Montreal re-tasted review

Joe Beef - Stone Crab Dip

Joe Beef’s Stone Crab Dip

I am happy to report that while Montreal’s foodie reputation is still intact, within the last few years the Quebecois landmark has welcomed a number of disruptive newcomers who have elevated the gastronomic landscape yet again.

There are still quite a few legends who cannot be denied a place on any Top 10 List, such as the grand dame of them all in a class of her own – Martin Picard’s decadent Au Pied de Cochon, and of course the untoppable Schwartz’s – the place where all Smoked Beef Sandwiches wished they were from.

Toqué - Duck Magret and Heart

Toqué’s Duck Magret and Heart

The always-excellent and never-pretentious L’Express who still serves the meanest Bouillabaisse and Pâtés in town. Not to mention (but I will anyway) Moishe’s, Tuck Shop and of course Chuck Hughes wondrous Garde Manger and Normand Laprise’s Toqué – both as formidable as ever.

My favorite newcomer for breakfast in old Montreal has to be the adorable French delicatessen and bakery hotspot La Cartet.

La Cartet

La Cartet

Beer benches stretch through the length of this narrow nook-and-cranny room lined with the most gorgeous-looking chocolates, pates and jams all screaming to be taken home at once. Claude Cyr’s kitchen lovingly puts together the most imaginative and indulgent breakfast treats like homemade organic Ginger Granola Parfaits or Poached Eggs and Goat Cheese on Pesto Toast or Raspberry Pancakes with whipped crème fraiche…all to be washed down with shaving-bowls of café au lait. Definitely worth the price and the 30+ minute wait on weekends.

La Cartet - Pancakes and Ginger Granola

Pancakes and Ginger Granola at La Cartet

But top of my list has to be Joe Beef. Judging by the name, you’d probably think (as did I) that it’s some massive, wooden house of carnivores. Wrong! It’s name honors an Irish-born tavern owner from the 19th century, and it’s a rather dainty 75-seat cluster of two dining rooms and patio surrounded by a sustainable vegetable garden. Chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin serve an eclectic collision of dishes that stretch the limits of many usual suspects. The all-French menu reads like a mix between a curious zoology lesson and a delicious heart attack. I can’t recall when I last saw (not 1) but 2 Horsemeat items on a menu – one cooked rare (blue) and the other not cooked at all!

The Stone Crab dip with semi-pickled pickles were surrounded by a bright lake of dreamy-flavored lobster-bisque mayo. The Double-Down Foie Gras (are you ready for this?) is a sandwich of smoked cheddar and bacon between a double layer of scrumptiously crumbed and fried foie gras, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing is then doused in maple syrup! OMG!

Joe Beef - Lobster Sausage with Fisherman's Stew

Lobster Sausage with Fisherman’s Stew

The signature Spaghetti with Lobster and Joe Beef Entrecote are less over-the-top than the impossibly sweet, tangy and ultra-tender Pork Shoulder with Fiddleheads accompanied by a strong French mustard, or the Lobster Sausage with Fisherman Stew served with clams and mussels in a shellfish-Cognac bouillon to keep them company.
If Joe Beef is David Chang’s favorite restaurant in the world (and I am a huge Momofuku-groupie) – then I guess it has to be one of mine too. Nothing wrong with that.

Joe Beef - Sustainable vegetable garden

Sustainable vegetable garden at Joe Beef


Betony review

Betony -


I am thrilled to say that I can now join the ranks of the fortunate few who have tried (and loved) former Eleven Madison Park executive sous-chef Bryce Shuman’s Midtown marvel Betony.

The amber-lit duplex sandwiched between office blocks, is lined with impressive wood-carved panels up the walls and across the ceiling. Not a single details gets in the way of arguably one of the best dining experiences the city has to offer. The menu is focused and filler-free, the service is meticulously synchronized, the staff are knowledgeable and approachable, even the seats are sumptuous and cozy.

