Jun I (Addr: 156 Avenue Laurier O, Montréal, QC, Phone: 514-276-5864  ) is my long time preferred sushiya in Montreal.  During my last meal at Jun I (click here for that review), Master Chef Junichi Ikematsu was present at his stronghold and his craft was a benchmark sushi meal by Montreal standards. It might sound unfair to review Jun I right after the review of a first-rate sushiya of the caliber of Sushi Azabu, but not to worry: both are not competing in the same category, and that is taken into account in my assessment. I am also someone who will never become jaded:  I can eat at the best sushiya of Japan one day, and still appreciate a perfectly well crafted sushi in North America the next day without allowing my appreciation of the former to influence my impression of the latter. The standard of sushi in Montreal is nowhere near what you will find in NYC. Just to give you an idea of how far behind (their peers of NYC) our local sushiyas stand, here is one good example that speaks volume: the day a sushi shop will use fresh grated wasabi in Montreal will be revolutionary. Therefore I returned to Jun I with the right expectations, first and foremost to enjoy my food and have a good time. And if there is any reference point to look for, then it will be the one that Jun I did set during my last meal right here, 3 years ago under their roof, as that meal remains the best sushi meal I ever had in Montreal.

3 years later, how does  Jun I fare? Jun I would be in NYC and I would gladly look into online reviews and find out. But in Montreal, that would be an exercise as useless as trying to talk to a rabbit. One would think that the local food journalists could help enlightening us on Jun I’s whereabouts, but apart one or two of them, our so called food journalists do essentially run after novelty. Food journalist Tastet noticed that in 2015, a year when Jun I was still in its prime, most food journalists had  forgotten about him. I am not surprised at all: our food journalists are basically just hipsters. Anyways, most of  them know Japan just by the name and the closest they got to Japan is by drinking sake and feeding themselves on americanized sushis.

On to my meal:

juni-1Yellow tail tuna was served with a thick yuzu / miso sauce, which was pleasant but lacked finesse and complexity. There was also some rice cracker, that did remind me a bit of Chinese prawn cracker, only it was made with rice and was consequently snowy white in color. 5.5/10

juni-2Spicy scallops as a temaki was not too spicy, which was  actually its only noteworthy feature. The wrapping made of ordinary nori. Ordinary, very ordinary. And I am being very very very polite, here…. Trust me!  5/10

juni-3An array of nigiris and sashimis (japanese red  snapper, tuna, salmon, spicy tuna on a piece of cucumber, eel, etc) – for Mtl, the quality of fish is fine. But since the fish was  generally offered in its “bare naked”  glory (generally not marinated , not aged, not cured, etc), the only way out is to get the ” fundamentals”  right :  so your   fish has to be sliced masterfully, your rice needs to dazzle, the  quality of seafood cannot be just fine, it has to be exceptional. And all of that was  not the case at all, here. 6/10

Overall food rating: 5/10 The 3 young folks at the helm, on this evening, were not in the same league as Master Chef Junichi Ikematsu. From slicing the fish, pushing their craft beyond the ordinary, etc..they have many rivers to cross. They are young, cool, nice looking and the future pertains to them. I wish them the best. I really do. I also hope, for …them, that they continue to learn and develop a sincere passion for their job. Passion, they will need. For now, they need a Master around them  (I have no clue if Chef Junichi Ikematsu had a day off or if he is still associated with the restaurant as I did not inform myself about it).

On my way out,  I remembered that this area where Jun I is located  had couple of great eateries, around a decade ago (the “golden era” of my foodie existence in Montreal) : Barros Luco, Chao Phraya, La Chronique, Palais de L’Inde, Wilensky‘s. Chao is not what it used to be. La Chronique remains in my top 3 in town. Palais de L’Inde burnt, Palais de L’Inde I will miss a lot. Wilensky closes at 4pm, therefore it was closed on that evening (btw: I was there this past summer. I still like Wilensky’s but will submit that the quantity of meat in their sandwich is not as generous as it once was).  Barros used to be a favourite, but once I pushed open their door, whoever was at the counter seemed more interested to chat with his pal than serving his clients. Perhaps a sign that there was not much  to feast on, anymore. So I went to the last nearby ‘survivor’ of that ‘golden area’,  Fairmount bagel . At FB, the old guard is not there anymore, but the young gunz are still doing a great job. I told  one of the young gunz at FB  that I was surprised that they are  still doing this well after so many years. His answer will be my conclusion…the appropriate conclusion… to the current  review : “”  You  learn from those in the know. However painful the journey, if you have the last laugh, then you know you have achieved nothing. If they have the last laugh, then  you know you are doing something great “”.  Food for thoughts. Dear Jun I, I really hope that was just an off day!

My thoughts after this meal: I am a long time fan of Jun I, therefore this  experience was definitely not one I was expecting. I  know, that is life, and life goes on. I was just not prepared mentally for this, under their roof. There is a reason why Sushi Masters have spent years perfecting their craft. There is a reason why Sushi is considered as true art by many people.  I know that the newer generations of  cooks  can’t afford spending the time that their predecessors did, and that is understandable. But then, ensure you spend some time mastering the fundamentals (knife skills, handling of the fish, the rice, the basic gestures of a skilled and experienced itamae) alongside various Sushi Masters, those in the know. Observing is also very important as in observing how a true Master Chef keeps his working space organized. You can do that without the long and painful years that the older generations of Sushi Chefs went through.  I was sitting at the sushi counter, on that  evening, and that is what comes to mind.

