Restaurant Spotlight: In the kitchen with Coya – part II

What a difference a year makes.

It’s been exactly twelve months since I waltzed through the doors of Coya Dubai, where chef Benjamin Wan left me mesmerized by his approach to fine Peruvian cuisine.

LIDIJA_COYA_LOWRES_39

I had the privilege of assisting Benjamin behind the ceviche counter, where together we composed some of Coya’s signature dishes. Although I was left with a taste of the complexities within each dish, something told me that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and that my journey through Coya was far from over…

It turns out that Benjamin had way more up his sleeve as he invited me into his kitchen for part two of our culinary experience. True to form upon my arrival, the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement even though we were still in the early morning hours.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

With the exception of some artwork, little had changed since my last visit – the restaurant was just as breathtaking as I remembered. I spotted beautiful ceviche bowls carved of wood with a telltale logo etched within – all hand crafted by a talented member of the Coya team.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

With preparations well underway for their yearly Halloween party, I could hear the echo of a live band rehearsing in the VIP lounge as I shimmied my way past the ceviche counter and towards the kitchen.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Benjamin welcomed me into his space and filled me in on the dishes we would be making. He also gave me a brief on the restaurant’s expansion. In the year since our last encounter, Coya Abu Dhabi was born (in March 2017). With two restaurants in London, and a secret location in the works, Coya’s new baby makes it the fourth worldwide. It looks like a global culinary domination is underway!

Once in the kitchen, Benjamin pulled out the big guns and handed me a blowtorch that was bigger and bolder than the pistol version I use at home. I hope he has the fire department on speed dial.

lidijas_kitchen_coya-part2_2.jpg

It turned out that we would use the torch to brûlée miniscule specimens of cucumber that had been pressed and cooked in a sous-vide. They were diced so perfectly, I could swear they were measured to exact specifications.

What do you do with lightly charred sous-vide cucumber? You use it to embellish King Crab with aji rocoto and Peruvian avocado (of course!). A coconut milk reduction infused with coriander stalks and chili was combined with cooked crabmeat, shallots, and coriander. The crimson flecks of chili against the pearl-white crabmeat was exquisite on it’s own.

After seasoning with salt, lime zest, and coriander oil, we were ready to plate. Paper-thin slices of avocado (and I do mean paper-thin) were placed on one of Coya’s signature plates, as circles of coconut milk reduction swirled around the edges. A quenelle of crab came next, hidden by more slices of avocado.

We spooned on the charred cucumber as Benjamin added a touch of oscietra caviar, “The caviar is just for you”, he said with a sly smile. After seasoning our dish with toragashi pepper, curry oil and coriander cress, we were left with a perfect piece of culinary art, waiting to be tasted. Note to anyone salivating over this dish… Canrejo al Coco is only available in Dubai.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

When Benjamin set out the ingredients for our next dish, Citrus Atun, I was struck by the intense color of the tuna – so bright you would think it had it’s own Instagram filter! The tuna was salted for a few hours “to draw out the juices” before it was patted dry and seared in a very hot pan. The contrast between the raw flesh and the cooked edges was magnificent.

We rolled the tuna into cigarillos, piling them on top of each other in a pyramid. After drizzling on a dressing of Peruvian passion fruit, hazelnut oil, orange juice, aji limo, and dates, we garnished the tuna with burnt orange, caramelized hazelnut, pickled daikon, tobiko and jalepeño. A little bit sweet, a little bit sour. Done.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

It was at this point that I began to appreciate the prep work involved in the details. From pickling to brûléeing, caramelizing to compressing, everything down to the tiniest garnish plays a critical role in Coya’s cuisine. Even chili peppers are boiled to remove any bitterness or excess heat. A calculating and extensive mise-en-place goes behind Every. Single. Dish.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

When Benjamin pulled out a fat ball of Burrata for the last of our cold starters, I was left scratching my head as to what could fresh Italian mozzarella possibly have to do with the flavors of Peru. He was quick to correct me on my assumption that Coya is a strictly Peruvian restaurant. “Some of our dishes, you would never find in Peru” he explains. “A lot of our new dishes use European and Japanese techniques but are flavored with ingredients from South America. Peruvian cuisine has influences from across the world, but mostly from Japan and China – hence the term Nikkei and Chifa cuisines.” Benjamin draws on his classic French experience at La Petite Maison, as well as his Chinese background to create new dishes that use European techniques with Chifa flavors. “Our Head Chef, Florian Becker, has worked at Zuma, which helps when we create dishes with a Nikkei element.”