Shuman encourages his diners to choose from each of the three menu sections to create their own sharing degustation experience. All the hors D’Oeuvres are conveniently built into dispute-free bites of 4, the appetizers require a bit more congenial surgery, whereas the main courses discard the notion of brotherly love entirely.

Betony - Lobster Rolls

Lobster Rolls

The Lobster Rolls have a zesty lobster-créme piped inside little crispy cigarillos, which sit on a bed of parsley infused salt-n-vinegar chip crumbs. The hot Foie Gras served with crispy kale and a salty ham broth underscores the incredible caramel flavor of the liver. The Short Rib could have stopped traffic, not only by virtue of the complexity of its dark flavors but also because it is served with a formidable rib bone to which the tender meat clings for dear life. The Poached Lobster bathed in almond foam and covered with asparagus was cooked until 3 perfect heartbeats before the succulent flesh would have become firm.

Betony - Roasted Chicken

Roasted Chicken

And finally, the dish that all hoopla is about – the Roasted Chicken! Why is it that so much fuss is being made over baked poultry this far west of the Mississippi? Commerce, Eataly, The Nomad and so many others vie for top hen, and now Betony adds its sublimely memorable and utterly unique contender to that list. A delicate slither of the moistest breast sits on a smear of pea, accompanied by chicken & mint Au Jus with a side salad of dark meat. Unbelievable!

Shuman does an interesting take on desserts by offering an identical trio structure (cake, gelato and mousse) in a variety of interesting and quirky flavor combinations, like Dark chocolate, Olive oil and Bergamot, or Amaranth, Maple and Banana. We settled on the subtle yet sweet Passion Fruit, Ginger and Cilantro to round out my meal of the month for May!

Le Chaine des Rôtisseurs at Lafayette review

Lafayette - Fleur de Soleil with Spring Peas

Fleur de Soleil with Spring Peas

I had 2 rather unique experiences last week. One was being able to eat at 2 of Andrew Carmellini’s cuisine-contrasting restaurants, the urban Italian Locanda Verde (see separate blog) and his equally, furiously popular French bistro Lafayette where I attended my first soiree of Le Chaine des Rôtisseurs. Founded in the middle ages, Le Chaine hosts multiple events throughout its various global chapters as a means to celebrate and cultivate the enjoyment of and appreciation for great food and wine. Aside from the garlanded medal-wearing members, equally intriguing and beguiling are their 4 strict rules:

  1. No speeches! We are here to eat, drink and enjoy. Nothing else.
  2. No salt or pepper! Always considered an insult to the chef, here it’s a mandate.
  3. No water! Who needs water when you’re serving wine?
  4. Start eating as soon as you are served! The chef intended for you to taste his/her food at its optimal temperature regardless of what decorum demands.

And so clutching at our anticipation, we made our way down into the Cave du Vin just below Lafayette’s bright Bowery bistro & bakery for a festive journey into Carmellini’s modern menu starting with a seemingly endless collection of the most spotlight-stealing amuse-bouches that normally go unmentioned. Not tonight. If the bottom half of a vanilla Macarón supporting a delightfully fluffy black pepper Foie Gras crème with a single stewed blueberry didn’t bring me to my knees, then the postage-stamp sized, ultra-thin Beef Rossini with Truffle Aioli finished the job.

I’m always weary that a Prime Beef Tartare has the potential to be as heavy as a bucket of bricks, but this horseradish-spiked, quail egg-topped version was as light as foam. Even though the perfectly grilled Asparagus with sweet Citrus Mimosa really enjoyed the salty balance of the Bayonne ham, it appeared that whomever was on ham-crisping duty might have been somewhat distracted. The light and flowery Fleur de Soleil fresh pasta with crunchy spring peas was perfectly paired with a sublime 2005 Volnay from Domaine de La Pousse d’Or. The Lamb Chops with whole-wheat Couscous were served over a satiny and rich amber-colored Moroccan mustard sauce, the delicious kind that always ends too soon, but fortunately the extraordinary 2000 Chateau Calon-Segur lingered on.

