Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Montreal, Restaurants and the need for better social networks

Anyone following my Tweets lately knows that I just took a trip to Montreal - I tweeted about the conference, the food, the Bixi bikes...everything. I was there to speak at RIDM, a great documentary film festival that has a new director and that is poised for some really great things. It was my first trip to Montreal, and my wife was able to join me so we added on a couple of days for exploring the city.

This post is not directly about film - but I'll get there by the end, trust me. My wife and I are foodies, and make a point of searching out the well- and not-so-well-known restaurants in all of the towns we visit together. On this trip we had some amazing meals. I'll list them all below the fold, for those who are interested, but what I learned on this trip was that how we discovered them, researched them and finally picked where we ate was not what I expected. The web influenced this, and so did the food sites - to some extent - but much less than I would expect. What it taught me was that in spite of years of development of trip and food sites, they are all woefully inadequate and there remain some golden business opportunities out there for anyone thinking about how to use technology to better "consumer experiences." I think this extends to cultural experiences as well - and thus film, music, theater, books....pretty much anything.

We had plenty of options out there for finding info on restaurants in Montreal - Yelp, Zagat, Gayot, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter, the websites of the restaurants themselves, ChowHound....there's a plenty endless list. All of the places we ended up going to were listed on these places, and there were tons of reviews. But the reviews were pretty all over the place - good, bad. Who knew whether that stellar review of a restaurant was from a real foodie, or just someone who'd just fallen for the hype? Was that bad review from someone who is just anti-meat eating generally, or perhaps they had a bad relationship with the waiter? Sure, some of the sites let you see their other reviews or rate the reviewer, but generally speaking all these sites could do was help us narrow the field just a little bit - and we only started feeling comfortable when we compare these listings to those in more traditional sources - travel books, old NYT reviews, a 4 year old Gourmet magazine featuring Montreal that my wife hung on to, and of course...people.

We narrowed down the list of possible places to 15 or so restaurants, and then did what we always do.....turned to a trusted source for some help. We are lucky to be friendly with a VP at the Beard Foundation, so we always check in with this person for advice on the best restaurants and food wherever we travel. Within seconds, he'd emailed our list to two foodies he trusted in Montreal, and they conferred (via phone, within minutes, foodies are obsessive fans) and sent us back comments on all of our potential places and a small list of a few we hadn't heard about, or that we had removed from our list because of bad reviews online (judged wrong by these experts we still hadn't met, but had a lot more trust in because of who recommended them).   We then confirmed with the brother of another friend in NYC who is from Montreal - a double check that we in fact had the best list we could.  This was our ultimate guide - the recommendations of strangers we could trust because of who they knew.

This is why I am excited to see the launch of new social networks like Path, announced this week, that focus more on smaller groups of people you really know. I want more of them, and I hope someone builds them for me, because I don't have the time. I don't care what some person says on Yelp. Okay, I do care, but only a little bit. What I really want to know is what do my friends recommend. My real friends, not just all the people I talk to on Facebook, which includes a fair amount of people who I trust for film recommendations, but not for food (or wine, or book) recommendations.

I want to be able to walk down a street in Montreal and see a map of every restaurant nearby and have a rating based on just my friend's reviews. Mitchell ate here and liked it. (He's our James Beard friend) You are standing in front of this Persian restaurant, but three blocks over is one that someone else you know recommended much more highly. And there's a table open now (via Open Table). Here's the dishes they recommended. Mitchell liked this restaurant two years ago, but the Chef has moved on to another restaurant across town, and while Mitchell hasn't eaten there, three of your friends have and gave it good reviews. You starred this as a place you want to eat at when you read an article in the NYT three years ago, it still gets good reviews and your Bixi bike just broke down a short two blocks away from it.

These more personalized options don't exist yet, but they will. You don't have to think hard to imagine how this could also work for film, or theater or book readings or just about anything else. Simple example - I should be able to "check in" to Montreal when I arrive and be told that four films were playing at RIDM that I've been wanting to see because I read about them on Indiewire, two are playing that Basil watched at the Toronto Film Fest and liked and because I trust him I might want to see them as well. I should also be told that Lucy Walker has a new film there, and that because I liked her last film, I might like this one, and I should be able to buy the ticket and if I can't make the show...add it to my Netflix queue for when it is released, with a note saying who recommended it and why. Or just let me know she is speaking on a panel.

