Montréal – La Belle Ville

Two of my very good friends, Ramona and Joey, live in Montréal, Canada.  I recently paid them a visit and discovered what makes Montréal such an attractive place to both visitors and locals alike.  Though I had visited this city a few times in the past, it was never long enough to explore or taste the wonderful things it had to offer.  This time, however, I took some time to navigate my way through its streets, markets, and restaurants, meeting quite a few people along the way.  Even though Montréal is a city of many ethnicities and cultures, it felt overwhelmingly like a slice of old Europe and young America in one place.  This time, I was definitely looking at this beautifully colorful city through hungry eyes.

If I am ever asked of what Montréal is like, I would definitely say that it is an amazing city, where old streets and architecture meet modern buildings and highways.  It is a very lively city filled with a mélange of cultures, cuisines, and architecture.  You can find little Italy side by side with little Delhi, which used to be Greek town.  I visited little Lebanon, which to my delight, boasted of great restaurants and pâtisseries that served authentically traditional Lebanese fare.  I can honestly say that I found some of the best Lebanese food outside of Lebanon and some of the best Italian food that I have had.  So many people from all walks of life call Montréal home.  This is one of many reasons that the cuisine in Montréal is amazing!

One of my favorite pastry shops in Montréal, Pasticceria Alati-Caserta, a cozy and warm Italian bakery filled with fabulous Italian desserts made freshly every early morning.  This is Joey and Ramona’s favorite Italian pâtisserie.  Early one morning, Joey took me to Alati-Caserta to sample the wonderful freshly made Italian pastries they had to offer.  We were greeted very warmly by one of the beautiful ladies who covers the front of the house, as the intoxicating smell of baking flour and butter filled the shop.  I was very impressed with the beautifully decorated pastries.  They kindly offered me many samples that included some delicious amaretti cookies; I gladly tasted them.  All I have to say is the experience was deliciously wonderful!  I am generally not easily impressed with any cannolo, but their cannoli were AMAZING!  I loved the crunch of the perfectly fried and crispy cannolo, generously filled with the smoothest ricotta cream with a hint of vanilla or rich chocolate.  Their lobster tails were equally as delicious; layers of croissant dough, either stuffed with the same ricotta cream that filled their cannoli or stuffed with fluffy and airy chantilly cream.  The choice was up to me … ricotta cream it was.  The beautifully decorated cakes, the sweet and heavenly concoctions, I knew then why this pastry shop was always bustling with so many people.

Later that day, I was introduced to one of Montéal’s greatest treasures, and my favorite place to be in that enchanting city, Le Marché Jean Talon.  No description from me could adequately explain the perfect farmers market experience that I had that day, but I will attempt it, however impossible.  Walking through the marché with Ramona was an experience I will never forget.  The freshly picked strawberries and blueberries, the ripe vine and heirloom tomatoes, the intensely purple eggplant, the many types of chilis and haricot verts, the beautifully vibrant French breakfast radishes, the table full of many kinds of wild harvested mushrooms, the crates of exotic squash, all varieties of crunchy and firm apples … I was in heaven, MY heaven.  I could not express the level of awe I felt.  For the first time in a long time, I was completely overtaken by the beauty, the scents, and the flavors around me!  We decided to bring some of that amazing and farm fresh bounty home with us.  But first, we needed something else to go with our fresh produce.  Our quest continued.  

Another part of the marché was populated with small specialty shops and cafés.  There was a band playing right in front of the seated patrons, as they sipped their wine and coffee.  Close by was a cheese shop beckoning me to enter through its humble doors to sample its rich offerings.  Ramona led me to it, Fromagerie Hamel, an amazing cheese shop full of all kinds of cheeses: goat’s milk cheeses, cow’s milk cheeses, sheep’s milk cheeses, mixed milk cheeses, soft cheeses, semi-soft cheese, hard cheeses, blue cheeses, pasteurized cheeses, raw cheeses, and the list continues.  We sampled a few cheeses being offered by some very kind cheese experts, and elected to purchase some to go with our bountiful fresh produce basket.  We decided on three different cheeses, the Papillon Noir Roquefort from France, the Nocciolo from the Piedmont region of Italy, and the Somerdale Aged Champagne Cheddar from the UK.

Back at my friends’ place, we washed and plated the vegetables and fruit we got from the marché.  We also made a beautiful cheese plate.  The lusciously delicious farm fresh produce awakened all our senses, coupled with the exquisite flavors of the cheeses. The Roquefort was pungent, rich, and memorable; the Nocciolo was very delicate, creamy, and so well balanced; the champagne Cheddar was a softer hard cheese with notes of sweetness coupled with sharpness, yielding quite a mild and harmonious cheddar flavor.  Our simple, yet very flavorful meal was exactly what we wanted.

