Wednesday, February 23, 2011


My husband and I spent the long weekend in Montreal, making the trip 1) our first vacation, by ourselves, not involving family, since we got married--which really makes it our honeymoon, and 2) his first trip out of the country. Yes, he lived in San Diego, not 30 miles from Mexico, for all those years and never made it across the border.

We had a great time. It was bitter cold (I don't think the temperatures ever made it into the double digits), but we expected that. And there was less snow on the ground there than there still is in my backyard. The highlight of the trip was, of course, our two dinners out. We did the touristy stuff, saw the museums, walked around the old part of the city, but it was too cold for more than the bare minimum of aimless wandering, and the meals really were awesome.

Things to Know About Montreal:

1. You don't need to know French. It helps, of course, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover my husband remembered enough high school French to be able to tell the waiter that I was probably going to order him the rabbit. Also all the signs are in French. But everyone also speaks English (though usually they'll start off in French, and keep going unless you ask them to switch), and a stop sign is a stop sign, even if it says "Arret" instead of "Stop."

2. The US dollar and the Canadian dollar are about the same. There may be two cents' difference.

3. It's really cold in winter. But they keep the streets crystal clear.

4. We stayed at the cutest B&B, Absolument Montreal. Our room came with a kitchenette (including mini-fridge stocked with free sodas and water), a vestibule, and a hot tub. (Which was outdoors, so I didn't use it. I wasn't about to brave zero-degree night temperatures, even for a hot tub.) Best of all, the room came with a full three-course breakfast, served to us in our room, personally, by the owner. Tea and coffee and fresh orange juice, with a cheese/charcuterie plate to start, followed by something hot--eggs benedict with smoked salmon on day 1, a croque monsieur on a croissant on day 2--followed by fresh fruit and yogurt and pastries. In our room. At whatever time we wanted. So that was pretty awesome.

5. The dining really is top notch.

Warning: during our two dinners, we ate things that may offend squeamish readers. If you're one of those, stop here.

Dinner 1: DNA

One of the Top 5 meals of my life. Definitely #1 with my husband.

This is exactly the kind of restaurant that I love. Hip, great vibe, relaxed, great wine list, amazing food. And none of those things suffers at the hands of any others. DNA has one of the best wine lists in Montreal, specializing in Canadian wine. For some reasons, Quebec hasn't yet caught on that Canada (particularly British Columbia) is making some world-class wines. Their wine lists and wine stores stock a great selection of French wines, but not much else. DNA is trying to change that, and I noticed that their wine list included one of the wines that I fell in love with in Vancouver during my road trip (see blog post about that wine here). Naturally I had to go there, and drink it.

Awesomeness, in order:
1. Decor. Red and orange with really interesting lighting. Sounds tacky, but they did it just right. And they had these great orange bowl sinks in the bathrooms.
2. Bottles of Canadian wine were half off before 7 pm. We got there long before our reservation at 8:30, to hang at the bar, and so I was able to get the bottle of wine I really wanted at a reasonable price--only a few dollars above retail. (See aforementioned blog post.)
3. They seated us early, because we were there.
4. The menu. We ordered:

Pig's ear. (really a pate)

Horse heart tartare.

Housemade charcuterie.

Cornmeal-encrusted rabbit, baked in a cast-iron pan.


Let's take a pause here to appreciate, and celebrate, the fact that we ate horse heart tartare. That is exactly what it sounds like: raw horse heart, chopped fine and served with herbs and things. You can't eat horse in the US for a variety of reasons (even though it's perfectly legal), primarily because for most people, the idea of eating horse is repugnant. Similar to eating dog, or cat. But horse is eaten widely in most other parts of the world--it's usually considered a delicacy, and in fact, much of the world's horsemeat comes from the US. Slaughtered here, and exported. It's much lighter and leaner than beef, softer, tastes sweeter, is a beautiful brilliant red color, and it's free of tuberculosis and tapeworms, thus safer than beef to eat raw.

And it was delicious.

(If you're offended by that, I'm sorry. Take comfort in the fact I won't be eating more horse any time soon.)

