Tuck Shop -- Love at First Bite

A friend of mine used to date Enrique Iglesias. Enrique was such an energetic and passionate lover that their sessions often broke furniture.
At the end they were breathless, totally satisfied, but anxious for more. Thankfully he had stamina.

I've never lustily busted up a Noguchi table, but I had a thrilling dinner at Montreal's Tuck Shop.

I swung open the door where smiling host Miles extended his arm which is lyrically tattooed with a musical note hinting that perhaps he was named for Miles Davis.

His friendly handshake told me that not only was he happy to have me there, he was happy to be there.

I walked past the en Francais chalkboard that seemed to tell a tale of wine and love, I might not speak French but I do speak dessert fluently so I was able to sense the end of my dinner's story.

 

If you build it they may come, but will they stay? Yep. Tuck Shop has been open three years, yet the only reservation I could get was to sit at the bar.

I was delighted because I regard those seats as choice because the bartenders can be waiters with extra powers, like at L.A.'s Mozza and I hoped for the same result here. Spoiler alert: Tiny Tuck triumphed mighty Mozza.

The 46-seat bustling room was stuffed with smart looking customers, but held its own with vintage chandeliers illuminating bright white subway tiles, and industrial work-lights dangling over the long marble bar in a terrific juxtaposition of old, new, funky and slick. It all works.

I studied the succinct menu like I was at an audition seeing the material for the very first time, because it isn't online. Instead they tweet it @TuckShopMTL to keep it as fresh as their seasonal and local ingredients.


We ordered a beer that was brewed three blocks away and served by Amelia Stines. She's one of the three owners, along with Jon Bloom and chef Theo Lerikos.


This angelic Superwoman was busier than a house on fire and gracefully proved my multi-tasking bartenders-are-better theory. Not only was she my completely food savvy waitress, she bar tended for the entire restaurant. Her eyes crinkled into a sincere smile that spread across her face even before she spoke about the pork belly. She can and does take her business belief to the bank.

Crispy pork belly, aged gouda, oyster mushrooms. I read this starter as three separate ingredients, and imagined them perhaps served on a plank where I took a bit of each and spread them together on a baguette. 


What I got was a magic trick in a bowl. The meat was as tender and luscious as the plump lips of a young lover, yet the crisp skin reminded me that love has nights where you get pinned against a wall and kissed hard. Chef Lerikos melted the gouda into a sauce that wrapped each bite in an expensive mink coat -- you smile as you stuff your hands in the pockets and discover succulent mushrooms inside. The dish was $12, I would have paid $20 and whispered in its ear, how do you like your eggs?

There wasn't one thing on the menu I wouldn't try, but I used restraint since the portions are generous and I'd like to remain tiny. Being from California, I had to try this Canadian chef's audacious tribute: Crispy fish taco, avocado, pico de gallo, red cabbage slaw, homemade tortilla.


This is the best attempt by a Canadian to interpret California since Pamela Anderson stuffed herself in a bikini and ran down the Malibu beach. Like a Hollywood producer, Chef Theo nailed this dish. The pickled red cabbage and tangy sauce were as bright and hot as Pam's career.

I glanced back at the open kitchen, past the envious chef's table smacked up against the busy line. The expeditor is a happy chap in a baseball cap. He hops up and down the line like a fisherman working a busy stream, talking to the chefs and the waiters, keeping the food flowing like a babbling brook.

 

The chefs are focused and work as a team -- entrees popped out with precision and appeared on the bar next to me like sharply dressed soldiers presenting themselves for inspection.

The Butchers cut, french fries, chimichurri led me to a choice between a rib eye at $32 or a flank steak at $28. I went for the flank because that's the cowboy cut I first fell for in Miami's Cuban food scene. Cuba might be a country too poor to enjoy the sweet taste of freedom, but they have one fantastic, garlicky chimichurri sauce that I have brazenly slathered on everything, completely inappropriately.


This cut was not above the rest. The meat was good and with a little extra chewing effort I was rewarded by extraordinary flavor in each bite. This was not your Cuban madre's lumpy chimichurri -- the chef went all Quebecois and blended it as smoothly as the last note of a Celine ballad.

The fries were not to be disregarded like refugees floating by on a raft. They were so tasty that I wanted to march into the kitchen and steal the oil. Bits of the oil's flavor hopped on the fries, like a kindly old geezer picking up hitchhikers on the road of life. But not in a movie-of-the-week creepy way.

I focused on what Amelia had recommended with her confident smile: Grilled wild striped sea bass, rainbow Swiss chard, asparagus, crispy zucchini blossoms, grilled vegetable salsa.
 

The firm, tall portion of fish had been cooked at a high heat, resulting in a crispiness that tap danced on my tongue as I first placed it inside my mouth, then softened into a ballet as I chewed.

I played with the squash blossom that looked like a toy rocket ship some midget alien abandoned and leaned up against the side of a barn. This beautiful rare vegetable, caught in its delicate flower-state, is often lily-gilded and stuffed with cheese. But here they honor the pure, tender lovely blossom, keeping it light and young forever.

The colorful stems of the chard held a delicious welcome to summer, surprisingly without the hint of bacon, which I don't object to, but it gave me the chance to enjoy the clean taste against the snappy asparagus.

My meal was almost over, and I was full. I've had dinners in uncaring, busy restaurants where I get caught up in the jaws of the bustle and when I'm finished, the place just spits me back out onto the cold pavement and I stand there dazed, wondering what just happened.


But here, the whole room spun harmoniously as if I were at a family's joyful holiday celebration. The guy next to me was dining with his best man before his wedding the following day. Amelia knew them both, and assured the stressed out groom that it was all worth it.

This is Quebec, and Amelia spoke to me in English and to others in French, as effortlessly as she pulled another draft beer in a frosty mug. Sure, most in Montreal can do it -- but she painted a gorgeous scene of dedicated service and was my bridge to a great experience.

I thought of the blackboard I'd seen scribbled with desserts in French, which now seemed like graffiti because I was so full. I considered skipping it altogether rather than have it translated but Amelia leaned in and whispered she'd be right back. When a lover does that in bed, they usually return with a can of whipped cream and rope.  

Instead she brought Brownies and rhubarb pie. Read the fine print to understand the reason she chose these over all of their other sweets. The chef's mother makes them!

 

The rhubarb pie was super tart, and it huddled down into the amazingly comforting crust. The suction sound as I lifted a heavy, dense bite from the plate was mimicked by my puckering cheeks as I took the first, exciting bite. The homemade ice cream surrendered into the pie within seconds and I used two spoons to scoot it all up.

The chef's mother caused the brownies. They were thick and dense, and full of solid chunks of chocolate. I imagined her furiously grabbing ingredients off the shelf and breaking them into a bowl with sheer muscle. This woman bakes like Enrique Iglesias makes love.

Tuck Shop is a love story. Their great food, passion and commitment have made them a successful restaurant. Like a great relationship, it takes work that they are all tirelessly willing to do.


And they are living their happily ever after -- one plate at a time.

Tuck Shop. Tuesday-Saturday. 4662 Notre Dame Street West, Montreal, Canada. (514) 439-7432

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