Sushi Azabu, New York

Posted: February 8, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Sushi Azabu, New York
Michelin stars: 1
Addr: 1428 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013, USA
URL: http://www.sushi-azabu.com/
Phone: +1 212-274-0428
Type of cuisine: Japanese (mainly a sushiya serving traditional Edo-Mae sushi)

01 In NYC, you have Masa, which according to their local sushi experts,  is on top of the roof of their top tier sushiyas. Then, you have their other elite sushiyas , such as Nakazawa,  Yasuda, Azabu, Jewel Bako, 15 East. I tried Yasuda (I was missing the superb knife skills as well as the superior  work of the textures that I better enjoyed at other sushiyas in Nyc) and 15 East (I find Azabu better, in comparison, but 15 East had couple of noteworthy food items)  in 2015. Never tried Nakazawa, Masa and Jewel Bako. It is NYC, so keep in mind  that the price tag (therefore the cost performance, especially in comparison to what you can get in Japan at equal cost) will oftently be the issue.

I tried Azabu on Saturday Febr 4th 2017. At first,  I did not know which one to choose between Jewel Bako and  Azabu, the two Sushi shops that were highly recommended by some NY foodies I trust, during this visit to NYC, but Azabu had (more) cooked food that my current girlfriend (she does not eat raw food) could eat (cooked king crab, wagyu beef steak, tempuras, etc).
I picked the larger omakase and they fed her on shrimp tempura and wagyu beef steak
The 1st course comprising of a piece of amberjack and salmon:
02Marinated Amberjack was seasoned exquisitely. As expected, from a kitchen of this quality, the marinating technique is flawless, its timing well judged. It came with a delicious piece of mushroom. (9/10)
03Smoked salmon boasted vibrant texture, the quality fish expressing plenty of complex joyous flavors 9/10
05Then an array of seafood items composed of octopus  (8/10 superb chew and texture), A first-rate piece of perfectly tenderized  abalone  which kept its maritime flavor at the forefront (9/10), amberjack and fluke and shrimp of impeccable quality. The wasabi is freshly grated wasabi root imported from Japan. This was a first-rate collection of sushis, even by the standard of a mid level sushiya in Tokyo.
06My current girlfriend  ordered some shrimp tempura which she had nothing to complain about.  I can see how extraordinarily lighter such  batter could be in the hands of a specialist of the tempura, but Azabu is a sushiya, not a specialist of the tempura, and the batter was still very well executed, the tempura light and tasting delicious,  (8/10).

07She also had her wagyu  beef steak, which was fine but both her and myself do regard wagyu as a (generally) vastly overrated meat. The finest Wagyu I had in Japan have  not changed my opinion about that, as already debated here.

