Bertha’s Restaurant

Bertha's Restaurant

After a couple of weeks of frigid Artic weather (read “Polar Vortex”), balmy weather made its way into the area, warm enough for one to think it was some kind of heat wave, albeit only in the 50’s – so much for the law of relativity. My regular dinner mates decided to invite me as well as a Chinese friend visiting from Germany to Fell’s Point, Baltimore to have a quick lunch at a much talked about place, Bertha’s. I was looking forward to it for a bowlful of mussels fueled by hype created by its propaganda seen on some bumper stickers.

Maryland Crab SoupWalking into the establishment, one notices that the place is divided into two, a bar and a restaurant. The dark wood-paneled walls exude a character that bespeaks of history, stories, and many nights of sorrow drowning. The dining room is dimly lit and I was lucky to be seated by a recently vacated table near the window. To start the meal off, I decided to have a bowl of Maryland Crab Soup, perhaps trying to defrost from the week’s subzero temperatures. However, what arrived was a bowl of creamy soup with chunks of fish fillet. I notified the waitress the mistake and my friend decided to pick up that bowl instead. When the correct soup arrived, it was quite a disappointment. I was fishing (no pun intended) for pieces of crabmeat that were miniscule and overcooked, overtaken by large pieces of cabbage and vegetables, that turned this bowlful pretty much into a tomato-based veggie soup. Watching my friend enjoying his Fish Chowder stirred a bit of envy in this dissatisfied customer, and I wished I had not changed the bowl. But I still had some hope for what was to come.

Broiled Shrimp in Garlic Butter

The visiting guest decided to order Broiled Shrimp in Garlic Butter. A plate filled with pieces of shrimp arrived on top of a bed of rice, covered by a douse of garlic butter. The pieces of shellfish were quite large, butterflied, and cooked a bit tough, tasting slightly pungent from the slightly raw tasting garlic. The bed of plain white rice was not exactly the most enhancing  accompaniment to this dish, for more seasoning would have balanced out the dish better.

Chicken BartholomewAnother friend’s order was Chicken Bartholomew since he was put on a strict diet by doctor’s order. Pieces of poached chicken were paired with peach slices and spinach leaves, sitting on a bed of white rice. But what really tied these disparate elements together was a chilled creamy lemon-garlic sauce that lent a tangy, creamy, and garlic pungency to the healthy mix. My friend seemed very satisfied by this dish despite the drastic measures that he was taking with his meal choices.

Mussel Dip Sauces

A bowl of MusselsOK, Mussels is what this place is known for.  Since the place offers a myriad of dipping sauces to go along with them, I could not make up my mind, and I decided to go with Mussels with Assorted Sauces. The bivalves came as a mound sitting on a wide bowl accompanied with a variety of these sauces: Garlic, Butter and Capers; Spinach, Tarragon, and Garlic Butter; Spanish Sauce; Anchovy, Tomato and Garlic; and Lancaster Creamy Mustard Sauce. The mussels were not too big, and they tasted fresh and rather plump, without being overcooked or stringy. My favorite dips were the one with capers with its buttery brininess, the Spanish with its fresh tomato flavor, the Anchovy with its slight ocean saltiness, and the mustard sauce with its rich and tangy qualities. This is the dish that place is known for and deservedly so.

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Bertha's RestaurantWhen heading to the Baltimore area, you should stop by Bertha’s at Fell’s Point area, serving a myriad of seafood dishes. The crab soup may not be a hit, but go for the fish chowder which was the day’s special. The Broiled Shrimp and Chicken Bartholomew were fairly good dishes despite being a bit pricey. But the Mussels are a must order in this house, especially with the different sauces offered along with it.  When in Baltimore, eat Bertha’s Mussels, as their green bumper sticker incessantly reminds you on the highway.