So, that's my request for today - someone build me all this stuff. Soon, or I might get bored one day and do it myself.

For those of you interested in the restaurants, here's the list with quick comments, below the fold:

We only had two reservations in advance. Everything else was chosen because we were in a neighborhood and ready for food, and we'd look at our (hand-written, we need an app for this) list and pick something nearby. These aren't intense reviews - no ambitions to be the next Chowhound here - but some quick notes on what we liked.

La Fromagerie Hamel - This one isn't a restaurant, but we arrived at an odd hour and decided to buy some cheese, bread and wine and sit around the hotel before the opening party. Hamel is the place to go - near a great market (Jean Talon) where we also picked up some amazing pate and fruit (that you can taste before you buy).  I won't detail all of the cheeses here, but suffice it to say we indulged on the many unpasteurized cheeses from Quebec that we can't find at home in NYC.

Chez Nouri - This one is probably the only true "find" of our trip - not making it on many lists (although it was listed in Gourmet magazine in 2006 and confirmed by the brother of our friend).  This also wins for most interesting dining experience. I'm not sure when the Communists took over Canada, but this place is in a bunker of a building that also sells duvets and bedding, and looks like something out of former East Germany. It's not even really a restaurant, but more of a counter with a window onto the chef's home style kitchen - electric range, small fridge and all. He serves breakfast, soups and a few Iranian specialties. We tasted a small sample of soup as soon as we sat down which reminded my wife of her mom's home cooking and then moved on to the Kuku Sandwich,  - essentially an egg omelet that is deep green from the many herbs mixed in - I've made it at home and this was much better. He also gives Iranian cuisine cooking lessons, and this will be a stop on every trip. Decidedly not fancy, but a very down-home experience that you can't duplicate anywhere else. It's also very hard to find online, so follow the link above - it took me 20 minutes to find it even with the address and name!

Schwartz's Smoked Meat - This is on everyone's list for Montreal - the Katz's of Quebec, with their version of pastrami -  an amazing smoked meat piled high on rye, with mustard, sour pickles and cole slaw on the side.  It is better than any deli sandwich I've had in NYC and I am a convert. It's worth the line - only about 20 minutes when we went on a weekday, but normally much longer. Again, nothing fancy, just good eats.

Rumi Restaurant - While not advertised as Persian, this great Middle Eastern restaurant was the location of a festival-sponsored meal on Thursday night, and most of the food was heavily Persian inspired. We shared a family meal that included half of the menu - lots of stews/tagines, beef, lamb, vegetables, hummus, etc. While called something else, we had a great Fesenjun (he calls it Suleyman) - which was a chicken stew cooked with walnuts and pomegranate molasses (and that's Fesenjun for you). Highly recommended for group meals when you can share.

Chez L'Epicier - After giving a talk on Friday morning, we went down to Old Montreal on the Bixi bikes with no plans, but seeing this place, which had made our friend's list, we snagged a table with no reservation for the Table d'Hote - prix fixe lunch - which was one of the two best meals we had here. my wife had an amazing lamb shank with pearl barley, and an amazing savoy cabbage soup. I had veal carpaccio and then an amazing braised beef and pork dish with cheese and potatoes - not sure what the name was, but it was great. Then we had more Quebecois cheese. This one is worth a trip - in fact, it's hard to even rank it number two on our list.

La Montee De Lait - Dinner was at this classic, famous restaurant - and we were lucky to be there at all. We had a reservation, but forgot they had moved locations and took the subway to the wrong place. Luckily, we called, got the address and jumped on the Bixi bike, making it just five minutes late. We shared a few small plates - a toast of mushrooms, that was amazing, a tataki of seared and chopped salmon, a pork croquette, a seared scallop dish and then we shared a leg of rabbit dish that was excellently prepared. With a great wine list, this is a pretty great restaurant,  but it lacked the intensity of L'Epicier and was a bit rushed in comparison. Very worth a visit, and might have soared if we weren't comparing it to such a great lunch.

Correction: We went to La Sala Rossa - confusing because they are on the same block and similar - not
Club Espagnol de Quebec , believe it or not, the review doesn't change....- After dinner we went here for drinks and music. We didn't try the food as we'd overdosed at this point, but it is known for great tapas and everyone looked happy. We liked it because unlike every other bar/restaurant in Montreal, they free-pour the drinks and you get more than the half-shot usual in your drinks. This is a real Spanish social club, so it has more of a rec room feel than a restaurant, but it's a great place to hear music in the upstairs club, have some drinks and there is supposedly a great patio in the warmer months. You can also speak Spanish instead of French here, which was a bonus for me.

