Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Meandering in Montreal, Part 2: Le Taj, Fairmount Bagels, Le Cheval, and Pho 32 revisited

Catch up here! Meandering in Montreal, Part 1
IMG_0885 IMG_0886
IMG_0891 IMG_0887
AS had announced his desire to try one of the numerous Indian buffets in the area, so the next morning after checking out of the hotel we headed to Le Taj for lunch, a large open restaurant with high ceilings and uncrowded tables. The price for the buffet was something around $12, and boasted a good selection of dishes for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Here's my plate. From what I can remember, there's lamb curry, fish curry, a samosa, lentils, tandoori chicken, string beans, eggplant and potato curry, a fritter, pickled cabbage, and curried cauliflower on there. Except for the fried goods which were too greasy, most items were fresh, well-balanced, and of good quality; the naan, which usually gets dried out on buffet steam tables, was fluffy and moist too. I especially enjoyed the fish curry made with tender hunks of salmon, a fish that was a surprisingly good match for the strong flavors and spices.
IMG_0892 IMG_0893
I was surprised by the dessert table too, which had really fresh gulab jamun (still hot and crisp-edged despite its syrup soak), mildly sweet, moist squares made with semolina flour, and kheer, a creamy Indian rice pudding flavored with rosewater and cardamom. At most buffets you don't get this many dessert options.
Not sure of what else to do, we found ourselves back on Rue Mont-Royal, hoping that a stroll in the daytime would prove less frigid than our nighttime sprint. After walking around for a while we headed to Fairmont Bagels, a Montreal institution for the boiled-and-baked good. It was crowded both inside and out, with orders being rapidly placed and filled at the narrow counter. I made my way to the front and asked for a dozen: half everything, three onion, and three poppy seed.
(I didn't taste them until I got home, but when I did was terribly disappointed. I'd heard so much about the unique, Montreal-style bagel, and expected something pretty extraordinary. After toasting one of them to restore its crust, I bit into the bagel and found myself with a mouthful of bland, vaguely chewy bread. Later, when I examined the bag, I saw the words "salt-free." Let me just say this: these bagels need some salt, and the much-touted Montreal-style bagel is just not great. Sorry.)
It's been said that no visit to Montreal is complete without poutine, and we weren't about to miss out. Unfortunately, the place I had wanted to try—Patati Patata—was filled to the brim with other poutine-noshers and for the four of us, simply too crowded to attempt. After trying desperately to look up other good options in the area, we gave up and headed to Casino de Montreal as planned, hoping that in one of its restaurants the dish would be on offer.

It seemed like a miss at first until I spotted the little placard sitting on the bar at Le Cheval, one of the snack and bar areas roped off from the rest of the casino. Poutine wasn't available on its own, but could be purchased as part of a set meal including either one or two hot dogs and a drink. We went for the deal.

I'm sure this wasn't the best version I could have tried, or even anywhere close. The fries were frozen, the thin gravy probably canned, and the cheese curds soft and tasteless, melting in a way that was completely unlike the fresh, squeaky curds I had envisioned. Still, it gave me a taste of what I might be looking for. And according to TL, TVD, and AS, the hot dogs were decent too.

After that, we headed out. We crossed the border successfully, drove six hours a little less successfully due to the administration of a speeding ticket, and finally reached Manhattan near midnight, starving.
Where else but K-town to satisfy a late-night dinner craving? We headed straight for Pho 32 & Shabu, where one server alone was handling the entire restaurant. At that hour, there weren't many people in there, but nearly all the empty tables were piled high with abandoned plates and food because he didn't have enough time to clear them. It looked as if people had been called out of the restaurant for a sudden fire drill.

TL and I split an order of the fried chicken dumplings, which had the exact shape and filling as the Ling Ling brand potstickers I wrote about. I'm almost positive they are the same—just look at 'em! I should start frying my own.
I got pho with extra meatballs, and it was perfect. Not a perfect bowl of pho—the broth was weak, the herbs and vegetation pitiful, and there were too many onions and not enough noodles—but a perfect thing to eat on a cold night after a long drive home. Something about parting ways after a trip always seems sad to me, so I was glad to have a final meal with AS and TVD before TL and I headed back to Astoria. Even then, I was sorry to say goodbye.


  1. I've always loved this site until you got to the bit about the bagel. That you are so wrong on something so obviously good is a shame and makes me start to doubt almost everything you've written. I also must say your eating choices in Montreal as a whole were completely dubious.

  2. Anon, it's simply a difference in taste, yes? I don't mean to be offensive—the bagel just really didn't seem like anything special, and I've explained my impressions of it. Is that how they are supposed to be? As for dubious choices, we went about the trip pretty randomly, so wherever we ended up was where we ate.

  3. haha, you got a canadian hater.

    and, you and I are definitely related because I ALWAYS order the number 1 with meatballs.

  4. I love those meatballs. Never tell me what they are made of…I don't want to know.

  5. ah, too bad about the bagels. they look so good too....(seriously though, the best bagels are in jersey, or maybe a part of queens). At least you got pho.

    Is mediocre pho better than no pho at all?

    Yes. Yes it is.

  6. d-ah, fully agree on the pho. any to be had in china?

  7. in shanghai, it varies from dreadful (like you REALLY don't want to know what the meat is) to pretty good, but nothing reaching the awe-inspiring bowl we had on some random street in singapore.

    strangely enough, pho reports from those who traveled to vietnam were tepid.

    nicely done too, regarding the piece in the coloradoan (cah-lo-rah-doh-an? being in china is tinkering with the english).

  8. hahaha d, thanks! and yes, "cah-lo-rah-doh-an"

  9. St. Vianteur Bagels are far better. It's the honey water that they boil the bagel in before it hits the coal oven that gives it a unique taste. Also - you best eat them right from the store - none of this take it home crap. how could you miss Au Pied de Cochon?

  10. Dave, well, I did try to toast 'em up before I ate them, in order to get them at optimal state. I was too full to eat them on the spot, otherwise I totally would have. And Au Pied de Cochon! I actually made a conscious decision not to go, all the good stuff there just seemed so overwhelming and rich, though foie-topped poutine is prob. freaking amazing. As you might be able to tell this was a really easy-going trip—I just didn't feel like getting all foodie-crazy on it.

  11. I ate at au pied 3 nights in a row last time I was there. They have incredible dishes that are not all totally rich and overwhelming - a whole roasted rabbit parapdelle, a crab pie, duck carpaccio... Oh, and richer things like O-Toro Confit, and the foie gras poutine. its the best meal you can get anywhere for the price - since dinner for 2 is under $80US for a complete gut busting meal