Greek winery tour: day three

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]


We had another full day ahead of us and had to be ready to go by 8 a.m.

Breakfast at the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel was a small buffet prepared by the woman in charge, who was friendly but didn’t speak English or French. It was the most home-cooked breakfast of the trip and probably my favourite: wedges of a frittata-like, sausage-studded omelet, roasted tomatoes, country ham, fresh orange juice, yogurt, mountain jams and honey, a small selection of breads and pastries and good coffee. We ate on the terrace, surrounded by trees in the fresh mountain air: a delightful, tranquil moment.

We were soon on the road, traversing the Peloponese (which took only a couple of hours), heading south on the E65 until about 50 km north of Kalamata and then west on the E55 to the Ionian coast. The landscape was greener than I’d imagined it would be and the going was easy.

Major highways in Greece are well planned, well marked and – a treat for us Quebecers – smooth. (We were told this was one of the benefits of EU membership.) Signs are in Greek with Latin transcriptions. Turnoffs for ruins and other tourist sites are clearly indicated. In some places, especially around Athens, some traffic directions in English are also provided. Of course, secondary highways and roads usually have signs in Greek only, but the pace on side roads is slower, leaving time for deciphering.

From what I could tell, native drivers, at least the ones outside Athens, are competent and considerate. Slow vehicles often moved to the shoulder to let faster vehicles pass. I don’t recall hearing a single honk during our travels outside the metropolitan area. In short, highways are unintimidating; non-Greek-speaking visitors need have no hesitations about driving on them.

Our destination winery was the Mercouri Estate near Pyrgos but we got there via a detour to Ancient Olympia, the site of original Olympic games.

Outside the entrance to the historic site sits a town devoted to tourists. And to go by the size of the parking areas and the scale of the restaurants, tourists must be legion, not that there were hoards at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Still, we managed to score some decent coffee – mine an espresso freddo, an espresso on ice – in one of the large main street restaurants. Here as elsewhere, the style was more traditional Italian than third wave, but the drinks were made with know-how and care.

A ten-minute walk down a tree-lined boulevard and over a mostly dry river bed brought us to the entrance to the archeological site, which sits in a narrow valley surrounded by forested hills and mountains. There we met our guide, a Dutch expat historian now settled in Greece. Informed, engaging and professional, she made our tour of the compact site even more special, as she was able to add details – about the placement and design of the buildings, how they were used, how the ancients viewed the games and place, how athletes were rewarded, how cheaters were shamed and so on – that the brochures and information plaques didn’t provide. Even today, the site feels hallowed, and entering the stadium through the arched passageway where Plato, Herodotus and Alexander the Great, among many others, once walked cannot but fill one with awe.

The archeological museum on the site is a must-see, well worth the price of the extra ticket. Among the many artifacts it contains are a number of magnificent sculptures, including much of the pediment of the Temple of Zeus, and an imposing statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Here, too, having an art historian as a guide provided insight – remarks on the differences between the Greek and Roman styles of sculpture, for example, and why the latter was inferior – that would otherwise have been lacking. This was the first time I’d visited a historic site with a private guide and the difference it makes is enormous.

A short drive – no more than half an hour – took us to the focus of the day: the Mercouri Estate. Set on a gently rolling plain on the edge of the Ionian sea, the winery comprises a complex of buildings dating back to the mid-1800s and filled with antique furnishings and equipment; walking into them is like entering another era. A beautiful park lies between the buildings and the Mediterranean. An abandoned Italianate mansion, where the owners once lived, exudes a melancholy air of sophistication and elegance and begs to be restored. Touring the estate’s small museum, which houses artifacts once used on the site (old farming and wine-making implements, school room supplies, posters from the 1800s and early 1900s advertising maritime passage to New York and Montreal, etc.) is like stumbling upon a magical attic that has been sealed for decades. It is, in short, one of the loveliest agricultural homesteads I’ve seen. Time there seems suspended, life seems sweet, the past is present. Our wine tasting (the notes for which will be found on Brett happens) and lunch under enormous umbrella-like pines, a gentle sea breeze refreshing the heavy air, peacocks calling nearby, was a moment of grace due partly to the setting but also to the owners’ gracious welcome.

As if waking from a dream, we climbed into the van for the short ride up the coast to the Mare Dei Suites Hotel. Arriving there was like entering another dream. This, too, is a time-suspending place, albeit one whose allure is of a different, resolutely modern era. The site is magnificent: a steep natural ampitheatre with wild, scrub-covered hills above and on either side and a small cove with a perfect sandy beach – reportedly one of the Peloponnese’s finest – below, the clear Ionian Sea lapping at the shore, the island of Zakynthos rising in the distance. Perched on the hillside, the suites are a cluster of small buildings connected by paved walkways and stairways. The architecture is clean and angular. The dominant hue is white, though foliage and brilliant touches of colour abound. With a separate, recessed entrance, each suite feels secluded and private. The interiors are high-ceilinged and spacious (mine was three times the size of a standard North American hotel room), sparsely but stylishly decorated. A king-size platform bed with a firm mattress dominated the tile-floored room. Above it hung a large abstract painting. One corner of the room was given over to a small sitting area with a love seat, low table and two chairs. A small kitchen sink, refrigerator and bar with stools occupied the adjacent corner. The seaside wall was floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding glass doors that open onto a well-furnished private deck nearly as large as the room. The bathroom – mine had an enormous shower, others had tubs – was as large as many bedrooms. I assume my suite was one of the more expensive panoramic variety, as the view over the Ionian Sea was breathtaking, especially at sunset, and the sea was near enough that I fell asleep to the sound of waves and the tang of maritime air. Swimming, whether in the sea or the large pool, was excellent. Despite one or two quibbles (see the soon-to-be-posted Day Four report), this was a place I’d love to return to and spend a few days unwinding.

Dinner that evening was a lacklustre meal saved by the setting, wines and excellent company, in particular Vasilis Kanellakopoulos and his two sons, the owner-operators of Mercouri Estate. Tellingly, I neglected to ask for the restaurant’s business card, so I’m uncertain of its name or even location (after bombing around the area on Google Maps, I suspect it may have been the Vriniotis Hotel and Restaurant in Katakolo). It and a neighbouring drinking and dining establishment were perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean with stepped terraces that take full advantage of the magnificent view. As was the case nearly every evening, we ate outdoors. Here though, almost without exception, the food looked better than it tasted. The Greek salad, for example, included chunks of fresh fruit and nuts and a sweet balsamic vinegar dressing, and some in our party were convinced the fries had been frozen. Ultimately, the fare seemed like it was aimed at tourists. Still, the wines, all from the Mercouri Estate, were delicious. What’s more, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging and the camaraderie tangible. The Kanellakopouloses are open, engaging and worldly; for example, Vasilis and I spent several minutes chatting about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, not a book I would have expected any winemaker to have known about, let alone read. A memorable dinner then, but more for the surroundings and the delightful companions than the food.

We left around midnight and soon found our way to bed. It had been a very long but very special day.



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.)

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).

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.