As winter continues the bear down, restaurants serving homey comfort foods have an even stronger appeal than usual. Montreal Plaza is a genre-defying small plate eatery that takes traditional dishes and flips, deconstructs and in some cases, blows them up entirely.
Don’t be fooled by the amateurish photograph. It was dark. A discerning eye will be able to see through the pixelation and easily surmise that these pork chops are haute cuisine. Not shocking since they were from Montreal’s Joe Beef, currently ranked as the #4 restaurant in Canada (but #1 in my heart).
At Joe Beef more is more. This place is not for the faint of heart. But is it all too much? Au contraire mon frère. The intensity of the experience of an expertly seared piece of meat should not be dismissed out of hand. Biting into the crusty exterior led to the pale-pink tinged and tender interior which imparted a rich, meaty flavour. These pork chops were seductive. It is not mere hyperbole to say that they left me mesmerized. And they were most definitely the best thing I ate this month (and maybe ever).
Montreal is a world-class food city. It combines diverse neighbourhoods, access to some of the greatest food markets in North America and, creative chefs deeply rooted in their own culinary heritage. The result is one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the world.
The highlight of my trip to Montreal, this year, was an eye-opening study in contrast; two worlds colliding. A symphony of athletic prowess juxtaposed next to an opus to excess. The pursuit of glory and the pursuit of gluttony. Pure discipline vs. pure gourmandize.
Let’s begin with the good. Playing professional tennis requires hours of devotion and years of sacrifice. I marveled at the players’ talent and physicality. Seeing them up close is a wonder. In what was very lucky break for me, I got to see, meet and shake the hand of my favourite player, Filip Peliwo. I caught him after a lengthy practice and he couldn’t have been kinder or more polite. This man is a terrific player with fiery determination, cocky swagger and a never-say-die-go-after-every-shot resoluteness. His play can be electrifying and goose-bump inducing. He’s still trying to find his way on the tour and, I believe that he will one day be amongst the world’s best. Did I tell you that I got to shake his hand? 🙂
Of course, Filip fanboying aside, I got to be in the presence of many top players. I stood about a foot away from eventual champ, Andy Murray, watched Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov dutifully practice, and I witnessed the return of the bespectacled one, Janko Tipsarevic.
This year’s Open had some pretty decent concession fare, as well. A chicken sandwich that included an honest to goodness chicken breast, and a combo platter made up of a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette was served alongside a tomato salad and chocolate cake. It was very civilized given the occasion and milieu.
“Here, try this,” was a familiar refrain heard during my visit to Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market. Vendors smiled widely and extended their arms to offer taste-tests of plump Peruvian figs, crisp Lobo apples, hunks of decadent Gruyère cheese, slices of juicy oranges and the promise of “The best tasting mangoes in the world.” They tasted as promised.
The market was opened to the public in 1933 and is the largest open-air market in North America. During the peak summer period, between May and October, its open-air stalls are occupied by about 300 vendors, mostly farmers from Montreal’s countryside. The market is open year-round and walls are placed around the central section of the market to keep Montreal’s brutally cold winters at bay.
My vist to the Rogers Cup in Montreal capped a “day of firsts” for me. It was the first time that I got to lay eyes on future hall-of-famer Serena Williams in person. She was in full-focused training mode, practicing for her next match-up. “Intense” would be the word I would choose to best describe my first encounter with one of my most beloved players.
It was the first time that I actually enjoyed concession food at a tennis tournament. The “Turkey Bretzel” managed to almost live up to its otherworldly $11 price tag . A cross between a baguette and a pretzel, this conveniently portable sandwich was stuffed with deli turkey meat, tomato, lettuce, cheese and mayo. Although made for the masses, the Bretzel managed to satisfy my hunger and delight my taste buds. Thumbs up!
As luck would have it, It was my first time to bask in the presence of two of the world’s best women’s doubles players, and my personal favs, Kveta Pechske and Katarina Srebotnik. I sat there staring adoringly for close to an hour watching them practice and punch out laser-like volleys and talk strategy. After they wrapped up, they even took the time to snap a pic with yours truly. I found them to be kind, funny and very cool.
After a day of watching the world’s best tennis players, what better way to reflect on the day’s action than to chow down on a big ol’ Montreal smoked meat. I made my first trip to the MTL landmark, Schwartz’s Deli. Also known as the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, the deli was established in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania. According to its website, the unique flavour of their smoked meat is attributable to their mandatory 10 day meat curing time, the high turnover of their meat, and their brick smoke-house which just happens to be covered with over 80 years worth of buildup. Hmm.
Our wait in line was negligible. We were stuffed into a 6-seater table next to a couple and their two children. We couldn’t help but overhear the dad regale his kids about his childhood memories of Schwartz. A parade of fatty smoked meat, sour pickles, fries and frankfurters made their way to their side of the table before being quickly gobbled up.
