Category Archives: Travel

La cuisine de Montréal

Montreal is a foodie’s city: jam-packed full of bars and “restos,” bistros focusing on comfort food, cafes, boulangeries and patisseries. My sister joked that our weekend trip together would be a “culinary odyssey,” and we did not falter in our task of making pilgrimages to some of Montreal’s most well-known spots. Our cozy, artist-run guest house was located in the Plateau District, so upon our arrival we chose a nearby restaurant and  set out to nosh at Bagel, Etc.

Montreal bagels, like New York bagels, were brought to the city by Jewish immigrants and remain a staple today. The Montreal bagel is typically hand-made and wood-fired,  and is smaller, sweeter, and denser than its New York sibling. Bagel, Etc. was a funky and friendly place, and our lox and bagels served with fried potatoes hit the spot for brunch.

Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Lox and Bagel, Bagel Etc., Montreal.

Two of Montreal’s oldest bagel institutions are St. Viateur Bagel and Fairm0unt Bagel. Both are a bit touristy, with lines stretching out of the small storefronts and cameras flashing towards the wood-burning ovens and annoyed bagel-makers. Fairmount Bagel has been operating since 1949 and offers more bagel options than St. Viateur, which only serves the original sesame or poppy seed variety. A chocolate chip bagel from Fairmount was a nice breakfast paired with a Cafe au Lait from a neighboring cafe. Despite the kitsch factor, a trip to St. Viateur or Fairmount Bagel is worth a trip!

Fairmount Bagel, Montreal.

Chocolate Chip Bagel and Cafe au Lait, Montreal.

Of course, Montreal offers more than just bagels. There are fantastic microbreweries like Dieu de Ciel, which serves a unique variety of beer (hibiscus brew!). Do your best to masquerade as a nonchalant, hipster local while taking in the mounted ostrich heads and sipping absinthe at Bily Kun. Take a break from heavy gastropub fare by exploring restaurants in Chinatown or some of Montreal’s excellent Thai restaurants.

We had our first taste of Québécois cuisine at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant that’s certainly not for dieters or finicky eaters. Housed in a narrow, bright space, Au Pied is rustic (serving blood sausage, head cheese, picked tongue, and the ever-so-romantic Pig’s Head for Two) but trendy. Both our waiter and the menu had a “figure it out on your own” vibe; no explanations are provided on the menu. We avoided the cryptic “Duck in a Can” and “Happy Pork Chop” and went straight for the blissful section of the menu devoted entirely to Foie Gras. My ongoing soliloquy to goose liver gained a few verses:

Oh, fried foie gras cubes, thou art quite freaky/

Your liquid center spilled down my sister’s cheeky.

Foie gras tart, buttery and flaky/

I’ll reincarnate as a goose, maybe.

Our dinner at L’Express, on the chic Rue St. Denis, was the quintessential French bistro experience. We ate our meal at the bar and translated the handwritten menu. Spicy cornichons and grainy mustard were served with our hot french baguette, and the wine list highlighted reasonably priced, French wines. Mais oui, we ordered the marrow bone appetizer: sinfully delicious hunks of bone marrow with crunchy toasts and coarse sea salt. Two dainty women who sat next to us at the bar stared with an interesting combination of horror and lust as my sister and I navigated the hot bones to reveal their treasure of gelatinous, meaty goodness.  A gorgeous salad of greens and duck confit and a simple spaghetti with mushrooms finished our spectacular meal.

L’Express, Montreal.

Marrow Bone Appetizer, L’Express.

Salad with Duck Confit, L’Express, Montreal.

Spaghetti with Mushrooms, L’Express, Montreal.

Montreal has an easygoing, young and vibrant vibe.  Given the weak dollar, a visit to Montreal is not the bargain it used to be…but with only a two hour flight from Chicago, it’s a lot closer than Paris!

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Wanderlust: Montreal

My sister and I traveled to Montreal over Easter weekend. What a beautiful, artistic, interesting city! Montreal’s neighborhoods remind me of both Chicago and New York, but the French influence was inescapable. We truly felt as though we were visiting Europe for the weekend instead of Canada. After just a two hour flight from Chicago, we stepped into a city full of brasseries, boulangeries, très chic people and peppered with the twinkly French language.  Speaking French is not necessary for survival in Montreal; most seem to understand some English. Arriving equipped with a few essential French phrases is extremely helpful, bien sur.

