Toqué!, Montreal

Given that we happened to be in Montreal for our wedding anniversary, visiting Toqué! was something Dr W and I didn’t stop very long to think about. The restaurant twinkles with a positive galaxy of stars from a number of awarding bodies, and has a reputation as one of Canada’s very best, specialising in Quebecois market cuisine – and you’ve already seen here just what kind of magic goes on at Quebecois markets. Toqué! only uses ingredients from passionate local suppliers (foragers feature here as much as farmers do), and something in the local character, water and weather in Quebec makes for some extraordinary produce. This is a serious fine-dining restaurant, with a wine list to die for, utterly gorgeous arrangements on the plate, service that falls over itself to make sure you have everything you want, and a wonderfully romantic dining room. Great company, too: Dr W is my far and away my favourite dining companion.

If you’re planning on one of those special-occasion, intimate-conversation-type meals, I don’t think you could do a lot better than this lovely soft grey and mauve room, where you’re seated a good long way from neighbouring tables, ensuring privacy and quiet. The decor works with you here – gentle light comes from glass globes hung around the space, and the generous upholstery damps any noise from other diners, so your table sits in cocoon of quiet. Service excels too, attentive but not pushy, and my usual barrage of questions about cooking methods and sourcing met with grins and some excited conversation. I love it when the servers are as into the food as the people making it.

It being a special occasion, we started with a tasting of two sparkling wines each (a starry Saumur and some toasty Champagne) before launching into the menu proper. I’d expected a couple of fizzy drizzles in small glasses, given the word ‘tasting’, but we ended up with two full flutes each – much joyful aniversary clinking ensued. The wine list is a fascinating selection from all over the world, ranging from those wines open only to those with fantasy expense accounts, to delicious but affordable bottles from the sort of small producer we barely get to hear about in Europe, let alone taste. When I’m in North America I try to order the kinds of wine that don’t get exported to the UK – here was a 2005 Chardonnay Village Reserve from Niagara (Clos Jordanne, for those of you who can get your hands on it), and it was a great contrast to lighter, Californian Chardonnays, so heavily oaked it was like drinking a buttery syrup.

We decided against the tasting menu simply because some of what was on offer on the à la carte sounded too good to miss. Amuse bouches were a chilled shot glass of red pepper soup (again, have a look at the peppers produced in the area and weep for the plumpness and concentration of sunshine) topped off with a herb foam. El Bulli has a lot to answer for – these days foams, mostly insipid, pop up in all kinds of undistinguished places trying for the haute thing – but this was a densely flavoured, complicated and rich example, packed with herbs. We detected dill, chervil, mint, basil (at least – I’m sure there was plenty more going on in there) in this stuff, marrying gorgeously with the explosion of flavour in the soup.

Dr W’s heirloom tomato salad was achingly sweet, full of that Quebec sunshine again. It arrived with a quenelle of white maize ice-cream, gorgeously smooth and tasting like distilled summer, razor-thin slices of sourdough fried in olive oil, and baby coriander leaves. I’d asked for the squash soup with shavings of foie gras. These were not so much shavings as a gargantuan heap, mi-cuit, butter-soft, and perfectly seasoned. Under the foie were wilted sorrel leaves, adding acidity to the smooth gloss of the soup and foie; hidden right at the bottom was a buttery, truffly cache of hedgehog mushrooms.

You’ll notice that everything we ate was perfectly seasonal. In the hot, maple-orange Canadian autumn, these are all ingredients which are at their peak. (I’m told that in the spring, fiddlehead ferns appear at the table, and that these are so good you’ll never want to eat another vegetable again.)

Both of us had asked for suckling pig. Moist flesh with a crisp skin was surrounded by more seasonal ingredients – here were mousseron (fairy ring) mushrooms which seemed to have absorbed their own weight in butter; confit garlic; more of those sunshine-packed peppers (this time yellow and puréed); tiny, sugary champagne grapes; and something I didn’t recognise. Amazement. This is something that very seldom happens. The mystery objects were tiny, delicious buds, longer than capers and shaped like four-sided torpedoes, pickled in a sweet, spiced vinegar. I called over a waiter – what were these lovely things?

Day lily buds. Things I frequently have in a vase at home, but had not considered eating. Chef Normand Laprise matches them perfectly with the rich and fatty pork. This is a preserve I really have to try making myself some time.

Dr W went for cheeses rather than a dessert, each of which came with a different fruit preparation – a prune jelly on the Brie, pineapple membrillo on the Comte-ish Canadian cheese, strawberry leather on the Fourme d’Ambert and a piment d’Espelet in argan oil on the Gruyere-ish one. (My notes, as usual, become less helpful as the meal went on and I, like the lily buds, became more pickled – apologies for not being able to pin down the names of the two Canadian cheeses.) My poached pear came with a swirl of fruity, aromatic pistachio oil, which seemed to somehow insinuate its delicious self into every corner of your mouth. Pears, of course, are at their best at this time of year, and the accompanying foam and sorbet were so platonically pearsome that I found myself unusually speechless.

