By Chef Charlie Kleinman
Four pounds of foie gras. That, according to the best estimates of the three of us (all chefs with ample experience working with foie) is how much we consumed of the lipidinous substance in our two-hour dinner at Au Pied De Cochon. Certainly after a goring like that we would stop our binge eating and find the nearest salad to try and correct our dangerously high cholesterol levels. Well, maybe if we were normal people. But we are not. We are chefs, a different breed, and we were determined to eat all we could after years and years of staff meals that left us (not quite) satiated.
I am a New Yorker, and count myself as one of the chosen people, not only as it applies to my religion, but perhaps more importantly as it applies to my bagel eating. You see, bagels really are better in New York, and yes I really do believe it is our water (that and a little bit of our superior attitude as well). So imagine my surprise when a trip to Maison du Bagel (263 St. Viateur Ouest, Montreal, 514-276-8044), the bagel shop in Montreal that some people claim rivals any New York bagel, actually left me satisfied.
These bagels are good, really good even, but they are still not as good as the best New York City has to offer--give me Columbia Hot Bagels or H&H any day. That said, these bagels are excellent and different than anything found in the U.S. For one thing, they are cooked in a wood-fired oven, which gives them a smoky and rich flavor not often associated with the bagels of my youth. They are also a little flatter than what I am used to, which helped save them from the cottony texture that plagues the impostor bagels across this country. Their texture was an excellent blend of crispy and chewy, and the bagel had just enough malty sugar mixed in with salty topping to officially make it the best bagel I have ever had outside of New York.
The trip to Maison du Bagel satisfied my intellectual quest for finding the best of the best in culinary delights, but our next stop would be purely visceral. We were on a daytrip to Quebec City, that capital of French-speaking Canada, and one of the most beautiful cities in North America. This walled city surrounded by cannons and gun turrets is the fastest and cheapest way to feel like you are in a European medieval city that I know of. On every corner is another bistro that looks warm and inviting, offering classics such as steak frites and tartare.
However, we didn't go to Quebec to mess around with any of that frou-frou. We were here to eat poutine, the uniquely French-Canadian food that is an ambrosial blend of crispy French fries, meaty gravy, and squeaky cheese curd. (Yes I described the cheese curd as squeaky, and I challenge you to find a better word to describe this pleasant yet slightly foreign texture and flavor.)
There are a myriad of places where one can enjoy this treat, but after much research, we chose Chez Ashton (54 Cote Du Palais, Quebec City, QE, 418-692-3055). This chain of fast food restaurants has the look and feel of a McDonald's, and the added bonus of employing a cashier who made us feel as if we had walked in to the Canadian remake of Clerks. We all ordered the poutine avec saucisson, or poutine with hot dogs for the less sophisticated of you out there.
How to describe this treat? Ethereal? Subtle? No. How about stick-to-your-ribs, make-you-want-to-take-a-nap, no-need-to-eat-again-for-the-rest of-the-day good. I'm glad we did this, and am relieved that I won't have to eat it again for a while since I'm not sure my system could take it.
While we had a blast in Montreal and Quebec City, we were excited to move on to Toronto for the next stage in our trip. There were many reasons we were looking forward to Toronto. The Hockey Hall of Fame (okay that was just me), Wayne Gretzky's restaurant (okay, again just me), and last but not the least of all, Susur (601 King Street West, Toronto, OT, 416-504-7886). We had all wanted to visit Susur Lee's eponymous restaurant for as long as we knew about it, and this reservation had been burning a whole in our itinerary for over a week now.
That said, how can I best describe our experience after weeks of great food? I guess Susur would have to be categorized somewhere in between disappointing and criminal. It is one thing to leave a meal you simply didn't like, and quite another to feel like you had been held up at dinner. Nothing was done correctly here. The service was inattentive and awful. The wine was overpriced and did not deliver on its promise. But the food, the reason we had visited this restaurant, nay, this city? Under seasoned, poorly delivered, uninspiring, and well, lets just leave it at that. Let's move on to happier meals.
This was not hard to do as we had one more stop on our tour before arriving back in New York City. We woke up bright and early to make our last trip to Buffalo. That's right, you read it correctly. Buffalo was the next stop on our road trip for two reasons. First of all, we had to drop chef pal Ryan Farr off at the airport, but more importantly, we needed to see the culinary mecca, the place in which my favorite food was invented, and hopefully still executed in its truest form.
The place was the Anchor Bar (1047 Main St. Buffalo, 716-886-8920), and the food is, as some of you may have guessed, Buffalo wings. The wings delivered. The three of us polished off a heaping pile of these wings with such alacrity that we were ready to head to Nathan's and challenge Kobayashi to a hotdog-eating contest. These spicy, salty, and crispy fried treats were the only positive thing about Buffalo so far as we could tell, so we made haste back to NYC and the end of our culinary adventures.
With 15 days of eating and drinking under my belt, there are quite a few things I have learned. For one, there is just simply not enough room on tablehopper to tell you about every meal. The casualties of this limitation include (but are not limited to) Sri Pa Pai, an amazing Thai restaurant in Queens, New York, and Shake Shack has one of the best burgers I have yet to taste. I am sure many of you who are a wee bit jealous of this trip may be happy to find out that I have wrecked my stomach to the point where I get heartburn after almost every meal. That said, I will carry on, but might for the time being try and change my focus back to feeding people, and away from feeding myself.
Thank you, Marcia, for a forum to share tales of my gluttony. Let me know the next time you need someone to help you out with your dirty work.
On the Road with with Chefs Charlie Kleinman, Jake Des Voignes, and Ryan Farr (Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Buffalo, and New York)
By Chef Charlie Kleinman