Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Le  Virunga (Addr: 851 Rue Rachel E, Montréal; Phone: (514) 504-8642 ; http://www.levirungarestaurant.ca/)  opened 8 months ago on Le Plateau. As/per their web site, their cooking is influenced by both Quebec and Africa. My waitress explained that  the owners, both Mom (the Chef) and daughter are Congolese/Portuguese, who have travelled  through Africa  and have decided to share their appreciation of African cuisine. Whatever the script, as you will find out later on, this Mom is not just about the talk. She also walks the walk… a miracle on the local restaurant scene, believe me!

Africa, mon dieu, justement…. to Africa, I owe my passion for food. That is where it all started for me: 6 yrs old, yes … 6 yrs old, learning to cook, by observing my grandma cooking. Then, throughout the years,  learning from my Mom. Newer generations may associate this with folklore, but back in the days, we had no iphone, no TV. After school, I was grating coconut exactly like on this video, fishing and watching grandma butchering poultry, rabbits, etc. There are things we were eating back then and that the newer generations would not eat nowadays, even in Africa, such as the hedgehog  (the best meat I ever enjoyed in my life. In comparison, whatever they are trying to sell you as the most memorable meats, nowadays, whatever the BS…wagyu, etc… it is just some boring  joke in comparison).  That is where, my  foodie adventure started. Plenty of nostalgia. And more: no meat, no vegetable, no seafood ever came close to their dazzling renditions of my childhood in Africa. When I went visiting  Japan, they were very proud of  their exceptional tuna and world famous wagyu BS beef. When I went to France, their poulet de bresse was all the rage. I won’t argue with that, but inside of me, deep inside…. I knew that there was far better. Far, far better. And I had the priviledge to have sampled that,  because of you, my beloved Africa!

Africa, taught me to trust my palate. It started with a strong Bantu influence (culinary-wise, Bantu-based  cuisines  were my  very first steps into cooking, the flavors I was born with, if you prefer), but this beautiful continent had so much to reveal, so I went on studying, savoring, understanding the flavors of all the corners of the  continent. Africa, if I am passionate about food, today, that is because of you! It may mean nothing to the rest of us, but what matters is that it means a lot to me. Flourishes aside, the truth is that I hate reviewing African food. It is the food that I love the most (yeah I know, there is an incredible variety of African cuisines)  therefore the food that I am the most picky about. Does that makes of me a better judge of African cuisine than someone else? Absolutely NOT! It is food. A subjective topic, as one should know better! Your palate is your sole judge.

The state of African cuisine, right now, in Montreal – No African restaurant has managed to better the best African restaurant that Montreal ever had, Souvenirs d’Afrique (closed since a long time). But Le Virunga is now my preferred African restaurant in town. Le Nil Bleu is as great as your Ethiopian food will taste in Montreal. And it is a beautiful restaurant.  Hot Africa can surprise you with some of the best local homey African food, when it is in its prime, eventhough I am not a fan of their sauce of goat (a matter of personal taste).  Their  braised fish is the best in town, right now. But they badly need to take care of the interior decor. Diolo has, currently,  one of the best thieboudienne in Montreal and its Chef is a charismatic and very friendly cook. However, as it is the case at plenty of ethnic restaurants in town, the first days of the week (Monday, Tues, Wed) will come with its share of re-heated food that they coud not sell the prior weekend. So, on a quiet Tuesday at Diolo, I recall having a perfectly fine thieboudienne (actually freshly made) that came right after a reheated starter of pastel. Pastel is a disaster  when served reheated….! The “first days of the week” issue was also my main quip with a recent meal at Gracia  Afrika – click here for that review (Still, I think GA deserves a second chance, so I will go back there on a friday or saturday).  Near Jean Talon, La référence was doing a tolerable job until the day they took the risk of serving me beef instead of goat while insisting that it was goat. Big mistake! … you cannot take such risk with a foodie, who, on top of that, has Bantu cooking (the very same cooking that they offer at La référence) as the cuisine he grew up with. Consequently, the food he knows and loves the best. I never went back to La référence, but it seems closed. But then a Congolese foodie  had recommended Petite Ya Quartier to me, and when I went visiting PYQ, I saw some of the people who were behind La référence at PYQ and this time, things were far better with a grilled goat that dazzled. I haven’t tried East Africa , Restaut Bar le 30 JuinMarmite Africaine and  Le Bled, yet.

