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Road Trip Montreal: Cake Wars

September 16, 2010 1 comment

Sticking to our inadvertent Montreal-based theme for the day, I provide you with the following review of select Montreal restaurants written by one of my regular dining companions, known on these pages as Kristen Wells.

So I had this bet.  The prize was a slice of one of the most delicious cakes in the borough of Brooklyn:  Cake Man Raven’s red velvet.  (Scrape off some of the over-abundant frosting and thank me later.)  Some controversy arose, however, surrounding the terms of the wager and my betting partner – let’s call him T-Bone – and I did what all reasonable people do in these situations.  We went double or nothing.

The subsequent bet was not, strictly speaking, a true double or nothing, as T-Bone and I agreed two slices of cake was more than either of us wanted to eat (at least in one sitting).  How, then, to double?  We decided the loser would have to (1) buy the winner a slice of the best cake in Brooklyn (i.e., the original prize) and (2) research, identify and buy the winner a slice of the best cake in a city of the winner’s choosing, and coordinate the logistics of the associated trip. 

I talked a whole lotta trash that week, sending T-Bone pictures of cake possibilities from around the world.  Boston cream pie?  Jamaican black cake?  Parisian madeleines?  Whatever city would I choose?  Thankfully, I would indeed eat cake and not crow;  I won the bet and picked Montreal.

They say “to the victor go the spoils,” but in my case, the loser’s burden of travel-foodie research may have been a spoil.  I love to study up on destinations, mapping out what to see, eat and experience.  I had to summon all of my (Wonder Woman) powers to restrain myself and not research Montreal’s cake options.  I called upon my faith in T-Bone, that he would live up to his end of the bargain and, despite his disinclination for such granular planning, investigate thoroughly enough so we’d enjoy the best cake as recommended by sources other than Yelp.  That said, I couldn’t help myself entirely and made one dinner reservation.  Since the rez was for dinner and not cake, I figured I wasn’t diminishing T-Bone’s burden as loser of the bet.

I’m happy to say T-Bone came through like a champ.  Leading up to the trip, I posed the philosophical question about how I’d be able to determine if the cake T-Bone chose was, in fact, the best in the city.  If it’s the only cake I sampled, how could I really judge?  To round out the experience and provide some comparative data, T-Bone picked three destinations (for two days in the city).

As it turns out, one of his choices must’ve been very popular.  We arrived within the operating hours of Cocoa Locale, but the doors were locked.  They’d sold out of that day’s batch of baked goods.  No worries, as our next destination was nearby:  La Croissanterie Figaro

First, we had a late lunch, and my goat cheese and tomato quiche was excellent –really flavorful with perfectly roasted tomatoes and a tender, buttery crust.  As for dessert, T-Bone indicated the “go to” order was chocolate mousse cake, with a possible second place for carrot.  I looked at T-Bone quizzically because I warned weeks prior that I’m not fan of chocolate cake.  Was it wise to steer me in that direction?  We ordered one of each and, lo and behold, the chocolate mousse cake was phenomenal.  (The carrot was good, too, but really didn’t compare to the chocolate.)  Layer upon layer of a soft and light chocolate cake, smooth chocolate mousse that was a bit richer with chocolate than the cake, and a frosting that upped the chocolate ante, all dusted with really good cocoa powder.  I’m not a fan of chocolate cake, but this was hella good.  +1 for T-Bone.

The next day we ventured to the most charming croissant shop I’ve ever stepped foot in, Kouign Amann, named for the Breton cake we’d be sampling.  A tiny store with fresh baked goods on a couple of shelves, bakers in flour-dusted aprons forming croissants by hand behind the counter, and a really friendly and lovely woman working the register.  T-Bone is a big fan of croissants and I’d told him I don’t really understand them.  The ones I’ve had in the U.S. just don’t seem to be worth the fat expenditure.  Trying a warm, fresh croissant from Kouign Amann, however, has made me a believer.  Make this a must-stop on your next trip to Montreal. 

