovial. This was clearly not just lunch but a cherished ritual. I was excited.

I stuck with the basic poutine, made at this truck with braised beef cheeks, which were very tasty. The cheese curds were OK; a little chewy and with minimal cheese flavor (cheese curds don’t normally have a lot of flavor anyway). But, oh, my, the poor French fries. When I finally rescued one from the gooey gravy sea, it was long past resuscitation.

My first poutine was likely to be my last.

But, for those of you who think you can, indeed, polish a meatball, there are poutine variations including Greek, with feta cheese and gyro meat; Italian, with spaghetti and tomato sauce; and New Jersey poutine with mozzarella.

Armstrong also tells me that Montreal's hot-shot chefs pride themselves on their “designer” versions:  Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon adds duck foie gras (below). David McMillan of Joe Beef fries his potatoes in duck fat and adds Stilton cheese. Chuck Hughes of Garde Manger adds lobster.

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Moreover, each winter during Poutine Week, the chefs at some 30 Montreal restaurants try to outdo each other with the likes of poutine with lamb shanks, flower petals, fried eggs, Hollandaise sauce, roasted root vegetables and wild mushrooms.

Not a bottle of ketchup in sight.

 

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