A Social Experiment

In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavour. We are as a nation taste-blind.” M.F.K. Fisher
There is a new restaurant ‘phenomenon’ on the Montreal food scene called O.Noir that I must comment on and see what you think. This St. Catherine Street restaurant invites you to experience food, drink and conversation like never before-in the DARK. Their website claims that it is “..a sensual dining experience like no other” and that it is all the rage in Europe, Australia, New York and L.A.
Now if you ask Danny, he’s already experienced this at home during the Ice Storm of ’98, but I think they are striving for something a little classier. The general manager claims that when you eat without your sight, your remaining senses are heightened to savour the smell and taste of food. He does have a point, but really, are we ready to go to this length to experience food at a new level? I’m sceptical. As a chef, the visual aspect in enjoying a plate of food is too important to leave out alltogether. I love the moment when the plates arrive at the table and I scan around checking out the dishes, portion size, presentation and garnishes.
Another twist to this whole dining in the dark is that the entire wait staff are blind and a portion (5%) of the proceeds go to associations that serve the blind. A cause to be admired, there is no doubt; however, what would be really amazing would be if the kitchen crew were blind, or at least worked in the dark. Insurance would be brutal!
Before you decide that this would be the perfect place for a blind date, let me alert you to a few things that I might consider before going to see this place (not literally, of course). I mean, it does sound like it could be a lot of fun if you were with the right person, but there a few too many opportunities for a mishap…such as:

  • What if there is a hair in your food? The staff are visually impaired, but no one said anything about follically impaired as well. Hair in the food happens, as much as we would like to pretend it doesn’t.
  • What if you have an allergy to nuts and an absentminded cook tosses some toasted almonds into your salad. Oops. Too bad about that one.
  • What if the young lovers at the table beside you have a little too much to drink, forget where they are, and loose themselves in the moment?
  • What if you are trying a new wine at $60 a bottle and they mess up and bring you a $20 bottle? Would you know the difference?
  • What if the waiter removes your plate without asking, or worse, feel if you are finished. Aye!

I guess it would come down to trust, and here we would find ourselves facing some of the issues blind people encounter every day.
Now this would be a lot more interesting if I had actually eaten at this restaurant and was reporting on my experience, but I just don’t feel like giving them my coin yet. There are still plenty of other Montreal establishments where I can have a ‘sensual’ dining experience, or just a five-star fabulous meal. But just so you can have an idea of what to expect if you go, here is a excerpt from Mr. Slutski’s (!) recent review in the Montreal Mirror:

“We all felt pretty giddy when we were first seated; the novelty really was very entertaining, and there was a lot of fun to be had in trying to explore this weird new space. After being there for over an hour, though, a certain pleasant tranquility set in. And overall, accidents were few, the tally coming to one thumb in a pat of butter; one waterfall of salad that ended up on my pants; one forkful of risotto colliding with a shoulder and, just when we thought we were out of the woods, one broken wineglass. Also, one of my dining companions later revealed that after a spill with a piece of octopus he proceeded to strip off his t-shirt and spend the rest of the meal shirtless, which must be some sort of health violation.”

I’m sure it is. Montreal has a wild reputation and I think I would be a bit nervous wondering what other people were up to…. The whole Slutski review.
I believe you also have to love the element of surprise to visit O.Noir. In scanning their website I notice that they offer a ‘surprise entrée’, and that they have live music every Sunday-a band of blind musicians and a ‘mystery singer’. No kidding? Are we to know anything at all? Something makes me wonder if we’re allowing the wool to be pulled over our eyes.

Feel free to report back to me if you decide to try it out. I get the feeling that someone lost a bet or else is trying to win one with this restaurant and I’ll be curious to see how long it lasts.

Odds and Ends

Quebec Crab-Apples or Pommettes

If you are wondering what to do with all those crab-apples you impulsively bought because they looked so pretty, here’s an idea: make crab-apple liqueur.