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Still curious about how Benjamin would put his stamp on the burrata, I watched closely as he swirled together cherry tomatoes with olive oil and sherry vinegar, seasoned with Maldon salt and a touch of sugar. Simple enough, I thought to myself.

The twist came when cold green grapes (peeled to perfection), dried cherry tomatoes, pomegranate and aji limo were piled on top of the mound of luscious cheese. Fresh marjoram and mint were next, along with dried botija olives, panko breadcrumbs and mustard cress scattered throughout. A unique spin on a classic, this dish is offered in Coya’s member’s lounge only.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Benjamin must have read my mind when I spied the mother of all seafood on a cutting board beside me. A tender octopus tentacle – cooked in sous-vide with a fried exterior – was cut and ready to transform into Pulpo Rostizado.

I snuck a bite. It was insane (note the expression on my face)!

Placed on top of a bowl of creamy aji amarillo potato foam flavored with smoked butter, the octopus was finished off with bottarga – a dried compressed mullet roe. I snuck a taste of that too. It was insane in a different way… borderline offensive – powerfully salty and very strong – just a tad would do. A little smoked paprika, some chopped dried olives, and a dash of olive oil later – we set off to make our final main course.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Waiting in the wings was the star of our grand finale, Arroz Nikkei. A miso and mirin-marinated Chilean sea bass is cooked over hot coals on the robata grill and served over a Spanish bomba rice. The fish is delicate and meaty at the same time, while the rice is velvety, rich, and flavorful. It’s the ultimate match in foodie heaven.

Cooked like a risotto, the secret to the rice – says Ben – is in the stock. The stock (aka Dashi in Japanese) is made out of kombu (seaweed) that’s been soaked for 12 hours. Once strained, the kombu liquid is used to soak bonito flakes for another 12 hours. Those steps are critical in making a light, flavorful broth.

A fat nob of compound chili butter added a risotto-like creaminess and depth.

We transferred the rice into a rustic cast iron pot, and piled on the sea bass that was surrounded by puddles of creamed sweet corn purée.

Yes, it’s as good as it looks. He wouldn’t give me the recipe, even after I begged and pleaded…some secrets are better kept to yourself.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Always one to save space for dessert, I had high hopes our cooking session would end on a sweet note. It turned out that Cheesecake de Maracuya was the perfect finale to our decadent meal. The cake was made with a traditional filling of cream cheese and eggs, flavored with Peruvian passionfruit. The base and garnish were made of toasted kiwicha – an ancient Peruvian superfood (also known as amaranth or “mini quinoa”) – which gave the cheesecake a light taste and texture.

We added a fresh mango sorbet that was so divine, I could have swallowed the entire pot!

Elegant touches of brûléed mango, marigold, and delicate pieces of tuile finished off our dessert.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

It was time to taste all our hard work….

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

…and man, was it ever worth it.

Awestruck by the rhythm of the kitchen, I discovered so much by watching contrasting flavors, textures, and techniques merge together. Thank you Benjamin for giving me a deeper understanding of Coya’s cuisine – wild creativity really has no bounds!

Coya Abu Dhabi, get your blowtorch ready – I’ll be coming for you soon…

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Stay tuned for my new website, where I will be sharing some of these recipes….which recipes would you like to see?  I would love to hear from you, please leave your answers in the comments below.

Shot on Location at Coya Dubai

Photos by Tara Atkinson

Outfit by Ted Baker

Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon

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In my kitchen: vegetable yellow curry with filet of sole and cauliflower rice

It seems like just yesterday I was unpacking my suitcase from our summer holiday. How November came so quickly is a total mystery to me!

In keeping with a tradition that began after I started my blog, I have created a recipe in support of Diabetes Awareness month. If you’ve been following my posts, you have probably heard me mention my friend Pam on many occasions. Pam is one of my best friends, and has a strong voice in the Diabetes community here in the Middle East. Her company, Diapoint, has expanded it’s digital platform over the last year with a new, and super informative website that aims to “share knowledge and connect people to improve the quality of life of people with diabetes and those around them.” You can find Diapoint’s website here for more information.

Low in carbs definitely does not mean low in taste! This recipe for fish and vegetable yellow curry is mouthwatering, and loaded with vegetables that are low on the glycemic index. Curry, turmeric, lemongrass, ginger, and galangal add depth and flavor.

Vegetables lemongrass galangal

I serve the curry with cauliflower rice to make the carb count even lower – it really lightens the dish! Whether you’re watching your carbs or not – you’ll have a delicious meal on your table that is healthy and delicious.

broccoli and curry

I use fresh sole for the dish, but you can substitute any firm white fish fillet you like. If you want a vegetarian option, ditch the fish (and fish sauce) completely and add extra veggies or sautéed tofu.

