14 February 2009

Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, 50 rue de la Gauchetière Ouest (at Rue Clark), Montréal

Greetings from Montreal, fellow forkers! I am currently writing to you from the lobby of our Holiday Inn Midtown, with a (not-so) fine glass of 2 for 1 bogo red wine next to me. After my ballet class today, I came back to the hotel starving and ready to consume for a feast for dinner, whereas Adrian has been a tad bit sick the past few days, but I somehow managed to get him out of the hotel and into the brisk, nay freezing 20 degree Montreal weather.

He said that he really wanted to take me around the Latin Quartier & International Quartier, which also happened to be near Chinatown. I am always down for a little walk to experience a new city, and an excuse to try a new Chinatown's chessieubao, so after walking close to a kilometer, we were standing on the corner of Rue de la Gauchetière and Clark in the middle of Chinatown. I might exaggerate a little when I say that I heard voices calling my name from the Little Sheep, but I will say truthfully that I was drawn to the sign that said "hot pot" like a moth to the flame. Before I knew it, we had a number in our hand for our table, and a smell that I have never experienced but one that evoked memories & thoughts of a place I've never been but can only hope to go to & experience waifting through my nostrils.

After a long 30 minutes of waiting where it looked like no one was leaving and we might be trapped with this sensuous amazing food tempting us forever, number 7 was called and we were quickly seated. We ordered the spicy pepper hot pot and the hotpot "for affectionate lovers". I wasn't really sure what that meant, but I got from the description and talking to some of the waiters that it's a hotpot that's divided in two, like a ying-yang with one side herbal and the other side something else. And come on, the description "for affectionate lovers" - how can you go wrong? It's Valentine's Day, I'm here with Adrian...I like spicy, so does he, so this seems like a pretty good deal, right?

Our hotpots come, and they place the completely spicy hotpot in front of me, and the ying-yang hot pot in front of Adrian. What I didn't know before I ordered is that the ying-yang hot pot is actually 1/2 herbal, but also 1/2 spicy. Oh noes. I had once watched a Food Network special on hot pot in Shanghai (? I think) where Americans couldn't handle the heat from the hot pot it was so ridiculously spicy. And now, 3/4 of our meal is spicy. Oh noooooooooo.

So basically, for those forkers who don't know, if I may be blasphemous to both the Frenchies and the Chinese, hot pot is basically Chinese fondue, but with hot oil and broth. You drop some thinly sliced meats, veggies, etc in the hot pot as it's boiling, the ingredients all cook within a matter of seconds, you take them out and enjoy. Quite tasty, and great to warm you up on a cold Canadian night.

We are starving, and immediately start dropping some lamb & beef in (prepared shabu shabu style). Soon thereafter, I head up to the "buffet" to grab some accoutrement (taro, potato, pumpkin, parsley, bok choi, cabbage, broccoli, baby corns, egg, mushroom, spam, rice cake, assorted seafoods and a few other miscellaneous items) and some soda. The hot pot is bubbling now, with whole cloves of garlic, chilies, water chestnuts, scallion and chili oil nearly spilling over the sides. I dive in, to be rewarded with incredibly delicious but very spicy veggies & meat. Adrian and I don't say much for the first five minutes of eating, until I break the silence with "Oh my god, my nose is running. This is really spicy." At that point, it was too late - I had taken too long of time between the last piece of food and putting the next piece of food in my mouth and the spice had set in, and my mouth was officially on fire.

Adrian lucked out with the half & half hot pot. The herbal was great to dip veggies in, while the spicy was superb to give the meats flavor. As the busboy was picking up our dishes, I was making a comment about how amazing the dish was when you had those two separate flavors, and to rub some hot oil in the open wound, he wholeheartedly agreed as he took away my completely spicy hot pot. Thanks a lot, as if I didn't look like an a stupid white tourist in a totally Asian restaurant already.

The walk back to the hotel was not fun, as my stomach was absolutely torn apart and I could barely even walk due to this fact & that I was so full - yet we had really not eaten much, comparing to say, an Applebees steak dinner.

Regardless, the hot pot was absolutely amazing, and everything I thought it would be. I can only hope that one day I'll be able to go to China and write a comparison post!