That, and the cornmeal-crusted rabbit, were the culinary highlights. The rabbit meat was very light and delicate, almost white--it was definitely farmed rabbit. I've eated wild rabbit before and it was far stringier and gamier. My piglet (really part of a piglet leg, slow-braised and served with parsnips and turnips) was moist and yummy, but paled in comparison.

Our second bottle of wine was nearly as enjoyable as the first: Road 13 Pinot Noir.

At the end of the meal, there were surprise fireworks.

Day 2: Au Pied du Cochon

When I planned the trip, I thought Au Pied du Cochon would be the best meal, and DNA merely a warm-up. In reality, it was almost opposite.

I say "almost" because our entree catapulted an otherwise unmemorable meal into the storytelling stratosphere.

Here is a picture of our entree:

That is an entire pig's head, roasted, with a lobster shoved through the top.

The entire pig's head. Ears, tongue, nose and all. To eat it, you have to cut into its face.

Here's another view:

Yes, we ate pig face.

It was served on a big wooden cutting board, with a steak knife impaled through the top of its head, anchoring it to the board. Half a lobster was then impaled on a wooden skewer, and also shoved through the top of its head. The lobster claw was arranged coming out of its mouth, along with an artfully arranged smear of mashed potatoes. The effect was as if a mutant lobster had attacked the pig through its brain and out its mouth, while the pig bled and vomited mashed potatoes.

Served with a bowl of pig head and lobster juice for dipping, of course.

We couldn't eat it for at least five minutes after it was presented. At least half the restaurant stopped eating and came over to us to take pictures.

Then it took us another five minutes to figure out how to eat it. (Remove the lobster parts; start with the cheeks. Leave the knife in.)

I have to admit I didn't eat much of it--I was too fascinated with the presentation. I played with it more than anything. It was delicious, and fatty, and tender, and crunchy-burnt on the outside, but I was preoccupied with the various technical challenges eating such a thing presented. (What happened to the brain? Did they take out the eyeballs, or did they bake away? Ooh, look, the jawbone comes right out! And there are teeth still attached to it! Is that the tongue? Gosh, the ears have a lot of cartilage. Do I eat that part? I wonder how you eat the nose? Should the nose be eaten? And so on.)

I got the world's largest doggie bag to take the copious leftovers home with me--I asked for everything, including the bones and lobster shells (so I could make stock, but also so I could completely deconstruct the dish at home).

Here's the carnage of leftovers:

Other things to know about Au Pied du Cochon:

It's crowded, small, and loud. Definitely not the laid-back, hip, fine dining atmosphere of DNA. We also had the duck charcuterie and a buckwheat-pancake-maple-syrup thing with a big hunk of foie gras on top. I have to say neither one of those dishes impressed me. Also the waiter assured me that the pig head for two was not an abnormal amount of food. That was SUCH a lie.

I would go back, but only if I got an earlier reservation, at an actual table instead of at the bar, and I would order more foie gras-laden dishes, and not listen to the waiter when I asked for recommendations.

Anthony Bourdain ate here.

The Other Place Worth Mentioning:

Dieu Du Ciel, which makes its own craft beers. All of the ones we tried were delicious.

And Marche Jean-Talon, the city's big farmer's market.

The Moral of the Story:

We'll be back. It was only a five-and-a-half-hour drive, meaning much of Eastern Canada is well within weekend road trip distance (everything from Toronto to Newfoundland). The dining in Montreal is world-class, and it's a very European kind of city. And I wasn't made to feel like a retard for not being able to speak French.

I also found one of my most favorite wines in the whole world, Laughing Stock, which is not exported to the US and can only be bought in Canada, so I'll have to go back to get more of it.

When presented with the opportunity to eat weird things, I will. Bless my husband for completely going along with that and eating everything that I did. (He liked all of it as much as I did.) I married a good one.

I really love good wine. And eating. I really love eating.

The end.

1 comment:

  1. Really glad you enjoyed Montréal! We live in Ottawa and visit Au Pied du Cochon for my birthday every year. If you do go back, do try: Cromesquis de foie gras, and
    Tarte de foie gras cru au sel, bison rib. Those are my 3 favourite things, the foie gras poutine is very good too, but extremely filling.