Fish & vegetable yellow curry 

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients for the curry:

  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
  • 1 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ tablespoons galangal
  • 4 teaspoons curry powder
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, kept whole but bruised (you can do this by whacking it with the back of a small pan until it starts to break and releases a lemony smell)
  • 4 lime leaves
  • 12 curry leaves
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 to 4 cups coconut milk
  • 100 grams coconut milk powder (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • Half a head of broccoli, cut into florets
  • 1 red capsicum, cut into thick strips
  • 2 baby eggplant, cut into 2 inch cubes
  • 800 grams fresh filet of sole or another white firm fleshed fish, cut into thick cubes

Ingredients – For the Cauliflower rice:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 head cauliflower, core removed and broken into florets
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • A fat pinch of salt

Directions for the fish curry:

In a large pot, sauté the onion until fragrant (about three minutes). Add the garlic, and sauté for another minute. Add the ginger and galangal, cook for thirty seconds until they begin to release their aroma.

Add the curry powder and turmeric, cook while stirring constantly for 40 seconds. Add the tomatoes and stir.

Add the curry leaves, lime leaves, and lemon grass (you can tie your lemon grass in a knot to make it all fit into the pot). Pour in the coconut milk, and let simmer on medium-low heat for 20 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken and reduce.

Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables. Blanch your broccoli in boiling water for 3 minutes. You can strain the broccoli in an ice water bath after cooking to help it retain its color. Set aside.

healthy vegetable curry prep

Blanch the capsicum for 1 minute. Blanch the eggplant for two minutes. No need for a water bath. Set aside.

At this point, if you are using coconut milk powder, stir it into the sauce until it thickens slightly. Skip this step if you aren’t using it.

Add the fish sauce and stir.

Add the broccoli, capsicum, and eggplant into the sauce.

Carefully drop in the fish, making sure that each cube is immersed in the sauce completely. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let cook gently for about 4 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of your fish, check for doneness after 3 minutes. If the fish is still a little raw in the center, remove the pot from the heat and keep the lid on for another couple of minutes.

Directions for the cauliflower rice:

Pulse cauliflower in a food processor until the florets turn into small grain like bits similar to rice or couscous.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan with the “rice,” stirring to coat.

Reduce the heat to low, add the water and salt, cover for 6 to 8 minutes or until rice is cooked to your liking. Stir occasionally so the rice doesn’t stick to your pan.

cauliflower rice

To serve:

Carefully divide the fish curry into serving bowls with the cauliflower rice, careful not to break the fish. Spoon a generous amount of sauce on top. Garnish with extra vegetables if desired.

curry closeup

veggie and fish curry

Bon appétit!

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In the moment with Thomas Keller

Today, I met a legend.

There are moments in life that sweep you off your feet and leave you feeling like a teenager all over again. That’s exactly what happened when I came face-to-face with my culinary crush, and the inspiration behind my passion in the kitchen.

Lidija Abu Ghazaleh and Thomas Keller

To say that I’ve been a fan of Chef Thomas Keller since my food-obsessed husband first introduced me to the French Laundry cookbook over fifteen years ago is an understatement. It’s been admiration from afar ever since, as I’ve cooked my way through each and every one of his books, one perfectly crafted recipe at a time.

I had the chance to slip into chef Keller’s Bouchon Bakery – his first in Dubai – to celebrate its launch and to have a tête-à-tête with the man himself. Tall, elegant, and iconic, Keller stood at the back of the bakery in his crisp flawless chef’s attire. As I walked towards him, I could feel my heart beating louder than thunder – I swear I could see it rise out of my chest! I hope he doesn’t hear this, I thought to myself. With his hand outstretched towards mine, he welcomed me with the grace of a true gentleman, and the warmth of a kindred spirit. It took my breath away.

Bouchon Bakery Dubai Menu

Once my hands stopped shaking and I could actually carry on a conversation, Keller spoke affectionately about the love and care he put into Bouchon Dubai. With nearly three years in the making, it is clear that this is a venture that is close to his heart. He talks about his team with trust and respect – the people on the ground that will maintain excellence long after he flies back to the US. Just one look at his staff and you can feel the pride that each one of them has under Keller’s leadership. These apples certainly do not fall far from the tree.

