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Montreal

We are back from Montreal, a city which reportedly has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world–does this include Paris? Most of the food we had was very good. Even the dreary-looking and overpriced breakfast bar in the convention center where my husband was attending the IEEE conference had excellent, crisp croissants and thick serious coffee to go with the boring-standard scrambled eggs and dry cereals. I never got a chance to try out the Montreal bagels because we found such good food within walking distance downtown.

The Vieux Port area of downtown has streets full of bistros and is lively to walk through, admiring the art galleries, tchotchke shops, accents (French with a distinctive Western Hemisphere twang) and people (a lot of younger women were sporting platform wedgies in improbable colors like Day-glo orange or pink, and almost all the natives were more fashion-conscious than we were).

On one of the piers we discovered the Centre du Science had a special exhibition of costumes, ship and creature models, and the original concept drawings from the Star Wars movies. We had to see it, even though it meant paying extra and wearing a rubber bracelet with an RFID chip in it so we could pick our species, planet, job description and personality traits as we walked through the stations with film clips illustrative of influences and stages of personal development. I mean, Luke’s upbringing contrasted with Anakin’s? Did I need to see the blame laid on Anakin’s mother’s permissive parenting style for Anakin’s tendency to be drawn to the Dark Side? Mothers get blamed for everything. As for the Dark Side, well, they get all the cool costumes–red leather, black leather, horns, masks, capes, shiny streamlined samurai helmets, wrestler belts with electronic gizmos built in…compare that with the monklike dun-colored burlap and linen outfits for Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. Of COURSE Anakin would get with the Dark Side. Proof? Darth Vader ends up with the coolest costume of all…apart from that pesky touch of asthma.

On a brighter note, did you know Yoda was originally supposed to look something closer to a European-style elf or garden gnome? Glad they went Japanese.

Another pier–the entire pier–housed the blue and gold striped tents where Cirque du Soleil holds its home court performances nearly every afternoon.

But the weather was unusually hot, in the 90s, and so humid that we didn’t feel like eating much until sundown, when it was finally cool enough to venture out and explore all the sights within walking distance.

I was also under a time sentence–start statins as soon as I got home, test again in six weeks and see if they’re working. So I was doubly uncomfortable eating out all the time, thinking twice about eggs or butter or cheese in anything that was served, wondering if this was the last grapefruit I was going to be able to eat and maybe I’d better have only one small serving of that in the Indian restaurant we went to with our friends, because it was cooked with ghee (there were 25 Indian restaurants in town! crowed our friend’s 9-year-old daughter. She wanted to try them all.)

And why were the only vegetables in the other restaurants buttered (which I’ve never liked; my cholesterol-packin’ genes are more to blame than my actual diet and the doctor’s office pamphlets nearly always say to “cut down” to more saturated fat than I actually eat) or else a tiny salad? Just like the French. Just like the Americans.

And yet…the best place we ate–we went back twice that week–was a small undecorated restaurant in Chinatown around the corner from our hotel, which was across the street from the convention center. When we arrived from the airport at 11 pm, Restaurant Beijing, was the only place still open for dinner, and we weren’t expecting much when the concierge recommended it. We trudged around the corner anyway, past the hotel’s dumpsters, around to rue Gauchetière,  and took a peek through the window.

Plain cafeteria-style tables, brightly-lit but plain strip-mall sort of space, chalkboard specials on each wall, no decorations at all other than a few bamboo plants in the window, not even old-style kitsch, and…absolutely packed at that hour of the night. Chinese, Indians–a good sign for vegetarian-leaning diners–Québecois, blacks, whites, dating couples, family groups, students, business suits, sitting together in all kinds of combinations… it looked like half the city was there late Sunday night, only an hour before midnight. Why?

We were hungry and figured they must have something vegetarian for our daughter in all that huge menu. They did! Genuinely vegetarian hot and sour soup, first time I’ve ever found one, a brilliantly pungent, thick brown soup filled with tofu. Fried tofu in black bean sauce–light, much less salty than expected, nicely balanced with perfectly cooked vegetables and no greasiness. A plate of brilliantly green–but slippery!–broccoli rabe with shiitake mushrooms.