08My tasting menu continued with some utterly fresh uni from Hokkaido  –the firmer bafun uni on the left, the creamier murasaki on the right — as tiny as I remember them from the last time I had them in Japan. As explained elsewhere on this blog, I prefer some of the sea urchin from the mediterranea and California. But Hokkaido’s uni are among world’s best, for sure, with, this time, the murasaki standing out for its sweeter flavor. Sometimes, it is the bafun uni that can be the sweetest of the two 8/10
09Then a tasting of  lean, medium fatty and  torched fatty tuna. The quality, high, as expected. This, too, would not be out of place at a serious mid level sushiya in Tokyo. 8/10
10King crab miso – the flavor and aroma of this particular miso preparation lifting up the flavor of the grilled crab remarkably well. Eventful 8/10
11Then the “Chef’s choice of nigiris” featuring flawless sea urchin/tuna/scallop/salmon/salmon roe/squid/wagyu beef. The fish sliced with precision (even world class Sawada was caught with one or two pieces that were imprecisely sliced ..and that happened at other highly regarded sushiyas of NYC, too), the rice served at body temperature (my preference), the proper pressure applied to the relevant rice/topping combination, the rice not overseasoned, i.e., not too vinegary.  Again, even for a mid level sushiya  in Tokyo, this would be excellent. 9/10
12As part of the previous Chef’s selection of  nigiris, there was also a piece of tamago that I did regard as a benchmark of its kind. I liked it so much that I ordered 3 of them. As I wrote elsewhere on this blog, even some of the  best mid level sushiyas of Tokyo did not always deliver tamago that have impressed me, although the tamago will always be a matter of personal taste given the different types of tamago you will find at sushiyas. Either the umami flavor is  more present, or it is balanced with the sweet taste of the tamago,  or its focus is on the eggy flavor, etc.  I am fonder of the sweet kind of tamago. Azabu’s tamago is of the sweet kind, executed with great finesse, the fresh eggy aroma exciting on the palate, sweet like the one I had at sushi mizutani, as technically well crafted, but bigger in size and which I much preferred  (eventhough Mizutani’s featured a more complex set of nuanced flavors and  eggs of surreal quality) 10/10
13A miso that is a first-rate version of its kind, the taste enriched by the subtle nuances of the remarkable kind of miso they are using. (10/10)
14We ended the meal with some flawlessly textured home made green tea ice cream (for me) and an equally excellent Mochi and Vanilla / chocolate ice cream for her (9/10). I ordered the Mochi for my girlfriend to introduce her to the importance of textures in food for the Japanese.  There was a strawberry that came with her dessert, but I forgot to ask if it also came from Japan. The last time I was in Japan, I did try some of their most celebrated (consequently expensive) strawberries and left unimpressed. They tasted as good as any strawberry anywhere else on planet earth (which is exactly how this one at Azabu tasted like, too).
Pros: Azabu deserves to be considered among NYC’s top tier sushiyas. It is also a proper 1 star Michelin sushiya outside of Japan. Its does not have the tsukiji market in its vincinity but they import their fish from Japan. The knife as well as overall cooking skills  is strong for this  category of  sushiya (comparable to a respectable mid level sushiya if this would be in  Tokyo), the tiny space so cozy, the service genuinely hospitable.
Cons: N/A
15Food rating (categ: top tier sushiya in NYC) 8/10 – Top shelf sushiya in its category.  Just remember that there are two seatings per night (we had our table available till  08:30 pm, therefore i presume that the first seating  is from 05:30pm till 08:30 pm) and that its sushis are of the classic sort  (no experimental sushi here).
What do I think days later: One of the foodie friends who has recommended Azabu told me to expect excellent sushi but not unparralleled one. Azabu was exxellent, indeed,  as they fed me, up to now, with some of the best sushis that I ever had in NYC. As ever, restaurants do sometimes change some items on their menus, as I noticed, in old online reviews, that they once had a tamago similar to a creme brulee at Azabu. I doubt that such tamago would have the same impact as this tamago that deserved my praises, but I can only talk about the food they served me, of which I admired the precise slicing of the fish and assured technique in virtually everything (marinating, smoking, coaxing delicious flavors, etc). Based on what I came to expect from a 1 star Michelin sushiya outside of Japan, Azabu did impress by not sticking to a safe/correct performance as it is so common at the big majority of eateries in North America. This was clearly the work of skilled Chefs with their personal imprint rather than some dudes replicating whatever someone else has asked them to simply replicate properly. Sushi Azabu also knows how to make the experience of a diner enjoyable, as, to take an example, there is no need for all parties of the same table to partake in a tasting menu. I can have my tasting menu while my girlfriend enjoys whatever she wants to eat. And here, there was not one single rotten apple that happened to find his way in the service with the sole intent of ruining your appreciation of the dining experience and the superb work of the rest of his team  as it was the  case during my last visit at another 1 star Michelin, Torishin. Was my foodie friend right when he mentioned that Azabu was not unparralled? If you find a 1 star Michelin that is unparralled, then it is a 3 star Michelin. Lol.  Unparralled is what you should expect at a 3 star Michelin, not 1, and yet a fraction of the 3 stars are unparralled. I loved sushi Azabu.
01Miss Favela (Addr: 57 S 5th St, Brooklyn, NY  Phone: +1 718-230-4040 URL: http://www.missfavela.com/is a Brazilian restaurant as well as a  dancing bar, with a live band playing on most evenings. We were looking for Brazilian food on that particular evening, and this was the closest Brazilian restaurant to where we were. And as we love Brazilian music, Miss Favela combined both the food and the music we were looking for at that moment
02We ordered a platter of varied appetizers   (codfish croquette, quibes beef croquette, fried rice croquette, cheese ball) which did not have much in a way of taste: the quibe, an influence from the lebanese community in Brazil and a nibble that I am particularly fond of, was  a world away from the finest quibe I ever had as it was way too dry and could therefore express barely any flavor (0/10), codfish and fried  rice croquette tasted very ordinary whereas exciting codfish and fried rice croquettes do exist, at plenty of eateries BUT … not here (1/10), the balls of cheese boasting a particularly hard consistency I never knew a nibble could have (0/10). The platter of nibbles that you see on the above picture costing a glorious total of  36USD! …certainly not the cost performance of the year.
03I went for the Moqueica de peixe 26.5USD which is basically a coconut based stew with fish as the protein. In some regions of Brazil, the Moqueica de peixe is spicier than elsewhere. Miss Favela’s  Moqueica de peixe was not spicy, which is my preference for seafood stews. This came with an absurdly price tag that was sadly not proportional to its flavor. 5/10 for that dish, which is tolerable (because it was freshly cooked to order) but no more (just a basic stew that anyone could do at home, but priced as if it came from a restaurant that would make the top 10 of a big western city). Tolerable being actually a very generous statement. At plenty of Brazilian restaurants in North America, I had more flavorful Moqueica de peixe at a fraction of what miss favela is charging, which is what it should be as these are not expensive ingredients.
The service was fine but it was laughable to see them adding an extra 20 % service charge on the tab. In comparison, a world class food destination like sushi Azabu would charge 18%. Clearly, with its inflated prices at every opportunity possible, miss favela thinks highly of itself. Just wished I could think highly of its food too.
Bottom line: the food is not only uneventful, but charging high prices for ingredients that cost nothing to buy  like pork or salmon at the grocery store .. that is the perfect recipe if you want your diner to remember how ridiculously overpriced your food was. At least lift up those ingredients with dazzling flavors (Moqueica de peixe is not rocket science, it is a fish stew, but it dazzled elsewhere in the hands of other Brazilians),  which they did not even bother doing at miss favela. Go there ONLY for its enjoyable unfussy tropical ambience (music was great).
My thoughts, weeks later – Ironically, the food that I ordered at miss favela is  the kind of food  that I am traditionally partial to … because (1) Moqueica de peixe is in my lifetime top 10 favourite dishes as I grew up on a  dish that is very similar. Like many people, I tend to perceive the flavors of my childhood as the best ones. So it takes not much for a dish of Moqueica de peixe to seduce ma palate (2) quibe has that same advantage, too, as I love quibe (3) codfish and rice croquettes are my preferred types of  croquettes.

