Mavi is no more

Since I’ve not seen mention of it anywhere, since it’s not hipsteriffic or “hot” enough to be on Eater‘s radar and since it deserves not to pass in silence, I thought I’d mention it here: once one of the city’s best Portuguese grills, Rôtisserie Mavi in Côte-des-Neiges is no more. The space had been dark for about three weeks and emptied out for about two. Yesterday evening, the windows were papered over and a big À LOUER sign had been put up. The demise was gradual and began a couple of years ago after the restaurant moved to a new location.

Business was usually brisk at the original spot on Gatineau a block and a half north of Queen Mary. Maeve Haldane provided an excellent snapshot of it in a 2006 Hour review that, amazingly, is still online. Unfortunately, that building and several of its neighbours (including the one that housed Boucherie de Paris) were slated for demolition to make way for condos. Maria, Mavi’s driving force, started looking for a new venue – not an easy task, as all candidates had to have a charcoal-burning permit. As it turned out, the most appealing option was a short block north on Gatineau, a locale that had previously been an Iraqi restaurant (the owner actually referred to it as a Basra restaurant) called Aseel BBQ.

On paper it looked great: a relatively roomy open kitchen with a large charcoal grill, about twice the square footage as the old space, large windows and a paving stone terrace in front that was wide enough to hold a half dozen tables. Rent was higher than Maira was used to paying but she figured she could cover it with increased business. She signed a multi-year lease and applied for a liquor permit.

Imagine her horror when the RACJ announced they wouldn’t be granting a permit because the new locale wasn’t zoned as a restaurant but as a dépanneur. And not only did that mean she couldn’t serve booze, it meant she couldn’t have more than 12 diners in the restaurant at a time.

She appealed to the borough and went to several borough council meetings. At the one I attended, she took advantage of question period to ask the borough mayor, the now disgraced Michael Applebaum, if he would intervene. His response was in equal measures smarmy, dismissive and condescending. “I have been to your old restaurant,” he told her. “The best grilled chicken in Montreal. The best. But why are you complaining? That restaurant could barely hold a dozen people. Don’t tell me otherwise – I’ve been there.” (In fact, it could and often did hold nearly 40.) “If you want a restaurant permit, you’ll have to apply to have the building rezoned. It’s as simple as that.”

Except it wasn’t. A week or two later, the building’s owners and I accompanied Maria to a meeting with the mayor’s underlings at the borough offices on Décarie. The functionaries were cool and unhelpful. Despite there being a restaurant immediately next door to Mavi (Cracovie) and another one door up the street in the opposite direction (Il Galateo), the space was zoned as a dépanneur period. Maria’s only option would be to launch the rezoning process. After receiving her request, the borough would study the question, which among other things would entail hiring, at Maria’s expense, an outside firm to conduct a survey of neighbourhood residents. Then, assuming borough officials decided to allow the rezoning, announcements would be posted in the neighbourhood and made in various publications, again at Maria’s expense. If any residents formally objected, a referendum would be held, yet again at Maria’s expense. If the result was in her favour, the space would be rezoned. If not, it would remain a dépanneur and Maria would be out many thousands of dollars for naught.

As Mavi was a mom and pop operation run on a shoestring, this was as good as a no.

“But,” I objected, pulling out online reviews of Aseel BBQ and some Google Streetview shots that showed the resto’s sign, “the place has been a restaurant for several years. Aseel was halal so no alcohol was served but it was still a restaurant. It had a menu on big panels above the counter. It sold nothing but freshly prepared food for consumption on site or takeout. The owner even built a banquette along one of the walls.”

“Well, if we can establish prior use as a restaurant, you may have found a loophole,” one of the functionaries said. “Can I keep these documents,” he asked me. “We’ll get back to you,” he told Maria. They never did.

Alcohol sales are a profit centre for restaurants. They’re also a big draw. Without them, Mavi began its slow decline. Fewer and fewer patrons decided to dine there until, at the end, it was little more than a very spacious takeout counter staffed only by an increasingly tuckered-out Maria.

