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Bargain Bistros 

Meals on the (sort of) cheap in Montréal

The counter at Aux Vivres
  • The counter at Aux Vivres

As the Canadian dollar gains ground against the greenback, budget-conscious Americans may want to say oui to dining out in Montréal. And, in a town that boasts 5000 restaurants, good values exist. Here are three of my favorites. Prices are in $CAD.

***

Rotisserie Romados

You’ll always have to wait in line at Romados, even if you call ahead. But waiting is half the fun at this family-run Portuguese rotisserie and bakery on the edge of Little Portugal. Loved by locals and frequented by families, Romados is casual, lively and suffused with sweet, smoky aromas. The draw is rotisserie chicken, cooked to order, which regulars proclaim is the best in Montréal.

My husband Ken and I arrive at 1 p.m. on a Sunday in March — but whether it’s lunch or dinner, the scene is the same. Two lines form in front of the stainless-steel grill, where whole chickens rotate above hardwood flames on racks half the size of a front door. The birds spit and sizzle, and the smell of marinade mingling with flame makes my mouth water.

The racks are tended by two dark-haired, white-aproned, middle-aged men who banter back and forth in Portuguese. A third man (they could be brothers) works the counter. With his back to the grill, he throws a comment over his shoulder. His native tongue sounds like a jumble of French, Spanish and Russian.

The line on the left, where folks have preordered, moves slightly faster than the one we’re in. Forty-five-minute waits are not unusual at peak meal times during the week. Takeout is popular with members of the Portuguese community, as well as people who work on nearby boulevard St-Denis.

The counter man greets me with an expectant look and fills my order — a half chicken, fries and salad — with a series of deft motions. He pulls a hot chicken from a pile on his right, quarters it with two blows of a large knife, tosses it in a waiting Styrofoam tray and looks up.

“Sauce piquante?”

Nowhere is hot sauce mentioned on the menu hanging above the counter, which is written in French and Portuguese.

I nod, and he douses the chicken, tosses a mound of glistening fries beside it, closes the tray cover and sets the bulging container on the counter. I thank him and am about to move on when I remember my other request: “Avez-vous de la soupe?”

He smiles at the mention of soup, calls me “bella” and leaves the counter for a part of the kitchen I can’t see. When he returns and hands me a full Styrofoam bowl, I feel strangely victorious. Another small victory: One of the three tables near the grill has opened up. The front of the restaurant has counter seating and views of the street, but I prefer the hustle and bustle at the back.

Ken, whose grilling experience includes barbecuing chicken for 500, is duly impressed with the scale and efficiency of the operation. We pass the hefty bowl of soup back and forth, dipping in with plastic spoons. Ribbons of cabbage float with chunks of carrot in a rich chicken broth. The soup is flecked with what look like small, dark pieces of potato skin. When I bite into one, it releases mild heat and lots of smoke, reminding me of fire-roasted chilis and ruddy logs of chorizo sausage.

We eat the chicken with our fingers, peeling off the crackly skin, then devouring the four pieces — breast, thigh, back and leg. The dark meat falls off the bone, and even the white meat is moist. The sauce supplies a long, slow, smoky heat that lingers, with no burn. The fries, 2-inch-long golden slabs cut by hand and speckled with pepper, almost melt in my mouth.

Meals served before 2 p.m. come with a plump, flour-dusted roll and dessert, reminders of Romados’ baking prowess. At the front of the restaurant, Portuguese breads are displayed in round wicker baskets, and éclairs, jelly rolls, and apricot, blueberry and cherry tarts are just a few of the sweets that fill four shelves of a glass case. Our individual almond tart, topped with toasted whole almonds and dusted with confectioner’s sugar, is the perfect way to end.

Our meal, including drinks, costs $13.35. The restaurant doesn’t take credit cards. Fortunately, we have enough cash for lunch, plus a whole chicken ($12) to take home.

***

Aux Vivres

As a devoted carnivore with friends who are vegans, I’m eager to find places where we can break bread together. This popular vegan restaurant on the eternally hopping Boulevard St-Laurent fills the bill.

Popular is an apt descriptor for Aux Vivres. Five minutes after a young, parka-clad woman on the street has shown us the finer points of paying for parking with a credit card (the secret is to retract your card quickly), we run into her at the restaurant entrance. Despite an armload of takeout, she holds the door for us and says, “You’re going to love it.”

There is much to love in this bright, cheerful space where the chapatis are made to order, desserts are designed to be shared, and the servers have the bearing and equanimity of yoga instructors. While the place isn’t exactly serene — servers hustle as they deliver food to four dining rooms, each one loud with conversation — blond beams and booths, mostly white walls and minimalist pendant lamps provide a calming vibe.

We’re seated at a square, Formica-topped table near the juice bar, with middle-aged couples and young families as neighbors. As I read about the freshly squeezed juices and exotic smoothies on the menu (La Vie en Rose contains berries, banana, soy-coconut milk, orange juice, flax protein and organic sugar), Ken does his best to be diplomatic. “So, what’s good here?” He’s fine with vegetarian fare, but after a couple of minutes with the menu, it has just registered that dairy isn’t an option. And he’s not a fan of soy.

