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Posted by Stefan / October 28, 2010

itacate.jpgAnyone hoping to find a good taqueria in Montreal Canada is likely to be disappointed. The phenomenon of lackluster Mexican food is so prevelant that someone made a board game premised on the idea that the only way to get carnitas into this country is to smuggle them past a hostile cadre of mounties.

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The Hold Steady - Wed. 20 October - Cabaret Mile End

Posted by Stefan / October 17, 2010

HoldSteadyShow.jpgOn Wednesday October 20, Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis's The Hold Steady are coming to Cabaret Mile End. Dedicated followers don't need to be told twice to attend, but casual fans who don't quite get the hype should not miss "America's best bar band." Whatever that moniker really means, there are few bands gathering both fan devotion and critical praise who manage to generate such enthusiasm at their shows. Their's is a scene purged of poseurs that leaves audiences free to enjoy the romance and the ribaldry of good time rock 'n roll.

The Hold Steady are known for the ease with which they combine barroom rock with compelling storytelling. While they "rock hard", they're not hard rock, and there's nothing fratty or meat-headed about their style or sound. They manage to be contemporary without losing sight of their influences, and fun without resorting to schtick. Their music draws from a rich tradition that somehow combines The Replacements with James Joyce. Incidentally, their shows are usually populated by an older crowd, perhaps one for whom attending a concert only to stand around looking bored and off-putting defies all logic and explanation. Unlike the anemic 20-somethings that haunt Sala or Casa, these 30-somethings want to move.

And then there are the lyrics. The richness of frontman Craig Finn's characters and narratives doesn't become apparent until several listens, with each subsequent spin bringing new meaning to his prose.While there's no shortage of clever word play, it's never gratuitous. His writing is purposive and tight. Look how much he crams into just a few lines with "When they say black-and-tans/they mean the kind from a can/'I ain't got time to mix it all together/I'm a very busy man, man.'" No doubt these allusions don't speak to everyone, but those who connect with Finn's devastating assessment will immediately recognize the particular breed of yuppie he portrays. Leaving aside the brilliant device of using an aside (i.e., "When they say...they mean") to introduce dialogue, the content of Finn's clarification is telling. In this particular verse he brings to life a character who clumsily stakes a claim to hipness while exposing himself as a buffoon. You can imagine yourself at the other end of a conversation in which busyness is offered as the motivation for buying a pre-mixed drink made up of two components in equal parts, and picture exactly the sort of guy who you'd be talking too.

At least in music, there is no better chronicler of the concerns and preoccupations of the modern American suburb than Finn. In contrast to that other Minneapolis-inspired author, Finn catalogues the quotidian experience of lower-middle class drunks and sinners whose choices and qualms convincingly reflect the peaks and valleys of their storied landscape. And still more unlike Franzen, rather than settle on a portrayal of these choices as drab, inevitable, or singularly depressing, he struggles to show the human desire for dignity that motivates each character's actions while reminding us of the limits they face.

It's in this quest for dignity that parallels to Springsteen are readily (and often) drawn. Too readily, perhaps, because unlike Jersey's favorite son, Finn's scope hasn't expanded to include broadstroke social analysis. Parallels can of course easily be drawn between them (not least as a result of a great cover and Finn's cheeky nod to his idol: "tramps like us...and we like tramps"), especially to Springsteen's earlier material. But where Springsteen uses familiar archetypes to address pressing questions, Finn ties inscrutable knots from his characters' private lives. Springsteen's characters are often opaque and impersonal. Their lives are subject to humiliation at the hands of powerful forces, yet we rarley learn their motives, and their private deliberations are seldom revealed to us. In contrast, Finn gives his characters names and biographies, and launders their stories through troubling annecdotes. Through unreliable narrators he employs a free indirect style that bleeds into dialogue and departs from Springsteen's trademark omniscience.

Of course, Springsteen sometimes does this too, and with great success--can you imagine how much "Born to Run" would suffer if we didn't know the narrator was singing to Wendy? Like Wendy, Finn's characters live in a closed, personal, and recognizable world. Unlike Wendy, we hear from them again. Their world is recognizable, like the best of Springsteen's writing, not because it forms an indelible part of our public patrimony, but because it resonates with our private lives. Like us the characters struggle with themselves, alcohol, drugs, sex, and religion. Their choices have consequences, and the ambivalence of both choice and consequence is thoughtfully and playfully explored ("She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend").

