For those of you who don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Valeria (Val for short, hence Val’s Bites) and I am a journalism student by day, neophyte food critic by night. I come to you in peace &- pretension free. My mission is simple: highlight what I deem to be the best this city has to offer in terms of affordable dining. See, I am of the view that scrumptious dishes shouldn’t be kept secret, and lucky for you &- Montreal is a foodie nirvana. As soon as I get that “been there, eaten that” feeling, a string of new eateries pop up and the face stuffing starts anew. This month, my dice landed on Bernard Street in Montreal’s storied Mile End, an area immortalized by the venerable Mordecai Richler. Frequented by neighbouring Outremont socialists, Plateau scenesters, Hassidic Jews and everyone in between, Bernard is equal parts posh, hip and old world. And keeping in line with its eccentric character, the restaurants on this street are quite diverse and better yet &- quite delectable.
Le Petit Italien
1265 Bernard St. W., 514-278-0888, major cards accepted.
You say “brunch” – I say “how soon can I get there?” You say “Italian dim sum,” I say “excuse me?” But this was no figment of my hunger; the three words I never expected to hear together came straight from my coworker’s mouth. I was intrigued. Driving down to Le Petit Italien on a dreary Sunday, I felt like the culinary equivalent of Christopher Columbus &- invigorated by thoughts of discovering potentially uncharted brunch territory.
While there were no kimono-clad Asian women with pushcarts in sight, and with its rustic-chic trattoria decor, Le Petit Italien was no Chinese dining hall &- I was in for a treat. To be completely frank, I am not entirely sure why “dim sum” is affixed to the resto’s brunch title. True, there was one dumpling dish with Italian sausage served in a bamboo box, but few other items bore semblance to the Cantonese communal meal. A more fitting title would be along the lines of Italian tapas brunch, since classic breakfast foods are prepared with an Italian twist and served on small plates to facilitate the sharing and sampling of myriad items.
My friend and I ordered the sunny-side up egg with vegetables and pecorino cheese, a mushroom frittata, a grilled cheese with pork shoulder, green apples, caramelized pine nuts and roasted potatoes with homemade ketchup.
There were no bells and whistles, but everything tasted fresh, delicious and the icing on the frittata was being able to try it all. To finish the meal, we selected the Italian waffle. Resembling and tasting more like a lightweight cookie, the waffle was topped with a strawberry mousse, fresh strawberries and pistachios. The melange of flavours was outstanding and left me feeling refreshed.
Le Petit Italien also serves dinner daily and, not straying from their small-portion concept, they offer half orders of pasta and risotto (genius!).
I recommend the seafood fettuccini in a white wine sauce. Despite the bland clams, the shrimps, mussels and pasta were perfection. Fan favourite salmon tartar also soared.
Dim sum brunch: $3-6.75 per small plate; Dinner mains: $7-24 (plus tax).
1249 Bernard St. W., 514-273-8132, major cards accepted.
It’s safe to assume that any discussion about eating on Bernard is bound to include at least a mention of La Moulerie.
A fixture on the scene for over 20 years, the perennial favourite is famous for two things: one of the best terraces in the city and, duh, one of the largest and finest selections of mussels and fries or les moules frites as we locals like to say.
Much to my dismay, the normally jammed terrace was virtually dead on a cold Wednesday night in September and the dining room, although spotless, was not exactly what I would describe as “inspiring.” It was also freakishly empty. I certainly picked the wrong month to spotlight La Moulerie and I beg you to write yourself a reminder to come here in July, when for a brief moment, you can pretend you’re feasting on a marina in the South of France.
Fortunately, the menu remains the same year-round and as per usual, I couldn’t decide what mussels to order. Should I step outside my comfort zone and opt for les Gaspe?siennes in a cream and white wine sauce with smoked salmon? Or, was I more in the mood for the cheesy Roquefort variety? Les Moules a? la Catalane with red and green peppers, black olives, on- ions, saffron and white wine got the nod, and I kid you not when I say I savoured every last bite; literally soaking up all the sauce with the winning baguette.
My friend enjoyed les Italiennes mussels in a tomato, garlic, herb and white wine sauce. I tried hers and, wow. But someone tell me what was up with the fries? Did we come on an off night or are they always so lacklustre? I don’t recall that being the case when I first ate here several years ago. In any case, I hope La Moulerie steps up their game, because serving excellent mussels is only one half of the moules frites equation. Much more crunch and pizzazz is needed if they expect to get the terrace groupies to step inside come winter. Bonne chance.
Mussels: $15-16 (appetizer size); $22-23 for main course with fries (plus tax).
88 Bernard St. W., 514-271-6733, major cards accepted.
Since we’re being honest here, I’ll admit that Thai food has never been my favourite. For some reason, the prevalent flavours of lemongrass, peanut sauce, coconut milk and curry have failed to enthuse my palete. I would even go so far as to call them unnecessary distractions that take away from otherwise excellent ingredients. Yet, when my good friend and self-proclaimed Thai expert (she spent a summer in Thailand) suggested I try Restaurant Thai?lande for the Bernard edition of my column, I figured I had little to lose.
Is it just me or do Montreal Thai restaurants tend to fall into either the ultra-trendy supper club category, or the kitschy, mini Buddha-filled variety? This place was the latter. To start, we shared the silver noodle salad tossed with mushrooms, onions, hot chilies, mint leaves, coriander and grounded peanuts; vegetarian spring rolls; and a green mango salad with shrimp, onions, peppers, peanuts and coriander.
The first word that popped into my mind was fresh. Thanks to the absence of the four common Thai flavours, the appetizers were light and toothsome. I adored the slippery sensation of the airy silver noodles and much praise goes out to the crunchy mango and the straight-out-of-water tasting-shrimp.
In terms of main courses, Restaurant Thai?lande lets customers create their own meal by choosing from a bevy of meats, seafood or tofu, and then deciding on the accompanying vegetables and seasoning. I settled on the duck with ginger, black mushrooms and onions, while my friend tried the tofu with eggplant, hot chili and basil. The duck was slightly overcooked and too finely chopped for my liking, making it harder to savour, but like the appetizers, the dish was yummy and not at all cloying. My friend’s tofu was even better due to the spiciness and the terrific eggplant that added much to the sauce. Invigorated by my newfound feelings for Thai food and leftovers in hand, I went home happy.
Mains: $11.95-26.95 (plus tax).