Le Virunga has an interior decor that’s tastefully decorated, simple and yet classy with appealing warm earthy tones. It is, right now, one of the very rare local African restaurants that’s taking care of its aesthetic (sorry Petite Ya quartier and Hot Africa, I love your food, especially you Petite Ya Quartier,  but Le Virunga, as well as Le Nil Bleu, despite their masculine names, are the true African “hotties” in town ;p ).

On the evening of my visit, the Pan-African (Sub-Saharan Africa  in this case) concise menu (the menu will change regularly, according to the staff) featured 5 starters (velouté d’Antananarivo, beignets de tilapia, Sosaties brochettes de faux-filet,  mini poutine de chèvre — their take on the Quebecois poutine, blending tropical ingredients such as plantain bananas/cassava with smoked cheese, bacon, a sautée of vegetables–, gateau de foie de volaille/crème de champignons/crostini de  banane plantain )  and six main courses (Poulet grillé, mijoté d’haricots, darnes de Malangwa, mijoté d’agneau, ragout de chèvre and poulet mijoté en sauce à la crème de noix de palme), served alongside a variety of tropical ingredients of good quality, using varied cooking techniques, priced fairly.

I started with:

Sosaties – Brochettes de faux filet marinées 24h au saveurs d’abricots, curry et pili pili,  Sauce mojo à la coriandre et jus d’orange sur lit de laitue. A duo of tasty faux filet skewers of fine quality, flavored with curry/pili pili/a mojo sauce mixed with coriander and orange juice. The seasoning well judged. This was refined, for sure, and perfectly accessible to  western palates, and yet  an African who spent time sampling the various flavors from the different corners of Africa will not fail  to notice that is  one genuine African flavor profile   7/10

Gboma Dessi – Mijoté d’agneau, sauce épinards à la togolaise servis avec duo de quenelles  d’igname,  et patate douce. The lamb as tender and as delicious as it gets in skilled hands, with a flawless spinach sauce (the genuine  flavor of the Gboma Dessi , a classic spinach-based sauce from Togo, is there, indeed)  +  sweet potato and yam  elevated to fine dining quality (meaning, not just your average pieces of  yam and sweet potato, but ones that are flavored and executed with finesse). Again and again, the flavor profile is genuinely African while reaching out to western sensibilities. It takes skills to do that this well, btw! 8/10

To finish my lamb, I did ask for the chikwangue  to test the Congolese roots of the Chef, but I was served a plantain puree instead (as the chikwangue was going to be too filling). Not to worry: the plantain puree was packed with exciting taste and boasted a perfected smooth texture. A plantain puree that’s a benchmark of its kind. Again and again, the African in me did connect with the flavor profile on display. 10/10

As an ultimate test, I asked for some chilli. When the chilli arrived, there was no doubt about how genuinely African its aromas stood. One exciting rendition of a genuinely African chilli sauce. 10/10

There were several desserts available. Some more “African” than others, but they materialized exactly what they have advertised: African cuisine with Quebecois accents.

So, I chose their Pudding chomeur Africain, creme whisky Quebecois – This is a perfect clin d’oeil to  a popular Quebecois dessert. I have spent 20 yrs in Quebec, and did therefore have plenty of time to understand what a fine Pudding chomeur should taste, smell and look  like. This was a perfectly well executed Pudding chomeur.  When I asked who made it, the waitress replied that it was the very same African Mom that did cook the rest of my meal. So clearly, when she  says that she  can deliver both Quebecois and African flavors, that was not just some talking. The waitress explained that for this pudding chomeur, the Chef was inspired by both the Quebecois pudding chomeur, naturally, but also by the South African Malva pudding. The Quebecois part was defining, in this case, and I am not going to complain about it! Superb dessert. 8/10

PROS: So thoughtful – it is African where it needs to be, Quebecois when it has to. Both are dazzling cuisines on their own rights, and yet, here they work under the same roof. It works because the Chef is talented. The proof that with talent, you can cook whatever you want and it will make sense.