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Hvor (Addr: 1414 Notre Dame Ouest, Montreal, QC ; Phone: 514-937-2001 ) has been in my top 3 in Montreal since its opening in 2016. Despite the Scandinavian name, their  focus is on contemporary Franco Japanese cooking (French technique with Japanese sensitivity) . They now have one “surprise” tasting menu and clearly lent an ear to those who need not to be surprised as, on the evening of my visit, the wait-staff explained that  an A la carte menu (only verbal, not written) was also available. This is a kitchen brigade capable of great creativity (but not a creativity that will shock as the flavours remain familiar/comforting for  anyone accustomed to the contemporary cosmopolitan restaurants of any big city of the western world), therefore I chose the “surprise” tasting menu.
01Their  take on the japanese okonomiyaki savoury pancake, cabbage, black trumpet, truffles, foie gras mayonnaise  – inventive take on the okonomiyaki with superb ingredients, served at  a warm temperature that did add  a lot to the enjoyment of this  delectable   take on  the okonomiyaki  9/10
 02Hirame fish (fluke in this case,served raw), marinated in a  citrus vinaigrette, served with a dressing of   japanese pickled red radish (daikon), white radish, persimmon, habanero chilli – the quality of the fish high, the pickling of the red radish excellent,  the hint of sweet persimmon,  spice  red radish / habanero chilli  are well matched to give this dish  great complex layers.   8/10

03Jerusalem artichoke velouté (the velouté was mixed with  white beer), shrimp from British columbia, mushrooms, sunflower seeds (the mushrooms and the sunflower seeds having the look  of a mini  tartare in the middle of the velouté, the shrimps atop) – the velouté  rich, dense with a necessary kick of salt that lifts up the flavor of the velouté. Oftently, kitchen brigades and diners confuse “too salty” with a necessary bold kick of salt. A talented Chef should never be afraid to use a  bold  “kick” of salt where it is really necessary. That is the sign of intelligent and inspired cooking, which is  what they have accomplished with this dish. A first-rate velouté. 9/10

Carpaccio of Quebec’s lamb, grated prosciutto of that same lamb, a bit of tarragon oil (which blended remarkably well with a touch of sweet onion confit), a pesto made of jalapeno/mint/delicately crushed almonds. The dish also featured some marinated chanterelles and drops of mayonnaise of Japanese sardines. For many kitchen brigades, that collection of endless ingredients would lead to a lack of synergy between the components of that dish. Not here. The top quality lamb from Quebec was not the sole star: the pesto was a benchmark of its kind,  exciting on the palate. Exciting could also be said of the mayonnaise, every single ingredient of that dish as well as the dish as a whole. The parts and the sum of all parts dazzled. Exciting is generally a word I do not use profusely in my reviews (not that I would not like to, not at all, but only because most restaurants are just replicators of generic recipes) but this dish forced me to do so. A dish pertaining to the big leagues here and abroad. 10/10

04Rutabaga fettucine, black truffles, hazelnut butter, mimolette cheese – the aldente texture of pasta faithfully replicated in the superb crunchy texture of the top quality rutabaga. It is true that top quality produce is one important aspect of such perfected dish. But then, that is a tool and you need to know what to do with it. What they did with the superb produce they had in hands is a dish that expressed a really high level of technical execution (precise cooking, perfected textures) ,  and superlative flavors. Lots of wit.  It is hard — by any level of cooking, here and abroad —  to improve upon such dish 10/10
05Cod, celeriac, Vermouth flavored sauce – The flesh  kept properly moist. Fine sear of the cod’s skin. Ok  6/10
06Rabbit wrapped with speck (beacon fat) and chocolate sauce – The speck adding necessary fatty and meaty flavor to the rabbit, the chocolate sauce having the necessary delicate cocoa bitterness to cut through the fat of the speck while still complementing very well a meat of restrained flavor such as the rabbit. Technically, this pertained to a very high level of cooking as they nailed it where …. even highly regarded kitchen brigades do sometimes fail by misjudging  the right percentage of cocoa that is needed in chocolate sauces that are used in combination with meats. That percentage of cocao is obviously important as it determines the intensity of bitterness to be found in the chocolate sauce. Less bitterness from the cocoa would have led to a flavor profile that is generic/ordinary . A tad more bitter and you may as well remove the rabbit as its presence would not be pertinent anymore.  They made something  tricky look effortless.   8/10

07The dessert was a technically assured interplay of textures around (essentially) white chocolate and citrus fruits: White chocolate mousse/powder/meringue, sorbet of bergamot orange / lemon and some drops of vodka gel – a dessert that would not be out of place in a serious michelin star restaurant with meringue, mousse, gel, powder and a sorbet of sheer perfection (striking textures). Glamour in the form of a dessert 10/10

PROS: the world class cooking of the Rutagaba fettucine and lamb carpaccio of this evening

CONS: N/A

Overall food rating (Category  Top tier restaurant in Montreal): 9/10 Culinary-wise, I found this meal more  exciting  than  what I ate the other day at Atelier Joel Robuchon Montreal (both kitchen brigades happen to be inspired by French and Japanese cuisines). This is also one of  the very best meals I had in Montreal in a long while. Hvor’s kitchen brigade takes the risks that many Chefs are afraid of (for eg, using a vast array of  ingredients ), turn them into successful creations and ensure to cover all aspects that great cooking should go through: tasting great, inventive, technically strong. Excellent service, inspired wine pairings, first-rate ingredients and a pretty restaurant. Hvor is in my top 3 in Montreal in good company (La Chronique and Le Serpent).