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Montreal

Montreal, CanadaFor the last few years, a good buddy and I have been travelling to Montreal, Canada, a city that we have fallen in love with for its walking neighborhoods, the quietness of a metropolis, the outdoor cafes and restaurants, the beautiful sights of cathedrals and wide esplanades, the carefree Jazz festival, the air of French sensibility without having to cross the Atlantic, and finally the wonderful cuisine that tantalized us during each visit. This francophone city boasts nearly as many restaurants as the top contender, New York City. Here is a list of eating establishments that we have visited and are worth mentioning.
Grilled SalmonBreaded Shrimp

SpanakopitaOn our last trip last week, after getting off the plane and dropping off our bags at the hotel, we immediately made a bee-line to the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, specifically to Rue Prince Arthur, a pedestrian street lined with open air eating establishments. Here you are able to find local Greek restaurants offering great lunch deals, four-course lunches for around $15. On one visit (usually more than one is paid), my starter was a generous piece of Spanakopita pie consisting of light and flaky filo dough interspersed with some crumbly feta cheese and spinach filling made savory from some enigmatic Greek spices; my friend’s lentil soup in another establishment was his favorite starter. My main course (not entrée – here it means appetizer) was a plate of well-seasoned rice, a tasty and well-dressed Greek salad, some crispy wedges of potato and finally the main star, a healthy piece of grilled salmon steak, moist and perfectly cooked. My friend’s portion of butterflied shrimp was tasty but the breading was off-putting to him; he prefers plain grilled shrimp which he has had before at another establishment that has, unfortunately, burned down. Usually a slice of moist cake and coffee or tea are the remaining courses to the long lunches that we relish in. I would recommend both La Caverne Grecque and La Casa Grecque. A walk to the close-by Square Saint-Louis to look at the quaint French-style homes is our digestif from such a satisfying meal.

Portuguese Grilled ChickenPortuguese Ribs

Portuguese Passion Fruit SodaA bit north of the same area, many Portuguese restaurants abound in this rather diverse neighborhood. We met up with a Haitian-American Facebook friend who lives in this city, and he was dismayed when I had told him I had eaten in a specific Portuguese chicken joint a few year ago, renown for large quantities but nothing else. So, on this trip, he promised that he would take me to another that he particularly enjoys. Rotisserie Portugalia is a small corner establishment with a faded obscure sign which makes it a bit difficult to find. Entering the establishment is deceiving since all you see is a grill and a bar counter; however, the small dining room is at the back. Since the chicken is what this place is known for, my travelling buddy and I both got an order that came with a side of salad, rice, and fries. The sides were decent and tasty, but the attention-grabber was definitely the moist and well-seasoned chicken that was slightly smoky from being properly grilled and spicy from some chili flakes; even the breast meat was flavorful and not dry. My newly-met friend’s ribs were quite good but he said he had better on other occasions – sucking those bones clean sure was not a good indicator of slight discontent! The perfect drink to wash all of this down was Sumol, a Portuguese fruity soda, of which the passion fruit version really hit the spot for all of us. Thanks for the recommendation, mon ami!

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Schwartz's Deli, MontrealEveryone talks about this place – Schwartz’s Deli. It is located in the same neighborhood, and there seems to be a line of tourists waiting patiently to get in on any given day in the summer. I think the place garners more attention from the fact that Celine Dion’s husband bought this sandwich shop for $10m than the reviews of the sandwiches themselves. Since my buddy and I are not excited about Jewish deli food while in Montreal, we have never entered its doors; the long lines are not exactly enticing either. But all the guide books make mention of this place, hence my two cents worth. If anyone has gone in, please let me know!

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Sauteed Salmon with Garlic Flower Sauce

