Our May visit to Montreal also had us knock another place off of the “we should try that!” list. In this case, it’s over in Chinatown. Way back in 2003, coming back from a Cirque du Soleil performance on the waterfront, we wandered by a little stall with a simple “Dragon Beard Candy” selling pretty much one item: Dragon Beard Candy. We weren’t really hungry at that point, but were really curious to find out what it was. And then over the next dozen or so visits to Montreal, either didn’t go through Chinatown, went when the stand wasn’t open, or just plain weren’t hungry (a stomach full of poutine and smoked meat has a way of doing that to you). But this trip, we finally had a convergence: we were on a long walk (doing a test run for our annual “Death March” 20 mile hike across a city), hungry, and Dragon Beard Candy was open.
Every once in a while you run into one of those places that you’ve passed by a gazillion times, every time vowing that next time you’ll actually go in and check it out? Well, in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, one such place is Rotisserie Coco Rico. We first noticed, not because of the food, but because Coco Rico has a long tradition of having elaborate graffiti-style wall murals. I no longer remember what the mural was like the first time I saw in in 2002 (on the way to Schwartz’s down the street), but by 2007 it involved a simple spraypainted chicken adorned with hearts. By 2010, it involved a group of singing chickens. And by 2013, that had been in turn replaced by an elaborate “Conquistador Chicken” mural. But that’s not what made us stop. No, lingering to look at the mural also immerses you in the intense aroma wafting out of the store, of multiple marinated chickens roasting away on their rotisseries. So on this visit in 2015… we finally had a chance to stop in and visit.
This summer had two trips up to Montreal, both associated with my annual Death March tradition (in which we find a city and hike across it, exploring the sights and eating the food). The drive from NH up to Montreal is always a bit amazing to me, since driving up I-89 it’s basically the rolling green mountains of Vermont, until you cross the border at Highgate Springs. I-89 becomes Provincial Highway 133, and the rolling green mountains of Vermont become…. Iowa. Well, at least a Quebecois version of it. The land becomes flat and open, with spacious farms lining farm fields. And, at least until the expansion of Provincial Highway 35 goes all the way to the border (expected sometime about a decade from now), it also means a transition from highway driving to fairly quiet country roads. Along the way, the route to Montreal meanders through several smaller farm towns, with a nice mix of English and French names (Saint-Sebastien, Saint-Armand, and Pike River). And most of these towns actually have some interesting little diner places, two of which have been on my hit list for a while. One of these is Restaurant Chez Pépé, right on the border between Pike River and Saint-Sebastien, which always has a healthy collection of cars outside (The other, Chez Ti Polo, over in Henryville, is no longer on the route since the Hwy 35 expansion, so I’ll have to catch it another time). So this time, we decided to stop and give them a try.
For our last full meal in Paris, we met up with my brother and sister-in-law one last time for an outing to l’Européen, an impressively large an busy brasserie located directly across the street from Gare de Lyon, one of Paris’ most busy train stations. It also has a reputation for good service, classic French bistro fare, and good seafood. Going inside, Brasserie l’Européen definitely has the brasserie look down pat: the place is filled with shiny fixtures, neatly-made tables with crisp, white tableclothes, and waitstaff darting about in equally crisp, white aprons, delivering food and wine bottles to tables. Also out front is a rather large and impressive seafood counter, with a member of the staff preparing various fruits de mer. We were promptly welcomed, and escorted to a nice corner table by the front window where we could enjoy some people watching as people were entering and leaving the train station across the street.
After a rather pleasant tour of the Palais Garnier (also known as the Paris Opera House), we were ready for some lunch. I always rather enjoy a good phở, and due to their colonial past in Southeast Asia Paris is blessed with more than a few phở joints. We ended up settling on Au Bon Pho tucked down a quiet little road in the 3e arrondissement. But before I get too far into the review, we should talk a bit about “Vietnamese” cuisine. If you are from the US, like I am, chances are your “Vietnamese” food is distinctly “Southern Vietnamese”, because the vast majority of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States came during and immediate after the Vietnam War (hence the preponderance of places named after Saigon, or named with a number, which is often the year the founder came to the US), but there’s actually a rather wide variety of styles of both Vietnamese food in general, and phở in particularly, especially if you also add in influences from nearby Cambodia and Laos. So when I travel outside the US, it’s often interesting to try out other “Vietnamese” places for phở, since often they are drawing from a wider set of culinary influences.