What I think days later – I do not use ratings for the fun of it. I use them to underline how far a dish expressed a deep level of inspiration (going beyond and above the basic act of replicating a recipe). I realized, with time, that most of the dishes that I have rated with a 7/10, despite being good dishes, were essentially just the work of a chef replicating a recipe for the sake of replicating it (there are, of course, exceptions to this rule). The “industrial” or “factory”  effect, if you want. I am polite, so I do usual define the “factory” effect ..when the food is still decent…in terms such as “this was good execution rather than benchmark craftmanship”, it was “fine”, it was “pleasant”, it was “correct”. Yep, read between the lines! But that is not the “effect”  I deem worthy of leaving the comfort of home for. Anything above an 8/10 is not an applied recipe. It is the work of a talented Chef expressing true cooking skills, a touch, some wit. When I look at the reviews of my meals at Hvor, I see a lot of those 8/10, and  even dishes largely deserving of higher ratings. Of course, it helps that I appreciate both French and Japanese cuisine, but without true skills, you won’t win my heart. Hvor won it and I hope it never stops to excel at what it is doing right now.

My foodie adventures were limited to New York and Montreal in 2016.

In Montreal, Hoogan and Beaufort started the year on a high note (my first two meals), but my third visit impressed less, which is also what happened at my long time favourite pizzeria in town, Bottega. I did not care for my meals at Le Fantome , Yakitori Otto and Tiradito, all regarded as great restaurants by our local food journalists and most local food bloggers. Hvor (in my current top 3 in Montreal) and Marconi were my two preferred local restaurants in 2016. I also enjoyed some genuine ethnic food at Petite Ya Quartier (Congolese), Casse croute Notre Dame (Haitian) and Hot Africa (Pan African).

01I did spend plenty of time eating in New York in 2016. One highlight was the superb savory dishes at the River Cafe (located in Brooklyn, near the Brooklyn bridge), a restaurant widely known as a romantic destination but which savory french gourmet dishes happen to be as memorable. I ate at Atelier Joel Robuchon Montreal in January 2017 and in comparison, the French based gourmet food (the savoury dishes, not the desserts)  at the RC had the edge. And I swear it is not romance that influenced my impression of the RC. New York has it all, so I took advantage of its varied food offerings and tried different types of cuisines. One of them is yakitori (Japanese gastro pub), which  is well represented in New York, but the yakitoriya that stands out  is  the 1 star Michelin Torishin, which  fed me with some of the best yakitori food to be found in North America, alas  they had, on the day of my visit,  two employees whose “exploits” would have led to the immediate demotion of their sole Michelin star if I was an inspector of Michelin. All I wanted when I was at Torishin was to build a wall between those two dudes and myself and have Torishin paying for it. The account of my meal at Torishin can be perused here. New York is also the mecca of North American steakhouses and after trying some of their best steakhouses (Bull & Bear Prime Steakhouse, Peter Luger, Del Frisco’s double Eagle, Strip House), I have to say that for my taste, the steak I had at Wolfgang’s steakhouse Park Avenue‘s matches the sort of steak I like (essentially because they dry age their steaks and season it the way I like it), with true Chefs instead of just some dudes hired to flip their steaks on the broiler, the service starting really well but ending poorly. While reading online reviews on their various New York locations, I noticed  that many people complained about the exact same poor service I have experience at  the end of my  meal (basically, the waitstaff disappearing once the food is served). So, I will go back and adapt  (by, as example, asking for a bottle of water so that you do not have to wake up and try  finding a waiter when you need water, etc) to what seem to be common at some of the WS NYC locations, which  a diner should not bother about at a restaurant, especially   given the pricetag of your  bill at this kind of  steakhouse, I will admit. But for now, no other steakhouse in NYC has fed me with a steak that is dry aged and tasting like the one at WS (apart Peter Luger, but WS offers a greater variety of starters, main courses and desserts). Of course, you can also find some great service at a pricey restaurant in New York, as proven by my meal at Marea which is a superb Italian restaurant by North American standards but could be even better with meat, poultry and vegetables coming straight from Italy. I am usually a locavore, but in the case of Marea, the produce from Italy is what they were missing during my meal there. Another good finding was La Caye, as great as a Haitian restaurant can be in North America, but a restaurant that badly needs to start serving some dazzling cocktails to be a perfect caribbean restaurant. Jordan’s lobster dock in Brooklyn is another place I would highly recommend: nothing fancy here, as it is basically a seafood shack, but I have not found a better  seafood shack in New York up to now.