Meals this good – from food, to decor, to service, to sheer style – are not, of course, cheap. But we left agreeing that in ten years of dining out together (this meal marked the fact that we have now been married for precisely four of them), this was unquestionably one of the very best experiences we’d had. (“Top two or three, for sure,” said Dr W.) I’m unlikely to be able to return to Montreal for a few years now, but I look forward to our next visit – in a week there, we packed in a slew of the most enjoyable eating we’ve done in quite some time.

Floral mint tisane

This is my version of the gorgeous Staff Tisane from Alep and Petit Alep (the restaurants share a building at 199, rue Jean-Talon Est, Montreal (514) 270-6396). I’m eternally grateful to the very nice lady with the stylish glasses at Alep – the more formal of the two restaurants, which is only open in the evenings – who was able to find me a table for 11 people with only three hours’ notice on a Friday.

Alep and its little sister are Syrian-Armenian restaurants, and I challenge you to find better Middle Eastern food anywhere outside…you know, the Middle East. There are shish kebabs made with juicy, pink steak tenderloin. Muhammara (a walnut dip) running with pomegranate molasses. Tabbouleh which is gorgeously, correctly heavy on the parsley. We found some of the best prawns I’ve eaten this year; the food here is spicy, elegant and really, really tasty. Try the Menu Degustation at Alep in the evenings, which is extraordinarily good value at only $28 a head for far, far more than we could finish – dips, salads, spicy little beef sausages, seafood, lamb in a rose petal sauce, those glorious shish kebabs – you’ll leave stuffed and very happy. We went back to Le Petit Alep for lunch on the day we visited Jean Talon Market (they’re just around the corner) for lunch, and discovered that the spicy french fries, served with a bowl of mayonnaise, are the sort of thing you’d sell a grandparent into slavery for.

Alep’s drinks were fabulous. I got thoroughly sozzled on the home-made lemonade and vodka on the first night, then drank several of these tisanes the next day for lunch. I started trying to reproduce the tisane as soon as we got back to England, and I’m very pleased with this version. For every glass (or mug), you’ll need:

1 teaspoon orange flower water
1 teaspoon rose water
5 cardamom pods
3 leafy sprigs of mint
Slices of orange, lemon and lime to decorate

Bash the cardamom seeds lightly in a mortar and pestle to crack them slightly, and put them in a glass with the flower waters and the mint. Pour over freshly boiled water, leave to steep for five minutes and serve.

Jean-Talon market, Montreal

One of the things that makes food in this city so fabulous is the abundance of lovingly raised, local produce. I’m just back from Marché Jean-Talon (between Jean-Talon and De Castelnau metro stations). This is probably one of those occasions where pictures speak louder than words.

Yes, that’s me. I look even more cheerful than that now, because I’m gorging myself on strawberries from the first picture.

Au Pied de Cochon, Montreal

The French (and, doubtless, the French Canadians) have a term for the thing that happens to your body after a meal like this – it’s a crise de foie, or a liver crisis. My own liver is palpitating and throbbing, has likely become hardened and greenish in parts and feels as if it’s doing its job about as competently as Gordon Brown, but this is a small price to pay for a sublime meal. Even if it’s a sublime meal that makes you have to go and lie very still in a darkened room afterwards.

Au Pied de Cochon (536 Duluth Est, Montreal, 514-281-1114) is run by foie gras and fat genius Martin Picard. It’s a Montreal institution, always heaving with diners (who are, strangely, quite thin for the most part) – you’ll have to book, and book well in advance. This is a menu where you’ll find foie gras in almost every dish; where offal and fat are treated with something between respect and worship.

We opened with the home-brewed beer and starters which we thought we had cunningly selected to avoid too much richness before the main course. After all – salads and soups are the thinking person’s way to ensure there’s room left for pudding, aren’t they?

Not here.

Dr W’s French Onion Soup was based around a darkly glossy, rich and meaty stock, and came in a bowl large enough to drown a small family in, topped with a battleship-sinking amount of cheese. It was also extremely good, so he drank it all with little thought for saving room for what came next. My own Crispy Pied de Cochon Salad (see the picture at the top of the page) was only a salad in the very loosest sense – fatsome, hot nuggets of pork nestled with walnuts in a salad full of fried onions, roast tomatoes and steaming meat juices, any green leaves wilting gorgeously against the warm ingredients. On top was balanced a deep-fried, breaded square about half the size of a fat paperback book, sprinkled with some fleur du sel. Poked with a fork, it leaked an intensely porky, gelatinous mash of pork hock, made liquid by the heat of the frying. Something in that pork went straight to the self-control centres of my brain and prevented me from stopping eating before the plate was nearly clean.

Starters over, we looked at each other in panic. There was clearly no way in hell we were going to be able to manage our main courses.

