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om nom nom nom :: restaurant review

ok, i can't promise this is going to become a weekly part of the blog, but given how damn much i love food and how much dom shares that passion with me, it would just be silly if i didn't occasionally write something about what we eat. i've posted here and there about the sort of things i've cooked, because i love cooking almost as much as i love eating, but i don't often talk about the places where we actually go to eat.

and that's a damn shame, because we do likey the restaurants.
by the end of this, he'll be smliing

so, in the spirit of sharing with those of you who find yourselves in montreal, i thought i'd share my thoughts on a place we happened by tonight: gourmet du vietnam.

montreal is generally very fortunate in its selection of vietnamese restaurants. while a great part of me still misses toronto for its unbeatable indian and sushi is at best an even split, vietnamese, with its delicate flavours, perfect grillades and ubiquitous soups are undoubtedly, within canada at least, the purview of montreal.

that said, there are a lot of places that let the side down. in the wake of vietnamese becoming the new chinese (meaning, the new foreign food that everyone had to try) in the mid-to-late eighties, a lot of sub-par places opened serving reheated meat patties with pre-etched grill marks and bowls of "soupe tonkinoise" that looks and tastes remarkably like used dishwater. au 14 prince arthur is generally my benchmark for excellence in vietnamese in montreal, but since they're not particularly close, i'm always on the lookout for a tasty destination within walking distance. and finally, it seems i've found one.



we were just leaving the drug store on queen mary boulevard and we didn't have the least intention of going for vietnamese. we were, in fact, planning to head up the street to try some indian at a place i remember as being kinda, almost like what i got used to in toronto, but there were these big banners in front of one restaurant that mean one thing- we've just opened. i'm a sucker for these- not because i naturally assume that new means better, but because in more residential neighbourhoods, unlike the glitzier strips of downtown or st. laurent, "new" to me is a plea for help; "we're putting these big banners out in the hopes that we'll stand out from the scenery of your daily sojourns. even more heartbreaking, there was only one lone table with customers. to me, this is the restaurant equivalent of a shelter cat, big eyes asking me to care for it. i'm a sucker for that.

so i waved dom over, pointing out that this place was on our way, whereas the indian restaurant would require a ten minute stroll or a ten minute fight for parking. since we're both vietnamese fans, it didn't take much in the way of convincing. what's the worst that could happen?

once inside, we found it more than a little chilly, although i could feel the heat pumping in above me. it occurred to me at that moment that i'd been had by my own sense of pity. it was early for the supper crowd. the reason this place looked so plaintively ignored was merely because no one was looking for food yet. nonetheless, i figured we had to be doing good by supporting a new establishment.

the menu revealed that this was not solely, nor even primarily, a vietnamese restaurant. in fact, their menu had a selection of asian favourites (pad thai, general tao chicken) that normally sets me on edge. it's the kind of menu that caters to mass tastes rather than to a specialty. again, i reassured myself, it probably wouldn't be the worst meal i'd ever had.

besides, the place itself was quite nice to behold. the place is spotlessly clean, a neat trick in the middle of winter even if they are new. (yes, march is still the bloody middle of winter if you're in montreal.)  it has a sleekness to it that belies the simplicity of the decor: smooth blue walls, perfect hip-kitsch chandeliers, graphite floor.

both dom and i went with the standard soup and imperial rolls as openers. soup is generally a good starter and it comes with any of the chef's specials or combo meals. what shocked us was the quality. instead of being a  lukewarm affair, either devoid of taste or buggered with spices to make up for a lack of flavour, this was a simple vegetable broth with layers for the palate to enjoy. astonishing! distinct notes of cilantro and fennel mingled with the savoury base for a perfect starter- neither bland nor overwhelming.

the imperial rolls were another standout. well longer than the standard "finger sausage" size affair that doubtless comes from a freezer, these had ingredients you could actually taste. the dipping sauce had that tang that one always expects, but not the sugary quality that too often dominates. despite the size, they're not overly filling (although i daresay that they could make a fine lunch with veggies and vermicelli) and so it was with a renewed sense of optimism that we moved on to our mains.