Stuff a gallon jar with as many (washed) crab-apples as you can, but leaving an inch or so at the mouth. Pour in 1 cup sugar. Now top it up with your preferred brand of vodka until the apples are covered. Close tightly and place in a dark, cool place for about 3 months (think of is as a nice post-holiday stash), and remember to turn it on it’s top every few weeks to mix it up a little. After about 6 months, strain out the apples (keeping one or two to throw back in to look pretty) and strain through a cheesecloth. Return to the jar and voila! you will have a beautiful clear, rose coloured liqueur with a lovely mild apple flavour. I like to drink it chilled as an aperitif, but it’s also great shaken up in fruit cocktails.

Note: I’ve seen recipes where a lot more sugar is added. Up to four times what I have here. This is entirely up to your discretion.

Noah noshing on some green stuff

Broccoli is one thing that is not ending up under the highchair these days. This little guy loves broccoli and zucchini and when I do a stir-fry for dinner, he’ll clean us out. He sits there and is like “Hand it over, Mama” and then, in a twinkle, it’s in the mouth, chewed up just enough to be able to swallowed with a bit of effort, and he’s asking for more. This lack of attention in the chewing department makes for some pretty interesting posts in my parallel blog: “What’s in Noah’s Diaper?”.
Just kidding, there is no such blog…but I bet Zaak wishes there was.

Noah’s old eating habits are much improved (he hasn’t gagged and vomited in a very long time), but he has developed some alarming new ones which leave my hubby and I scratching our heads and pointing at each other.

“No, YOU. He got it from YOU.”

I am not going to give details, but just let you wait until you have kids and then you can make these startling discoveries on your own.

Shut up, your kids will NOT be perfect!

I’ll stop hugely boring you now-if you are even still reading.

Roasted Acorn Squash with Maple Syrup and Butter

If you’re looking for an easy vegetable to go along with tonight’s dinner, look no further than this pretty and simple dish.

Wash a small acorn squash and slice in two. Be careful, these are one of the hardest winter squashes. Scoop out the seeds and place, cut side down on tin foil. Wrap up each half tightly in foil and place on a baking sheet. Roast in 375F oven until it feels soft when you poke it. About 1 ½ hours. While still hot, open up the foil and peel back the skin. It should come off easily and in big pieces. Transfer squash to a plate, sprinkle with sea salt, dot with butter and drizzle with maple syrup. Enjoy!
____________________________________________________________

Birthday Kudos

It seems like a lot of people were born in early November and I would like to wish a Big Fat Happy Birthday to the following friends and family who celebrated this weekend and tomorrow:
Dorothy, Richard, Austin, Elizabeth, Rose, Jeremy, Michelle, Katelyn, Katrina, Katrine, Kelly, and our nextdoor neighbor who had a “Bonne Fete” sign on his door! You all rock!
I’m sorry for the birthday parties we missed, but we were pretty maxed out at three, and Noah will be taking a few days to recover from all the excitement. =)

Find of the month: Zen Asia

Goi cuon or Spring Rolls, with Shrimp, Daikon, Mint, and Cucumber.

Having heard a lot of good things about this nearby Vietnamese restaurant, Danny and I decided to check it out last Friday. I was cautious because ever since I spent 6 weeks backpacking through South East Asia, dining in these types of restaurants usually ends up being a disappointment and dishes that are recreated over here are merely distant relatives to the mother dish.

I didn’t set my hopes too high for Zen Asia, for fear of having them dashed, but I did manage to enjoy myself more than I expected. This is an excellent, ‘happening’ place that I am proud to have here on Montreal’s South Shore. Believe me, while downtown is a cornucopia of fine dining, the pickings are very slim around here!

However there was one flaw in our dining experience: and the restaurant was not responsible…

I should have clued in when I saw the address on the business card, but I didn’t, and as we pulled up in from of Zen Asia, I realized that I had once worked there long ago when it was called ‘Bistro 21”. Those were not good times for me, to put it mildly, as I had often found myself in situations comparable to Tony’s in Kitchen Confidential. As we entered, I had a feeling of déjà vu and memories of my mental, tyrannical, crazed chef-boss yelling at me and throwing pans and cuss words at me.
When I quit, I had vowed never to darken the door again, and now here I was, seven years later, with my hubby and plans for a romantic evening away from the baby. Oh, life is cruel sometimes! If I could only go back, be my 20 year-old self again, and face Gary (O how I loath the name) with the strength and confidence that I have now, as a chef and as an individual, things would be VERY different! Ah well, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, so they say.