Fairmount Bagels is in a constant rivalry with St-Viateur Bagel Factory for being the best bagel in Montreal. We tried them both and while they were great, we preferred the Fairmount bagel - but this might be because it was fresh from the oven and St-Viateur had been sitting a good five minutes (never longer, I presume, but not as hot and chewy). Yes, chewy, and a bit sweet. Montreal bagels aren't like those in NYC, and we're converts. Smaller, thinner and a bit sweeter - I know none of this sounds good, but trust me, it works. They are both open 24/7, the bagels are 60 cents (!!!), and as they are within blocks of one another you can try them both easily - we shared one at each with cream cheese (a whopping $1.10). Very good.

Romados - Romados is a Portugese rotisserie chicken shop and bakery. We had been biking all around some back neighborhoods and stopped in quite hungry for a late lunch. You get a 1/4 chicken with salad and cracked-pepper fries for about 7 bucks, and it is a huge meal you can't finish. Amazingly, the fries get even better as they cool and I am sure this place is a hit the later the night gets. Chicken is not chicken - these guys spice it and cook it right. You need a shower after from the grease, but it's worth it.

Au Pied De Cochon - This one's the winner. We expected it to be good - everyone writes about it, but we were very impressed. We've eaten at better restaurants, but only in the sense that they might be more refined. If you want food cooked with love - this is in the top ten from all of our travels. Don't go unless you love meat - while they do serve fish (and eels from the live tank in front), this is a meat-palace. I tried to stray from the standard tourist order, but my waiter smartly guided me to the Duck in a Can.....and I may never try anything else in that place. That's right, in a can (a photo is at the top). It's a gimmick; one which I was sure I wouldn't like, but it was amazing. A can comes to the table next to a big piece of toast with root vegetable puree on it - it changes often, but mine was parsnip. The waiter opens the can and dumps it on the toast. Inside the can is a huge piece of rare duck covered in Foie that has been cooked between the breast and a layer of duck fat (!), along with a lot of cabbage, thyme and pieces of duck meat. They place everything in the can and seal it at the beginning of service and then boil it for about 27 minutes which doesn't truly can the food, but it cooks it perfectly. It sounds gross, but it is amazing.

My wife got another lamb shank - this one confit style, with lentils, and I'm sure it was great, but I was in a duck fat coma and have no idea. We also tried the foie cromesquis - essentially little fried balls of liquified foie and an APC salad, which is a salad with a big pork cake in the middle made from pork tendon that has been cooked, fried and somehow breaks down to become the tastiest thing you'd never expect on a green salad.  My wife had a guniea hen liver mousse to start, and it was seriously great as well. By this point, our dessert was a blur, but I vaguely remember it being great - it was a pouding chomeur, which means "poor man's pudding" and is a lot like bread pudding.

We couldn't eat all the food at any of these stops - about half at best, but no one should. I definitely recommend group dining for Au Pied de Cochon - many of the dishes (roasted pig's head anyone?) are better to share. I also recommend adding a few treks up the Mountain (for which Mont Royal, or Real in middle French, is named), and biking and walking everywhere to wear off the food - the Bixi bikes are practically free, and there are bike lanes everywhere in Montreal. If you visit, let me know of any other finds, so they can be added to my list for the next trip.


Noah Harlan said...

Au pied de cochon is arguably my favorite restaurant on the planet. It is worth the trip to Montreal on it's own. I also would recommend Chasse Et Peche.

Anonymous said...

Les ConsServent - highly recommended, and the way back to downtown is practically all downhill (aka a delightful bixi ride).


Jill said...

Great blitz of spot-on information, but the prospect of promoting a first film is a little daunting - and I want to make sure I get maximum impact.

I certainly don't have the budget for the big ticket indie PR firms that come up when I Google...but there must be some independent freelance that's knows the drill and can work with me. I've been scouring the internet andindustry directories and magazines but I can't come up with a single one.

Would you point me in the right direction?

Jill Bender

BNewmanSBoard said...

Jill, hard to answer this here. I am pretty easy to find here and elsewhere online - if I can be of help steering you to the right people, send me a bit more info on Facebook or somewhere.