One place Ramona and Joey made sure to take me, before I left their beautiful city was Pâtisserie Amal Bohsali, a Lebanese pastry shop.  When I first walked in, all my childhood memories of going to pastry shops in Lebanon with my parents came back to me.  The same sweet scents and the same delicious flavors punctuated by orange blossom water with a little rose water and pistachios that made these desserts distinctly Lebanese, flooded my memory with nostalgic euphoria.  I wished my parents and husband were with me.  I knew my parents would be so happy to see the beautifully made concoctions of their homeland proudly displayed.  I knew my husband would have loved trying these flavors he had come to love, since we first met.  The kind owners saw my enthusiasm and offered me many samples, which led me to purchase many boxes of Baklava, Ghraybeh, Shaaybiyat, Maamoul, and Mshabbak.  Aside from what I purchased, they also had Atayef, Cheese Knafeh, Lebanese Nights, Sfouf, Nammoura, Halawet el Jibn, Aysh el Saraya, znoud el Sit, Awwamat, Maakaroun, and much more.  Of course, I took many pictures and forwarded them to my parents.  Needless to say, they were very impressed and excited.  Since my dad visits Montréal once or twice a year for his speaking engagements, he decided that he must bring my mom with him to enjoy these Lebanese delights.

Days later, as I sat at the airport in Montréal awaiting my Dallas bound plane, I reflected on my entire trip (most of which I did not document in this article).  I would easily miss this beautiful and seductive city; I would definitely miss my wonderful friends; and I would truly miss the amazing food and culture that Montréal has to offer its blessed locals and lucky visitors.

 


Alaska Northern Outfitters – Seward, AK

This summer, my family and I went to Anchorage, Alaska, to visit my husband Kevin’s family.  My father-in-law served in the Air Force for many years and was later stationed in Anchorage, where he raised his family.  So, even though Kevin was not born in Alaska, he considered it home.  During our stay in the Last Frontier, we went on a fishing charter out of Seward, Alaska Northern Outfitters.

It was a very early July morning in Anchorage, as we gathered to take the two to three hour trip to Seward for my very first fishing charter.  My brother-in-law kindly organized this charter trip for the family a couple of weeks before our arrival.  By 6:30am, we were on the boat heading out of Resurrection Bay and into the vast ocean, which took between one and a half to two hours.   Once we were out far enough into the ocean, Captain Sean dropped the anchor.  I will spare you any details of my unfortunate seasickness; apparently, I had yet to get my sea legs.  Overcast and cold, the Captain, very meticulously, taught everyone what to do, how to cast a line, and how to reel in a fish.  We were allowed four rockfish, only one of which could be a yellow-eye, and two halibut per person.  After we reached our quota, we were allowed to fish for salmon.  Being a natural fisherman, my husband reached the fishing quota for the day rather quickly, and he was able to reel in two silver salmon.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling well enough to fish for salmon.  I did, however, get the allowable four Rockfish and two halibut.  Not too shabby for a city girl … One may call it “beginner’s luck”, especially considering the way I was feeling.  I have to mention that the Captain came into the cabin, where I spent most of the trip, and checked on me a couple of times, which was rather kind.  He and his crew were also on deck with everyone assisting them with their catch.

After seven to eight hours of fishing, the Captain pulled the anchor, as we headed back to shore.  During the time it took to get back to land, Captain Sean and his very talented crew filleted every fish that was caught that day (over 80 fish), while we all looked on with bewildering amazement.  The deck was then cleaned of all the fish blood, guts, and carcasses.

Back on land, we were all given the choice of whether to have our fish frozen and packaged or taken as is and rinsed, packaged, and frozen at home.  We opted for the latter.  The family had already brought some coolers that were later filled with ice to keep the fish cold on the drive back to Anchorage.

I have to say that this charter trip was quite AMAZING! The Captain and crew were very knowledgeable and professional, the scenery was beautiful, the family was together, and the catch was worth it.  To have freshly caught fish from the ocean off the coast of Anchorage in my freezer in Dallas was well worth my seasickness.  Next time, however, I will bring a truckload of Dramamine with me.


New Orleans, The Big Easy

New Orleans, what can I say about this incredibly charming city?  It welcomes you with open arms, greets you at every street, and fills you with wonder and respect.  But at first glance, New Orleans is smelly, dirty, disorderly, and overrun with drunk people.  But if you allow yourself to get to know this city, its history, its present, and its people, you will fall in love with it … with them all.