Something untranslatable called a Plogue à Champlain arrived for Dr W. It’s a pancake. And a thick slice of home-cured bacon. And some crispy potatoes. And a layer of melted cheddar cheese. And a lobe of foie gras. And a ladleful of a rich, sweet duck and maple syrup sauce.

I realise that this sounds like a total abomination. God knows how Picard came up with it – and it doesn’t make the slightest sense on paper – cheddar and foie gras? Nonsense. But once this stuff is in your mouth, you’ll see exactly why this man is a fruitcakey, cheese-sodden genius. Utterly amazing, completely delicious and approximately 240% bad for you. Between moans of pain from a rapidly distending stomach and imprecations to various deities, Dr W cleaned his plate.

I’d ordered the Duck in a Can. A plate arrived, bearing a large slice of toasted sourdough bread covered with a thick layer of celeriac purée. Next, a waiter with a large, hot can and a tin opener came to the table, unzipped the top of the can and poured the contents over the slice of sourdough with a fabulously meaty schloomping noise. A fat magret de canard, yet more foie gras, some whole garlic cloves and unctuously buttered cabbage, dotted with bits of preserved pork sausage, slipped out in a balsamic glaze – the meat and vegetables aren’t preserved in the can, merely cooked in there in a sort of weird sous vide style. (Something of a shame, in that this means you won’t be able to buy your own can to take home.) Meat touching the bottom of the can had caramelised into a sticky, heavenly layer of goodness – and I have no idea how cabbage can come to taste so good.

This thing was absolutely enormous. Even if I hadn’t consumed nearly my own weight in fatty pork only ten minutes earlier, it’s unlikely I could have made much headway into the dish – as it was, for the first time in my life I found myself eating around a foie gras, because all this richness was becoming simply unbearable. My god, though, the aroma coming off this dish was incredible. So much so, that people at the next table turned, asked what it was and immediately ordered one each.

I tried. Really, I tried, but ultimately the terrible groaning noises emanating from my entire digestive system from the gall bladder down did for me, and I ended up leaving more than half of what I’d been served on my plate. I asked Dr W if he fancied a dessert. He looked at me with dull, bilious eyes and whispered, “No. I think I need to lie down. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to walk back to the hotel.”

We staggered back to the hotel. Slowly. We lay down. We have nearly recovered. We’re going back again on Friday evening.

Montreal sandwich wars

Every life has a few golden moments. I had one today, when I realised I’d eaten two of the best sandwiches in my life in the space of 24 hours.

First stop – Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique (3895 Boul. St Laurent), where you’ll find great heaps of something called smoked meat, sliced thin and piled on white bread spread with mustard, accompanied by a slightly obscene-looking pickle, some crisp, fresh French fries, and a can of cherry cola. Smoked meat is a Montreal speciality, somewhere between pastrami and a barbecued brisket (but still entirely unlike either), and Schwartz’s is where you’ll find the city’s finest – they’ve been at it since 1928, and are still in the original location. There’s always a queue snaking out of the door. This is not a restaurant you’ll be visiting for the decor, which reminded me of the dilapidated fish and chip shops I used to visit with my Grandma at the end of the 1970s back in England, all Formica tables and framed, yellowing newspaper cuttings. You’re here for the exceptional sandwiches and the meat, smoked daily and piled high in the window.

I’d been warned about unfriendly service, but we found that the staff were actually exceptionally helpful and friendly – try to sit at the bar, like we did, so you can watch the meat being prepared. Ask for your sandwich to come medium or fatty (a lean cut will carry less flavour), chomp down on your pickle to cut through the grease, and make sure that you order a cherry cola, which somehow happens to be the perfect liquid accompaniment for one of these fabulous sandwiches.

One world-beating sandwich joint isn’t enough for Boulevard St Laurent. Head for Chinatown, and about twenty yards from the pagoda gates you’ll find Cao Thang (1082 Boul. St Laurent – this is the same street you’ll find Schwartz’s on, but it’s a brisk walk of about ten minutes between the two). Cao Thang is a tiny shop – really a counter and a fridge – selling Banh Mi, a baguette stuffed with a gorgeous Vietnamese concoction of roast pork and pork sausage with lightly pickled carrots and daikon, a generous sprinkling of coriander and chillies, all sauced with a garlicky, savoury mixture that smells like heaven by way of Saigon. It’s only open for lunch, and there are no seats – we found ourselves sitting on cinderblocks in a carpark across the road and being shouted at by tramps, but so good was my mood once I had chunks of this transcendental (and absurdly cheap) sandwich in my mouth, they might as well have been singing light opera.

Banh Mi isn’t that uncommon in North America, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find one in the UK. The Cao Thang version is a fantastically good example though – crisp baguette (supplied by the excellent Patisserie Belge) moistened slightly in the middle by the filling. This is one of those dishes where you’ll find every bite tasting slightly different – this one full of coriander, the next chillies, the next sweet carrot shreds. (Don’t inhale sharply after a chilli-tasting bite. My friend James did and still hasn’t shopped coughing.)

This is looking like a great week for food. I’m starting to like this city very, very much.