Lafayette - Classic Tarte Tatin with Creme Fraiche

Classic Tarte Tatin with Creme Fraiche

Believe it or not, producing a classic Tarte Tatin is not as simple as apple-pie. I would have contemplated adding this one to my favorite-desserts-ever list – were it not completely upstaged by the Vanilla Cream Puffs. Even the strongest of wills had to surrender to these mandarin-sized, hard-crack Caramel-coated, soft-centered pastries from heaven.

Vive la Chaine!

Locanda Verde review

Locanda Verde -

By definition, a “Locanda” is an inn or guest-house, somewhere you can either eat or spend the night. The thing is, even though Andrew Carmellini’s sedate, sophisticated yet utterly sumptuous taverna Locanda Verde is located right inside Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, if push came to shove and I needed to bed down for a few hours after having gorged myself on “cicchetti” (small plates brimming with delectables), I would much rather do it right there on the marble counter, surrounded by some of the most dependably delicious house-made pastas and a bevy of full-bodied Barolo’s.

The L-shaped space at this Tribeca favorite is enormously welcoming with intermittent wine-racks partitioning the various dining areas. The only aspect that might be considered somewhat pretentious, are a certain species of diner who believe this to be a ripe sighting-ground for the likes of Hugh Jackman or Susan Sarandon. But trust me, the real stars are all on the menu. It’s all about Carmellini’s devotion to recreating an always-satisfying, urban Italian experience – regardless of whether you have only been here once, or one-hundred-and-once. His ingredient simplicity and restraint from over-fancying traditional dishes is what continues to make this a tough table to secure.

The Sheep’s milk Ricotta with sea-salt and herbs served with country toasts couldn’t possibly be a plainer dish. But once it arrives in a circle, surrounding a miniature birdbath of olive oil, you just want to dive in. When that sumptuous creaminess hits your tongue just after you bite down on the crusty bread, each of your taste buds races to be the first to define it. Is it (ever so slightly) sour? Maybe. Salty? Just a little. Creamy? Obviously!

The Insalata D’Andrea is another rather conventional-looking plate, but the sweetness of the apple and the tang of fennel and Asiago cheese would surprise anyone who would think this is just a salad. The Marinated Beets were a touch on the too-soft side for me, but the pistachios added some vital crunch.

Each of the house-made pastas are worth crossing Canal street for, but the all-time winner has to be the Pacherri with Sunday night Ragu. I’m never sure to which Sunday night they are referring: last week, last night, last fall? Who cares. All I know is – Sunday must have been a great night for cooking. The Dorade al forno is another standout. They fillet it and section it lovingly into convenient slithers amongst a buttery garden of tender artichokes and fennel with the slightest essence of sour lemon.

Keeping the citrus element alive, we moved on to the sublimely smooth wedge of Lime Tart with Buttermilk Gelato, when that all too familiar end-of-meal depression began to sink in – just like Sunday nights when I was still a schoolboy. Aaah.

Locanda Verde - Lime Tart with Buttermilk Gelato

Lime Tart with Buttermilk Gelato


La Petite Grocery – New Orleans review

Le Petite Grocery - Blue-crab Beignets

Blue-crab Beignets

No degustation trip to New Orleans would be complete without at least one meal at the Garden district’s French-forward Cajun-styled bistro La Petite Grocery. It’s no wonder that this charming, honey-hued dining room with pressed-steel ceilings and nostalgic photographs from its former life has become a foodie favorite. Chef Justin Devillier makes bold choices to put a non-traditional spin on some otherwise sacrosanct dishes. The non-Louisiana-native had the temerity to re-craft a good many local favorites that have since become highly plagiarized by other toques around town.