Suggestions for a weekend in Montreal:

  • Save your Canadian dollars and stay in a guest house to get the true neighborhood vibe of Montreal
  • Avoid Vieux-Montreal (the old city)….it is boring and touristy
  • Climb to the highest point in the city, in a park designed by Frederick Olmsted
  • Take the train to Marche Atwater (this is where your French will come in handy)
  • Stick to Saint Denis Street for amazing boutiques, cafes and restaurants
  • Leave your GPS at home and use a map. Get ready to walk, walk, walk through the Plateau Mont Royal, Saint-Laurent Blvd, and other neighborhoods that flow into one another.
  • Follow my restaurant suggestions….coming soon!

Mount Royal.

Outskirts of Chinatown, Montreal.

Le Chat, Montreal.

Chinatown, Montreal.

Girl in the Trees, Montreal.

Lost Kid.

Graffiti, Montreal.

Comme ci, comme ca.

Saint Denis, Montreal.

I need your number.

Plateau District, Montreal.

Jaune.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal.

Sex and small cars.

Vieux-Montreal.

Montreal boy.

Henri Julien + Saint-Louis.

Chinatown, Montreal.

Kentucky Fried Olives

The South is really not that bad. Seriously. It’s the home of bourbon,  horses, grits, and strange expressions. I planned a weekend getaway for my husband’s birthday to the Kentucky bourbon trail. While brown alcohol is not exactly my thing, I knew he’d enjoy it and I’d enjoy the escape from Chicago’s dreary and never ending winter.

Horse Country, Versailles, KY

We began our adventure in Louisville, a surprisingly beautiful and sophisticated city.  The 21c Museum Hotel doubles as a contemporary art museum, and its playful, eclectic design carries through the hotel and restaurant. Red penguins are the main motif of the space, and interactive art dots hallways and corners.

21c Museum Hotel, Louisville, KY

Housed inside the hotel, the restaurant Proof on Main has been featured in Bon Appetit, Food and Wine Magazine, and was named as one of “Best New Restaurants 2006” by Esquire.  Proof on Main was developed by Louisville philanthropists and art collectors, and  focuses on Italian cuisine laced with Southern influences. A nightly special of rabbit stew served over Parmesan polenta was not as fabulous as our server promised and raved; the entire dish tasted like bitter parsley and the shredded rabbit was simply not seasoned correctly. An appetizer of Ndjua toast with melted lardo, fleur de sel and fried oregano was sinfully fattening and wonderful. Proof’s wine list, named by Food and Wine Magazine in 2006 “as one of America’s 50 most amazing wine experiences” and most recently given the Wine Spectator 2007 and 2008 “Award of Excellence,” was both accessible and eclectic.

Proof on Main, Louisville,  KY

One of the best things about our dinner at Proof on Main was the delicious bread served both table side and incorporated into our appetizers. Once we were told the bread came from Blue Dog Bakery, we added a visit to the next day’s agenda. Louisville restaurant critic Robin Garr writes that “one of the best culinary happenings in Louisville in the last decade was the arrival of Blue Dog bread and its expert baker, Bob Hancock.”

Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Blue Dog focuses on its bakery, but also runs a small cafe that’s open for breakfast and lunch. The cafe’s simple decor, open spaces and large windows creates an inviting yet noisy space. The breakfast menu was a bit limited but our choices were delicious. We drank our lattes and watched the Southern kids flop around the restaurant, and dreamed about simpler lives outside of the city.

Egg Sandwich, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Poached Eggs with Prosciutto, Blue Dog Bakery, Louisville, KY

Road Trip: Lake Geneva

Last weekend, my sister performed in the  Geneva Theater Live Music Series in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Since I was accompanying her on a few songs, we drove up before the show to have dinner and check out what Lake Geneva had to offer. The answer: not so much, at least for this snobby Chicagoan. Lake Geneva is a typical midwestern resort town; screaming kids with drippy ice cream cones dominate the sidewalks and kitschy boutiques are crammed full of tourists desperate to buy something or another.  To me, Lake Geneva seemed to lack the quiet charm and sophistication that Harbour Country, Michigan exudes.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Always true to form, after schlepping around the streets and shops for an hour or so, we sought out libations. We found our way to Pop More Corks, a wine shop with an interesting philosophy behind it:

If you walk into Pop More Corks and browse the shelves you won’t see prices marked on the bottles. By design, David [Biegemann, owner] doesn’t want anyone to buy a bottle of wine based solely on price without having an exchange of thoughts and ideas about the wine’s best uses, its history, and something about the producer.