being a pad thai connoisseur of sorts, dom went for that. since it was listed as a specialty, it seemed promising. indeed, what he got was not your typical too-sweet, moderately (if at all) spiced dish. in fact, it's a different sort of pad thai altogether. if you're expecting something along the lines of the standard cheap thai fare, you might even be disappointed, but only because the dish is so different than what you're used to. the pad thai at gourmet du vietnam is actually like a hybrid between pad thai and singapore noodles. it's quite peppery, which is something i associate more with singapore noodles, but it definitely has that bite from the thai chillies. contrary to what we've been trained to expect of pad thai, it's quite dry, but i suspect that's on purpose, because the dish is tasty enough that you wouldn't want to drown it in sauce. it comes with a typical mix of chicken and shrimp, in a portion size large enough to fill the belly.

for my part, i opted for the lemongrass shrimp with vermicelli (all the chef's recommendations and specials come with your choice of steamed rice or vermicelli, or you can opt for fried rice for $1.50 more; the specials include a soup in the price). as some of you many know, i've been having some significant problems lately in the gastrointestinal department, having developed what i jokingly (and wearily) call an "allergy to food". virtually everything either makes me feel sick or makes me so tired i pretty much pass out. i've had the most luck with dishes that are protein, vegetables and not much else. i figured that i could nibble at the vermicelli. the problem here is that i normally detest the pile of slaw, onions and green peppers (ugh) that comes with vietnamese dishes as a rule. so how happy was i when i saw a dish heaping with not only a half dozen or more plump shrimp, but also with perfectly sauteed butternut squash, sugar peas and red peppers, with a moderate amount of onion and only a couple of errant, easily ignored slices of green pepper? oh happy day.

being from the east coast, i'm a bit of a seafood snob. the irony is, there's no shrimp fishery on the east coast of canada and i'm still a damn snob about them, because i went to the southern u.s. every year from the ages of eight to eighteen and i know what they're supposed to taste like. i'm not going to say that these ones were fresh fresh, but they're a helluva a lot finer quality than what passes for shrimp in a lot of restaurants around here. and the vegetables, oh the vegetables... ok, it helps that butternut squash and sugar peas are favourites of mine, but put a plate of overcooked veggies of any type in front of me and i will react like a two year old past her nap time. you'll be lucky if i don't throw the plate at the wall and start screaming. these were absolutely scrumptious- tender and crunchy, that enigmatic balance that cooks struggle to achieve.

the sauce coated both fish and (vegetable) flesh nicely without drowning them or being cloying. the waiter's suggestion that i add a little bit of hot sauce proved capital and, i'm happy to say, several hours later i've rarely felt better. so i'm able to add good quality vietnamese food to the tiny list of things that don't incapacitate me. hurrah.

best of all, future lazy me declares, they deliver within the neighbourhood. although there's no mention on the menu, they don't appear to be licensed, but you can bring your own wine (we saw others doing so). vegetarian options are no problem and, in fact, most of the staple dishes are available with a tofu variation. our friendly waiter did mention that the soups (they have both vietnamese and thai style) are a specialty and, based on the appetizer version we had, i believe him. starting at $7.50 for a meal-size bowl, they're also an excellent deal.

i'm glad to say that there were a few more tables filling up by the time we paid our check, but i can't encourage enough people to hop on board the gourmet bandwagon. for anyone in ndg, it's a natural destination. for those visiting the city, expand your horizons beyond downtown (which has precious few epicurean delights anyway) and hop on the metro's orange line to snowdon. the restaurant is less than ten minutes' walk or, in case of inclement weather, the 51 bus will ferry you from the metro station to the restaurant's doorstep (get off at the corner of earnscliffe). it's hard to miss. for the time being, it's the place with the shiny new banners in the window. in a few months, it'll be the place packed with satisfied-looking customers.

gourmet du vietnam
5405 queen mary (corner earnscliffe)
514.369.9989
debit, visa, mastercard accepted
main courses and specials $7.50 (soups)- $16.95 (seafood)

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