Bouchon Dubai team Thomas Keller

Inspired by a small bakery in Paris below the apartment where Keller lived in his twenties, Bouchon is light, airy, and inviting. French pâtisserie, macaroons, scones, artisanal breads, along with signature classics of Nutter Butters and TKO’s (Thomas Keller Oreo), are beautifully displayed in abundance at the main counter.

Macaroons Dubai Bouchon Bakery

Tko Bouchon

As I sampled a few of the main dishes on the menu, it was clear that no stone was left unturned in terms of detail and finesse. In fact, Keller assures me that nearly everything on the menu can be found in his bakeries in New York and California, with the exception of a few dishes that reflect Bouchon’s Middle-Eastern location.

Avocado Toast Runny Egg Bouchon

Salmon and quinoa at Bouchon Dubai.jpg

The 7-star Michelin chef spoke openly about the reasons why he has no plans to open a fine dining restaurant in the region. Since fundamental ingredients of flour, butter, and eggs are relatively universal (hence a bistro or bakery makes sense), it’s relatively simple to safeguard the quality of products that rely on those staples. Fine dining is a whole different animal. In the world according to Keller, it’s all about accessibility to fresh and local ingredients. In other words, book your tickets to California (the French Laundry, Ad Hoc)  or New York (Per Se) for a taste of haute cuisine the Keller way.

Just before leaving Bouchon, I set out my collection of cookbooks out in hopes that chef would sign them. He graciously obliged, signing one book after another, crafting a personal message in stunning calligraphy. Even in his handwriting, Keller’s eye for detail reflects the finesse and refinement that has earned him his legendary status. Each of my books held a different inscription, with one dedicated to my three children.

Thomas Keller book signing Bouchon Dubai

“It’s all about sharing”

“It’s all about time and temperature”

“It’s all about memories”

“It’s all about family”

Thomas Keller book signing

There was one book in particular that I accidentally left behind at home. Ironically, it was that first Thomas Keller book that my husband gave me all those years ago.

Thank you for your words of wisdom chef Keller. I’ll see you in California for a culinary spotlight in your kitchen…and to sign that last book.

Lidija Abu Ghazaleh with Thomas Keller

Special thanks to Bouchon Bakery Dubai and the team that brought it to life. 

Find my adaptation of the TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo) here

 

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The secret life of bees & an orange blossom Madeleine recipe

Fearlessness is a liberating proposition. To look something that scares you square in the eye can lift your confidence to new heights, inspiring you to walk a more courageous path than you ever thought possible. That’s exactly what happened to me last summer when I decided to tackle one of the things that terrified me most in life head on.

My fear of bees started sometime after my sixth birthday, when a nasty sting on my arm left me petrified of all things venomous. Determined not to transfer my bee anxiety to my children, I decided to take my family on the annual honey harvest at Quinn Farm last August. All I wanted was to watch the bees from afar, have a taste of honey, and prove that I was in fact one brave mama, which is exactly what we did.

lidija quinn farm honey harvest

As I was leaving the harvest, I got more than I bargained for when farmer Phil stopped to as me if I wanted to check out the bee hives first hand. I accepted the challenge, and set off in pursuit of getting up close and personal with my nemesis. Was I scared? Absolutely petrified.

Located in a secluded area of the farm, the hives sat quietly on a patch of grass surrounded by trees. There wasn’t a bee in sight. While my family watched from a distance, Phil handed me a hat and face net. Since I was wearing a strapless floral dress -not the most practical choice of clothing for this occasion – I asked for full body coverage. Phil laughed at my request, and said that the bees will only attack when under threat, “If they attack, they’ll go for the face.” Why thank you Phil, that little piece of information did absolutely nothing to calm my fragile nerves.

quinn farm bee hives

With my heart practically leaping out of my chest as we approached the hives, Phil gave me a few words of advice. “No matter what you do, stay as still and as calm as you can,” he warned, adding that bees react negatively to adrenaline.

I watched in silence as the hive was dismantled. Made of a white wooden box with movable chambers (like a drawer set), several frames containing sheets of bees-wax were nestled within. Our task was to put the demonstration frame we observed during the honey harvest back into its proper place. Phil used a “smoker” to render the bees into a calm state, and if you listened closely, you could hear a zen-like hum radiate from the colony.

bee frame in hive

Once we got to the queen “excluder” at the bottom of the hive, Phil introduced me to the queen bee herself. With a distinct gourmet palate, the queen’s diet consists of royal jelly – she is longer and larger than her hive mates. She lays approximately 1,500 eggs a day at peak production, mating only once in her life, with several different males. The eggs she lays are genderless, with the future of each egg determined by the kind of cell it’s laid in. The drones (males) primary function is to mate with the fertile queen, while worker bees (females) collect pollen and nectar. Watch out for the ladies as only worker bees can sting!