Pork Terrine and Peach ChutneyOn a recent trip, a long-time Salvadoran-Canadian friend took my travelling partner and me to a French-style restaurant around the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood. Les Infideles is located off the main St. Denis Boulevard but according to my friend, it is a hidden treasure without the stuffiness of fine dining. The complementary Carrot Soup set the right tone for the rest of the evening with its rich flavors from a good amount of pureed carrot and a full soup body that made this bowl tempting to be licked clean. My friend and I decided to opt for a couple of appetizers since they appeared very appealing especially during the warm week that we had there. The Smoked Fish Plate featured pieces of Trout and Salmon smoked a la minute with Hickory wood that made each moist morsel delectable. The Snails in Blue Cheese Sauce with Puff Pastry was definitely a la francaise with plump snails matched with a perfectly balanced sauce that could have gone overboard. My appetizer of Wild Mushroom tart was bursting with the wild boschiness and the slices of blue cheese sending out its slightly bitter tones, all napped by a rich demi-glace sauce that made this vegetarian dish truly satisfying. My host’s main course of Sauteed Salmon with Garlic Flower Sauce created enough envy to this reviewer’s eyes with the moist piece of fish coated by a rich sauce, accompanied by a bouquet of plump vegetables including the dual-colored carrot that made the dish visually tentalizing. For my main, I choose the Pork Terrine and Peach Chutney which was completely up my alley with the mild and fresh-tasting chilled pressed meat well-matched by a fruity and sweet peach chutney and served with slices of rich Brioche bread. This place is well-worth the hike for its quality cooking, the value (especially for fine French cuisine), and the smart yet relaxed ambience (we complemented the waitress’s eclectic music selection). Another note: this place is BYOB, so stop for a bottle of your favorite vin on your way there.

Lunch at Jean Talon MarketLe Marché Jean-Talon, Montreal

Further up from Le Plateau-Mont Royal neighborhood is the Jean Talon neighborhood which is renown for its large open market. This is where we headed one early afternoon to have lunch. Around the food court you will find different vendors serving a wide variety of cuisines, an indication of the influx of immigration to this part of Canada. My friend had some Indian-styled lentil soup that was spiced by a touch of cumin, a rich buttery croissant, and a mango-orange juice smoothie to wash it all done. I had an Olive Ciabbata filled with roasted vegetables Blue and Goat cheeses that hit the right spots(when on a vegetarian mode) with the sweetness from the vegetables and the richness of the diary products (Brie is unpasteurized in Canada, compared to here, which tastes stronger and more bitter on the rind). For dessert, we walked around the fruits vendors and I sampled all the fruits a la Costco, enjoying all their fruity and sweet glory. We stopped by a vendor and ordered some rich Portuguese egg custard, Nata, and Macaroons that kept beckoning us to sample more unique flavors like Basil Lime. The Jean Talon Market is just off the Metro Jean Talon and worth an afternoon of gastronomic adventure.

Notre Dame, Montreal, CanadaOne of our favorite sights is Old Montreal, by the St. Lawrence River, specifically the Notre-Dame Cathedral. After a couple of hours marveling at the beautiful color-stained windows and lights that barely light up the massive house of prayer, we stopped by Les Glaceurs, an ice-cream and cupcake store. Although it is a local chain, it does not have that commercial feel. The ice-creams are well-made without being too sweet, offering a wide selection including sorbets. The cupcakes look very tempting, but the ice-cream seems to always do its job of satisfying the craving for something sweet while cooling us down. Don’t miss out on this small place located on the side of the cathedral when down by the Notre Dame.

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Vietnamese Lemongrass Chicken and Grilled shrimp

Not far from the Notre Dame is Chinatown located on the main Boulevard Saint Laurent. Many eating establishments in this area offer Vietnamese cuisine – some Vietnamese moved here due to their knowledge of French taught by their former colonialists. One simple eating establishment that we particularly enjoy is My Canh. My friend’s order of the Combo No. 1 (I’m always wary of anything combo) came with well-marinated grilled beef, chicken, grilled shrimp, along with Imperial roll, salad and rice, which he enjoyed tremendously. My order (Combo No. 2) was similar except mine consisted of lemongrass chicken filled with the root fragrance without being overwhelmed by it or too salty from fish sauce. The fish sauce dip to the tasty Imperial roll was the perfect balance of flavors. The opening clear pho soup was full of flavor and worth every sip. Note: only cash is accepted in this establishment.