Back to Zen Asia.

Goi du du, Green Papaya Salad with Grilled Beef and Thai Basil
The place was packed, which is always a good sign. The service was friendly and professional in this family run establishment. The food was excellent, and familiar flavours such as the unforgettable Thai basil, brought back a few memories from South East Asia. I would have liked the food to have a bit more heat, but I understand that they have to tone it down to please us picky North Americans!

We chatted with the owner’s son, Duy, who works the floor on Friday’s, and he invited us back some night after 10 pm when they hang the ‘Closed’ sign and his mama heats up the kitchen and feeds the family. It sounded like a lot of fun and that’s probably my chance to taste some really authentic Vietnamese food. Can’t wait! Now that will be something to report.

Eat your heart out Gary and Bistro 21, I’ve moved on.(and remember, you can never have too much Dijon)

Zen Asia (450)672-6805
21 Prince Arthur, St Lambert, Quebec, J4P 1X1

Top 10 Useless Kitchen Gadgets


Some of the following material contains adult subject matter. Reader discretion is advised.
First off let me just say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, I am a firm believer of that. So before you go and get your shirt in a knot, remember that this is just my (experienced professional) opinion and if you happen to have one of these gadgets and use it and love it, that’s just fine too. Whatever makes you happy! Granted this is a bit of a rant on my part, but I also want to point out that sometimes, no matter what some commercial is telling you, you DON’T need a gadget for every job. You would never see any of these item in a professional kitchen, that’s how useless they are.
Today, consumerism is rampant and we could learn a lesson or two from the Chinese. Do you thinkthat in the average kitchen in China they have a tool for every little job? No, there’s a good wok, a cleaver, a steamer for rice and a few odds and ends. Watch the movie Eat Drink Man Woman; the father can practically peel a grape with a cleaver.
Remember: never underestimate a good sharp knife! It gets the job done. Even for an Octodog (see below)
On more thing. I chose these from hundreds of similar gadgets, utensils and contraptions that I have seen and heard of over the years. Maybe they aren’t the most useless of them all, but I find them the most common and the most annoying. That said, here they are!

Top Ten Useless Kitchen Gadgets ( in random order)