When I ask about what determines the different varieties of honey, Phil explains, “For the most part, crops [on the farm] will bloom in a staggered manner,” melons, sunflowers, buckwheat, etc. “After each flush of flowers, the honey is harvested,” with each crop a distinct color and flavor. “From light to almost black and from mild to really robust.” Each hive produces close to one hundred pounds of honey per year!

Honey jrs from Quinn Farm

“Unfortunately, bees are not immune to endangerment, particularly in large food-producing parts of the world. With bee disease, parasites and pesticides being among some of the reasons.” Phil also explains that contrary to popular belief, organic is not necessarily better, “when used to pollinate some organic crops, (cranberries being one), the bees come back completely decimated. The natural pesticides used on organic crops are non-selective, slightly weaker yet more persistent in the environment. Whereas, chemical pesticides have come forward by leaps and bounds…. More insect specific, so are “bee-ing” less detrimental to non targeted insects.”

bee picJPG.JPG

So as I stood watching the bees in awe and amazement, practicing my deepest yoga breathing, all my fears disappeared.  As the bees swarmed around me, 20,000 – give or take a bee – not a single one so much as brushed my skin. It was amazing, surreal, and completely liberating. Bees are a true source of life! What I found most awe-inspiring about this experience was watching the bees work in unison and in perfect harmony within their world. One thing’s for sure, Mother Nature is a spectacular leader. While I may not be taking up a career in beekeeping any time soon, I want to express gratitude to the people at Quinn farm for giving me a glimpse into the secret life of bees.

after the harvest

Check out my recipe for orange blossom honey Madeleine below, which was inspired by my bee-dazzling experience. You can use a lighter or more robust honey if you like, I just happened to have this variety stocked in my kitchen.

lidija's orange blossom honey madeleine recipe

Orange Blossom Honey Madeleines

Makes approximately 24 Madeleines

 

Equipment: you will need one Madeleine mould, greased with melted butter

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup butter (you will need extra butter to grease the moulds)
  • 1/4 cup orange blossom honey
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange zest or a few drops of orange blossom water
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions:

Over low heat, melt the butter in a saucepan without browning. Remove from heat, then add the honey and vanilla. Mix to combine, and set aside to cool.

In another bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Start beating the eggs, while slowly incorporating the sugar until the eggs start to turn light in color and foam up (about three minutes). Beat in your orange zest.

Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet, then add your butter-honey liquid and mix until just combined.

Let the batter rest in the refrigerator for one hour until chilled. You can even make the batter the night before you want to bake them.

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F (200 Celsius). Place your rack in the center of the oven.

Place your greased Madeleine moulds on a baking tray. Fill the moulds approximately 2/3 full.

Bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges start to turn a beautiful golden brown, and the Madeleines start to puff up with a little bump on top. Do not over-brown, you are looking for more of a yellow color rather than a deep golden brown.

oven fresh madeleines.jpg

Remove from oven, and let them sit for a couple of minutes until they’re cool enough to handle. Remove from the moulds and serve immediately. If you are serving when no longer warm, make sure to give them a dusting of powdered sugar before you dive in!

madeleines on a cooling rack dusted with sugar.jpg

Bon appétit!

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A Bite Into Montreal

It’s no secret that I fell in love with my hometown of Montreal all over again during my recent summer holiday. The food lover in me couldn’t resist our daily picnics in the park, local farmer’ markets, and of course, the never-ending list of home grown eateries and restaurants just waiting to be discovered and explored!

Without further ado, here is my list of “must try” Montreal culinary experiences for you to sink your teeth into. Note that this is not a review, just my humble opinion and are in no particular order.

Gastronomic Feasts

Le Bremner – After putting it off for years, I finally made it to the celebrated Old Montreal restaurant and got a reservation on a crowded Friday night. Walking down an unassuming, old stone staircase into an 18th century building in what looks like a historic wine cellar, Le Bremner oozes cool without the attitude. The menu is seasonal, short and sweet. Everything is done right, service and all. Tuna sashimi with tahini, lobster risotto, grilled sea bass, and fresh local corn artfully sliced off the cob tableside, were among the delicious delights that graced our dinner table. Homemade gingerale and a Bourbon “cola” were as unexpectedly delicious as they were refreshing. For dessert, just order one of everything – you’ll be happy you did.

