Friday, October 14, 2016

Taberna — Old Montreal, Quebec, Canada — A Restaurant Recommendation

Well, it's been a week since Chef Reiton and I got back from a little trip we took up to Montreal. It's a quick five-hour drive from Boston, and after a different vacation plan fell through, we decided to take advantage of the city's close proximity to us and go for a visit across the border.

I have to admit, I was a smidge nervous. People I talked to beforehand kept asking, "How's your French? Everyone speaks French up there, you know..." HA! After not using it at all, despite the two years of classes in high school and a year in college, I could barely remember how to say "bonjour," much less piece together an actual sentence. And, honestly, the thought of losing the ability to easily communicate with those who were going to be around me for four days made me a little anxious. How was this trip going to go?

If I had had any idea of who we would meet within minutes of arriving in Montreal and the comfort he would give us in exploring his gorgeous city, I would have not spent the entire drive north frantically rehearsing how to say in French, "My name is Rachael. I speak a little French. I studied a little in school."

After hours of driving through the Northeast's burgeoning brilliance of fall color, Chef Reiton and I finally arrived in Old Montreal—and we were STARVING. We parked our car and dumped our bags at the loft we had rented, then headed down the street, looking for a restaurant that was open for lunch, me silently repeating "Bonjour!" over and over again in my head.

ENTER: Maxime and his absolutely delightful restaurant, Taberna.

Outside Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

The menus at Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

Greeted at the door by a kind, smiling face and a "Bonjour! Hello!," I immediately let out a little sigh. We apparently had "TOURIST" written all across our faces. No matter. At least it eased my fear of bumbling my way through my long-forgotten French. We were immediately led past a service counter boasting a tower of delicious-looking pastries, past the open kitchen where food was being prepared, to a small table sitting in the light of the front window. My chair was graciously pulled out for me by our host (!), and we settled in for our first meal in Montreal.

What to order? It was difficult to decide. Every single item on the small menu (presented on mini clipboards) sounded delicious: piri-piri chicken, Portuguese charcuterie, croquettes, spicy grilled sausages, sardines and shrimp. And the wine list! Vinho verde—my new favorite white wine!

A few minutes later, our host returned to continue service as our waiter. He set a bowl piled with marinated olives and almonds down on the table, and then, in the most perfect French accent I had ever heard, answered Chef Reiton's question that, yes, the restaurant was Portuguese and modeled after a typical Portuguese tavern. The owner wanted to share the amazing food and warmth of his homeland with all, so he created Taberna, complete with stone walls, warm yet modern lighting and furniture, and painted wood floors.

Following a habit that I always practice, I asked our waiter his name. It was Maxime. We introduced ourselves as well and chatted about where he was from, where we were from, and what we should do while we were visiting. He then guided us through the menu a bit, took our wine order, and stepped away.

After intense but brief speculation due to our hunger pangs, Chef Reiton decided to ordered the piri-piri chicken with the 50/50 (a small salad AND fries!) and I, the piri-piri chicken sandwich with the 50/50. Having never heard of, let alone tasted, piri-piri, we were anxious to give it a shot. It was a type of pepper sauce used as a seasoning, and it sounded delicious.

Boy, was it EVER: spiced more than spicy and perfectly seasoned (although Maxime did bring Chef Reiton a little pot of a more spicy piri-piri). The salad was the most gorgeous side salad I had ever seen or tasted. Grilled peppers and squashes were scattered across the freshest of lettuces and jewel-like grape tomatoes. It was almost too pretty to eat. Even the fries were fantastic. It was plain to see and taste that the owner had not only crafted and fine-tuned a menu he loved, but the staff had likewise poured his love for his country into the food. 

Piri-piri chicken sandwich at Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

Piri-piri chicken at Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

As we wiped the crumbs from our hands and mouths onto our empty plates, Maxime came by and asked if we would like dessert—possibly a pastéis de natas, a Portuguese pastry?

Ohhhhhh, we would love to, but we were too full, we told Maxime. Maybe we would come back later to grab one when we had room. Maxime smiled as he cleared our plates away. Moments later he returned, the check in one hand and a bag in the other. "On me," he said. "I want you to have some." Inside were two still-warm pastéis.

Oh, world, that gesture, that kindness! We could not thank him enough—for everything. For the conversation. For such a wonderful meal. For his generosity. We told him that we would be back. And after biting into the pastéis that evening, I knew I had to go back, just to let him know how absolutely divine those pastries were.

A pastéis de natas from Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

The next morning we walked by Taberna on the way to breakfast. Maxime was out front, cleaning up the storefront. We called to him and trotted across the cobblestone street, extolling the divinity of the pastéis as we did so. A huge smile broke out on Maxime's face. He was so happy we enjoyed them so much. How we were doing? he asked. What had we done the day before? What were we up to today? He gave us a few more suggestions of what we could do and a big smile before sending us on our way.

And that was how every morning went. Maxime and his smile became our morning's ritual. On the last day we stopped by to say good-bye—and to buy some pastéis for the road. Maxime handed us our bag of pastries, then came out from around the counter with another bag—and a hug.

Taberna and Maxime are now lodged into my memory as a food experience that will never be forgotten. They have made Montreal not just a city to visit but a place where I can feel at home. That's not an easy feat for any host to do, let alone a restaurant.

But for Taberna, well—you'll see.

Taberna in Old Montreal, Canada

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