02L’Atelier Joel Robuchon, the  restaurant chain  of Chef Robuchon, has — since  December 2016 — a branch  in the casino of Montreal (1 Avenue du Casino, Montréal, QC  Phone: 514-392-2781 Click here for their web site) . At the helm of the restaurant, Chef Eric Gonzalez – This is a major opening for Montreal and Eric is a logical choice for such venture given his past experience in Europe with  well known Chefs Bernard Loiseau and Jacques Chibois. He was also working  at restaurant Clairefontaine when the venture was awarded with a Michelin  star.  In the past, I ate Eric’s food in his days at Le  Cube (now closed) , then at Auberge St-Gabriel.

I took the “seasonal discovery” menu (there are also A la carte items, a ” small portions ” / vegetarian /and  another tasting  menu) :

foie-gras The amuse-bouche was  creamy foie gras royale (a foie gras based flanc), topped with parmesan cheese emulsion and a  Maury “vieilles vignes” wine reduction sauce. Once mixed together (which you are supposed to), this food item  provided an  enjoyable mouthfeel, rich and yet refined. As it will be the case all along this meal, every single element is executed correctly   7/10

salmon-tartareSalmon tartare (from Nova Scotia) with caviar (from British Colombia) atop, shiso shoots and gold leaf.  The tartare was good, the quality of the salmon and caviar noticeable. There is some nice caviar from Estrie that tastes exactly the same  as this caviar from BC. So why going that far for the caviar?  That said, as it came out from my discussion with the waitstaff,    top quality produce from Quebec is a priority, and indeed I could appreciate their effort in that regard as some great Québecois produce such as the scallops from Percé and halibut from Gaspésie featured on the written menu.  This  fine logical combination of  ingredients was good. Robuchon’s plating is always elegant and that was going to be an evidence during this meal  7/10

 

scallopsScallops from Massachusetts, endives and black truffles: around this time of the year, I recall having sampled some dazzling scallops from Gaspesie in the past. The scallops of this evening  were undoubtly fine, their maritime fragrance at the forefront. But those from Gaspesie had the edge.  Still, nicely seared tasty scallops and a salad of endives ( great soucing of the endives)  that was not an afterthought. Good 7/10

chataigneVeloute of chestnut, spring onion mousse, cardamom cloud. Chestnut veloute (which is very popular in France) is not common in Quebec,  therefore, this may come as a   pleasant “discovery” for many local diners. Which is always a “bonus” as far as  the dining experience goes. This was delicious and well made. Very good 8/10

 

lobsterLobster, coconut emulsion, wasabi flavored spinach, tempura chips, civet – lobster (claws) cooked just through, coconut emulsion, a civet  and tempura chips showcasing fine technique. Cooking lobster is certainly no culinary achievement,  but I have a soft spot for seafood handled and sourced this well …. no matter the level of the cooking. Very good 8/10

halibut-Halibut from Gaspésie, shiso shoots tempura, cuttlefish ink risotto. The halibut’s cooking is well timed. Halibut can get dry really fast, so timing is important. The delicious risotto (bomba rice) retained a perfect all’onda consistency  7/10 for the halibut, 8/10 for the risotto (it is a tasting menu, therefore the risotto came in small quantity)

 

quail-Honey/Soya sauce lacquered quail  was served with Joel’s fabled pomme purée, which is a potato purée with a bit more buttery flavor and refined texture than your  usual pomme puree (from what I remember, the pomme purée was more delicious at Atelier Robuchon Etoile). This is a good example of why this meal —  although, well composed  — never managed to knock my socks off: this quail, as expected  from a Robuchon restaurant, is of good quality. But quail is  usually packed with a flavor that is a bit assertive (a bit more than chicken, for eg) and that can stand up well with strong spices and the use of flames (chargill, etc). Here, they have opted to refine the flavor of the quail and I was not thrilled (of course, a matter of personal choice)  eventhough their quail was enjoyable  (in a way, it reminded me a bit of what a high end isakaya would do with their quail – refining its taste, adding luxurious touches like the foie gras that this quail was stuffed with, and opting for an oriental flavor profile such as the one provided by the Honey/Soya sauce of this evening’s quail ). This dish is a signature dish that is offered at other Robuchon restaurants in its current form, therefore do not expect any modification to the formula.   Still a   7/10

cocoParfum des Iles – Passion fruit cremeux (the cream successfully dense and soft as it should, with the flavor of the fruit  present enough), rhum granite (the semi-frozen dessert having  its rhum flavor subtle, so subtle that I would not know if it was flavored with rhum had they not mention it – the subtle rhum flavor was not a bad thing in this case as a strong flavor coming from the rhum would have overwhelmed the dessert), coconut wisp (fresh coconut aromas that went  well with the passion fruit cremeux).    7/10

 

cranberryLe rubis – One of  the signature desserts of Robuchon restaurants. The ingredients and presentation may vary  from  locations to locations. The one I was having was made of cranberry buttercream  which was a particularly enticing  flavor, calpico jelly (calpico is a japanese drink, tasting a bit like yoghurt)  and a lychee chantilly.  I had a version of Le rubis once at Atelier Joel Robuchon Etoile in Paris and the Parisian Rubis dazzled more (more flavorful). Still,  the execution was correct, the flavors fine.  7.5/10

The breads (a small basket of a perfect pain baguette, delicious Quebecois Alfred le Fermier cheese bread, some snail-shaped bread as delicate and light as a croissant and a bacon/dijon wheat stalk  bread) , freshly baked on the premises (among the best breads you will find at a local restaurant) , were all excellent (Joel Robuchon seems to always hire  talented bakers as the breads have always been consistently superb at his restaurants abroad). I picked a coffee (superb) and the meal ended with their usual  mignardises (well made pâte de fruits and macarons).