I steer him past the veggie lox, tofu and seitan dishes to the Soul Food section of the menu. Choices include house chili with guacamole; roasted potatoes topped with chili and sour cream; portobello burgers with caramelized onions on a whole wheat bun; and the Assiette Mumbai, a square plate filled to overflowing with organic brown rice, chickpea-and-potato curry, salad and chutney — which he orders.

I consider a Dragon Bowl, with brown rice and shredded veggies topped with dragon sauce (which contains nutritional yeast, miso and maple syrup). But in the end I choose the Sirocco: grilled eggplant, hummus, roasted red peppers, lettuce and olive tapenade, wrapped in the restaurant’s signature chapati.

I know from experience that the flatbread sandwiches are huge, but when I learn the soup du jour is cauliflower and curry with butternut squash, I can’t resist. The golden yellow soup is both sweet and savory, with yummy florets for texture, and lots of heat.

Ken’s curried-chickpea-and-potato combo is a nondescript color but bursting with flavor. A bite of the curry together with the chutney produces a heavenly synergy. My sandwich is everything I’d hoped for: a rich mix of flavors and textures rolled into a soft, warm flatbread the size of a dinner plate. It requires two hands to hold; when I’ve eaten half, I realize I’ve met my match.

Ken is happy with his meal, but I want to win him over to vegan cooking and know just how to do it: I order a whopping wedge of Choco-apple layer cake. The chocolate is dark and intense — sweet but not too sweet — with tender slices of apple in every other bite.

Including a Fair Trade latte and a pot of Japanese genmaicha green tea, tax and tip, our dinner costs $44.79. We leave with leftovers and the satisfaction of having found a vegan restaurant that keeps carnivores happy.

***

Leméac

At this sophisticated café-bistro in genteel Outremont, the late-night menu puts a refined dining experience within reach — two courses cost $22 after 10 p.m., yielding a savings of up to half the normal cost.

At this price, you might expect reduced service, small servings and unimpressive presentations, but no. The eight starters and eight mains are updated takes on traditional French cuisine. Some come directly from the regular menu; others are successful variations. Many change with the season.

We’ve reserved a table for two near the front of the main dining room. The open space reminds me of a swanky city apartment, with mahogany paneling, subdued lighting and Brazilian jazz hovering over the sea of voices. Set with starched white linen and silver, our table has plenty of room for oversized round plates, water and wine glasses, and the generous bread basket that arrives soon after we sit down. At 10:30, the restaurant is nearly full, and a handful of people wait inside the door.

The house-smoked salmon is always on the menu, and it does just what a starter should: assuages my hunger, engages my palate and piques my interest in what will follow. Thin slices of pale, silky salmon are served with squares of lightly toasted baguette, minced onion and intense, salty caper buds, artfully spooned into half a hard-boiled egg white. To my delight, the dish contains caper berries as well — less salty, and resembling small pods.

Ken’s salad of frisée and chèvre is called croustillant de chèvre — and the word croustillant, which means crunchy, not only describes the cheese but hints at the plate’s varied textures. The frisée is crisp, prickly and slightly bitter, and the outer shell of the pan-fried round of goat cheese has the snap of buttery, baked filo dough. Beneath the crust, the cheese is creamy, warm and wonderfully tangy. A smattering of toasted walnuts ups the crunch quotient. I would have been happy with this salad as my meal.

Ken maintains that you can never go wrong with confit de canard in a French restaurant, and orders his main course accordingly. He’s right: The tender, moist duck-leg confit, served with roasted fingerling potatoes and glistening greens, transports us both to France.

I’m thinking of a previous meal at Leméac — Cornish game hen served with polenta fries on a bed of delicately stewed tomatoes and fresh spinach — when my warm dinner salad arrives. If I can’t have the frisée and chèvre, this will do nicely: a mound of baby spinach topped with a poached egg and strewn with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Underneath the greens are more sautéed haricots vert than I can eat, slices of roasted red and orange pepper, and cubes of subtly smoked lardons. Everything is coated with an unctuous dressing made with truffle oil. The result is rich and aromatic.

Coffee and tea are included in the late-night price, but wine isn’t. A French meal without wine? C’est impossible! Our server recommends a Côtes du Rhone; we have one glass each, despite the hefty price tag of $24. We have no room for dessert, though we’re tempted by the idea of splitting a chocolate mousse served with a chocolate madeleine and a lacy, chocolate-covered tuile.

With wine, tax and tip, dinner costs $90. Admittedly, it’s not rock-bottom budget fare, but the same meal an hour earlier would have cost $135. Sated and happy, we proclaim our late-night dinner an excellent value.

Want a taste?

Rotisserie Romados, 115 Rue Rachel Est, 514-849-1803.

Aux Vivres, 4631 Boulevard St-Laurent, 514-842-3479.

Leméac, 1045 Rue Laurier Ouest, 514-270-0999.

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