Luckily, we walked in just in time for a wine tasting. The store was packed (aah, how people love free wine!) but that didn’t prevent owner David Biegemann from making sure that everyone had a glass and a piece of information about the wine they were tasting. When we asked for a recommendation of a wine that we couldn’t find anywhere in Chicago, David quickly suggested a special Barolo that normally would sell for double the amount that he was charging.

Pop More Corks, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Tempura House, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Maki, Tempura House, Lake Geneva.

For dinner, we walked down Center Street to Tempura House, Lake Geneva’s answer to Japanese cuisine. Shrimp and vegetable tempura were excellent, and the steak and chicken hibachi was not bad. My sister and her boyfriend ordered maki rolls, which looked divine. We sat on Tempura House’s patio and enjoyed the last few spurts of warm summer air and then went off to perform in a movie theater in Lake Geneva’s square.

More Maki, Tempura House, Lake Geneva.

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Dining in Harbor Country, Michigan

Of course, our trip to Harbor Country wouldn’t be complete without visiting our share of the local restaurants. After our arrival Friday evening, we visited the Bentwood Tavern at the Marina Grand Resort in New Buffalo. Touted by the Tribune as “the area’s newest restaurant and arguably, its best,” Bentwood is a waterfront eatery featuring fresh seafood, locally grown ingredients and sophisticated decor. We started with a tasty but predictable salad of greens, goat cheese and dried cherries. I had the fish and chips (fresh, flaky cod served with tangy and perfectly dressed coleslaw) and Aaron enjoyed roasted Amish chicken with a spicy sweet and sour sauce.

Bentwood Tavern, New Buffalo MI.

The next morning, we ventured down Red Arrow Highway to Harbert Swedish Bakery/Luisa’s Café for breakfast. After chatting with the owner of the bakery, I learned that the business has been one of Harbert’s best known exports since the early 1900’s. Luisa’s, owned by the same family who currently run the bakery, serves breakfast and lunch items like Swedish pancakes, organic salads, and sandwiches made with just baked bread.

Harbert Swedish Bakery, Harbert MI.

Swedish Baked Goods, Harbert Swedish Bakery.

For lunch, I had a crab cake salad, which Aaron pined for. The cakes were perfect; large pieces of lump crab with minimal filling served with a spicy aioli. Aaron stuck to a simple omelet with goat cheese, spinach and mushrooms.

Crab Cake Salad, Luisa’s Cafe.

Omelet, Luisa’s Cafe.

After lunch, we explored Warren Dunes State Park (or to be more accurate, I climbed half-way up a dune and then watched Aaron leap like a man-deer all the way down). Once we had our fill of sand and sun, we took off on Harbor Country’s wine trail. Round Barn Winery’s wine was forgettable, but we were enamored with its DiVine Vodka. Apparently, its only one of four vodkas in the world produced with grapes.

We were also very impressed with Hickory Creek Winery, tucked away among beautiful rolling hills and bright green farmland. One of the co-owners, Gottfried, was extremely gracious and his hospitality added to our tasting experience. Hickory Creek’s show stopper is certainly their slightly creamy and toasty 2005 Chardonnay. The flavors of honeydew, melon and Gala apple marry together and are balanced by a hint of lime.

At the recommendation of our innkeeper, we stayed on the wine trail for dinner and drove to Tabor Hill Winery. Tabor Hill is the only winery on the trail that also doubles as a restaurant-not necessarily a good thing. While the ambiance was beautiful, the food was a bit heavy-handed and extremely overpriced. Our starter, yet another crab cake, was hardly as delicate or as flavorful as Luisa’s. It was also accompanied by a bizarre orange juice, cherry juice, herb and wine reduction sauce which completely marred the simplicity of the crab.

Tabor Hill Vineyards.

Crab Cake with Wine Reduction Sauce, Tabor Hill Winery.

Filet Mignon wrapped in apple-smoked bacon was perfectly cooked, but sloppily presented. An extremely under-seasoned and underwhelming Alder Wood Smoked Hawaiian Swordfish was somewhat saved by its accompanying salsa of grapefruit and zesty ginger. Thankfully, we did enjoy Tabor Hill’s 2006 Lake Michigan Shore Cabernet Franc, a lush, soft, fruit-driven and elegant wine.

Ridgefield Farm Filet Mignon, Tabor Hill Winery.