When we were staying in Paris, our hotel was in Le Quai Voltaire in the 6e arrondissement of Paris, a rather pleasant part of the city just across the river from the Louvre. It’s also got rather a large assortment of attraction for the food-minded traveler, such as a noticeably higher concentration of chocolate shops, boulangeries, and even a nice rum bar (La Rhumerie). For actual restuarants, however, most of the choices are basically bistros. But my brother was aware of one particularly good Moroccan place, so after enjoying a few Belgian beers at nearby La Gueze, we headed over to Le Mechoui du Prince for some Moroccan fare.
After an 11 hour flight, we arrived back in Paris. We took this as an opportunity to explore more of Paris, this time with my brother and sister-in-law joining us from London (I still think the Channel Tunnel is a rather cool invention). Despite the somewhat drizzly weather, we decided to do a walk around Montmartre, enjoying this fairly hilly part of the city, included a tour of Sacre Coeur (my first since Junior High) and looking over the city from the terrace. But it was also time for lunch, and we settled on a fairly nice café near the metro station, Café Le Saint-Jean, where I had another chance to indulge in one of my simple pleasures: a basic steak frites. Like uncountably many cafés around Paris, this one has the basic Parisien Café look pretty much nailed: tiny round tables, wooden chairs, black-and-while tile, and robed waiters dashing about with trays of food, coffee, wine, and beer. We quickly found ourselves seated by the window, and after a short perusal of the menu, I decided that their bavette avec frites was the way to go.
I’m doing an unusual one, I’m skipping the queue a bit since there’s a bit of a timeliness issue with this review (I’ll be returning to my Réunion reviews shortly). Last weekend, we managed to score a screamingly-good deal on hotel tickets to the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan through Jetsetter.com, so we decided to make a three-day weekend of checking out various eateries, museums (in particular, the new Whitney Museum and the Tenement Museum), and other sites that had been on our to-do lists for a while, while enjoying a nice hotel (and it’s associated cocktail bar, which we also rather like). Interestingly, however, in the two weeks leading up to our visit, several different sources all pointed me to an interesting new place opening to a bit of buzz in Astoria: Burnside Biscuits. These ranged from a NY Times article, something got posted to my twitter feed, and two NY-area contacts mentioned it to me on Facebook, and the various online reviews were very positive. So we decided to check it out. What I hadn’t realized is that Burnside Biscuits hadn’t even had their grand opening yet. I was a bit surprised how quiet Burnside was for a dinner on Friday, and our server said, “Oh, that’s because we are still doing our soft open.” Well, whatever various social media work they’ve been doing is working, since I certainly got the word, and I’m not that high up on the New York City food blog food chain. And it got us a nice little, quieter-than-normal intro to a place.
The next morning was, unfortunately, our very last morning on the island of Réunion. After a splendid breakfast at La Matilona, it was time for us to pack up for one last time and head back to St-Denis and the airport. But since our flight didn’t leave until 4pm, this did give us some time to check out Saint-Benoit (which had a wonderful farmers market), and do a bit of driving, this time going back to Belouve, where we had hiked over a week earlier. While it was somewhat bizarre to just simply drive to someplace that had been one heck of a grueling hike, we did get some awesome views. And then it was time to head back. Passing through La Plaine-Des-Palmistes one last time, we noted that since it was Sunday, the various vendors of “poulet bitume” were still out in force, and one place in particular, Chez Will Grillados, jumped out at us, so we felt compelled to stop off and have one more meal on Réunion.
I may have mentioned previously that the people of Reunion love their “pique niques” and driving around, so on weekends, particularly on Sunday mornings, the tradition is to drive around, get some food, and take it to your picnic spot. One of the preferred foods for picnicking is grilled chicken, which even has a unique name for the island: “poulet bitume” (literally, “asphalt chicken” or “roadway chicken”). On a weekend with good weather, the result is an almost uncountable number of places setting up a grill and selling fresh-grilled chicken at the side of the road. It’s not just restaurants, either, but houses, shacks, stores, and the like all set up with their grill selling fresh-grilled chicken and assorted sides. It’s quite the sight, and one that we had missed on our first weekend on the island (since we were far from the nearest road, up at the Gîte de la Caverne Dufour). But on our second weekend on the island, as we were driving along the southern coast by Saint-Philippe, we came across the beautifully-situated La Mer Casée right around lunch time, and decided to check it out for our grilled chicken.