Last fall, I suggested to Maria that she turn the unused half of the restaurant into a Peluso-style beer store, something the neighbourhood sorely lacks. It would bring people into the space, people who might also be tempted to buy dinner to go with their six pack. And since she’d probably offer beer deliveries, she could again offer food deliveries, which she’d stopped doing before the move. Beer sales + increased food sales = profit, or so it seemed to me.

She found the idea interesting but by then it was too late. And so the city has lost one of its better Portuguese grills and the neighbourhood’s food options have shrunk even further. CDN used to be a top spot for home delivery, with options like Chinese, Greek, Haitian, Portuguese and even Uighur. Now it’s mostly pizza and shawarma.

RIP Mavi. And best of luck, Maria, wherever you are.

(Note: The above description of the exchanges with borough officials is based on my somewhat fuzzy memory and the associated quotes are summaries of what was said, not actual quotes of the discussions, which in the event were entirely in French.)

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Larrys: a potential new favourite

A quick report on a quick, late-night visit to Larrys, the restaurant/wine bar that just opened in the small space on Fairmount East formerly occupied by Café Sardine and Bouchonné, among other predecessors.

Though the basic floor plan remains the same, the interior has been radically transformed. It’s brighter, arier and more modern – mid-centuryish even – but also less cozy and, as one member of our group pointed out, while the old decor gave the place an only-in-Montreal feel, the new one has none of that, could be in just about any city anywhere. Improvements include replacing the high banquette, tables and stools along the west wall with standard height versions and installing comfortable seating along the long edge of the L-shaped bar. Sound levels are bearable for once.

We were coming from a wine tasting and two of our group, pressed for time, went ahead of the rest of us. When we showed up, they were enjoying a bottle of hard-to-find Hill Farmstead beer. Their dishes hit the table as we sat down.

The early arrivers declared their food good but had a few nits to pick (the tomato sauce for the lamb-filled cabbage roll was said to be too sharp, for example). On the other hand, our dishes, all from the small plates side of the menu, were impeccable. The two tartares – beef (topped with a small egg yolk) and salmon – were cut by hand and more coarsely than is often the case, which, combined with the mild seasoning, let the main ingredient shine through, very welcome with meat and fish of such high quality. Accompanied by a creamy potato salad, the house-pickled herring fillets would have won raves at a Stockholm restaurant, while the pan-fried herring roe on toast with brown butter and capers was a knockout, a dish I’ve been jonesing for since the minute I finished it. A cheese plate consisting of two small slices of aged Louis d’Or was accompanied by a couple of hard biscuits and a fruit compote, both house-made.

Focused on natural wines and comprising a few dozen bottles, many of them affordable, the wine list is terrific. The servers are friendly, attentive and informed: ideal actually. Prices are reasonable. Divided three ways and including a bottle of a delicious, lightly oranged Italian white (the name escapes me) – but not the Ganevat Chardonnay generously offered by one member of the party – our light supper came to around $45 a person, including taxes but before tip.

If the quality of the cooking remains as high on subsequent visits, I can see Larrys becoming one of my favourite spots in town, especially for a late-night bite.

Why I’m probably not going back to the Opéra de Montréal anytime soon

Late last November, a friend and I attended an Opéra de Montréal performance of a favourite work, Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Soon afterward, the OdeM sent me an email asking for feedback and including a link to a website for the purpose. After answering a short, multiple-choice questionnaire, I took advantage of the comment box to file a short review and explain why, in this age of Met Live in HD simulcasts (which certainly aren’t without their issues), Opéramania screenings and plentiful DVDs/Blu-rays/downloads of superb productions, I probably won’t be a repeat customer in the foreseeable future. Here’s what I wrote:

For the most part, the staging was uninspired but inoffensive. However, sitting in a loge on the left side of the hall meant the entrance and steps to the palace, located far stage right, were invisible to us, and the director stupidly had a lot of the action take place there. Even Stage Direction 101 students are taught not to do this. The singers were fair, sometimes better, though the Klytemestra is in no way an actor. All in all, it was Nézet-Séguin’s night – a very lyrical, fundamentally romantic and ultimately convincing reading of the score, well supported by the orchestra. Unfortunately, the hall’s horrible acoustics made the sound qua sound hard to appreciate. Our loge was as close to being over the pit as it’s possible to get and the sound was muffled, unbalanced and never overwhelming (and in Elektra, of all operas, it should be overwhelming). Until such time as Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is gutted, rebuilt and given credible, opera-friendly acoustics, I’ll find it hard to justify spending another $100 on a ticket. In other words, that “maybe” above [in response to a question asking whether I would attend again] would more accurately be “probably not.”