At one point I realized that each stalk had been meticulously trimmed, all exactly the same way–stalk plus one angled side-branch, stalk plus one angled side-branch…a touch that demonstrated much more precision and style than I’d noticed at first, and thoroughly unexpected in what looked like a simple neighborhood joint, especially at such reasonable prices. I woke up as much as I could at that hour and tried to pay attention.

Another dish featured whole wood ear mushrooms curled elegantly around snow peas and bok choy. In fact, everything we ate was beautifully cooked, and everywhere we looked people were eating gorgeous plates of food, vegetarian or not. Scallops or shrimp atop bright-green water spinach, slices of carrot, mushrooms, beef, chicken, lobster, more tofu in various textures, dishes topped with candied walnuts, crushed peanuts.

A second night I ate alone while my family were out with our friends. After having attempted to get some sleep with an iffy stomach and having failed, I gave up on myself around 9:30 in the evening and realized the hotel restaurant was empty, despite the posted later hours. Back to the Beijing, just for myself. I ordered one dish, General Tao’s (vegetarian tofu version of) Chicken, having forgotten exactly what that was.

I was soon facing exactly the wrong dish for my stomach that night but so beautifully executed I felt horribly guilty. No vegetables other than a few pieces of cooked green bell pepper, which I usually leave on the plate. Red-brown glazing, surprisingly not too sweet, and with a latent touch of chile, over eight perfectly-formed, perfectly fried, huge globes nearly the size of tennis balls. I ate one and realized it would be impossible for me to eat any more of the fried coatings. So I cut through all the other shells of rice flour batter to get to the plain tofu inside, cringing all the while at what the hosts would think when they saw what I’d done to their beautiful food. It was about the only dish that could make me go for the few pieces of green bell pepper, which actually tasted good to me in that context. But if things had been different, it would have been a great version to share around the table.

On our last night in Montreal, we took our friends who were at the conference back there with us. With my husband’s Muslim supervisor, a Hindu colleague and his family and us kosher types plus our vegetarian daughter, that meant seven people who could use a good meal and some vegetables without a struggle to find something nonmeat on the menu.

The dinner started with egg rolls–what could be new about that? But the ones that came to the table were easily two inches across and seven inches long, absolutely gigantic, very hot, very fresh, not too salt, and filled with mushrooms and cabbage and more. The hostess said they used tofu skins as the wrappers, and she brought over a syrup jug to the table filled with a marmalade-looking sauce for us to try.

“Duck sauce?” I blurted out, surprised at the cliché, even though I knew by then that the chefs were something extra. Wrong again. “It’s pumpkin with orange,” she explained, and it was very good–not duck sauce at all but what commercial duck sauce has cheapened out of all recognition. Fresh, slightly tart with an intriguingly bitter edge from the orange peel, and only slightly sweet.

We chose all-new dishes we hadn’t tried the first time (or my solo trip), including two tofu dishes (one fried, the other soft), green beans in a spicy but not over-salted black bean sauce, one fish dish, and one chicken dish over lo mein for the other family’s daughter (the only dish that didn’t get eaten up–well, she’s only nine, and she was intrigued by the tofu, which her mother described to her as “Chinese paneer”). We were all happy to be there.

There are places like this in many cities–places that don’t look like anything special but which turn out quietly marvelous food. None of the dishes were avant garde or done in a “designer” style–by choice, it would seem. The chefs and owners could easily have staged a fancier-looking restaurant setting for this food, which is clearly a cut above, but instead have created a neighborhood place where everyone wants to go.

Something about the matter-of-factness with which they presented each dish felt like a demonstration that good food is everybody’s right, that really good food should be the norm, not the exception. I also want to note that the hosts and staff were consistently friendly and gracious, and considering what long hours they put in, that’s no small achievement.

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