Dining alone, like vacationing alone, can be a deep pleasure if approached with a joyful spirit. Today, I am continuing my birthday weekend in Montreal. It is going so well that I may make a birthday mini-vacation an annual event.
After a healthy breakfast compliments of the hotel, I visited the tiny jewel Musee de Chateau Ramezay which boasts an exquisite potager complete with espaliered apple trees. Indoor exhibits on Montreal history, domestic life, traditional architecture and furniture hit just the right note. Oh my, I keep forgetting that my taste is so French!
Now (well, not right now when I am transcribing, but then when I was actually in the restaurant) I am enjoying lunch in an excellent restaurant, L’Epicerie, too expensive for me at dinner, but lunch is in the $15-17 range (Canadian!). Long ago I learned that one secret to getting good service when you dine alone is to ask solicitously on entry, “Do you have a good spot for one for lunch?” Today, as is typically the response, the hostess looked around for a moment, then seated me facing out at a small table for two where the other seat is in the path of people entering the restaurant. The waiter is typically French, and he typically recommends a glass of wine that turns out almost to double the price of my lunch, but he is enthusiastic about the food, which is not typical at all.
The décor is stylish. Square bistro tables are topped by crisp white tablecloths and a square of white paper, accented by a galvanized tin box full of coarse salt topped by a single green apple. Chairs are dark wood, dishes are simple white china, bread is presented in white enameled tin buckets lined with linen napkins, walls are stone, and the giant chandelier overhead is made of cylinders of multi-layered chicken wire.
The food exceeds the décor in style and imagination. Butter comes in two versions, plain and with curry. The table d’hote offers a choice of soup, salad or smoked salmon appetizer. I go for the salmon, which comes with thin-sliced cucumber, thin-sliced fennel, a swirl of herbed sour cream, and a granite of tarragon. Presentation is everything: the granite comes in one of those soup spoons used in Chinese restaurants, and its herby sweetness is perfect with the salmon.
My main dish of marlin in oyster sauce comes on top of a modest bed of black rice, itself on top of a swath of pureed carrot. Glacee vegetables turn out to be tiny haricot verts and celery cut to match. At first the fish seems too big to eat and too salty, but the carrot mellows it out, and the hazelnuts and capers in the rice add a bit of welcome complexity. I eat up every bite, even cooked celery, which I usually dislike.
Watching me scribble, one of the stylish women at the next table leans over and asks, “Are you a food critic?”
“No,” I confess, and we laugh at her idea that perhaps women who dine alone should always take notes at the table, and then we laugh again when we realize that real critics will do anything to avoid being recognized. Maybe restaurant staff wouldn’t want to bet on the double bind.
And here’s dessert--$4 Canadian! Crème citron legere gelee de baume melissa. That’s a layer of gelatin flavored with lemon balm topped by a layer of light lemon cream and a layer of thinly sliced strawberries garnished with a twist of caramelized sugar and a drizzle of pureed raspberries. Like the smoked salmon appetizer, each ingredient is perfect on its own, but the combination is something completely new and wonderful.
Perhaps I will become a food critic.
Meanwhile, dinner was in Chinatown. At $8 (Canadian!) complete, rice noodles with beef, pickled vegetables, salad, an imperial roll and that nasty fish sauce hits the spot. Continuing the herb theme for the weekend, this simple Tonkinese dish was enlivened with yet another herb that I don’t believe I have ever been served—lemon verbena. I have a nice specimen in a pot in my herb garden at home.
I am learning new words this weekend. Lemon balm is baume melissa. Les orties are nettles, which I learned today are beneficial to the soil in a potager. The hostess at lunch looked it up for me--she knew the French word, but not the English equivalent. And this afternoon, I enjoyed a spirited conversation with a bookstore clerk who spoke French and a little Japanese to my English and a little French. But somehow we managed to discuss knitting—she is an expert knitter, but has never attempted socks, which I assured her are really easier than they look—and where to look for the best fabric shops. That’s tomorrow’s outing, before I head for home and garden and dogs. And the promise of a patch of black currants all mine for the picking.