CONS: Some imported wines, perhaps (??). My waitress told me that they are working on this. What to think about that? Well, it is a luxury that only the big gunz in town can afford because of their endless means. I would be Le Virunga, I would wait a bit on that one. On the day of my visit, the wine list was composed of  5 red wines (Kumala Western Cape / Petit cabernet sauvignon, Ken forrester/ Secateurs 2014 Badenhorst / Ke Pinot noir 2015, Klein constantia/The brew master 2013 , Nederburg)  and white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Klein Constantia/Hartenberg 2013 Bottelary Hills, Boschendal 2015 Groot Drakenstein, Old vine reserve 2015 Ken Forrester) as well as a bottle of MCC Brut 2012 Klein Constantia.

There was  also an enticing list of  several tropical cocktails.

Overall food rating: 8/10My Mom is the best cook, but your Mom ain’t no joke! “””  …that would be my message to the daughter. Lol!  I will go  back. Next time I will eat there, I will try  the chikwangue. I really want to test their chikwangue. It’s an item that is very technical. One of the most important items you need a Congolese Mom to nail. In light of this evening’s performance I have no doubt that  she would not fail the test. Chikwangue or not, I would, had I met the Chef,  tell her — very honestly  — as we say between Bantu Africans “Maman, respect, vous etes talentueuse! “. I know I am sometimes severe  with the Montreal restaurant scene, but that is because many of the local restaurateurs rest on their laurels… and that is – — rightly so — infuriating, especially with the ridiculous pricetag that most restaurateurs are charging in Montreal  (prices that  you generally find in world class foodie destinations like London, New York  or Paris). Le Virunga does not rest on anything… they cook, and they cook some of the most inspiring food I ever ate in this city. And it is not nostalgia that led me to such conclusion. It’s the powerful argument of their cooking skills.

My thoughts, days later: My (other) coup de coeur, so far, this year in Montreal (the other one is Marconi). Classy little restaurant, with  a gifted Chef, great service and superb food. As a diner, just remember that no Chef, as talented as he or she is, will be able to execute stellar after stellar versions of food, especially when embracing such ambitious project as cooking  food from the  vast swathes of land of  Sub-Saharan Africa. Inevitably, their Chef will have some food items with which she will be at ease, others, a bit less and that is normal. Other limitations of this ambitious program:  she will have to stick to African food  that can please western palates without losing its original flavors (which she is doing really well, right now), so I doubt  the Chef will cook food that’s more of an acquired taste (for eg a dish like The Romazava made with brède mafana from Madagascar, which is in my top 3 all time favourite dishes, will unlikely fit in the formula). Having said that, this is a Chef who can live up to the challenge.

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Nozy, Montreal

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

nozy-1Tokyo trained Chef Nozomu Takeuchi, has worked for a while at several great restaurants in North America, with a stint at restaurant Miso, before deciding to open his own neighborhood / unassuming eatery Nozy (Addr:3568, rue Notre-Dame Ouest Montéal, Québec ; Phone: 438-386-9797 URL: http://www.restaurantnozy.ca) . The restaurant has two seatings at dinner time.

This was the conclusion to my short recent journey into Montreal’s Japanese-style dining scene. My previous reviews were based on what the local experts were raving about (Jun I, Park and Sushi Yumi, aka “the big gunz” according to the experts) . For the last stop of this journey, I left the local experts behind  and I went my way. A huge risk, because  it is never  a good idea to part ways with the experts, especially when you are just a poor lonesome anonymous normal diner like me, right? You are right…LMFAOL!