We had Schwartz’s signature dish, a smoked meat sandwich served on rye bread with yellow mustard. The meat is served by the fat content: lean, medium, medium-fat or fat. The sandwich was indulgent and delicious. Tender and smoky meat piled high on soft rye bread with just enough tangy yellow mustard. Schwartz is now firmly entrenched as a Cool Food Dude favourite and has “repeat visit” written all over it.
With a full belly and an iPhone full of snaps of the tennis elite, the “day of first” was concluded. Thank you Rogers Cup for delivering another first-class enjoyable event full of action-packed matches and happy, fan-friendly tennis players. And thank you Schwartz Deli for serving mouth-watering and crowd pleasing deli staples. I’ll be seeing you very soon!
Disclaimer. I attend the Rogers Cup to bask in the presence of the world’s most elite tennis players. I gawk, observe, touch, run after, pose with and marvel at. It’s an exhilarating and sometimes exhausting endeavour that requires regular fuel ups throughout the day. Although I am thankful for the rationed IÖGO yogurt and Lindor chocolate samples, they are certainly not sufficient enough to sustain me for a day of chasing after Rafa and Nole.
I am usually quite ambivalent of sport arena grub. I’m there for the event. I don’t expect stadium food to be a first-class gastronomical wonder. But in a culinary mecca such as Montreal, I yearned for something a little more palate pleasing. This longing set me up for a big letdown.
For lunch, I ingested a hapless sandwich named “The Baguettini.” It was sad, painful and even insulting to eat. The hard, dry exterior managed to sheer off the skin on the roof of my mouth. The sandwich’s interior contained a tasteless collection of flavourless turkey, soggy lettuce and some kind of spread. This rather unpleasant experience cost a whopping $11.50.
After having scored a pic alongside Milos Roanic and snapped some shots of Nadal and Djokovic, some substenance was required. After my last experience, I was wary to venture into anything too adventurous, so poutine was my next selection. The iconic dish is a Quebec native. Perfection was not expected but I didn’t anticipate the sloppy, deplorable, unappetizing mush that I was subjected to. Disappointing.
Was I just bad at making the right choices?
Seems not. I was saved by a food on a stick in the form of a mango flower. Imagine a whole mango, peeled and carved into a blossom. Wacky novelty? Yes. Delicious and beautiful? For sure. Manly? Not so much. But a relative bargain for under $5.
So what’s the lesson here? The Rogers Cup is Disneyland for adults. A rip-roaring fun place to marvel at the brilliance of professional tennis. Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Roanic and Simon are a wonder to behold. But the food? Well, let me set myself a reminder for next year. Pack a lunch. It will save me from the unsavoury alternatives of the concession stand.
|Stan Wawrinka (with little man on his shoulder)|
The Rogers Cup is tennis nirvana. It’s where I go to be amongst my people. Around these parts, most folks are not tennis aficionados. The conversation never gets beyond Federer or Nadal. I can’t rhapsodize on the virtuosity of Katarina Srebotnik or Kveta Peschke without seeing eyes glaze over. It’s saddening. But at the Rogers Cup, I’m surrounded by tennis fans that are enlightened, passionate and just plain nuts. Walk over to any practice court, point at even the most obscure player and say “who’s that?” and not only will you learn the player’s name, you’ll get a personal and professional bio, an anecdote on the player’s likes and dislikes, which hotel they stay at and sometimes, the fan might even pull out a scrapbook filled with photos of past tournaments. It’s bonkers and sooo incredibly fun.
I couldn’t help but enjoy myself standing a few feet away from some of the best tennis players in the world. Check out a few pics I took.
|Parc Jarry Fountain|
After hours of stalking players, my buddy and I decided to call it a day and get some supper. But where? The great city of Montreal is a culinary Mecca with no shortages of fine eateries. My friend chatted up one of the tennis fanatics and she recommended Ristorante Pomodoro, a favourite haunt of tennis fans. It was located on St-Laurent Boulevard in nearby Little Italy, about a 10-minute walk from the tennis stadium. It did not disappoint and I highly recommend it. Good service, fantastic food and a seat on the terrasse made for an outstanding end to our day.
On the drive home, I felt a twinge of sorrow and couldn’t help but replay the day in my head. Goodbye crazy tennis fans, fellow stalkers and overzealous Felicano Lopez devotee. Buhbye Rogers Cup Official who writes the names of the players on the white boards while we peer over her shoulder. See ya later nice policeman who helped us find a parking spot. Sayanora Marion Bartoli and your disturbing training methods. Au revoir Anna Ivanovic. I can watch you train all day. Sigh. Fare thee well Aleksandra Wozniak and thanks for the pic. Peace out Lidnt chocolate lady, “merci beaucoup” for the free samples. And so long grumpy stadium usher guy, telling us to sit in our proper seats. I will miss you all (well maybe not the usher dude.) Until we meet again next year.
|Ravioli alla Gigi/Ravioli sauce rosée, pancetta and champignons|