Never heard back from them. Not surprising I guess.

If you’re interested in watching a worthwhile performance of this milestone work, look for the recent Aix-en-Provence production – the last opera staged by Patrice Chéreau – on DVD and Blu-ray (to be more or less reprised at the Met and simulcast in local cinemas on April 30) or the peerless Götz Friedrich film with an all-star cast,  including Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Strauss disciple Karl Böhm (and with, it’s rumoured, an uncredited Leonard Bernstein occasionally filling in for the ailing Böhm, who died soon after the filming was completed).

Top tool: RSVP Precision-Perforated Stainless Steel Five-Quart Colander

A colander is an essential part of any kitchen arsenal. I use one several times a week, sometimes several times a day. Over the years, I’ve probably owned a half dozen of them and this is the best by far. Like many of my favourite tools, it does only one job but does it supremely well.

What makes it great?

  • The many holes mean the liquid drains instantly and there are no areas where it pools.
  • The holes are small enough that even spaghettini and angel hair don’t escape. Ditto rice and Israeli couscous. There is some loss with quinoa, however, which is best drained in a fine-mesh strainer.
  • The five-quart size is perfect. As the holes go right up to the rim, so can whatever you pour into it. Unless you make, say, pasta for more than 10 people at a seating, it’s big enough.
  • Construction is first rate. Good gauge of steel – lightweight but sturdy. Welds are numerous and solid.
  • Stainless steel, so no rusting.
  • Both sides have been been polished after drilling, making it easy on the hands and sponge safe (no cheese grater effect as with some drilled or punched colanders).
  • Clean-up is easy. To my surprise, the holes don’t get clogged.
  • It’s broader than it’s deep, a good thing (faster draining, less crushing of soft ingredients).
  • It’s good looking. It could even serve as a fruit bowl or as classy headgear at pastafairan meet-ups.
  • It’s solid enough to withstand forceful pressing (for example, when you want to extract as much juice as possible from the solids of the stock you’ve made).

Any nits to pick?

  • The base could be higher (the liquid drains faster than the sink drain can handle, so the food may end up sitting in potentially contaminated water – though it’s easy enough to pour half the pot, let the liquid drain from the sink and then pour the rest).
  • I’d prefer that the handles and base be riveted on, not welded (not that they’ve loosened in four years of use).
  • It ain’t cheap (I paid a little under C$40 for mine four years ago).

I bought mine at an kitchen supply store in Ottawa, at the time the only place in Canada that stocked it. These days, it’s more widely available, including via Amazon.ca, though I’ve not run across it in a Montreal store.

(Photo credit: cutleryandmore.com. Click to enlarge.)

rsvpcolander

Lannes & Pacifique

Located on Beaubien a few blocks east of St-Laurent and open for more than a year now, Lannes & Pacifique is the latest addition to the BYOB empirette that includes O’Thym in the Village and Le Smoking Vallée in Saint-Henri.

The dining space – open, squarish and well windowed – has a rustic feel. Op art wall coverings in orange, white and brown lend a ’60s mod vibe. A mix of low and high wooden tables line the walls while a couple of high circular numbers in the centre are meant for largish parties. As usual for Montreal restaurants these days, you won’t find many sound absorbing surfaces.

In contrast to L&P’s siblings, it feels like there’s a chef, not a line cook, in the kitchen. At its heart, the cuisine is market-driven Franco-Italian bistro fare, though British, Indian, Nordic and even Latin American influences abound. Flavours are bold. Ingredient combos are original and often work. The menu appears to change seasonally, with rather good risottos, a fish du jour and tartares (usually beef and salmon) being fixtures. Just about everything, including the bread, is made in house.