I went for the omakase. But here, omakase is not just a branding…or a trendy word … as sadly used, with not much inspiration, by some of the top gunz in town.  At $60, this is the cheapest omakase of this quality in town. Ensure, though, that you do understand that this omakase is not offered to you one course at a time. Instead you are served several dishes at a time as clearly mentioned on their web site (they serve teishoku style food).

nozy-2Nice  plump fresh  oysters from Massachusetts.  Really good quality for an omakase priced this low. 7/10

nozy-3Miso soup, light yet rich in subtlety, nuances….meaning that someone skilled made it!  7/10

nozy-4Salmon served different ways (as a tartare, served raw, tataki style, with salmon roe atop), on a bed of rice. For me, great cooking is the ability to deliver enticing traditional flavors, no matter the presentation. Here, they shared my views, not on paper, but on the …palate! The  tartare dazzled (10/10), the raw salmon was good (7/10). Delicious, inspired, whatever the words … it dazzled in mouth!

nozy-5An assortment of food items, which, from left to right (based on the previous picture), did consist of:

Beef tataki, ponzu/daikon vinaigrette. Excellent beef, which consistency is kept slightly firmer than what western ppl tend to prefer, but firm or tender has nothing to do with what is right or wrong. It is a matter of preference. 7.5/10

In the middle, fatty tuna/albacore/Japanese snapper  6/10  – the fish is of good quality (I liked the fresh quality of the fish   that was on display and asked my waitress where the fish came from. She said it’s flown in from Japan, Canada and east coast U.S) , but I have to admit that I am picky with fish and this was the only time I thought the big gunz did better (for eg, better knife skills). That said, the big gunz like park, jun i and sushi yumi are either dedicated sushiyas (jun i and sushi yumi) or, in the case of park, reknowned for their sushi. By contrast, Nozy is not a sushiya, thus I am not expecting Nozy to showcase perfect knife skills, etc. Still,  the big gunz can…. sleep away…as Nozy did far better when I am eyeing  at the “big picture” (the overall food performance).

Good fresh wakame salad with the genuine flavors of Japan at the forefront  7/10,

They did present the two sets of assortments in a bento box. One part of the box concealed the previously food items. The other part had:
nozy-6Black cod/miso (tasty, the classic recipe is applied not just properly but with flavors that shine 8/10), braised pork belly which showcased the homey look and dazzling comforting taste of mom-and-pop cooking (and that is a compliment) 9/10, delicious karaage (fried chicken) with a great crisp  7/10 – All in all, this was an excellent display of genuine Japanese flavors.

I skipped dessert as the dessert of the day, crepe caramel, did not interest me.

Pros: It has been a while that I haven’t felt so close to Japan..right here in Mtl! Right now, Nozy  has  a bigger variety of ingredients  and far superior cooking at ….  far less $$$ than at the supposedly “BIG GuNZ” in town.

Cons: N/A

Overall food rating : 8/10 On the culinary front, Nozy blew Jun I/Park/Sushi Yumi away. Whether those restaurants are serving the exact same type of dishes or not, that is irrelevant as I am talking about the culinary skills here. The same Japanese-inspired cooking skills that Nozy shares with the above mentioned top gunz in town. Because Nozy is not trading on the local upscale Japanese-style foodie scene (it is a neighborhood unassuming eatery, no frills, it does not have the  fine dining ambitions of  Park or Jun I), there is no online buzz about it. But I bet they could not careless: the tiny restaurant was full of very happy diners while I was there and their food sends the supposedly top gunz in town…to the wall of shame! I loved Nozy. It is not Tokyo nor NYC level, but it is, right now, the best Japanese spot in town. No plan is full proof (directed to you,  you the supposedly big gunz in town) as Nozy has demonstrated! It was refreshing to see a Chef working seriously without the need to wait after a poster diner (some cooks in town show up only when a celebrity or a food journalist has snatched a seat), it was refreshing to eat food that did not taste like a business model (meaning replicated, copied for the sole sake of making a buck), it was, for me,  refreshing ..finally, to refrain from sticking to descriptions  such as “ok”, and “correct” ;). I just hope they  never change under the pressure of success (a trend in Montreal).