  1. Mushroom Brush. I always see these sitting on the edge of people’s sinks, looking filthy, and I can’t help wondering if they double as nail brushes, pot scrubbers, etc. Disgusting. Are the mushrooms really so dirty that we need to have these brushes on hand at all times? Guess what? I never clean my button mushrooms. Ok, if there’s a huge clump of dirt clinging on, I’ll get it with my knife.
  2. Turkey Baster. I’ve never met anyone who actually uses theirs, but I have heard of people who have used them to assist in getting pregnant. They look so dumb, are usually in old 70’s colors and take up space in a drawer 364 days out of the year. Have a dry bird? Use your gravy ladle. I know you have one of those if you’re cooking a turkey.
  3. Corn Holders. People collect these like they are going out of style. Would it actually be so wrong to hold the corn with your hands? Too hot? Who’s going to bite into an ear of corn if it’s too hot to even handle? Again, I know people who have service for 20, but have never used them.
  4. Garlic Presses. More like garlic juicers. None of which have ever successfully pressed a peeled garlic clove. You end up loosing half of the garlic in the press, plus, have you ever cleaned one of these??? I’d rather rince a knife blade under water than spend ten minutes picking garlic out of the little holes. People are always shocked and dismayed that I don’t have a garlic press. Listen up, I don’t care. It’s against my unspoken culinary code of conduct. Same goes for garlic peelers: it’s so much easier to whack a clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Gets rid of frustration too. (Also, from a gourmet’s perspective, size matters. Crushed, pulverized garlic emits the most intense flavor. Sometimes you need a more subtle hint of garlic in a dish and thinly sliced would work best here. See what I mean?)
  5. Melon Ball Scooper. Didn’t know that melons had balls? Suprise! Apparently they need a lot of scooping. This technique is so 80’s, you’re dating yourself if you serve these in a fruit salad. Don’t want to get rid of it? Use it to scoop cookie dough to make perfectly shaped little balls of goodness.
  6. Apple Peeler, corer, slicer, etc. When did it become so much work to peel an apple?? These things are so ridiculous. First of all, look at the size of this contraption. Compare the valuable cupboard space it takes up to a slender vegetable peeler. Now haul it out of that box, mount that apple, blab blah blah. Clean it and put it back in the cupboard, way in the back with all the other stuff you use once a year. Oh look, I’ve already peeled a bushel of apples with my little peeler.
  7. Egg Separator. This is a device that is supposed to hold the yolk while allowing the white to drop into a dish. These are getting more and more elaborate by the year. (see above photo.) It’s easier – much easier – to use the broken eggshell, and much, much sexier to strain it through your fingers. Yea so you have to wash your hands after. Well, you should always wash your hands after handling eggs anyway.
  8. Electric Carving Knife. Don’t get me started. If I ever have one of these, just shoot me. Enough said.
  9. Measuring Spoons with a ‘pinch’, ‘smidgeon’, ‘dash’, etc. PulEEZe. You know you’ve seen these. If you happen to own then I hope they were a gag gift.
  10. Bagel Slicer. Now these are downright dangerous no matter what the add says. This one is actually called the Bagel Guillotine Biter. Need I say more? Bagel Guillotine Biter. Oops, there goes a finger. (I also have no use for hardboiled egg slicers, avocado slicers, etc) Apparently there are a lot of people out there who are having trouble slicing their bagels. Now you can buy them pre-sliced, people. Whew. Solving the worlds problems, one at a time. Note: the Bagel Guillotine website would like us to know that their product has been clocked at slicing 20 bagels per minute. Who are these people who are eating 20 bagels in the morning?? I’ll tell you what. You have 20 -or 40, or 400- bagels to slice and I’ll come over and slice them personally. Just don’t ask me to use an electric knife.

And as a bonus, I present the all-time worst kitchen gadget I have ever seen: The OCTODOG. This is from stupid.com, but I’m afraid of posting the picture on my blog, so you’ll have to link to their site if you want to see this monstrosity. But if you’ve read this far, I bet you do.

Maple Pumpkin Pots de Creme

Maple Pumpkin Pots de Creme

I couldn’t resist picking up a pumpkin from the market the other day, even though I find them bland and much prefer cooking with a more toothsome squash such as a Butternut, Acorn or Hubbard. The marché had an absolute mountain of them –all for $4- and Noah, pointing excitedly and kicked his legs, informed me: “Bal! Bal!” . “No, those aren’t balls, their pumpkins, Sweetheart”. I educated him, to no effect. “Bal. Bal.” Ok, we’ll get one. He had lots of fun rolling around on the floor at home with it and I though, well, why not? It’s round and he can play with it, so it is a ball of sorts, now how am I going to cook this ball? Pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie seem to be the only two ways people know how to cook pumpkin .Most people I know don’t even like pumpkin pie ( I do, but do I want to eat a whole pie? No thanks) and although a nice pumpkin coconut curry soup sounds like it would hit the spot, I remember an old recipe of mine for Maple Pumpkin Pots de Crème. Traditionally made with chocolate, these are small baked custards are similar to crème caramel, but even easier to make. This recipe is simple as well, but tastes wonderfully intricate. A party in your mouth!
Maple Pumpkin Pots de Crème
Ingredients : 1 cup heavy cream ¾ cup whole milk ¾ cup pure maple syrup ½ cup pureed pumpkin 7 large egg yolks ½ teaspoon cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 1/8 teaspoon salt Preheat oven to 325F.
Whisk together cream, milk, syrup, and pumpkin in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Whisk together yolks, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a bowl. Add hot pumpkin mixture to yolks in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a large measuring cup, then diving among ramekins. Bake custards in a hot water bath, pan covered tightly with foil, in the middle of the oven until set. 30-35 minutes.
Cool at room temperature. Chill until cold. Serve.

I halved the recipe and it made four ramekins. So a whole recipe would make 8-10 depending on the size of your custard cups and how full you fill them.