His cotton-ball sized Blue-crab Beignets with malt vinegar aioli are still the mega-hit they ever were. One bite of these soft, puffy, fried clouds of goodness, and you instantly regret agreeing to share them. More delicately portioned and therefore less sharable are the Braised Beef Short-ribs. This seemingly heavy choice for an appetizer actually started out life as an amuse bouche, but the spicy cucumber with fried peanuts keep it light and surprisingly refreshing – making it the perfect prelude to a serious second act. The local Little-neck Clams are instantly given foreign passports with a deep lime-dominant roasted red-pepper and coconut, Thai broth.

I must admit, I am always a bit surprised to see the ubiquitous Grits as an entrée option on any dinner menu, but Devillier’s Gulf Shrimp and Grits is laced with shiitake mushrooms and bacon, which go a long way to upgrade the rich and buttery cornmeal breakfast staple. The Paneéd Rabbit was perfectly tender and moist under the (somewhat meager portion of) sauce grenobloise, and the Spätzle were of the crispy variety, but there was a definite noise emanating from my plate. Turns out it was a “Rabbit and Spätzle chorus” yearning in unison for something warm, soft and creamy to combine them together!

While I did try the Baked Macaroni with it’s own strong southern accent (thanks to the addition of crunchy cornmeal crumbs), I could kick myself for not trying the much-acclaimed Turtle Bolognaise. Oh well…I guess there will just have to be a next time.

Le Petite Grocery - Gulf Shrimp and Grits

Gulf Shrimp and Grits


Coquette – New Orleans review

Coquette - Shaved Cucumber Salad

Shaved Cucumber Salad

Unless you find yourself roaring through several time zones, it is seldom possible to eat dinner more than once per day. Consequently the toughest part of traveling to a food destination is deciding which restaurants will still stand up to their dinner service reputation – at lunchtime. Most often this can be a mixed bag of surprises and compromises, as sometimes chefs deliberately salad-and-sandwich-ify the dinner menu, or they remove a good chunk of time-consuming dishes to get the lunching public back to the office in a under an hour.

It is my sincere regret that James Beard semi-finalist Michael Stoltzfus’ locavore kitchen Coquette failed to live up to my expectations following the tsunami of rave reviews. On the second re-reading of the painfully shy menu, I realized that this was going to be a bit of a southern struggle. The charming natural wood dining room with exposed brick accents on Magazine Street felt like just the right place to enjoy the house-made Cucumber Lemonade, but then things soured after the waiter performed a flawless, but nonetheless vexing disappearing act. The Fried Gulf Oysters served on a sweet pepper paste with grilled cucumber were plenty zesty without the mint air-raid. The beautifully plated (but rather lonely) Shaved Cucumber Salad with ricotta crumbs was missing so many other vital ingredients that it seemed to be nothing more than a fussy garnish. The rather odd combination of Charleston gold rice, raw Lima beans and peanuts hiding under two sad filets of over-cooked Pompano fish, took on very little flavor from the milky clam-broth moistening the bottom of the plate, and the Soft-shell Sandwich with pickle, lettuce and tomato turned out to be nothing more than the sum of its parts.

It is moments like these when the best thing to order for dessert is a taxi!



R’Evolution – New Orleans review

R'Evolution - Espresso-crusted Venison Carpaccio

Espresso-crusted Venison Carpaccio

Even though a Bourbon Street address might make you think otherwise, R’Evolution is a very smart, yet eclectic restaurant. This four year-old jewel of the French quarter earned its great reputation the hard way – by stopping at nothing to impress. Arguably the finest new dining establishment in New Orleans today, chefs Rick Tramonto and John Folse’s Cajun/Creole kitchen marries soulful tradition with rich surprise and their flawless front-of-house team delivers on good old-fashioned service. I know it’s considered “proper”, but I always feel a touch nervous when a waiter lays a napkin on my lap for me. I never know if he might also offer to wipe my mouth (or perform some other function) later on in the evening!

Thanks to a heavy dose of decor drama, the restaurant is divided into several very different rooms; a sumptuous caramel-walled living room, a moody wood-paneled library, a festive gastro-pub etc. But the large white, subway-tiled arch above the kitchen serves as a sobering designer’s record-scratch that forces the diner to remember why we’re here!