What I think days later: As long as they can cope properly with success (because, success they will have, that is for sure, if of course, they keep the cooking performance this great ), Nozy will continue to be one serious destination for your fix of Japanese food in Montreal. I maintain what I wrote in the review of Park: for sushi, go to NYC. As long as our top local sushiyas can’t figure out a way to be consistently fine and get better, go to NYC!  But for non sushi items and genuine Japanese flavors, Montreal is surprisingly not doing that bad at all (Of course it is not NYC level, let alone Tokyo level), but Japanese cooking in Montreal (we’ll get to that soon – Now that I know what I needed to know about the top pics of our local experts, I will focus on what the normal diner that I am …thinks about the true gems of Japanese cooking in Montreal) is, slowly, doing better than what it used to, and there is better than the “top choices” of the local medias /  local experts. According to the local experts, Nozy is either “charming” (thanks, but that does not tell me what to expect on the culinary front) or a “safe bet” (safe way of staying safe, thanks for that, but I expect the local expert to tell me a bit more than than). Whoa! Lol. We, true foodies, won’t miss the experts, trust me …

 

This review of restaurant Park (Addr: 378 Victoria Ave, Westmount, QC; Phone:514-750-7534) completes my recent reviews of some of the best —- according to our local foodie experts (major local food journalists, major local foodie websites)  —- sushis of Montreal. The other two sushi spots that are highly regarded by those sources and that I have reviewed are Jun I and Sushi Yumi.
Antonio Park is the most talked about  restaurateur and chef of our local restaurant scene. I discovered his work years ago when he was at Kaizen. At Park, he offers his take on contemporary cosmopolitan cuisine that is influenced by Japan (non traditional sushi, sort of kaiseki)  as well as his Korean/Latin American background (the ingredients he does use, his takes on some korean staples).
I ordered the Omakase, which, on the evening of my visit, did consist of  5 courses (if I’d choose the duck magret) or 6 courses  (option of the sushi instead of the duck magret).
The menu has appetizers such as park style sashimi, nigiri, green salad, asian salad, 2 oz Japanese kobe beef, charcoal grill albacore sashimi, miso soup, edamame. The list of Mains goes like this: park  bowl (either with chicken or salmon), Jap Chae, sashimi moriawase, nigiri moriawase, etc
p1Mushroom shitake broth, ordinary shrimp – Between a glass of water and what I was having, I would opt for the glass of water. There was really nothing going on here, no taste, no depth, nothing. I have been dazzled, in the past, elsewhere by similar broths, and this one was a world away from those. The only pleasant feature being the dinnerware the broth was served in.  0/10
p2Scallops, shiso, kombu / tosaka algae with a tempura made of the mantle of the scallop (braised, then fried) – Fine raw scallop from Boston,  properly cooked tempura, properly done salad . Ok  6/10
p3Nigiris – Usually, I am fonder of the traditional Japanese style sushi, but I knew, coming here, that their sushis are not traditional. Shima aji, akami, yellow tail, tuna, salmon served as toppings to the nigiris. They were seasoned with ecclectic ingredients such as shishito pepper, jalapeno, maple syrup. This was properly done (fish well sliced, the rice and the taste not as great as at, say, a fine sushiya in nearby NYC, but correct for Montreal / the rice not far from body temperature on this visit). When you had tastier sushis of the traditional style, meaning with far less seasonings than these, you leave underwhelmed. Still, above average sushi by Mtl standards , though such feature is really not that hard to achieve. Ok  6/10
p4Makis (blufin tuna, reduction of maple syrup/soya), filling of cucumber/shiso/tuna. Fine enough. Again, not a maki which souvenir would linger on my mind. Still, above average by the weak standards of Makis in Mtl. Ok  6/10
p5Hamachi, akami, salmon, tuna albacore with spices of steak –  Ok, as Ok sashimi do taste and feel like. Ok is also how I would describe the broth. 6/10
p6White choco/ raspberry sorbet. Again, just Ok. Ok classic blend of white choco mixed with raspberry. Safe, safe, safe and not what I want to sample at an omakase priced … this high. Ok was, indeed, going to be the recurrent qualification of most of the food items of this meal …but Ok is not what I am looking for when I dine out…Ok?  6/10
Overall food rating: 5.5/10 (Categ: Montreal fine dining standards) –  You can’t afford one single  0/10  dish when you are not a world class restaurant. I did not invent that 0/10. Your broth …well, ….water tasted better! Get it? What rating would you give to a dish like that if I was serving you a broth that was less exciting than water??? At L’Arpege, to take an example, they could afford that. They could afford even 2 or 3 dishes like that. Because they have the kind of exceptional skills to wipe off such disappointments. Not you. Antonio (he was not present on that evening) would have definitely lifted up those dishes. Though, even with Antonio, let us get the records straight: Park is no exceptional eatery. That said,  this was still a tolerable meal / slightly above average meal… by the weak standards of the majority  (there are, of course, some few Japanese artisan Chef restaurants in town that are consistently good, but this time I wanted to focus on what the local experts had for us) of our local Japanese-inspired eateries. “Tolerable” happens to be over flattering in this case. I am generally not a diner who insists on cost performance, as proven elsewhere on this blog ( I have never mentioned cost at L’Arpege or L’Ambroisie, some of world’s most costliest restaurants), but this meal at Park is really way too $$$ for what I was getting (my meal at Hvor did cost way less with far superior cooking and dazzling produce). Meaning that I do not even have to go abroad to realize that this particular omakase is not worthy of the pricetag.