To its credit, the resto is tolerant of wine geekiness. The stemware is decent and plentiful. Ice buckets are readily provided (one for our white and one for our red on a sultry summer evening because, no, the place isn’t air-conditioned). The waiters even remark on some of the more unusual bottles they open.

While my three earlier experiences were generally positive, a late dinner on the last Friday in November was a disappointment. The $50 table d’hôte started well enough with sweet bay scallops, potato bread farl, bacon lardons, buttermilk and chives.

Served in a basket, the cake-like molasses bread would have been more appropriate for brunch, not that that stopped us from gobbling it up.

The table d’hôte includes a so-called trou normad. As at several other local BYOBs, it here takes the form of spirits-doused sherbet and it’s a gimmick I can do without (who wants dessert in the middle of the meal?). That said, L&P’s version – bracing and not very sweet – comes closer than most to working. In November, ours was a small ball of cranberry sherbet shivering in a generous shot of orange-infused vodka.

Cooked rare as ordered, the sliced “bavette” was beautifully plated, accompanied by savoy cabbage and smothered red onions with good skin-on Greek-style fries and a tasty pepper sauce on the side. Problem: the beef was some of the toughest I’ve encountered, a real chore to chew. What’s more, it didn’t look, feel or taste like bavette.

Our desserts went a way toward redeeming the experience: the buttermilk panna cotta with berries and the tartelette of dried fruits, nuts and brandy – a witty take on mincemeat pie – were first rate.

The noise levels were brutal. My companion and I were seated in what was possibly the least noisy spot in the resto, an alcove next to the entrance, and still had to yell to make ourselves heard. It wasn’t the soundtrack so much as the other patrons (the place was full) combined with the echo-chamber acoustic. The staff was apologetic and suggested that maybe a late dinner on one of the last Fridays before the holidays was not the best time to come. It’s true that several of the groups seemed to be inebriated office party types and that my quieter earlier visits were on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the spring, summer and early fall.

Assuming that was a blip, L&P will remain on my BYOB rotation, especially as I prefer the food, atmosphere and staff to those at higher-profile places like Le Quartier Général, though not Christophe and Le P’tit Plateau.

How do you say mulligan in French?

Merriam-Webster defines mulligan as “a free shot sometimes given a golfer in informal play when the previous shot was poorly played” and claims, somewhat to my surprise, that its first recorded use in English was in or around 1949.

Even more surprising is the word’s purported Montreal connection.

According to a recent episode of Says You!, mulligan derives from the family name of David Mulligan, a prominent Montreal businessman and manager of several hotels, including the Windsor. In the 1920s, Mulligan would give the other members of his foursome a lift to The Country Club of Montreal, located in current day St. Lambert, in his Briscoe touring car. One day, complaining that his brain was addled and hands numb from driving over the Victoria Bridge and the bumpy roads to the course, he was granted a do-over for a flubbed first tee shot, which he initially called a correction shot but which he and his partners later dubbed a mulligan.

A slightly different account, proffered by Mulligan’s second cousin, claims the hotelier was so busy he barely had enough time to squeeze in a round. As a result, he would have his cousin drive him to the south shore while he changed clothes in the car and then would rush to the first tee without taking time to catch his breath and focus, leading to a frequently blown first shot.

Other theories exist, though none as well documented or with their roots in Quebec.

And to answer the titular question, it depends on who you ask. The federal government’s terminology database, Termium Plus, says mulligan. Predictably, even as it acknowledges that mulligan is the term most francophone duffers actually use, the Office québécois de la langue française favours coup de reprise. Because English or something.

My dinner with C

Sorry but I have this deadline looming.”

“If only you’d called half an hour earlier. I just accepted another invitation.”

“I think I feel a cold coming on.”

“Thanks but it’s been one of those through-the-wringer weeks and all I want to do is veg out at home.”

“I’d love to but I have this lamb steak in the fridge and if I don’t make it tonight, I’ll have to throw it out.”

“You know, I’m really in the mood to cook. Why don’t you come over here instead?”

I’d been avoiding it for months. Tonight C put her foot down: I was going to have dinner at her place, no ifs, ands or buts.

