Archive for May, 2007

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Esca

May 31, 2007

Esca

402 W 43rd St
New York, NY 10036, USA

(212) 564-7272

 

This review took a bit of time to write if for no other reason that I was reflecting about the place of Montréal restaurants on the North American map and some of the comments the Maitre D’ said while at Esca.

 

We arrived for our lunch at the restaurant a bit in advance and waited a bit for our other companions to join us, the latter would prove fruitless as they didn’t show up. Soon after we were greeted in the almost empty restaurant and invited to leave our touristy things at the coat check (I know it sounds weird to mention that but you’ll understand later on.)

 

The Maitre D’ was beyond nice, having recognized our accents and my name on the reservation, he started conversing about all things Montréal. I guess he wasn’t that busy at the beginning of the shift and was genuinely loving our lovely city and was singing its praises, and no it didn’t look fake. Speaking of dining in Montréal, he was saying that Toqué! and La Chronique were as good as anything you’d find in New York. I was a bit skeptic and said, I am sure the -really- high end restaurants like Jean-Georges, Daniel or Per Se had to be of a higher quality. He insisted and said that he worked both under Mr Vongerichten and Mr Boulud and the two Montréal establishments ranked high up there according to him.

 

I have never been to Daniel or Jean-Georges, nor have I been to La Chronique (I am going there next week actually.) Although our friend might have been hyperbolic a bit, it somewhat justifies my earliest beef about Restaurant Magazine’s top 100.

 

After perusing the menu, I selected the crudo as appetizer and shad’s roe as main course, my companions going for a fish soup and grilled mahi-mahi and roasted chicken. The wine was bit more of a problem, after asking our server to recommend a quarter bottle, he presented me and my drinking partner with a couple of glasses of two wines to taste and choose. This nice touch made it easier to choose a wine that would fit both of our meals. What’s more the tasting serving wasn’t small so it permitted both of us to taste and give a proper acknowledgment.

 

We were presented with a cooked tuna salad on bruscetta as amuse-bouche, and it was an adequate freebie. After the passage of an awesome bread basket, the crudo came up. Three raw fishes, I really can’t remember what was what, I know there was red snapper in there, with different dressing, one with volcanic salt and olive oil, one with lemon juice volcanic salt and olive oil and the last with a bean paste, the salt and oil. The presentation, in a single, three bowled, plate, resting on crushed ice, the whole thing looked awesome. The fish was -very- fresh and all three were very subtle in flavour so the whole dish wasn’t overwhelming but very solid. My companion with the supa was a little more punch as he said it was the best fish soup he ever tasted, and the man knows his fish, he is Greek after all.

Crudo

As the restaurant got busier and busier, the service kept being deadly efficient, not stuffy and of continuing excellence. Soon, the main courses came up and I was greeted by something I had never eaten: Shad roe. I very often try new things in restaurants and this time I had no idea what to expect or how shad roe is cooked, or not. Well the plate arrived and was greeted with a fried lump of “something” and a few wilted vegetables. Upon researching the dish I realized that this was a fairly standard way of presenting it, and I believe it was very well done. The taste was subtle and the seasoning was perfect. It reminded me of an animal’s nasty bits, without the hard aftertaste, that I love, that something like liver gives you. I loved my shad roe but I think I would appreciate it more the next time.

Afer finishing my meal, I realized that I didn’t have a ticket for the coat check, as one of my companion had. Slowly walking to the counter the lady behind the desk smiled and picked up my things and gave them to me. This is a good example of the nice little touches and the incredible service we got at Esca, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the restaurant. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the cooking, it was solid but not incredible. None the less, I had one of my best experience in a restaurant. I would recommend Esca is about half a second. 

 

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Lobster Story

May 16, 2007

This will be an unusual post for this blog. This is a story about lobster. This is a story of family, good times spent together, breaking myths and quite a bit of gluttony. This is dedicated to my mother.

Back in the early stages of my parent’s marriage they went to a popular trip, back then, for Québec people to do the “tour de la Gaspésie”. Gaspésie is the most eastern peninsula of Québec’s south shore of the St-Lawrence river. At the very start of the region, they stopped in what looked like burger shack in Ste-Flavie. Ordering lobster, they would change their, and all of our lives forever. Sitting on a picnic table, the lobster was served, directly out of a meatlocker, unprepared with a bottle of mayonnaise with a drink of Coca-Cola.

The lobster was plainly the best they’ve ever eaten. As they worked messily through their lobster it became quite clear that the mayo, cold lobster and Coke is something only deities can dream of. Alright, this sounds like a lobster roll type of thing but it isn’t, it is more than that. For the foreseeable future, this shack by the side of the road would be a destination of choice, every spring. My parents would pack up the kids, travel close to 4 hours to eat lobster and then come back.

I remember being very young and going there and eat a hot dog because Lobsters looked icky. I remember,a few years later, enjoying my lobster like it was chocolate cake, having finally seen the light, and making fun of my younger brother and his ketchup-filled hot dog. I remember coming back from there, laying in the hatchback of the car belly filled the precious meat and going to sleep.