It’s seems like everyone in the Crescent City is re-inventing the Beignet these days. Here you can enjoy 4 crab-laced beer batter puffs, each with its own different flavored Remoulade. The unnervingly square shaped Espresso-crusted Venison Carpaccio frames a red debris-field dotted with just about every other shape, color and flavor, from chocolates to grapes to peppers, that collectively frightened the Espresso away. Another perfectly red square, the silky and indulgent, Black Truffle Steak Tartare, had to fight hard for the attention of the grilled country bread against a handsome jar of pork and duck Rillettes with home made pickled vegetables. The dark-mahogany-brown glazed and succulent Rotisserie Duck was definitely born from the richest of Creole roux’s – the kind of satiny sauce you want to take a bath in! The only significant miss was the Filet Mignon with a Lobster Béarnaise – curiously served lukewarm after having spent a good month too many in the aging closet. But the delectable Bouillabaisse transcended your average seafood stew with the lightest of broths that permitted each fish and shellfish to have his or her own unique flavor, creating a carousel of oceanic delight.

To finish the meal we requested Espresso Martini’s. Definitely not on the menu and definitely not familiar to any of the staff. But rather than concede defeat, moments later our brave table captain presented them as proudly as a Louisiana King Cake.

Re-tasting New Orleans


Emeril's Barbecue Gulf Shrimp at NoLa

Emeril’s Barbecue Gulf Shrimp at NoLa

Since hurricane Katrina claimed so much of what this city used to be, it warms the belly to realize that in the past nine years the Big Easy has been busy stepping up to reclaim its title as the “dinner darlin’ of the south”. While there may be are a few big guns who have disappeared – their absence has only made more room for a host of hungry new entrants vying fiercely for top honors in the Crescent City’s vibrant food scene. And even though it’s thrilling to see busy lines of jacket-wearing diners still making a bee-line for the many gastro-historic landmarks like Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, it’s not hard to notice that there is an even more pronounced gourmand shift out of the French Quarter and into the Garden District with the likes off Lilette’s, La Petit Grocery* and Coquette* (* separate blogs to follow) and many others who have bravely traded in the boob-flashing, bead-throwing, spring-breakers of Bourbon Street for the toque-appreciators on shady Magazine Street.
Of the survivors, some still draw a nice crowd to enjoy many of their staples, but some hits and misses on revisited menus (like Emeril Lagasse’s NoLa) challenge their level on many concierge’s lists. The recently added Soft-Shell Crab to NoLa, was so deeply buried in cornmeal batter, it would have taken an oyster shucker all night to re-identify the succulent decapod. His Barbecue Gulf Shrimp on the other hand is still as solidly triumphant as ever. Also on the hit list, the magnificent Garlic Crusted Drum fish with bacon and beurre rouge sauce perfectly paired with patatas bravas.

Begneits & Cafe au Lait at Cafe du Monde

And because this is such a tradition-rich town, N’awlins wouldn’t be N’awlins without a daily dose of shower-requiring, powder-sugar-buried Beignets from Cafe du Monde, or the never-closed, always-reliable-for-a-greasy-hamburger-at-4:15am bender-ender: The Clover Grill. To this day the cooks in this Pepto-Bismol pink tiled shoebox of a diner, still use motor-car hubcaps to steam whatever is sizzling on the griddle. And just like the rest of New Orleans, this place is real, entertaining and unpretentious – and it never disappoints. Yet another metaphor for a defiant city that will always endure, come hell or high water.