Joe Beef – With chefs like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang singing it’s praises, it’s no wonder that this decade old restaurant located in Montreal’s Little Burgundy District has received such global attention. During my chat with founder and chef David McMillan, it’s obvious that he is a true restauranteur who is dedicated to preserving the essence of his culinary vision. Drawing inspiration from whom he refers to as “the adventurous eaters’ of Montreal,” Joe Beef is a place of big meats and bold flavors. If you want to see a menu dominated by prime cuts of meat, rabbit, lobster, clams and fresh fish, then this is right up your alley. Upon arriving at the restaurant, you’ll be on a first name basis with your server in minutes, and with a drink in hand, get ready to be whisked away to the garden for a peek at some of the fresh produce that will leap onto your dinner plate. This is as seasonal and as local as you can get. While McMillan’s food philosophy is uncomplicated, Joe Beef sets the bar high on the Canadian culinary landscape. Head over to its sister restaurants, Le Vin Papillon and Liverpool House – both equally as impressive as their big brother. Totally worth a visit on your next trip to Montreal, book way in advance.

Park RestaurantLocated just outside of Montreal’s urban core in the city of Westmount, I almost missed what I considered one of the culinary highlights of my trip because I thought it out of my way. Thankfully, I came to my senses as my eyes were drawn to the pages of a Japanese menu like I had never seen before. What sets chef Antonio Park’s vision miles apart from the traditional sushi restaurant are the subtle hints of Korean and South American flavors woven within his cooking style. Our sashimi of salmon, snapper, Hamachi, and a brown rice Unagi Maki were accompanied by sauces of avocado, chimichurri and a “secret” golden flecked sauce. A Korean-inspired salad piled high with fresh seasonal vegetables, and a quinoa bibimbap were among the dishes we savored. While presentation is no doubt a feast for the eyes, what impressed me the most was chef Park’s ability to strike the right balance between clean, delicate, and often robust flavors within his unique approach to modern Japanese cuisine. Delicious.

L’Express – With it’s black and white tiled floors, tables draped in pristine whitewashed linen, and black tie clad waiters – L’Express is reminiscent of eras gone by, and the epitome of the classic French bistro (note the vintage photo below for historical reference). Very little on the menu has changed since the restaurant opened 35 years ago, and for good reason – you know a restaurant lives up to its name when it’s the place that most chefs frequent for their off-duty meal. Chicken liver pate with pistachio, beef tartare, veal ravioli, and hangar steak are all signature dishes that are prepared with the consistency and sophistication that L’Express is known for. Don’t get me started on their fries, they are as perfectly French as you could ever imagine! If you still have space for dessert (trust me, make the space), the apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream, and chocolate tart are not to be missed. With many of the staff clocking in twenty to thirty years of experience at L’Express, you can rest assured your dining experience will be in trusted hands.

2. Restaurant L'Express Montreal (section fumeur002)

Casual Dining

Olive et Gourmando With nearly 20 years under its belt, this fun, eclectic restaurant is a tiny jewel on Old Montreal’s St-Paul West Street. It’s charming, cute, and casual, with a lunch lineup that runs beyond it’s front door.. I used to live around the corner many years ago – I’m not at all surprised that it has as much of a buzz about it now as it had back then. Co-owner and founder Dyan Solomon has poured her heart and soul into making this one of the finest casual eateries in the city. It would be almost criminal to miss out on their signature chicken sandwich made grilled bread, guacamole and fresh mango. With salads changing more often than the seasons, there is always an element of surprise within the menu, and their endless variety of freshly baked goods is worth waiting for. O & G has respected the art of the perfect cup of coffee, and to this day, I remain obsessed with their signature Valrhona brownies. Well worth the wait.

Pizzeria Gema – I discovered this “gem” of a pizzeria while wandering the streets of Little Italy with my family on a sweaty summer afternoon. Too hot to sit on their outdoor terrace, we were greeted by friendly wait staff who welcomed us into the buzzing little restaurant. Beautiful thin crust pizzas with toppings of fresh pomodoro, local mozzarella, basil, artichokes, and salami made their way to our table, along with perfectly crisp calamari and a seasonal market salad. A great casual eatery with pizza that’s spot on.

Foods to Try

The Markets – From hard to find exotic foods at specialty grocers to your local honey farmer, Montreal’s markets have it all. The Jean Talon Market and Atwater Market, locatied in Montreal’s Little Italy as well as by the Lachine Canal, respectively, are the spots you’ll want to source the finest local produce, gourmet and artisanal ingredients. Open year round – yes, even in the depth of Montreal’s sub-zero temperatures – the markets boast some of the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables around. Cheese, meat and other specialty food shops line the periphery and interiors of the market. Don’t forget to stop by the many food stalls that are nestled within. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the summer months as I did this year, Québec’s seasonal berries are a treasure not to be missed.