Detractors are baffled by the draw of Finn's wordy lyrics and tic-toc delivery, and the rest of the band's pounding rock riffs. It's true that most bands that garner critical praise today have either a stripped, subtle style or a more daring sound. Of course, there are as many metrics by which to judge bands as there are bands to judge. But those who conclude after a listen or two that the Hold Steady are brash and pretentious offer a thin account of the band. Yes, they use a lot of words. But on a closer inspection Finn turns out to be very economical with his language and grounded in his scope. As a result his style is compelling and affectless. Similarly, those who hear the band as derivative miss the value of contributing to a tradition, and the ultimate futility of sounding too "new". Among the band's greatest strengths is the skill with which they build on the sound and themes of their many influences. Maintaining a dialogue with their predecessors is part of what makes The Hold Steady relevant. They are original in part because they acknowledge and expand on their origins.

The show will likely be more enjoyable for those caught up in the stories of Holly and Charlemagne. A good place to start listening is either "Separation Sunday" or "Boys and Girls in America". While I enjoyed their latest album, it traded some of rawness for a polish that I imagine a band requires of a fifth album. Even if you don't have time to learn the songs, casual fans should come out and see a great rock band. And please for the love of God leave your skinny jeans and giant plastic frames at home. They're not that kind of band, and it's not that kind of show.

BONUS FUN FACT: Thanks to the last time my friends and I saw The Hold Steady in concert, the band boasts an unofficial drinking game (so unofficial, in fact, that they don't even know about it). Take one drink when Finn sings "Minneapolis", and two each time he sings "Mississippi River". Have a friend or the STM drive you home.

Photo from

Szechuan Showdown: Sorgho Rouge vs. Cuisine Szechuan

Posted by Stefan / October 3, 2010

sorgho 1.jpg Conventional wisdom holds that there's no good Chinese food in Montreal. More precisely, the dismissive barbs of stowaways from Toronto and New York distort the landscape of available options. I'll grant that there's a conspicuous number of generic Asian fusion joints that serve greasy, forgettable fare. But among the rabble are several places that hold their own against the best I've had in other cities, and you don't have to go to Chinatown to find them. The Concordia ghetto supports several restaurants that specialize in regional Chinese dishes, including two with a Szechuan bent: Sorgho Rouge and Cuisine Szechuan.

Building on Amie's excellent throwdown series, I set out to find the best downtown Szechuan food. The star of the show, and the crux of my comparison, is shuizhuyu (spicy boiled white fish). The dish, notable for intense spiciness and an abundance of tongue-numbing Szechuan pepper, is not available at most Chinese restaurants in the city. It's certainly a change from the more common items on downtown menus, and you know you're in for a treat when the waiter warns you, with genuine concern, that the shuizhuyu is "spicy, for Chinese people." I have yet to be dissuaded by their ethnic stereotyping. Both Sorgho Rouge and Cuisine Szechuan serve it for $11.99 in portions intended for two people. Despite a shared base of ingredients (white fish, bean sprouts, chillies, Szechuan peppers), the shuizhuyu varies significantly between restaurants.

Best shuizhuyu: Cuisine Szechuan.

The shuizhuyu at Cuisine Szechuan comes out on top. Although the broth is more hot and oily, shuizhuyu is not eaten as soup so most of the oil stays in the bowl. And hidden in all that oil is a rich, smoky depth that gives the white fish a strong, distinct flavor. It'd be hard to dismiss it as derivative, and impossible to call it bland.szechuan 2.jpg Cuisine Szechuan's shuizhuyu.

Sorgho Rouge's shuizhuyu (pictured at the top) also has much to recommend it. Despite generating less enthusiasm, it's not merely an inferior take on the same dish. The broth is lighter, less oily, and more subtle. Cilantro stems give it a refreshing finish, and the toned-down hotness might appeal to some diners. They also used an aromatic spice that I couldn't identify but that helped to distinguish it from Cuisine Szechuan. Unfortunately, the fish was more bland and the broth lacked its competitor's richness. But given their quality and the differences between them, it'd certainly be best to try both and pick a personal favorite. sorgho 2.jpg Sorgho Rouge's yu hsiang pork.

Best pork: it depends.

Hard to pick a favorite on the pork front. The yu hsiang pork at Sorgho Rouge was generously portioned and delicious. In contrast to similar dishes at other places in the area, it's not just a plate of fried pork doused in over-the-counter sauce. Beyond its gluttonous exterior I found plenty of subtle flavor. At Cuisine Szechuan we ordered twice cooked pork. It consisted of thinly sliced pork belly served with a mix of vegetables in a pleasant chili sauce. I preferred the sauce at Sorgho Rouge, but I'm partial to pork belly. Can't go wrong with either dish at either restaurant, and there were plenty of other options for those willing to experiment.szechuan 4.jpgCuisine Szechuan's twice cooked pork.