I would highly recommend hot pot to anyone who can find a restaurant that specializes in this awesome dish - it's absolutely amazing, revitalizing, and awakes and heightens your senses to a level you never knew existed (as all spicy food should). Plus, it's relatively healthy as it's just broth with some veggies & meat added and cooked. It was also a very reasonable meal, at about $25 CAD per person. HOT! (Literally and figuratively.)

Even though it's a chain, here's a link to the official site: Little Sheep Hot Pot

4.5 Forks:

08 February 2009

Les Halles, 411 Park Ave South (at 29th St.)

When my good friend Rachael said she was coming in to town for the weekend to share travelling photos and plan our trip to Chile, we both agreed there was no better occasion to frequent a fine French restaurant than this, both of us being mildly obsessed with French culture & the language (but her spending far more time there than I have, yes I'm a little jealous).

After nixing the idea of looking for a place online myself, I went straight to my previously mentioned foodie coworker Brian who referred me to a few different establishments, but I felt that Les Halles was the best pick for value, price and novelty (Anthony Bourdain started here, and based his book Kitchen Confidential off his experiences as a chef while chef'ing here).

We end up rocking up to Les Halles around 10ish, after grabbing a few quick drinks and waiting for Rachael's friend Tyler's girlfriend to join us. We're quickly seated, and the wine menu is handed to me to select....purely on the recommendation of the waiter, I select a $60 bottle of 2005 Chassagne-Montrachet (“La Canière”). I get the honor of tasting, and of course it's delicious.

We hastily decide on mains as well, and here was the verdict:
  • Me: Due to it being "Choucroute Month", I chose the Choucroute de Royale (Smoked Bacon, Blood Sausage, Smoked Pork Lion, Frankfurter, Smoked Pork Shank, Cervelat-Salami, Boiled Potatoes, & Sauerkraut slow cooked in Champagne).
  • Rachael: Poulet Rôti, Frites (Oven roasted organic chicken & fries).
  • Tyler: Choucroute de Canard (Foie Gras and Duck Sausage, Duck Leg Confit, Duck Gizzards, Boiled Potatoes, Sauerkraut slow cooked in Gewurztraminer).
  • Tyler's Girlfriend: Pavé de Thon Grillé, sauce Vierge, Légumes Grillés à l’Huile d’Olive (grilled tuna with grilled vegetables, lemon juice, olive oil).

My choucroute plate was incredible. It came out as a pile of incredibly well-cooked delicious meats, my favorite being the smoked bacon (obviously). I also got to try the tuna, which was ordered rare, and could not have been cooked better. It was perfectly seasoned, and the temperature was perfect. From the bite I had of the duck leg, due to the fact it was duck and intrinsically awesome, it tasted incredibly seasoned and cooked as well. I cannot speak for the chicken as I did not try it.

Rachael and I both ended up taking half of our dishes home, and then split a dessert of chocolate and banana tart with vanilla sauce. I only had a few bites, and frankly I wasn't all that impressed. It was not nearly as good as the chocolate wontons from Chow Bar or the creme brulee from Rigsby's Kitchen. But then again, you know me, I'm all about the weirdest forking ingredients and flavors I can find, especially in desserts, as I really don't like them to begin with.

Besides the ridiculously nicely cooked heaps of meat that contributed to a great meal at Les Halles, I found the ambiance pretty decent. If you're looking for typical Parisian cafe culture and spirit, don't go to Les Halles. If you're looking for the New York, urban trendy cafe with delicious French meats, go to Les Halles. The music was great, but it was a little dark for my tastes (the only light was candlelight, and we struggled to read our menus).

Les Halles gets 2.5 forks, but could have gotten 5 if we could have met Anthony Bourdain.

01 February 2009

Icon, 130 E. 39th St (at Lex, in the W Hotel)

The recent state of economic affairs has been hitting all of us hard, fellow fork readers. I commiserate completely with you as we've been forced to end our old ways of consuming madeiras and ports after ever meal, end our favorite habits of lobster tail add-ons to our mains, and on top of that, instead of drinking some Perrier and eating some organic delicacies off the Whole Foods buffet, finding ourselves scrambling for change to buy a Grey's Papaya. Therefore, when I do go out, I've been really trying to ensure that the places I do frequent are the best "bang for your buck" and really are tasty and a great value.