Pros: Service (10/10)  was the highlight of this meal. I am usually more into the food than the service, but I definitely know how to appreciate great service and will always take the time to mention it whenever it is the case. Antonio knows how to surround himself with a staff that perfectly balances professionalism and amiability. He did it at Kaizen, he keeps doing it at Park
Cons: A restaurant of this reputation and charging what they are charging should ensure that …when the main Chef is not working, the performance remains worthy of the pricetag.
Bottom line: Montreal is not a sushi destination, we all know that, but the sushi scene used to be way better here back in the days when Mikado/Jun I were in their prime   + there was a hole-in-a-wall sushiya on le plateau that was really good by mtl sushi standards. The rational thing to do is to save  your money and your time and just go to NYC for your fix of good sushi. At least, there, you will understand where your hard earned money has gone and you will have a good time.
Persuing with what is  —- according  to the  local major foodie web sites / local experts  (just google “best sushis in montreal” and the first links are what’s considered as our most important sources of local restaurant infos)  —–widely known as  the best local sushi spots in town, . I basically picked 2 high end (Jun I and Park) and one mid level (sushi Yumi) sushi shops among the best suggestions of those web sites / experts.  Jun I and Park surprised me, but …  not the right way (My review of Jun I, here. The one on Park, here). Sushi Yumi  stands out of the pack in the category “affordable local sushi”, according to the local experts. So, I went to find out.
Sushi Yumi (Address: 5124 A Sherbrooke St W, Montreal, Phone: 514-227-5300; URL: http://www.sushiyumi.com) is located in the wealthy neighborhood of Westmount. The space is small, but clean, with an unassuming interior. The sushi shop seems determined to serve you the freshest sushi of your life as clearly stated on their web site “””You won’t find : a fridgeful of pre-prepared, ready-to-go sushi in plastic boxes. At Yu Mi, shushi is made strictly to order – you order it and then it’s made.””” —
I picked:
p7Miso soup (tofu, seaweed, shitake and enoki mushroom) – lacking definition/depth/texture and gusto. A traditional take on the miso, which is my preference, but one that tasted very ordinary,  even  by our weak local standards. 3/10
p8Chef’s selection of 4 pieces of nigiri, 4 pieces of numaki ***, 4 pieces of tempura sushi.  – The nigiris had the common toppings of shrimp and salmon and tuna. Spicy  crab served as the topping for a piece of cracker, as well as the filling of some of the other makis. The rice of the nigiri had a consistency that was unpleasantly compact in mouth. The spicy crab did nothing for me (I found the taste hard to describe, as well as hard to enjoy). This was a very weak performance. I can understand that Sushi Yumi is offering affordable sushi but if that is what makes of SY one of the local top contenders in the eyes of our local experts, then the myriad of average cheap sushis in town should also be promoted as top contenders. And I certainly had better sushis in SY’s price range in Mtl. 3/10
*** as/per their web site, a numaki is “”Numaki are like maki sushi (sushi rolled and cut into thick slices) except: they’re wrapped in rice paper instead of dried seaweed, they’re made with vermicelli noodles instead of sushi rice, and they’re accented with our creamy house sauce “” —
Pros: N/A
Cons: The fact that, at that those prices, the fish can’t be stellar, that is fine, and that is why I refrained from elaborating further on the fish (it was ok for the low price, btw, BUT I can’t explain myself why the rice had to be of such unappealing compact texture and … whoever raves about that spicy crab, I wanna know who he is so that I can   him from talking about food. I am baffled …
Overall food rating: 3/10 I have no clue what the authors of Sushi Yumi’s  rave reviews  did feast on, at Yumi, but I was a world away from the planet they did land on.  Jun I, Park, Sushi Yumi do currently (as/per their fresh 2016/2017 assessments) rank high amongst the current top sushi shops according to the local experts, experts who have a strong influence on the promotion of food tourism in Montreal. To those promoters, I say “go to those places as a normal diner would, go on any day of the week, go when the star Chef is not there, then you will be promoting …reality!”. The problem is the perpetual lack of consistency at the big majority of Montreal’s sushi restaurants , the problem is that the promoters of Montreal as a foodie destination refuse to face that reality, the problem is that Montreal, as long as it  continues to accept such inconsistencies…will continue to have a widely overrated restaurant scene.
Bottom line: that is what you get when promoting is more important than cooking. Not the fault of sushi Yumi, but the fault of that culture of ´business first, the rest after. I mean, in plenty of cities around the world, they can both promote and deliver decent sushis  at the same time. The question is ´why isn’t that possible’ for most sushi restaurants in YUL?