Ah, C. One of the first people I met on arriving in Montreal in ’73. An honours English classmate at McGill – her first paper, “Vaginal Versus Clitoral Orgasm in Women in Love,” was written before she had personal knowledge of the subject and earned her a private interview with the lecherous prof. Later, an ESL teacher who travelled the world – Greece, Japan, Egypt, China, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, India. A chain smoker who’s tried quitting a total of two weeks in the last 30 years. These days something of a boulevardière, hanging out in the cafés and bistros on rue Bernard. A lover of beer and guzzler of cheap wine. Dismissive of wine appreciation (“Well, it tastes like wine to me,” she stated after sitting through my encomium to Juge’s 1990 Cornas “Cuvée C”). Appreciative of fine food, though. Appreciative of bad food, too.

Always begins eating as soon as the food is set before her. Always grunts softly as she wolfs it down. Doesn’t talk while there’s anything on her plate. Has to have a smoke the instant she finishes eating, even if getting one means cutting you off in mid-sentence.

Probably the worst cook I know. Her cookbook collection consists of a single unconsulted volume, Diet for a Small Planet, which was already gathering dust on top of her fridge when I first met her.

“Well, can I help with dinner?” I ask.

“No.”

“Let me bring a bottle at least.”

“You’re always opening wine for me. Just bring yourself. It’s my treat.”

I arrive at the appointed hour. As usual, C greets me like a long-lost friend. She dashes into the kitchen and returns with two Molson Dry Ices.

“Here,” she says, handing me a bottle. “I know you like that microbrewery stuff but this was on special.”

She lights a cigarette and we chat for a while.

“Let’s move into the kitchen,” she says. “I’m making a pasta dish of my own invention.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Don’t you lift a finger. Everything’s under control. I just have to boil some water for the spaghetti.”

She grabs a two-quart saucepan and fills it half full.

“You might want to use a bigger pan and more water,” I suggest.

“I don’t have one,” she says. “And if I put more water in, it’ll boil over.”

I go back to nursing my beer.

“Now for the sauce,” she says.

A practical person, C never refrigerates her margarine (“It’s so much easier to spread”). This evening, she takes a mighty spoonful from the orange oleaginous blob and plops it into a skillet. When it’s sizzling, she reaches in the fridge and pulls out a white plastic container.

“I got some of those lovely little Matane shrimps,” she says, adding them to the skillet. (Matane, a village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is known for its tiny crustaceans, sometimes called salad shrimp and always sold shelled and pre-cooked.) While the shrimp are frying, C checks the pasta water. “Well, you know what they say about watched pots. Really, I must get this stove fixed. Only two burners work and not very well at that.”

The shrimp continue to fry. After five minutes, C takes a container of whipping cream out of the fridge, pours it in the skillet and brings it to a simmer.

At last the water boils. C adds the spaghetti and salt and pours in some Crisco oil. The shrimp bubble away.

C sits down for a cig. And another. She goes to the stove, stirs the spaghetti, stirs the sauce, comes back for another smoke. The pasta has been cooking for 15 minutes, the pre-cooked shrimp for 25.

She stubs out her cigarette. “Well, back to work!” She opens the fridge, rummages around and emerges with three green canisters of Kraft Parmesan. “Don’t know how long these have been in here. Probably a couple of years. We’ll finish them off tonight though!”

She shakes the cheese into the sauce, stirs it and turns off the heat. She dumps the pasta in a mesh strainer, looks at it and says, “It always seems to stick together. Should I run some tap water over it?” She does so before I can reply.

The spaghetti goes in a bowl and is tossed with the sauce. She hands me a baguette and a knife.

“Here. Cut this, would you?”

The bread collapses under the blade.

“A bit mushy, isn’t it?” C says. “But if you go just before they close, you get two for the price of one. Care for some margarine?”

We sit at the table.

“I had a late lunch,” I say. “Don’t give me too big a serving. ‘Small firsts, happy seconds,’ har har.”

C stops talking and starts chowing. Suddenly she looks up. “Oh, the wine!”

She dashes into the kitchen and returns with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet from the corner store.

We eat and drink, the silence broken only by the occasional soft grunt.