HOW IT BEGAN …
My lovely friend Melissa and I traveled to New Orleans on a girls’ trip.  As I had not been there before, I was excited to explore this new place.  Melissa did not tell me much about New Orleans; she wanted me to make up my own mind.  And thus, it began.

The cab ride from the airport to the hotel was very pleasant.  Our cab driver was kind and friendly.  After we checked into the Renaissance New Orleans Arts Hotel, we decided to go out for a walk, to get to know the city, and to find a good restaurant for dinner, as it was almost that time of day.

As we began our journey, I was pleasantly surprised that people were walking around the streets holding their alcoholic drinks.  I guess things are different in New Orleans.  Soon, we came upon large gatherings of people, police, and road barriers.  It was evident that a parade was on the way, but what parade?  As we assembled with the rest of the gatherers, we were told that this was the Halloween parade.  It was so much fun!  Seeing all kinds of people participating in an event like this was awesome.  People from all walks of life, all ethnic backgrounds, were mingling and celebrating together, without any invisible, manmade borders.  This display of camaraderie was beautiful to see.  And though the city seemed overpopulated and unkempt, it was exciting and full of life.

GETTING TO KNOW NEW ORLEANS …

After the Halloween parade, we walked the streets, including the incredibly lively Bourbon street, and found this beautiful and very charming restaurant close by, Kingfish Kitchen & Cocktails, Diners’ Choice winner for 2015.  We began our dinner with cocktails, Pimm’s Cup to be exact.  It was made with fresh fruit and fresh fruit juice … needless to say, it was absolutely refreshing!  Melissa had the Rabbit Cordon Bleu with Collard Greens, and I had the BBQ Shrimp and Waffles, as I have never had waffles in a savory application before.  Melissa’s meal was amazing!  I never cared for collard greens; however, these greens were delicious.  They had the perfect acidic and smoke flavors.  Nothing about them was over powering.  The rabbit was stuffed with ham and cheese; it was breaded and fried to perfection.  It was not greasy at all.  It was accompanied with a creole mustard cream.  The slight acidity from the greens and the tartness from the mustard cut through the richness of the rabbit, yielding a harmonious bite, a perfect balance of flavors.  My shrimp was perfectly cooked.  Then again, I would not expect any less from any good New Orleans chef.  The flavors of the shrimp and the waffle with the toasted garlic, the poblano pepper jelly, and the Hopitoulas cream were authentically southwestern.  Bobby Flay would have been proud.  My only issue with this dish, however, was the waffle’s soggy texture; I would much rather have had a waffle with a crispy exterior, where I poured on the sauce or syrup immediately before consuming the dish.

The next morning, we decided to have brunch at the Salon by Sucré.  We first walked into this beautiful and elegant patisserie style shop and were greeted by a very professional and friendly staff.  The gorgeous pastries adorned each wall and counter.  Then we went up the large staircase, and in front of us was a small, but beautiful bar.  The restaurant upstairs had a Southern charm, yet a European influence.  It was beautiful!  I had the Charcuterie Sandwich with a side salad.  What can tell you about that sandwich?  It was the most delicious sandwich I had EVER had in my life, and I had many sandwiches all over the world.  Sucré’s was by far the best.  They start with a freshly baked French or Parisian baguette, they smear Pork Rilette on it, and top the sandwich with Salumi Gentilé, Lomo, and a generous portion of Grayson Cheese.  That combination with the mixed green salad, lightly tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette, was intoxicating!  I lost track of time and motion … I lost all awareness.  All I could think about was how incredibly delicious and all sensory consuming this sandwich was.

By now, it was raining.  It pretty much rained off and on the whole time we were in New Orleans; more on than off. We decided to walk off our brunch, regardless of the rain, by getting to know the city on foot.  Again, we went to Bourbon street and walked through the rest of that area, until we reached Jackson Square.  Obviously, like any self respecting visitor, I took many pictures.  After walking all that time, we decided to reward ourselves with the one and only Café du Monde beignets.  Even with the pouring rain, this café was so busy.  And Oh My!  The beignets were so delicious!   They were thick, but light, and fried (of course), but not greasy.  I know they were only fried dough topped with powdered sugar, but they were better than any fried dough with powdered sugar.  Melissa and I opted for the hot chocolate, instead of the chicory coffee.  It tasted like any packaged hot chocolate, nothing special.  But it was an experience, I will not soon forget.