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Pita with Brie, Dried Cranberries, & WalnutsSeafood in Beurre Blanc

Grilled Chicken in Mushroom SauceBistro 1272 is located in the gay-friendly part of town, Le Village, where the main Rue Sainte Catherine is closed to pedestrians decorated with overhanging pink balls in mid-air during the warm months. Bumping into some friends there, we decided to join them for dinner. After perusing the menu, I decided to go with the night’s special. The entrée was pita bread filled with flavorful Brie cheese (not the American pasteurized crap) paired with sweet dried cranberries and toasted walnuts, creating a tasty balancing act of flavors. The order of Grilled Chicken in Mushroom Sauce took this cut of poultry to a good place. Moist chicken slices are smothered with a rich and slightly woodsy brown sauce that made it worthwhile mopping up with some bread; the sides of Pommes Purée and vegetables were also well-executed. My friend’s order of Seafood in Beurre Blanc was a revelation for him. The pieces of shrimp, lobster, and scallop were bathed in a rich and flavorful shallot and lobster-infused butter sauce that made my friend effusive throughout his meal. You can find well-executed meals here at a very reasonable price, and it is worthwhile dining al fresco watching the pedestrians stroll by.

Montreal, CanadaAh, we can’t get enough of this charming city every time we visit it. Just when we thought we had calculated enough days for our trip, we always felt a few more would have made it perfect. With such great food, amiable friends and strangers, and wonderful street life and eating ambience, it is hard to press the stop button and come back to the daily grind. But such wonderful experiences only allow us to continue with our trying lives while looking forward to returning to this beautiful respite again and again. With such wonderful gastronomic offerings, Montreal seems to make that call continuously to us, louder each time. We’re coming back soon; don’t worry!

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

The Petworth neighborhood in DC has a reputation for its share of funkiness and shadiness. It tends to contain characters from lower-income levels that lead a “marginal” lifestyle which would make anyone a bit uneasy walking up and down Georgia Ave, its main thoroughfare. To make matters worse, its reputation for the drug activity during its yesteryears still haunts this part of town. But this is where I chose to go on a Friday night with a dining companion to try out a Spanish-style restaurant. Walking up to the place, the artistically challenged outside sign sadly does not exactly invite the street-walker (not the other kind) to pass through its doors. Furthermore, its location across from “The House” (look at the reflection in the door in the photo below – that’s the telltale sign), had many online bloggers hesitant to visit this eatery. However, in the same sweep of the pen (well, keyboard), they also praised the place for some noteworthy dishes that they claim make the trip worthwhile – I had to check it out.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

Upon entering Top Spanish Cafe & Catering, you will notice all the wood everywhere, from the half-paneling on the walls, the small bar across the front door covered in similar fashion, to the high-lacquered solid wood tables and chairs. It is obvious that this place has gone through some renovation, and the end-to-end large windows create the necessary barrier between the observer and the observed (which is which is usually determined by the characters involved). It was quite sparse on a Friday night with only another couple across from us. A sudden storm must have also scared some folks away with its veracity and high winds – it turned out to be a microburst that brought down many trees. However, despite the challenging circumstances and my friend’s uneasiness siting next to the window, I was eagerly anticipating discovering what the other bloggers had been raving about.

Red Wine Sangria>I decided to order a glass of Sangria, which I had read about online. It had the right balance of red wine, fruit juices, a hint of cinnamon and cloves without going overboard, and it came in a large glass with chunks of fresh apples and slice of orange. This was the perfect thirst quencher that I needed after dealing with the challenges of getting to the place. What I appreciated about this sip was that it was not overwhelming with alcohol nor was it too diluted with juice. It reminded me of my college days in Spain when I was sitting in a mesón waiting for an extremely tardy friend who did not show up until nearly an hour later – when he got there I was quite tipsy and I discovered Sangria overconsumption. Time and wisdom have proven to me that all I needed was just one big glass of this juice-wine cocktail, and it was worth the $5 cost.
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Mussels a la Romana

For the appetizer, we honed in on a couple of tapas, and the first was Mejillones a la Romana. The bowl arrived filled with medium-sized mussels sitting on a pool of sauce. These mollusks were plump, fresh (not “leathery” when not at their prime), and quite briny to the point of being slightly oversalty – the waitress checked with the chef and he said he did not add any salt to the already saline bivalves. The sauce at the bottom was packed with garlic and slightly acidic from the use of white wine and some tomato sauce. I wished we had pieces of Spanish bread to dip into this wonderful elixir. It was a great start and promising beginning to this experience.