Best rice: Cuisine Szechuan.

Call it pedantic, but if you're paying $2 for a bowl of rice it better be soft, warm, and flavorful. Cuisine Szcechuan's rice beat out Sorgho Rouge on freshness and flavor, though that may have been a matter of little more than timing.

Best vegetable side: Cuisine Szechuan.

The cards were stacked against Sorgho Rouge on this one. We ordered a simple cabbage with garlic sauce at Sorgho Rouge, and it turned out to be baby bok choy in a watery garlic sauce. It was fine, but by no means worth $6.95. At Cuisine Szechuan we ordered yu hsiang eggplant, which is easily the best I've had in the city. Eggplant agnostics often complain about bitter flavor and stiff texture. Neither plagued this dish. It was sweet, spicy, soft, and--thanks to an abundance of fresh ginger--refreshing.


Although we didn't include soup in the comparison, Cuisine Szechuan's hot and sour soup exceeded expectations. Like their shuizhuyu, the soup had a difficult to place smokiness, and like their yu hsiang eggplant, it boasted wonderful hints of fresh ginger.

I have no trouble recommending either place, though I prefer Cuisine Szechuan. Other dishes worth trying: cold chicken appetizer, fried cumin chicken, garlic eggplant, and beef with oyster sauce. Even the chow mein, which falls outside their regional specialty, is served in a tasty broth. Cuisine Szechuan's has a substantive menu and a friendly staff. It's low-key and unpretentious. At its best it will alienate boring eaters (pork ear, anyone?) and give fans of Szechuan specialties a reason to celebrate. szechuan 3.jpgCuisine Szechuan's yu hsiang eggplant.

Cuisine Szechuan
2350 Rue Guy
(514) 933-5041

Sorgho Rouge (formerly Oui & Oui)
1862 Maisonneuve West
(514) 933-2288

Photos by Mike "Lock 'Em Up" Lockner.


Posted by Stefan / September 27, 2010

o burger 1.jpgThe Great Montreal Burger War has entered--at least by my count--its third year. The spectrum of specialty burger joints duking it out runs from the insufferable m : brgr to the plainspoken Buns. It includes Picks, Gourmet Burger, and the venerable (if faded) Dilallo Burger, where rumor has it that a former Habs goaltender will personally deliver the burger to your door. The downtown front of the raging battle over this high-volume, low-margin enterprise now welcomes O'Burger to the fray.

At first glance, things don't look good for the new guy. O'Burger looks and feels like the product of a Red Bull & Vodka addled brain. It's bright, slick, and cocksure. One can easily imagine a self-consciously trendy young professional strutting in for lunch, customizing a patty with some brie and roasted pepper before pulling out his iphone to skim through a GQ article or two. The whole place screams "Look at me, I'm eating a burger! Don't tell my personal trainer!" At least as far as atmosphere is concerned, O'Burger is to Picks as Maroon 5 is to James Brown. o burger 2.jpg The burgers themselves are better than pretty good. They're more substantial (and expensive) than Buns or Picks, but there's no plain, cheap option. You're in for at least $8.50 before you even order fries. The fries, incidentally, are just fries. You can't even mix and match with sweet potato fries (though they are on the menu).

My enjoyment of O'Burger was diminished by its vibe. That the atmosphere is so transparently the result of deliberate market research makes O'Burger feel like a business school project more than a restaurant. Excerpts from their website sum the problem up nicely: "The burger is the ultimate symbol of fast food. However, because it is mass-produced by multi-national companies with little regard for the quality of their food, the burger has lost some of its notoriety because of a lack of freshness and poor taste. With this in mind, we wanted to develop a concept to allow everyone to enjoy a top-quality burger prepared quickly, but with great attention to detail to give it an exceptional taste," and "Only the best ingredients were chosen in our quest to create the perfect burger, starting with top-quality meat: 4 or 6 oz of Angus beef seasoned to perfection. In taking this first step, an innovative concept was born. We dressed up this exceptional meat with our fabulous two-sesame bread." It would takes pages to annotate the comedic potential of these lines. That they're presented in earnest just makes me kind of sad.

I will say this for O'Burger: when the waiter screwed up my order and gave me the wrong burger (I didn't notice until the bill came), he fixed the bill and knocked the beer off my total. Even if this apparent act of generosity is grounded in some silly business school principle that I'm not aware of, it saved me money and made a good impression.