Unfortunately, at one point my father decided that it was a bit insane to travel 8 hours to eat lobster. A few unsuccessful tries of more accessible lobster had us longing for the ride. Then, one spring, while we were at my grandmother’s place came the epiphany: the lobster longed for. The lobster from a fishmonger close by. The two wonderful ladies running the place knew lobster and they cooked it just the way we wanted. From then on started a tradition that still is in place today.

My mother’s birthday is always around the Mother’s day weekend. It just so happens that Mother’s day weekend is also the second week of Lobster of les Iles de la Madelaine, a small archipelago in the gulf of the St-Lawrence river, a place particularly known for its lobster (think like Maine is to Americans.) So from then on, the person closest to that fishmonger would pick up an amazing pile of lobsters and get to my parent’s place and we would celebrate my mother’s birthday by gorging ourselves with lobster. Only lobster.

One thing that is also particular in this process is that most people will say that the best way retain the full flavour of the lobster is to cook it in only sea water. The fishmonger we buy it at, do cook it with sea water but with the important addition of a court-bouillon. This gives a subtle taste to the lobster than makes all the difference.

As I explained earlier, we eat lobster with mayonnaise and coke. To this day, nothing has changed because even though I have eaten lobster in many other ways, this is simply the best way, the closest to the product and the tastiest. We don’t eat it with fancy home made mayo either, I tried it once and it wasn’t the same, we use Hellman’s.

We don’t prepare it in anyway before it is at the table. We take it from the iced cooler and dump in an empty plate. That’s it. You take care of going through the messy process of getting the meat out of there. Juices fly. Fat flies. Everybody has a smile on his face. We all have our own process to eat it too. My father open it all up and takes out all of the meat then goes to work. I start by sucking the legs, then move to the smaller claw and arm, then the bigger claw, then tail and finally sucking on the little flaps at the end of the tail. Once I am finished I give my carcass to my father so that he can eat the insides, because I am not that fond of it. Taking a nice piece of meat, dipping into the mayo, and right at the second the lobster disappears in your throat, taking a nice sips of coke, that bubbles in your mouth… it is ecstasy.

There is a notion that is perpetuated by restaurateurs, fishmongers and even fishermen that 1 ½ pound Iles de la Madeleine and Gaspésie lobsters are the best. I call bullshit. The best lobsters, to me are the 2+ pounds. Because of that, we eat 2+ pounds lobsters, usually two of them. At the end of the meal, we are usually way beyond the point of being satiated.

More than anything, this is a way to be together and celebrate the most important woman in my life. Enjoy a messy meal, like children, with the people I love. The only thing missing for the past few years was my brother, away in the Hong Kong he chose to make his life in, hoping that he will return to share this once again in the future.

Merci Maman pour être là

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Broiled Quails and Mushroom Risotto

May 5, 2007

 

Risotto is one of those dishes that either blows you mind or leaves you cold. When well done it is pure joy: incredible soft texture, and more flavour than any other rice dish I know with so small an ingredient list. Even though rice is usually a side dish, here I think it steals the show, not that the quail was any bad, it was quite good actually, but the risotto just shines. Also, this risotto recipe gives a low cost and easy alternative to use stock to wet the rice. Without further ado:

Risotto:

  • 3 cups of hot water
  • ¼ cup of dried portobello
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 ½ cup of arborio rice
  • ¼ cup of shredded parmigiano reggiano

In a bowl, pour the hot water over the dried portobello (other dried mushrooms work fine too) to re-hydrated them. Let the mushrooms steep for anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes. Take out the mushrooms out of the water and reserve. Add the salt to the water. In a medium saucepan over high heat, melt the butter and once it is bubbling add the rice. Let the rice cook in the butter until it is starts to brown, then ladle a nice portion of the mushroom juice. Stir continuously, preferably with a wooden spoon, until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, then add another ladle of mushroom juice. Repeat ladling the juice until the rice appears cook, test the rice from time to time. The rice should not fall apart completely, it should still retain a tiny bite to it. Once it has reached proper texture, remove from heat and add fold in the parmigiano.

The quail was mostly stolen from an Epicurious recipe. The original recipe was asking for a butter sauce I really didn’t feel like, so here is what I did:

Quails:

  • 6 partly deboned quails
  • 8 allspice
  • 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper
  • 12 peppercorns
  • 4 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt

Garnish:

  • Wedges of lemon

In a mortar I put the allspice, peppercorns, salt and cayenne and pounded until a coarse powder, add the thyme leaves. After removing the backbone and thoracic cage of the quails I rubbed them with the spice mixture and reserved in the fridge for half an hour. Once you have finished that risotto, place one of the grill of you oven in the upper parts, where the quail will be approximately 2-3” of the element, start your oven on broil and let it heat up for at least 5 minutes. On a grill, place the quails upside down and place in the oven. Cook for 4-8 minutes depending on your oven, when the quail starts to char in a few place, turn over the quail and return to the broil for same amount of time.

Serve on the risotto and squeeze a wedge of lemon on the quail.

 Tunes: Cerberus Shoal are one of the leading improv rock-ensemble I know. They go to so many avenues to create their music that from one album to the other everything is entirely different. Not only does that keep things interesting whenever you buy an album it also lead to massive consumption of their important discography, much to my wallet’s desperation. I recommend Chaiming the Knoblessone because it works so well with this dish, melodic and challenging much like the spice of the quail and the buttery goodness the risotto marry.