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 are couple of laughable examples that “””speak volume”””: we are in 2017  and … fresh grated wasabi at a sushiya in  Montreal is still a futuristic project. Actually, there is probably one  wasabi root in the drawer, lol…BUT  it will be served to the  happy few (local celebs, a poster diner, etc). It sounds surreal, but that is Montreal. Primitive examples of that sort abound. The problem is that Montreal has nothing of a serious foodie scene, in reality. I said “the problem”, but I should have accurately submitted that it is “the reason” …one of the reasons, actually … why montreal has nothing of a serious foodie scene. 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(Category – Fine dining sushi in Montreal): 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. Montreal, oh Montreal, one of world’s most insconsistent restaurant scenes!!!  You just can’t keep doing things right….don’t you?? 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 came 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, 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.
I picked the larger omakase and they fed my girlfriend 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.  The sushi rice, which subtle  sweet and umami flavor notes went so well with the toppings,  is  from Tsuyahime from Yamagata prefecture. 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.

Overall food rating: 2/10 The food was not only uneventful, but to add insult to injury, it had to come at a high price for ingredients that would cost you nothing to buy at the grocery store. The perfect recipe if you want your diner to remember how ridiculously overpriced your food was.

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. Whoever is cooking at  that restaurant should occasionally go out and see how things are done elsewhere and where the level of Brazilian food is at, right now, in New York and its surroundings.  Go there ONLY for its enjoyable unfussy tropical ambience (music was great).

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