Alder Wood Smoked Hawaiian Sword Fish, Tabor Hill Winery.

The next day, our final Michigan feast took place at Blue Plate Café, also located on a stretch of the Red Arrow Highway. Blue Plate is a funky little place that’s open for breakfast and lunch. Most of the customers seemed to know each other, and thus the atmosphere was friendly and laid-back. Complimentary samples of chocolate chip banana bread started things out on the right foot. Our lunch selections of a salad plate with so-so tuna salad and phenomenal chicken salad, and scrambled eggs wrapped in tortillas with Verde sauce were fresh, light, and satisfying for our journey home.

Blue Plate Cafe, Harbor Country MI.

Salad Plate, Blue Plate Cafe.

Scrambled Eggs in Tortilla with Verde Sauce, Blue Plate Cafe.

We plan on returning to Harbor Country again next summer, and I’m already planning our restaurant itinerary. We’ll definitely stop at Cafe Gulistan, a Turkish restaurant known not only for the food but for its owner’s battle for his citizenship, and Bistro on the Boulevard, a quaint French bistro located in picturesque Saint Joseph. As always, recommendations are appreciated!

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Found Inspiration

Aaron and I escaped for the weekend to Harbor Country, an area in southwest Michigan that’s composed of 8 small towns. It was my first visit to HC; Aaron spent time with his family there years ago. I had no idea that this unsuspecting corner of Michigan held so many interesting components, most (that we sought out, at least) a bit upscale while still retaining a clackety old world charm.

Lake Michigan Dune.

We stayed at the Rabbit Run Inn, a newly constructed property that’s gorgeously maintained by innkeepers Linda Jo (an interior designer) and Rodney Clough. Located just minutes from Warren Dunes State Park, the inn is decorated in a modern yet whimsical style: Alice left Wonderland for new digs in Manhattan. With only four guest suites, Rabbit Run is the perfect retreat for city dwellers seeking solace.

Rabbit Run Inn.

Linda Jo’s Kitchen, Rabbit Run Inn.

Rabbit Run Dog.

Soaring.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings, the creativity of Rodney and Linda Jo, two artists in love (like Aaron and I), struck me. What a lovely way to live, carving out a beautiful space for others to enjoy, all the while developing your creative Spirit. I know I could spend my days happily cooking, writing, painting, photographing and decorating. Its these glances into the lives of artists that keep me hopeful and inspired.

Blow it Out.

I’m Only Sleeping.

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Review: Bouchon (Las Vegas)

Aaron and I ventured to Vegas a few months ago, for his 30th birthday celebration. We were both excited to leave dreary Chicago for a while, he was hoping to win big at craps, and I was looking forward to new restaurants. Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, opened a casual French bistro in the Venetian, a monstrous hotel on the strip. High quality French bistro food is one of my favorite cuisines: steak frites (when I’m in a meat eating mood), a salad with an egg on top finished with a perfect vinaigrette, buttery, gleaming oysters and a glass of red wine. I’ll never forget eating by myself in Paris in a cafe, enjoying a croque madame and a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau.

After trudging through the dirty, lively, semi-depressing streets of Vegas, I was ready to escape. Now, as you may know, in 2006 the bird liver delicacy foie gras was banned from Chicago restaurants after city council members decided it was inhumane to force-feed the birds. As much as I avoid meat, I do so purely for health reasons. I stick to a diet made mostly of plants, and that’s my prerogative. Children are killed by gang leaders, college students are shot while attending classes…these are the real issues that affect not only Chicago and the rest of the world. Where are the priorities? But I’m rambling…

Back to foie gras and Bouchon. Of course, in Sin City, no one cares about the fattening of duck livers. Lucky me! We ordered the “Terrine de Foie Gras du Canard,” served with toasted baguettes. I CAN NOT EVEN BEGIN TO EXPLAIN THE SHEER PLEASURE THAT DUCK LIVER BRINGS ME. Can you believe it?? Silky, salty, smooth and forbidden….let me just share these pictures to illustrate my liver lovin’:

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After the foie ectasy, I enjoyed moules et frites and Aaron had the steak frites. I veered even farther from my no dairy rule and ordered butter cookies and a pot de creme for dessert. The restaurant was sophisticated, loud, and exciting. Our waiter seemed to enjoy my orgasmic expressions and eye flutters with the foie gras, and for the first time in Vegas I felt like a high roller.

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