O'Burger ultimately solves a problem that doesn't exist: "How can I get a good burger in a joint with all the charm of a low-end St. Catherine nightclub?" They make a burger with the burger purist in mind, and make you eat it in a setting that will turn off anyone inclined to be a burger purist in the first place. That said, they are constrained by their location: the suburb-in-a-city that is the west wing of the Eaton Centre on McGill College. Given the area's bleak options, O'Burger actually comes off as a sensible choice. If O'Burger were a man, he'd get more dates if he just wore less cologne and ditched the Ed Hardy. You're a good kid, O'Burger. Play to your strengths. o burger 3.jpg

1777 avenue McGill College
Montreal, QC H3A 1Z4
Tel: 514.285.0005

Photos by Mike "Lock 'Em Up" Lockner

Caraïbe Delite

Posted by Stefan / September 23, 2010

Caraibe Delite 1.jpgThe only two Guyanese restaurants I know are less than a mile apart. They are decorated in much the same way (trinkets, travel posters, maps) and the owners know each other. In fact, both were started by the same family, though they seem now to be in some sort of a rivalry. Perhaps, were it not for complex machinations beyond my grasp, they might today remain united. A common front bringing roti to the masses. But they're not. Instead, you're either a Caraïbe Delite or a Jardin du Curry person.

Not that the choice matters much. With almost identical menus, the restaurants are difficult to tell apart. Both serve Caribbean staples like roti, jerk chicken, plantains, and curry. They have similar sodas (cream soda, ginger beer) and peanut punch. They even have unmarked plastic bottles filled with the same (fantastic) hot sauce. But still, I guess it's important to pick a side, if only to keep up appearances.

We stuck to the basics: roti and chicken mulligatawny. I can't recommend the soup. It had a pleasant spice to it, but the vegetables were of the frozen variety and there was hardly any chicken to merit the name. The roti fared much better. The flat bread exterior was soft and chewy, and the potato, pumpkin, and chickpea filling was soft and covered in a delicious sauce (they also serve shrimp, chicken, goat, and white-fish roti). I added citrus-based hot sauce and the flavours worked very well together.

The sodas were so-so. And the service was slow.

A note of caution for the very frugal eater. Despite the fawning insistence of excitable roti enthusiasts (you know the type: patchouli oil and knitwear), roti's not going to feed you for a pittance. It's neither "huge!" nor "sooo cheap". It's a solid meal, but with prices ranging from $6-$8 dollars depending on the filling, roti's not notable for its low low price. It's a thick, savory, high-protein crepe. A satisfying meal, especially when accompanied by phulori. Great taste, good value. More reliable standby than something worth proselytizing. But a handy ace up the sleeve nonetheless. Caraibe Delite 2.jpgCaraïbe Delite
4816 Parc (above Villeneuve)
514- 274-4509

Photos by Mike "Lock 'em Up" Lockner

Euro-Deli Batory

Posted by Stefan / September 15, 2010

euro deli 2.jpgThe word "deli" is thrown around a lot in this city. Rye bread, pastrami (smoked meat if you're lucky), fries, and pickles are standard fare. While some are great, most would more properly be called deli-style, deli-inspired, or--in some sad instances--Dunn's-light. Even the better downtown delis have either a bistro feel, or a schlocky fixation with a very shallow kind of authenticity. Thankfully, Euro-Deli Batory both breaks with the typical Montreal deli format, and totally lives up to its name. euro deli 1.jpgEuro-Deli Batory is tiny. There's room for about ten people to eat in, so don't come with a crowd. The tables are usually rammed with a strange mix of crusty old Eastern European men and über-affected hipsters. In other words, it's a perfect cross-section of the neighborhood. Orders are placed at the counter with little fanfare, though the menu is rich. There are at least six different kinds of soup, and all of them fantastic. The main plates are heavy: pierogies, cabbage rolls, bigos, sausage, etc. If you've had the grocery story variety of any of these items, don't assume you know what they are. The Polish platter (for one or two) offers a little bit of everything, and is guaranteed to immobilize you. It's delicious, cheap, and prepared with perfect Eastern European indifference to presentation.

If there's no room to sit, you can order food to go, or buy frozen items to take home with you. There's a good selection of kie?basa (I recommend the smoked kie?basa), desserts, breads, confectionaries, pickles, jams, mustards, dried goods (barley, etc.) pickled herring, and other solid deli standards.

Don't come here expecting to order smoked meat or fries. But if you're looking for hearty Polish food, there's no better deli in town. euro deli 3.jpgEuro-Deli Batory
115 Saint-Viateur Rue W (corner St. Urbain)
(514) 948-2161
The hours are ahead.
Photos by Mike Lock'em-Up Lockner
Other Cities: Toronto