Service was  professional, and yet warm, friendly. And the  black and red luxurious interior design is attractive.

PROS: By Montreal high end restaurant standards,  this is already a destination restaurant. Opting for the informal counter seating “Atelier” concept, rather than formal fine dining,  is “the way to go” in Montreal, I believe.

CONS: The  desserts lacked crunch and bite – which is understandable with one dessert, but not with two – and that is an aspect they could improve upon.  A texture change between two desserts is always more fun. Furthermore, I think that a chocolate-based dessert — like le “chocolat tendance” or the “chocolate sphere” found at the other AJRs around the globe — would have better complemented their wintery seasonal tasting menu and contribute a bit to the sense of “extravaganza” / “theatre” that you may sometimes find at other AJRs and that I was missing a little bit here.

Overall food rating: 7/10 by Montreal  top tier fine dining standards. There are 4,5 other Chefs in Montreal who,  in their prime, have impressed more with their French-inspired gourmet food , which is why I can’t rate this meal higher. For my taste, this meal was more about proper  execution/flavors / textures  rather than  benchmark cooking.  But the Robuchon’s empire has access to a worlwide network of experienced kitchen brigades, so expect the food to benefit from such expertise and thrive. And although I am big on local produce, I will  admit that one way for an International restaurant to surprise its local diners is by using produce that we are not familiar with. I bet that even the most ferocious advocates of our local produce will, behind closed doors, fantasize about the idea of feasting on alba truffles or hard-to-find wagyu beef if such items were offered at AJRM.

What I think days later: Occasional local diners may be impressed while well travelled foodies will be expecting more in light of the standards that AJR has set elsewhere. Then you have the dilemma of being an international restaurant with locals expecting you to be as local as you can be. Local Vs  international,  comparisons to what they have been able to pull off before….it is  tricky to be an AJR, I am sure. So, how do you assess a restaurant like AJRM, then? First, as it is a fine dining restaurant  offering French gourmet food, I assess  it in relation to  the best French gourmet food  I had in Montreal. At such, I had food which technique, taste and textures that dazzled more right here in Montreal. Then, the sourcing which, like the food, is of good quality at AJRM, but here, too, it dazzled more elsewhere in town with local Quebecois produce of world class mention and it is that kind of produce that I do expect at AJRM. I also compared the   dessert “le rubis” and the  pomme puree to what’s done in Paris because I think that both items should and can dazzle.

 

 

 

 

 

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01Escondite (Addr: 1206 Union Ave,  Montreal; Phone: 514-419-9755; URL:  http://www.escondite.ca)  is a popular  tacos and tequila bar  revisiting some staples of tex mex cuisine , adding  their  own twists such as the El general Chapo dish, which is their  mexican take  on the general Tao or combining  familiar local ingredients such as the maple syrup with  ingredients typically found in Mexican food, or, to take another example, by adding Mexican twists to some local staples.

Mexican food as well as its Tex Mex Americanized rendition is not unfamiliar to most of us, North Americans. Mexico being one  neighbor we tend to visit when trying to escape our harsh  winter. So, this is food  of which most of us   know what to expect. I am talking about realisitic expectations – For eg, I do not expect Mexican food outside of Mexico to taste exactly the same as in  Mexico as, obviously …  the tacos were not made with the exact same water, flour,  their  fillings not with meats coming from the exact same purveyors.  The diners are not the same neither, therefore not opened to the same depth of flavors. I doubt that diners outside of Mexico are ready to feast on some of the bold flavors found in Mexico or on some chapolines anytime soon. That is why I refrain from comparing  Mexican food in Mexico to its incarnations abroad. It would be nonsensical.

On this evening, I ordered:

 

03Their fish tacos (All their tacos are served as  a pair of  soft tacos made of 6 inches snack flour tortillas  for $8) are made of  battered deep-fried cod, a cream of avocado (in place of the common white creamy sauce that is usually found in baja-style tacos — which these tacos took their inspiration from) and cabbage slaw. I prefer this simple combination of ingredients in my tacos to the overhelming display of ingredients that can sometimes be found with fish tacos elsewhere. The battered deep-fried cod   featuring  a delicate  crisp. Although I tend to prefer the bold and rustic flavors of some traditional tacos, I have to admit that Escondite’s  refined fish tacos were still  very enjoyable 7/10

04Al pastor soft tacos, pork belly al pastor, grilled pineapple, onions. They use quality ingredients and that was key to this  taco as, to take an example, their pork was of better quality than at your average taqueria. They have marinated the pork belly exquisitely  well. 8/10

Guacamole: prior to my meal, while reading the online reviews on Escondite, I found that their guacamole is praised by some as the best guacamole they ever had, others finding it lacking in terms of seasoning. This one I was having was  judiciously seasoned,  the avocado perfectly ripe (essential for a good guacamole), the splash of acidity coming from the lime not overwhelming at all (the mistake you do not want to make with a guacamole) and yet vivid /  exciting on the palate. 8/10