Montreal Bagels – If you haven’t tried a Montreal bagel before, sorry folks, then you haven’t tried a real bagel. Hand rolled dough, bathed in sweet boiling water, then baked in a deep wood-fire oven – there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a piping hot, fresh bagel that’s been slathered with cold cream cheese. For me, both St-Viateur and Le Fairmont make the best bagels in town, and arguably the best in the world. The smell when you walk through their doors is enough to put you in a hypnotic state – a cult-like zen-ness overtakes the lineup while you wait in suspended time. With a crisp, sesame coated exterior that’s sweet and chewy when you bite into it, it would be easy to polish off a dozen in one sitting. I have to admit that I packed over 120 bagels from both shops on my way back to Dubai this summer. I probably would have skipped my flight if they didn’t make it on the plane! In fact, they’re sitting in my freezer at the moment, as my family toasts and fights over them, one breakfast at a time.

La Diperie & Le Chocolat Favoris – As a mother of three ice cream lovers, I was amazed by the highly addictive trend that has taken the traditional chocolate dipped cone to new heights. Soft serve ice cream is turned upside down and dipped into flavors like salted caramel, smores, dark chocolate, almond crusted chocolate, pistachio, white chocolate, cookie dough (and the list that goes on). Cones come in different sizes, with the mini-cone being the closest to a guilt-free option. If you appreciate ice cream as much as I do, you’ll have to take the dip and try every flavor at least once.  Note that the sprinkles in the photo below are far from obligatory!

I could go on and on about Montreal’s food scene, but the truth is, there is always something special to discover. The best way to truly experience what the city has to offer is to put on your most comfortable walking shoes, and roam the streets in search of the culinary jackpots that are worthy of biting into. Give me a shout whenever one crosses your path!

Bon Appétit!

Special thanks to Joe Beef, Olive et Gourmando, & L’Express for providing images of their restaurants.

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My Smoked Eggplant Salad Recipe

I have an obsession with eggplant. Versatile as it is elegant, eggplant can be as delicate or as bold as you want it to be, and jives extremely well with many different flavor combinations.

Since my last eggplant recipe post was one where it was sliced, roasted, and served with a garlic yogurt sauce, I wanted to share a different technique that’s just as simple, yet gives you a completely different mouth feel. Whole eggplants are chargrilled on the barbecue or roasted in the oven, leaving you with a soft & silky flesh that’s slightly charred on the inside.

I’ve given you two variations of this eggplant salad recipe, one with pine nuts, and one with pomegranate (seeds & syrup). Feel free to play around and use different herbs and spices. I often simplify the recipe and toss it with only spring onions, olive oil, lemon and Maldon Salt. Simple, clean, and delicious.

aubergine salad prep

Serve this salad on it’s own, or as a side dish to a more complex meal (it goes beautifully with white-fleshed fish such as grilled sea bass or halibut). It’s fabulous either way!

note: your eggplant will have a slightly smokier flavor if charred on the barbecue than when roasted in the oven.

Eggplant Salad (serves 4 as a side dish)

Ingredients:

  • Two medium whole eggplants
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt or Maldon salt (you might need more, check for seasoning after assembling your salad)
  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
  • ¼ of a small red onion, thinly sliced

For the pine nut variation:

  • ¼ cup pinenuts, lightly toasted on a skillet

For the pomegranate variation:

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (“debs roman” in Arabic)
  • ¼ cup pomegranate seeds

Directions:

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius (400 F) or your barbecue to medium-high heat.

Start by gently “stabbing” little slits all over the eggplant with a sharp knife (about 10-12 times). If using your oven, place the eggplant on a sheet pan and bake for approximately 30 minutes. Leave them relatively undisturbed, however you will have to turn them once or twice so they do not burn. You are looking for somewhat of a charred skin – don’t worry if you see black spots. Apply the same method if using the barbecue – you will need to turn the eggplant a bit more often.

Grilled whole eggplant vs baked aubergine

Once cooked, allow the eggplant to sit until cool enough to handle. Gently cut lengthwise in half, and start scraping the flesh away from the skin. Remember to get the black bits of the flesh – this is what will give your salad it’s characteristic smoky flavor.

the inside of a roasted eggplant.jpg

Tip # 1: try to avoid getting the black skin into your flesh, it can give the salad a bitter taste.

