Craving a few days of crowded sidewalks, street noise, and tall buildings, we drove northwest to Montreal for the long weekend.
Though I grew up in a tourist town that caters to the Quebecois, my French is extremely limited. I can count to ten, say please and thank you, and tell a waiter or shopkeeper to shut his mouth. Thankfully, everyone we encountered this weekend spoke flawless English and tolerated my butchered street names. The rules of French pronunciation are a mystery to me. All those eaux, oit, and ois: I never know whether to pronounce the consonants or make a gagging sound in the back of my throat. In Maine, Desroches can be day-roe-shay or duh-roshe-ers. The French call Calais kal-ay, but our eastern Maine town is cal-lus.
Before heading north I consulted Vegan Montreal and marked several restaurants on our map. The city is refreshingly vegan-friendly, especially in neighborhoods near the colleges. Lebanese take-out counters offer hummus and falafel, and most restaurants advertise vegetarian choices in their windows. Throughout the weekend we made several stops at java u, a coffee chain with a nightclub atmosphere that carries pre-made sandwiches (the dr. jones, a basic hummus wrap, is vegan) and soy milk for lattes.
Our first night in town, we ate at the all-vegan Aux Vivres (awks veev-rays) in the young, vibrant Plateau Mont-Royal district.
The cheery plant-filled dining room was packed on a Saturday night. The menu emphasizes salads, Asian noodle dishes, sandwiches, and smoothies. The special was a veggie sausage ratatouille, but since it was warm I ordered summer food: a tofu burger, roasted potatoes, and coleslaw. Rod ordered a tempeh burger with the same sides.
Maybe my expectations, based on online reviews, were too high, or maybe my tastes are too particular, but I wasn't thrilled with dinner. Our nearly flavorless playing card-sized slices of tofu and tempeh were dwarfed by enormous chapati buns. The bread was nutty and delicious, but I could have used a lot less bun and a little more burger. Fortunately the crispy roasted potatoes with funky chipotle ketchup and creamy, lemony coleslaw hit the spot.
Aux Vivres also serves fresh juices and thick fruit, soy, and coconut milk smoothies. I tried a balanced and refreshing apple, lemon, and ginger juice, ideal for cutting through the fog of spring allergies.
For dessert, we split an enormous slice of carrot cake. The ginger and nutmeg flavors were nice, but the cake was too dense, and the lemon frosting was overly tart. We left half the slice on the plate. A decade ago, vegans might have resigned themselves to baked goods like bricks, but in 2009, there's no excuse for subpar vegan cake. Get yourself a copy of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the Worldand some baking soda and head back to the drawing board.
I wanted to try other dishes at Aux Vivres, but we didn't make it back (they're closed on Mondays). Four chickpeas for vegan-friendliness, but the food, based on my limited sampling, needs jazzing up.
We went twice to ChuChai, a vegetarian Thai restaurant that's almost vegan, except for some egg noodles and a few desserts. Chuch, next door, offers the same menu, but it's more casual and has a deli-style take-out counter.
ChuChai features about a dozen basic entrees, each available with seitan shrimp, fish, duck, chicken, or beef, as well as fried tofu. I chose good ol' bean curd, but Rod's veggie chicken tasted frighteningly real.
Lunching at a sidewalk table, I ordered a fresh spring roll which came with both sweet and sour and peanut sauce. Fortunate, as I can never decide between them.
Fresh rolls (rice paper wrapped around julienned carrots and cabbage, marinated tofu, rice noodles, lettuce, and mint) have quickly become my favorite food on the planet. Simultaneously sticky, soft, crunchy, and light, ChuChai's fresh roll was as good as any I've had. I could have eaten eight of them.
Rod's hot and sour lemongrass soup, with cabbage, tomatoes, and carrot, was quite sour, with a just the right amount of chili heat. His spicy eggplant with basil came in a savory, smoky brown sauce that highlighted the sweet basil but wasn't spicy.
The tofu pad thai was too salty for my taste, with lemon and carrot overwhelming any chili, lime, or peanut.
On our evening visit, I tried tofu with basil, coconut milk, and chili. Containing all of my favorite ingredients, it was delicious, though a little more chili would enhance rich and tangy flavors in the sauce.
If I lived in Montreal, the only thing that might keep me from visiting ChuChai weekly are the prices. Entrees run $12-15, without rice. The take-out counter is cheaper, at two items for $7.99, three for $10.99. Unless you want to people watch on the sidewalk patio, this may be a better option, since service was slow and erratic during both our visits.
If you're in Montreal and looking for a nice dinner or some noodles to-go, ChuChai is worth a visit. Choices for vegans are abundant and interesting, earning it four chickpeas.
Now that we're back home, it's time to sort through the photos and catch up on laundry.
Au revoir for now, mon ami!