 

steak-koreano-e steak koreano & nopal – sirloin, oaxaca cheese,  grilled cactus, pickled jàlapeno, spicy orange crush crema- this had a complexity of flavors that were very exciting.   This as well as the el pastor taco are my preferred bites at Escondite.  8/10

la-tinga-la tinga (tomato and chipotle chicken, queso oaxaca, lime crema ,  lettuce) hard shell tacos were the least interesting of the tacos I have tried as the flavors did nothing for me, and the hard texture of a tortilla is something I can live without   6/10

 

quesadillas-Quesadillas ($14) were as tasty as you would expect from good quality melting cheese (oaxaca and cheddar, in this case) in flour tortillas. black truffle paste and mushrooms were added for complexity. Oaxaca and cheddar were thoughtful and stood as the right choice of cheeses for the quesadillas. 7/10

 

05-Nachos 2.0 ($12) – Gyozas au monterey Jack, jalapeno, pico de gallo aux grenades, guacamole, queso fresco, crema au poivre noir (black pepper  crema).  Gyoza nachos are nachos shaped like dumplings. Rustic, in presentation, rather than sophisticated but that is normal for taqueria food. The mild flavor of the monterey jack cheese  complimenting well the guacamole and salsa fresca laid atop the nachos. The enticing blend of flavors perpetuated with the addition of the queso fresco and black pepper crema. This was a  highlight for me.   8/10

06-Pepper/Cinammon coated churros – There are many types of churros around the globe, therefore the suggestion that one churro is superior to another one is generally a misconception as it is more likely a matter of personal preference (talking about preference, I prefer the churros that are simply coated in sugar to the ones that are filled with either chocolate or dulce de leche – Escondite’s are of the coated sort ) … unless, of course, your churro is carbonized or drowning in a pool of oil.  I have heard  great things about  Escondite’s long ridged donuts, but they  were flawed on this evening:  they were surprisingly dry and hard  in texture and consistency instead of  boasting a nice crunchy exterior. I wish I could tell you about the interior, which — regardless of  the type of churros —  is expected to be soft,  but the churros I was having in this evening were way too  thin, making the interior so tiny that it would be hard to describe to human eye. It is not hard to find far better freshly made churros than these in Montreal   5/10

The cocktails (I took a cafe/tequila as well as a mezcla  based cocktail) I had on this evening were all memorable.

 

Upon its opening, Escondite took the local  restaurant scene  by storm. Since then,  not one single  local food blogger/journalist has missed the opportunity to shower the place with superlatives such as “the best tacos in town”, the “most authentic of them all”, “the best churros”,  etc. Of course, the “best of” has never meant anything, but I was curious to see if  this taqueria could better its competitors on the culinary front. For traditional tacos,  it is El Rey Del Tacos that will pull flavors as close to the motherland’s as it is possible to find in Montreal. Maria Bonita  and Caifan are great at that, too. Maria Bonita and Caifan are not to be missed, btw. But this should  take nothing  away from Escondite which has opted to voluntarily add a their own  twists to tex mex cuisine. And it is doing it well. The best tacos in town? There is a myriad of taquerias here in Montreal with the big majority of them being fine and performing at virtually the same level. There is no benchmark tacos in Montreal. Just plenty of fine and some (very rare) bad ones. To the contrary of popular  belief, bad taquerias are rare. What is common is the unfortunate propensity  to perceive food as what we want it to be instead of accepting things the way they are supposed to. Most ppl  think that greasy mexican food equals badly executed food. It is certainly not healthy, but that does not mean that it is not delivered the way it should . Then we have preconceived notions about what temperatures are supposed to be right or wrong, what textures should prevail. Take the abalone or the squid. We have denied them the right to be what they are…they should be tender, that is what we want them to be. They are not tender by nature…but dare serving them a bit  chewy (which is their ideal texture for palatability ) and you get an avalanche of inaccurate views. Soon, we’ll have genetically modified abalone and squid, they will born tender like a kiss,  just to fulfill our fantasies, and everyone will talk about the squid and abalone of their incredible dreams.
Bottom line: Mexican food is flavor-packed by design  (who can’t make something tasty out of an avocado? strips of pork belly and pineapple? ground meat with grilled cheese? ) , therefore I do expect much more than just  tasty food at this kind of eatery. I expect good drinks, fine ingredients, good work of the textures of the food, the appropriate technique and a great sense of timing. Bad timing (who wants his ground meat served lukewarm?) and bad ingredients are the common culprits when people tell you that they had bad mexican food. I did not find those  usual culprits of bad Mexican food at Escondite, but good drinks/technique/timing/textures. And delicious food.  Escondite is doing well for a  tex mex inspired bistrot in Montreal.
Overall rating for the food: 7/10 (Category : tacos and tequila bar in North America)  by Tex Mex cooking standards in North America. I found the food generally well executed, always refined and yet full of  gusto. One fine taqueria, for sure. And it’s hip/lively.
What I think days later: One fun local taqueria that deserves its popularity. One important thing to know, though, but that virtually no one seems to have mentioned online is that the portions of the tacos are not sizeable (6 inches snack flour tortillas), which is starting to be the norm at many local taquerias, but those (like me) who are used to larger tortillas at tacos bars will need to know that.  With that in mind, the average diner will do fine with  two servings of their tacos if he is not hungry. At least three tacos may  be necessary to feel satiated.

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