Tip # 2: If the eggplant is very “seedy” try to scrape out some of the seeds (not all) to get a smoother texture.

Once you’ve separated the flesh from the skin, drain the liquid over a strainer. The eggplant may contain a lot of water, so let it drain for a bit longer.

straining the aubergine flesh

removing bitter liquid from eggplant

eggplant aubergine flesh in white bowl

Add salt, olive oil, lemon juice, along with the green and red onions. If making the pine nut variation, add them now. If making the pomegranate version, add the seeds along with the syrup. Mix well, taste to check for seasoning, and serve.

eggplant and pomegranate syrup

Eggplant with herbs and pine nuts

aubergine eggplant salad with onion & pomegranate seeds

Bon appétit!

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My Vegan Blueberry Pancake Recipe

In an ideal world, my backyard would be an edible feast that would cater to all of my culinary whims. A haven where fruits and vegetables could grow in abundance, Mother Nature would change her menu according to the seasons and leave me with beautiful treasures to pick from her harvest. Since my gardening skills are virtually non-existent at this point, the next best thing is to pack my basket and head to the local farm, which I did over my summer holiday in Montreal.

la ferme quinn Quebec perspective photo

Located forty minutes outside of Montreal, La Ferme Quinn is my farm of choice whenever I take a trip to the Great White North (a nickname for Canada). Established in 1982, this family-run farm is one that has been passed on through the generations, and is home to some of the finest seasonal goodies in the region. Equipped with barn, a bakery, and a play yard, Quinn is the ideal place for children, big or small. Food lovers will be thrilled to know that there’s a shop stocked with locally produced artisanal foods and gourmet products, making it a win/win place to spend a family-centric afternoon.

quin farm front photo

kids play yard quinn farm

I had the chance to visit the farm twice over the summer. The first time was to hunt for blueberries, and my second visit was for the honey harvest (more on my “bee” experience in a future post).

closeup of a blueberry bush

After arriving at Quinn to pick our berries, we made a quick stop to the barn to visit a few resident animals before heading towards what seemed like endless rows of blueberry fields.

blueberry fiels in quebec

Armed with our farmer’s baskets, as well as a determination to pick enough fruit to last the summer, my children and friends quickly learned how to navigate through the bushes with ease, and managed to score some of the juiciest berries they had ever laid their eyes on!

girl picking berries

picking wild blueberries at the farm

brpther and sister picking bluebrries.jpg

Picking (and eating) our way through the bushes, my mind swirled with ideas of what to make with our indigo-fleshed fruit. Tarts, pancakes, and yogurt-topped breakfast bowls were the usual suspects on the top of my list, followed by jam, smoothies, and blueberry buttercream. In the end, we ate the berries mostly on their own, by the handful, fully savoring the sweetness that only Mother Nature can deliver.

blueberries Quinn Farm

This recipe was born out of my farm-to-table experience at Quinn.  It was also inspired by my beautiful niece,  who gave me a rundown behind the vegan philosophy. Although I probably won’t convert to a solely plant-based way of life anytime soon, I’m happy to try a vegan approach to cooking when I can make sound and delicious substitutions.

quebec maple syrup on plueberry pancakes

Trust me when I say that these are everything you could ever want in a pancake! Fluffy, moist, and packed with flavor, you might just need to make an extra batch….or two…or three.

Vegan blueberry pancakes (makes approximately 12 to 16 three-inch pancakes)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • ¾ cup soy milk (you can substitute any nut milk of your choice)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil (if using coconut oil, make sure it’s in a liquid state)
  • 1 ripe banana, mashed
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)
  • 1 cup blueberries (you can use frozen, but your batter will risk turning blue)
  • Maple syrup to serve

Note that this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled if necessary.

Directions:

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and cinnamon (if using) in a large bowl. Set aside.

In a bowl or a large measuring cup, combine soy milk, mashed banana, vanilla,  and lemon zest.

Slowly whisk wet mixture into the dry, gently fold in the blueberries, and stir until just combined (do not over mix – you don’t want a rubbery pancake!). Let the batter rest for at least five minutes for the leavening agents to do their thing.

Preheat a non-stick pan or electric griddle over medium high heat. Please keep in mind that your pan must be hot in order for the pancakes to develop their characteristic fluffiness.

Drop batter onto the hot pan in circles using a small ladle or quarter cup measure.

Once the batter starts developing bubbles on the surface and the bottom begins to brown, flip over onto the other side until cooked through.

Serve immediately and drizzle with as much (or as little) maple syrup as your heart craves.

Bon appétit!

vegan blueberry pancakes lidija's kitchen

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