Sunday, March 1, 2015

On the Road: Pastéis de Nata

Our new February break tradition is a short family vacation in Montreal.  The city is just a couple hours from our house in northwest Vermont, yet it is an entirely different world: urban, multi-lingual, cosmopolitan, etc.  A couple days is enough to provide an escape from our much quieter country life, and also to remind us why we chose it.  A few highlights from this year's trip:

The city of Montreal doesn't have a zoo, exactly.  Instead, it has the Biodome.  The animal exhibits are divided into four replicated ecosystems:  Tropical Forest, Laurentian Forest, The Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-system and a polar area divided into both Arctic and Antarctic.  Within each zone, the animals wander more or less freely.  Climates are carefully controlled so the tropics are warm and humid whereas the Laurentian zone is set for brisk autumn.  There are a few larger mammals and reptiles.  We saw caimans and a capybara in the tropical zone.  Most of the animals in the Lauentian forest were asleep, including a Canadian lynx, whom we had seen on a previous visit.

Most of the animals on offer are birds.  The tropical ones are the most colorful, including turquoise tanagers and scarlet ibises (surely on the short list of the world's most beautiful animals).  There are puffins in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic.  The latter, of course, were our main reason for coming.  As mentioned in previous posts, our daughter is penguin-crazy.  The Biodome has four penguin species in all, including the regal king penguins.  The display is not as engaging as the the one at the New England Aquarium in Boston.  There is plexiglass between birds and humans.  On the one hand, it allows one to be physically closer to the birds and surely helps with climate control.  But there's something nice about being in the same room with the penguins, hearing them, smelling them, almost feeling they could splash you if they felt like it.  Even so, we were glad to see them.

My main objective for the trip was the Pâtisserie Notre-Dame du Rosaire, a bakery that specializes in Portuguese treats.  As discussed here, I am currently exploring breakfast traditions around the world.  The Portuguese are into pastries and when I looked up the recipe for the favorite choice - pastéis de nata - I instantly realized it was beyond my own current baking capabilities.  While I might learn to make them eventually, best first to try one to see if they're worth it.
The bakery was different from what I expected - better.  The website suggests a sleek, modern operation with the usual French varieties with a few Portuguese offerings.  But the reality is a more quaint shop in a traditional ethnic neighborhood known as Little Portugal.  The natas consist of an egg custard in a tart shell.  The pâtisserie had the traditional, sugar custard (top left corner) but also other options including maple (a Canadian variation?) and chocolate.  Verdict: they're delicious and well worth learning to make myself someday.

Our best meal of the trip was our dinner at Saka-Ba!, a ramen restaurant in the Mont-Royal neighborhood.  I yearn for the traditional noodle shops I knew in Japan and, not surprisingly, have never been able to find quite their equal in North America (though there is a place near the Time-Life building in New York that comes close).  The reviews for Saka-Ba! were good so we had high hopes.  The food was excellent.  My kimchi ramen was outstanding, and so spicy I couldn't even finish it.  In my book, that's a very good thing!  The ladies both went with more traditional choices and were thoroughly satisfied.  The atmosphere was less pleasing - more singles bar than homey Japanese izakaya.  Come to think of it, the atmosphere of the bakery was really what I wanted for the ramen shop, too.  Oh well, you can't have it all.  The noodles were plenty good enough to make up for the noise.

Overall, it was a most enjoyable visit.  We stayed closer to downtown this year at the Hotel Quartier de Spectacles, right on Rue St. Catherine and just around the corner from the nearest subway station.  We didn't have quite as nice a room this year but breakfast was better (though not included gratis).  As ever, it's nice to be back home but I look forward to future Montreal adventures.

30 comments:

  1. I wish we had thought of doing this before we left.
    http://qz.com/353488/canadians-spock-their-banknotes-to-honor-leonard-nimoy/

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    1. I suppose we could take a quick trip over the border and try our luck at the nearest ATM...

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  2. Have not yet been to Canada, but hope to make it there this summer when we are in Maine.

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    1. Fun! Where will you be in Maine? Lots of great lighthouses to add to your collection.

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  3. You make me want to travel. I do hope to take in the Boston Aquarium later this year and am traveling for wedding later this year. And now I'm hungry for noodles when I'm trying to lower my carb intake.

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    1. We'd love to travel more, too. Even short, nearby trips are fun, though.

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  4. I've been to the Biodome here in Arizona, but the Canadian one sounds much more interesting. I love spicy food so that ramen sounds delicious.

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    1. You live in a great place for spicy food!

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  5. The biodome sounds like a really cool hangout!!! Are you sure you haven't been watching too much Star Trek, Squid? You make the biodome sound like it got its very own weather modification network.

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    1. It is all a bit space agey, actually!

      Don't suppose you'd care to join us for our TAS exploration, would you?

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    2. Count me in! I'll link to your TAS page.

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  6. The Academy of Sciences out here has a rain forest bio dome. It's really cool. My daughter is the butterfly champion, much to my younger son's dismay; all she has to do is hold out her finger and butterflies fight over which of them get to perch on it.
    Do butterflies perch? Well, they do now.

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    1. No butterflies at our biodome, though I'm sure they have them at the nearby insectarium.

      There is a very impressive butterfly at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. They're very careful about making sure none of them hitch a ride on unsuspecting tourists out of the exhibit.

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    2. Oh, yeah, the Academy has a butterfly cleaning room on the way out so that you don't take any with you. So does the butterfly dome at the Six Flags out here, actually.

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    3. We haven't been in a few years. Maybe soon...

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  7. I went to Montreal for the day 1 1/2 yrs ago. My hubby's Aunt lives right on the Richelieu river about half hour from the U.S. border. I visited my friend V.J. there for the day since he was there to visit his family. Saw all the sights and had a wonderful lunch. Montreal and Quebec city are so beautiful-part North American and Part Europe

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    1. I love Canada. I've lived in envy for many years now.

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  8. I have only been to Montreal twice, beautiful city.
    Kimchi ramen, yes please.

    cheers, parsnip

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  9. A place I had not considered visiting, but probably should! Those pastries look super yummy. I'm intrigued by the zoo, as well. I've visited many, and this sounds unlike any I've seen.
    Thanks for the report!
    V:)

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    1. Veronica, I highly recommend Montreal. I'm always fascinated by the cultural crossroads of the world and Montreal's one of the greats. The French/English part is just the beginning. As with other North American cities, numerous immigrant groups have come through and left their mark as well. It is the most accessible major city I know and I've lived in and visited quite a few.

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  10. I love the idea of trying out different breakfasts from around the world, especially if it involves eating bakery goods!

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    1. It's been fun. France is up next - another daunting, pastry-intensive cuisine.

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  11. Oh sounds fun! I want to do this...go on a trip..trying out food from all over the world!

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    1. Montreal is the perfect place to do just that - great restaurant town.

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  12. I'd love to visit Canada one day. Hmmm, those look good.

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    1. I'd love to explore more of the countries. I've only made it to 4 provinces. Same problem as the USA - so big!

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