Clover Grill

Ford hubcaps as griddle covers at The Clover Grill


Cork Buzz Wine Studio review

Corkbuzz - Foie Gras Torchon

Foie Gras Torchon

In the admirable way that master yogi’s prefer to admit that they only practice yoga, (it is the essence of humility that constantly reminds them that there is always something more to learn) it is just as true for sommeliers. Theirs is a never-ending education with new blends, vintages, laws, labels and wineries mushrooming daily all across the globe. To be a sommelier means to be able to discern a wide variety of tastes and help diners distinguish good from great wines. To be a master sommelier means having a comprehensive knowledge of geography, history, law and languages as well as a highly reliable (and remarkable) sense-memory for thousands of different aromas and taste combinations. Not surprisingly there are fewer than 100 master sommeliers in the world today, and one of them comes in the form of the effervescent, charming and unpretentious Laura Maniec – one of Wine Enthusiast’s 40-under-40 and proprietor of the Greenwich Village wine hotspot Cork Buzz Wine Studio.

The 3-in-1 premise behind Cork Buzz is a serious but approachable wine bar, an outstanding kitchen with communal-table dining and a comprehensive and empowering wine school. The high-ceilinged, techy, yet cozy modern space easily accommodates all 3 due to its flexible moving walls and partitions. The staff are all aspiring oenophile protégés and passionate advocates of the predictably deep and varied wine list that extends the premise that a good wine doesn’t necessarily have to be fashionable, popular or expensive. I have spent many an hour at the school and each time I come away with renewed passion and insights for a particular region, country or varietal, or an unexpected food/wine pairing rationale.

Chef Phil Conlon is a big champion of local farmers’ market seasonal ingredients, but even his small plate staples are worth crossing Union Square for. The sweet and chilli spiked Crispy Pork Belly with Red Cabbage Slaw is a borderline-religious experience in tang, crunch and tenderness. The Crispy Potatoes reminiscent of Patatas Bravas are served in a rich duck confit, perfectly paired with the bite of jalapeño aioli for top-end flavor. The Foie Gras Torchon unashamedly embraces the almost dessert-like sweetness of the strawberry-balsamic glaze with the added crunch of pistachios. I always allow the waiters to pair wines with each dish, and their serious consideration and respect for the ingredients is nothing short of adorable.

If I had to choose a wine mentor, it would be Laura Maniec. And if I had to pick a relaxed, fun environment to learn everything about wine, it would be Cork Buzz. -


Il Mulino Trattoria Flatiron review

Il Mulino Flatiron - Burrata with Watermelon

Burrata with Watermelon

The definition of a successful franchise is to replicate your original establishment over and over again, in as many places as possible without ever changing a single detail, so that an unobservant diner won’t realize if he just left a tip in Los Angeles, Lima or Lisbon. Sad, but true.

Well, the team that created the expense-account-haven Il Mulino in Greenwich Village decided to do just the opposite! Instead of re-creating the serious, stuffy, dark-and-formal Ristorante that has been a permanent fixture on West 3rd street for over twenty years, the first thing they did after bursting into their new Flatiron home was throw away the rule book. If the original Il Mulino is the stoic godfather, then this Trattoria is the naughty grandson – like an irreverent party-boy who drives too fast and stays out too late (but who has MUCH more fun than anyone else!) Clearly the fresh canvas will attract a brand new generation of avid followers – including me.

Here you won’t find any creaky floorboards, heavy wood panels or gruff Coke-bottle-bottom-bespectacled waiters. Oh no. Here everyone’s a hunky twenty-something with massive personalities and uncanny memories for names. The art is bright and modern, the lighting is overt and interesting, and the only texture that can possibly absorb the din are the ribbons of fresh pasta and Salumi. One section of the “cater-to-all-tastes” menu pays homage to the classic dishes still being ordered on West 3rd , like the sage-flavored Double-cut Veal Chop, but the rest of the options are cheeky, fun and bold. Who says you can’t pair Burrata with Watermelon? Who says you can’t pound the Chicken in Crosta breast into 360 degrees and then smother it with a decadent lemon sauce? Add a side of Braised Kale Parmigiano and you are on your way to embracing the new Italian casual-chic.

Il Mulino Flatiron -

Side note: For some of us, living in the mega-forest of great restaurants can be a daunting reality. If it’s therefore important to find somewhere where “everyone knows your name”, then this would be my ground-zero!