This past week has been Restaurant Week in New York, and for those of you not in the know, Restaurant week is where selected participating restaurants around the city offer a prix fine menu for a fixed cost that's (usually) less than the cost of buying off the actual menu. I asked my foodie coworker Brian for a recommendation off the list, as he frequents Brasserie 8 1/2 and Jean-George's on a near weekly basis, and while he approved my choice of Icon, he said he would have gone elsewhere. (Bad omen #1.)

I make a reservation for 730, and we rock up about 740. I happen to notice while I was standing outside that the menu had changed from what I viewed online (bad omen #2). We went inside, and the restaurant was nearly empty (bad omen #3). Chan states, "I'm glad you made the reservation." The waitstaff is duly unimpressed.

We sit down, and it turns out they changed their menu to a four course menu for each person, pick any dishes you want. Here's what we chose:
  • big eye tuna – strawberry, cucumber, mojito
  • charantaise melon – goat cheese, fennel, acacia honey, prosciutto, arugula, sherry #9
  • scottish salmon – sunchoke, asparagus tips, lobster vanilla sauce
  • crispy duck confit – basil mustard, raisin paper, micro greens, sherry #9, lavender smoke
  • poached filet of beef – spinach fondue, pomme soufflé, red wine shallot sauce
  • pork belly – celery root, english stout
  • New Zealand cockles – chorizo, purple potato, celery
  • blueberries – white chocolate, kaffir lime, tobacco and mint

I mean, take a look at this menu? How could we have gone wrong? Tuna mojito? Sherry #9? Lavender smoke? Purple potato? Tobacco? Seriously, this is a culinary and gastro-intestinal delight. Right?


One thing that I didn't realize, or rather had the misconception was when I looked at the (wrong) menu, it seemed like most other restaurant week menus - one appetizer, one main, and a dessert. Here, it was more of a tasting course....where as I'm sure you can tell, each plate is one or two bites.

As Dave put it, most of these dishes are comparable to what you'd see on the Food Network. So you think you'd be getting something really good...something really exotic, however it really wasn't all that great.

Take the big eye tuna with strawberry, cucumber & mojito. The dish was actually some raw tuna, sliced strawberry, pieces of cucumber and mojito foam. When combined together was a nice fusion of flavor, however more than one bite and I became slightly underwhelmed.

The filet would have been fine, except they didn't ask us what temperature we wanted it. The cockles were fishy and strange. The lavender smoke did nothing for the duck confit. The salmon was fishy. The melon was overpowered by the goat cheese. The only dish that qualified into the "just alright" category was the pork belly. But seriously, it's pork belly, and I'm not quite sure how it wouldn't be fine. How does one mess up pork fat with a little meat? It's going to be delicious no matter what. (And it was.)

One thing that did win at this dinner was the presentation. The way and order the dishes were brought out was very stylish, and the plates were beautifully presented and arranged.

But this by no means compensated for the ambiance, which wasn't all that great, and to be honest, I've partied at W Hotels before, and this one just felt downright trashy. Like the type where you wouldn't want them to turn up the lights at all because it would just look tacky and unfinished. (Kind of gave me the same impression as my old apartment in Bedstuy, if you know what I'm talking about.) Hand in hand with this, it felt wannabe and like they were trying to be super elite, but were not at all in the least. In addition, the timing was always off with our waiter and busboy. They asked us for drinks 3x, made a huge deal taking our plates away when it was obvious there was still food on them and we were unfinished, asking if we'd like coffee after we had received dessert, and then were nowhere to be found when we needed the check.

By the time we left, the dining room was full and it seemed like people were enjoying themselves. Honest to God, my only thought was that I hope that if they're tourists, they don't get the impression that this is what real New York food is.

Mediocre food? Check. Ill-trained waitstaff? Check. Wannabe vibe? Check. Trying way to hard? Check. Icon gets one fork:

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