But that’s not why you came.  We weren’t sure what Kouign Amann cake is exactly, but we got one to share.  It looks like…this picture.  It tastes like sweet, buttery bread baked with a slightly caramelized crust.  Sounds simple, but the layering creates a really pleasing texture that I couldn’t replicate if I tried.  This cake was unique and, if you like buttery, sweet, baked goodness – and who doesn’t?  – you’re going to be really happy with Kouign Amann from Kouign Amann.  (I keep typing it because I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  Kouign Amann.  ?)  +2 for T-Bone.

Our last night in Montreal was the night of my one contribution to the chowhound itinerary, dinner at Au Pied du Cochon.  Although I’d read and warned T-Bone that we should arrive amply hungry, the afternoon cake (and, don’t tell, but later a shared almond croissant) kept me satiated for a long time.  Sadly, I wasn’t terribly hungry by reservation time so didn’t order as many dishes as I might have wished.  We shared a great blue cheese, apple, and endive salad.  For mains, I ordered a swordfish special and T-Bone ordered one of the more notorious entrees:  Duck in a Can.  My fish was amazing.  Perfectly cooked with a salty, buttery cream sauce, mushroom, and beans.  A combo I would’ve raised an eyebrow at had I known in advance, but it was really delicious.  Probably the best thing I’d had since the crab and jalapeno spaghetti at Del Posto.  About the Duck in a Can, you can Google search it to learn about the unusual preparation and presentation.  (Actually, here you go:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBw8bdcPRTM.)  All you need to know is when they poured the can out, I thought “Goodness gracious, that’s a lot of food.  T-Bone might get halfway through that.”  Fast forward a bit and I thought “O.M.G. that must’ve been really delicious.  I can’t believe he ate the whole thing.” 

Seriously.  Did you watch the video?  T-Bone ate THE WHOLE THING.  That’s how good it was.  (+1 for me.)

Moral of the story?  Make some food bets with your friends.  Good times, and no one really loses.  Also, Montreal is a great eating town.

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Holiday in Cambodia

June 30, 2010 2 comments

As J. Frankfurter mentioned earlier, we have been somewhat delinquent in posting as of late.  Not to make excuses, but life has been very busy for both of us these past couple of weeks.  I’ve been preoccupied with trying to clear my docket because I will soon leave for a two-week vacation in Cambodia.

With my trusty cameras (yes, plural) and shiny new netbook in tow, I plan to blog parts of my trip — focusing on the culinary portions, naturally.  Keep your fingers crossed for WiFi.

Just to give you a sneak peak, I will now provide a primer on Cambodian food.  Khmer cuisine is similar to the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam but often characterized, rightly or wrongly, as less favorful and less spicy than that of its neighbors.  Khmer cuisine has also been influenced by India (see: curry), France (see: baguette, coffee and pâté) and China (see: noodles and/or everything in Asia).

Rice is, of course, a staple part of the Khmer diet.  Many Cambodian dishes are flavored with prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste, as well as kroeung, a spice paste that blends ingredients such as lemon grass, kaffir lime zest and leaves, galangal, tumeric, ginger, garlic, shallots and chilis.

National dishes that use prahok and kroeung include samlor kako (a soup heavy on the vegetables), samlor machu (a sour soup flavored with tamarind that is similar to Vietnamese canh chua) and amok (some protein — likely fish, chicken or tofu — steamed in a coconut curry in banana leaves). 

Here in New York, where we can pretty much get whatever we want, whenever we want, there is a striking absence of Cambodian restaurants in comparison to the numerous Thai and Vietnamese options.  Is it because Cambodia lost an entire generation due to the Khmer Rouge, leaving few to pass on the knowledge of Cambodian cuisine to the surviving generations?  Or is it because Americans are not familiar enough with Cambodia in general to accept its food?  Matthew Fishbane has an interesting article over on Salon about the lack of Cambodian food in the U.S.

My travel companion for the trip (hereinafter, “Edna Krabappel”) has never been to Southeast Asia.  In addition to write-ups about Khmer cuisine as prefaced above, future posts will also include her reaction to trying certain fruits native to the area including jackfruit, rambutan, longan, sour sop, mangosteen and the ever infamous durian (J. Frankfurter’s favorite; his wife has a differing opinion).  Let’s just see if Ms. Krabappel is brave enough to try the deep-fried tarantula!