Grilled Squid Salad

The next starter was the Tender Grilled Calamari. Pieces of the shellfish sat on a bed of lettuce, chunks of tomato, and red onion. The seafood was marinated in garlic, soy sauce, herbs, and olive oil. The pieces were so tender and smoky from the grilling, and we both were amazed by its texture and flavor that made these morsels extremely delectable. The green bed underneath was the perfect pairing with the squid, which provided the fresh light contrast to the smoky bites. I only wish there were more pieces of the delectable squid, but the quantity was justified given that it was an appetizer, and costing only $6 like the above mussel dish.

Seafood Paella

What I came here waiting to try was the Spanish Seafood Paella. Many bloggers and reviewers had mentioned that the dish was a must-order, and ever since my first blog about another Spanish eatery, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog), I have been scouting for another locale serving this dish. And this restaurant’s rendition does not disappoint at all. The dish arrived on the table with a ring of opened mussels, surrounding a mound brimming with clams, squid, shrimp, scallops, fish, peas, sweet peppers, and Valencian rice. The kernels of rice were the right kind being the medium-grain starchier type (should only be this varietal, no other), and they were cooked slightly al dente while exuding some starchiness, perfumed by some real saffron and sweet paprika, and enriched by a good seafood stock. My companion and I were totally amazed by the amount of food, the freshness of the seafood (the mussels were equally briny as the appetizer dish), and the rich flavorings that permeated each morsel. It is a pity that another friend did not make it to this gathering, or not we would have ordered a large pan (paellera) of this Spanish delicacy. Upon speaking with the chef, he told us that his parents hail from Spain, and he sure knows what he is doing with authentic Spanish paella. Yes, the bloggers got this call right, and this seafood wonder cannot be overlooked here, especially when priced at $16 per serving!

Churrasco Argentino

The chef has done stints at high-end Spanish and Latin American restaurants (Jaleo, Café Atlántico), hence the hodgepodge presence of some Latin American dishes among the Spanish ones in the menu. I couldn’t help but notice the Churrasco Argentino when perusing the menu and I decided to give it a try. The dish arrived with pieces of beef tenderloin, accompanied with wedges of roast new potatoes and thick slices of sautéed zucchini. The beef had a rich beef flavor from some proper ageing, slight smokiness from a good stay on the grill while remaining tender and juicy, and the chimichurri sauce consisting of a blend of garlic, onion, parsley, vinegar and oil provided the interesting notes that took the meat to another level. The sides were equally impressive: the baked red potatoes were crispy and fragrant from a rub of garlic and parsley with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy interior; the zucchini slices were thick and cooked just right while maintaining some bite while exuding a slight natural sweetness which brought the some lightness to the overall meat dish. I could not get enough of this dish even though I’m not the usual beef lover. But on this night I was nearly made a convert by this tasty and relatively light (in flavor, not quantity) steak dish.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering offers Spanish-styled dishes that range from the common Tex-Mex fare to some Latin American and Spanish classics. Realizing that this is not downtown DC and in order to survive in their neighborhood, they have to cater to their surroundings with some rather pedestrian sounding dishes – interestingly, some bloggers have given complements to their Texas Nachos and Burritos. However, among them are some star dishes that point to a kitchen with expert hands that prepare some authentic and extremely delectable dishes, as in the Grilled Squid, The Mussels in Wine, Seafood Paella, and the Steak Dish. I’m looking forward to paying it another visit and savouring The Chicken in Chipotle Barbeque Sauce, The Steamed Salmon with Mango Bourbon White Wine Sauce, The Shrimp Asopao (Latin rissotto), and the Spanish Seafood Soup. This is definitely not your typical neighborhood dive with these kinds of offerings. As some bloggers have commented, this is truly a hidden gem that is worth discovering, and I can see myself a regular at this establishment in the future, waiting to dig into some good Spanish Seafood Paella. I’m quite sure you would be too after you have savoured a heavenly bite of that seafood deliciousness.

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