Now, to walk off the beignets.  We went to the French Market, where many people were selling all kinds of things, hot sauces, nuts, art work, handmade bracelets and jewelry, Mardi Gras masks, and even jade from Pakistan.  We bought a few things for our loved ones back home after some lively negotiations, chatted with some vendors, and watched the rain come down all around us.  We continued our walk around the city, until we came upon Central Grocery Co., the home of the original muffuletta.  I would like to say one thing; initially, when Melissa planned our trip to New Orleans, I was excited about two things and two things only, the muffuletta and the beignets.  To my shock and dismay, I was slightly disappointed with the muffuletta from Central Grocery Co.  It was very oily, and it needed a little more vinegar to cut through the cheese and the deli meat.  Aside from that little change, the meat, cheese, and olive salad to bread ratio was perfect.  We continued our walk.  We passed many night clubs with lively Jazz music emanating from their speakers, in an attempt to draw in many patrons.  After a very long day of exploration and delicious eats, it was time for some rest and relaxation.  We still had quite a few restaurants we wanted to visit, but they will have to wait for the next day.

On the third day, Melissa and I, being huge fans of Vietnamese food, decided to have a late breakfast at Nine Roses Café.  We started with the Chicken Spring Rolls and the Chicken Steamed Bun Sliders, followed by a hot bowl of Beef Phò.  The chicken spring rolls were fresh and tasty, not the best, but close enough to be in the running.  However, the steamed bun sliders were AMAZING!  The flavors were perfectly balanced, as sweet and savory were in perfect harmony.  We moved onto the beef Phò.  The beef was tender and the broth was good. Again, not the best I have had, but pretty good on a rainy day. And yes, it was raining again. After our Vietnamese experience, we walked around the city on a quest to find District Donuts Sliders Brew.

After much walking, we took the trolley. It took us by Lafayette Square and other notably historic places. Our stop was near a cemetery, an above ground cemetery. Now, that was an experience for me. Generally, I do not like Halloween (sad, I know), cemeteries, scary movies, dirty places … but this was something altogether different. As we decided to check out this old cemetery, it felt like a completely different world, like we stepped into another dimension. And it was … old, beautiful, eerie, and forgotten. I felt an overwhelming loss that gave way to sadness, yet I was happy to see this part of New Orleans’ history.

A few streets down, was District Donuts Sliders Brew. I had a Vietnamese Coffee and a Hazelnut Donut. Both were good, but not amazing. Melissa had Lemonade, an Apple Cinnamon Donut, and a Chicken Slider (which she shared with me). She absolutely loved her donut; she said it was the best donut she had ever had! She tried the slider, and liked it, but she was not a fan of the coleslaw. I, on the other hand, LOVED the slider and the slaw. I have not had such an amazing chicken slider in a long time. It was made with fried, yet not greasy, chicken thigh, topped with a sweet and spicy slaw, candied jalapenos, and crispy chicken skin, all in between two slices of fluffy bun. It was absolutely delicious! As this was our midday snack, we decided to walk around that area, since we had not done so before.

Dinner time was approaching, and since my friend, Melissa is very good at finding delicious restaurants everywhere we travel, she suggested we go to Lilly’s Café. I know it’s another Vietnamese restaurant, but it had very high reviews. We ordered the Beef Phò. One spoonful, and we were both experiencing a tingling sensation, followed by loss of hearing and vision, but with intensified feelings toward that lusciously intoxicating nectar of the gods … We had found it! The best Phò we had in both our lives, here in the US!  The angels began to sing, and we fell into a trance.

As our trip was coming to an end, we strolled back toward our hotel stopping at the Carousel bar, the bar at Hotel Monteleone.  It was a beautiful bar.  There was a carousel in the middle of the room, and yes, it turned very slowly.  The carousel and the tables in the bar area were full of people enjoying all sorts of libations and finger foods.  We were told that Carousel had the best Pimm’s Cup in town, so we ordered it.  It was less fruity and more tart than the one we had before.  I have to admit that I liked Kingfish’s Pimm’s cup much more than Carousel’s, but we still had a lovely time chatting and people watching.  So, after our short relaxation, we headed back to the hotel, where we took a cab to the airport.  Again, our cab ride was very pleasant.  Our driver was a very kind and engaging.

As we sat on the plane awaiting its departure from this city back home to my city of Dallas, I couldn’t help but to reminisce about the last few days I spent in New Orleans … oh, how I’ve grown to love this city.  The food was delicious, the people were kind and welcoming, the streets were full of history, and the music was lively.  I decided then that this will not be my last trip to this charming and exceptionally unique city, but the first of many.