Comfort food. The quest for it is just about the only thing that keeps me from retreating into my bed at the onset of winter and seeking refuge until the first signs of spring. Surprisingly, not everyone is like me and it is a true albeit mystifying fact that some people actually enjoy the winter. However, I am sure these individuals, or better yet â€” aberrations â€” also like comfort food. Here’s the big shocker though: comfort food does not have to be synonymous with artery clogging fare, it can be healthy or at least moderately nutritious.
The trifecta of restaurants below may not necessarily scream “comfort,” but I challenge you to feel anything but warm fuzzy goodness after sampling them. That said, get out of bed and start eating.
5908 Sherbrooke W. (at Clifton Ave.), 514- 487-1712, major cards accepted.
“There is good food in NDG,” exclaimed my friend during a meal at Hwang Kum, a comment she followed up with “do they do takeout?” The answer is “yes,” and the grin on her face reeked of unadulterated satisfaction. Trust me, odds are you would feel similarly if you tried one of the myriad dishes listed on the Korean restaurant’s vast menu. Let’s start with my favourite (this was not an easy decision): the kimchi pancake. Kimchi is an umbrella term for Korean-style pickled vegetables, the most popular being Napa cabbage fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions and chili peppers. Varieties of kimchi accompany main courses at most Korean eateries and it is a key item in a plethora of national dishes like the aforementioned pancake. Though the waiter was hesitant to divulge the complete list of ingredients comprising this fluffy, pizza-shaped delight, kimchi pancakes typically consist of flour, potato starch, eggs, scallions, garlic, cabbage kimchi, vegetable oil, kimchi juice and a bevy of spices fried together in a pan. Hwang Kum’s also has carrots â€” this I squeezed out of him â€” and come with a light yet tangy dipping sauce. The combination of warm crispy crust and gooey spicy vegetables was the perfect antidote to a cold winter day. Yum.
For second place, it was a battle between the cold black noodles dressed with kimchi cabbage, a hard-boiled egg, scallions, zucchini and hot sauce, and the strips of barbequed-marinated beef. The cool, spicy noodles slithered down my throat, producing a frisson of euphoria with each bite. Meanwhile, the succulent beef with its velvety texture threw me totally off guard, as Montreal’s Korean food scene is still in its nascent stage. Unfortunately, the hot barbequed chicken elicited less glee due to a slightly cloying sauce. But then came the paper-thin pork dumplings, and all was right again.
Hwang Kum’s food is not a lesson in ingenuity, but rather an example of classic, simple, and generally healthy Korean recipes that work wonders on the palate. And did I mention they whip up a mean lunch special and the portion sizes practically guarantee you will have leftovers?
Mains: $14-21 (plus tax)
4629 Parc Ave., 514-844-6292, major cards accepted.
Before I lavish well-deserved praise upon Kaza Maza’s refined Syrian and Lebanese cuisine, allow me to get a grievance out of the way: the service, or lack thereof, is bad, verging on very bad. The first time I went it was dead, but the waiter, who was probably rehearsing for a role in The Illusionist, was nowhere to be found. When he miraculously appeared, he seemed unhappy by our presence. Given the abundance of restaurants/servers in this city who work inexorably hard to retain customers, I felt guilty about returning. But alas, I was powerless before their signature hot and cold mezzes (small plates), especially the sweet mutabbal, a puree of roasted beets with tahini, lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil. A thick, cold spread of Aleppo peppers, pomegranate syrup, nuts and spices, the fragrant muhammara did not help matters either.
On my second visit, Kaza Maza was packed, but the same lone waiter was left holding down the fort. Unable to flag him down throughout the meal, when he finally came to clear our table, he inquired as to why the baba ganoush was not finished. I responded that it was simply too smoky for my taste. The waiter informed me this was probably because I’m accustomed to eating the dish when it is prepared with frozen eggplant, but at Kaza Maza the vegetable is roasted. After a short back and forth where I assured him I had eaten fresh baba ganoush before but theirs was just not to my liking, it was removed from the bill and replaced with a complimentary hummus. With a texture so creamy and a taste so nuanced, Kaza Maza successfully revitalized the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spread. Impressive.
Other highlights included the mouth-melting lamb shank “friki” accompanied by bulgur, grilled nuts and a yogurt sauce infused with cucumber and mint, as well as the fried cheese cigars. Just don’t ask the waiter what kind of cheese is inside. I did, and after what seemed like an eternity I was informed it was “cow cheese.” How helpful. But service notwithstanding, Kaza Maza’s food rivals that of its competitors, and given the quality, it’s a bargain. Come here for dinner or weekend brunch (they do omelettes!) and see for yourself.
Mains: $9-19 (plus tax)
16 Maguire St., 514-507-2900, major cards accepted.
“Pizza is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” I read this quote on a retro-style magnet while shopping in Toronto this summer and who can argue with that? But â€” and of course there is a but â€” in an epicurean city like Montreal, we should not have to settle for “pretty good.” Enter Pizzeria Magpie: a quadruple threat offering a cosy, but decidedly cool atmosphere, friendly service, affordable prices, and pizza from a wood burning oven that is â€” I cannot believe I am writing this â€” just as good, if not better, than sex.
For starters, the flour hails from Italy, and the tomato sauce is made from San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of plum tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil below Mount Vesuvius, near Naples, and reputed to be the world’s best sauce tomatoes. Further, the menu is limited to eight pizzas, allowing the chef ample time to hone his technique and focus on quality ingredients. This was instantly obvious when, while moaning over a slice of artichoke and spinach pizza with Fontina and Parmesan, the first word that sprang to mind was: freshness. What’s more, the ingredients blended together harmoniously while retaining their deliciously distinct flavours â€” an unlikely feat. And oh, how I love me a thin pizza with a puffed-out crust that screams doughy deliciousness. The caramelized onion pizza with black olives, ricotta and oregano was another hit, and additional proof the owners do not skimp on quality to keep prices reasonable. Magpie also boasts a glass-encased meat locker displaying house-cured meats that diners can try via the charcuterie platter, or by ordering items like the prosciutto pizza topped with arugula, cherry tomatoes and bocconcini. For a complete hedonistic experience â€” the massive $4 cookie of the day is guaranteed to send you over the edge.
Pizza: $12-18 (taxes included)