Saturday, September 26, 2009

Basi, Not Your Typical Italian Restaurant

My first thought upon seeing Basi was that yet again someone would try to make this well situated spot work. Located next to the Jean-Talon Market, this local sees a lot of traffic in the morning and afternoon, but much less at night, and, even less during the cold season.
The menu reveals traditional Italian fare, albeit with a modern and innovative touch, but food that any competent, home cook might conclude could be made at home-they would be wrong.
The menu at Basi is evident of a cook who has come full circle; absent is the multi-layered, copious ingredient laden, over thought creations, and in its place, a menu which reveals how truly difficult it is to make simple, fresh food work properly.
Two things stood out during my first dining experience at Basi. We were with some friends who had already eaten there, they had ordered the fried zucchini appetizers during their first visit and were eager for us to try them. Alas, this time around the menu revealed no fried zucchini. When my friend expressed his disappointment, the waiter, who instead of uttering “sorry, we don’t have any tonight” said “let me see what I can do.” He came back 2 minutes later and told us that someone was running over to the market to get some zucchini. Now, let me just say that in this lazy, indifferent “can’t be bothered” world where drooling, slack-jawed yokels stare at you with glazed eyes until you’re forced to give up it’s nice to see some hustle and a drive to please the customer. I don’t know about you, but the effort makes the food taste better—it must be the love.
The second thing to grab my attention was the fazzoletti. Aside from tasting great, my attention was captured by some small, green, unrecognizable herb that graced the top of the pasta. Turns out it was a seaweed called salicorne. Salicorne is found in sea marches, and like most seaweeds, is somewhat salty, but used correctly it serves to enhance the dishes other savors.
My first instinct about this location was that if I had the Jean-Talon market on my footstep I would use it with reckless abandon and that is exactly what Mercuri does. "If you can salt something naturally it's a bonus." was his response when I asked why salicorne. There are indeed many bonuses to be had dining at Basi: a deconstructed menu, a farmer's market at your doorstep and a passionate chef in the kitchen.

Fig.1. Fazzoletti, referred to as handkerchiefs in North America, can be stuffed with just about anything.

Fazzoletti di Ricotta and Butternut Squash with Butter, Sage and Salicorne
Makes 12 to 15 fazzoletti


15 fresh lasagna sheets (available by the kilo at all fresh pasta shops)


2 cups pureed butternut squash
950g ricotta (Mercuri makes his own, when using the store bought make sure it's not too watery. If it is, drain it in a fine sieve or a cheesecloth in the fridge overnight.)
1 egg
100g grated Grana padano cheese
50g pureed salicorne
salt and pepper

Unsalted butter
fresh sage
chopped raw salicorne
white wine
chicken stock
fresh parsley


Boil the sheets of pasta in salted water until tender, transfer to an ice bath, then place on a dry tablecloth to dry.
In a large mixing bowl, mash the butternut squash, ricotta, egg, cheese, pureed salicorne, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well.
Using a spoon, place 2 tbsp of cheese mixture into the center of the pasta square, fold the edges of the pasta over to form a square. At this point, the fazzoletti can be frozen for future use or reserved in the fridge.
Just before serving, heat a pan over medium heat with 4 tbsp of unsalted butter, 4 sage leaves and 1 tbsp of chopped salicorne. Place 4 fazzoletti in the pan (do not overcrowd the pan) and begin to spoon the butter over the pasta as soon as it melts. When butter begins to turn golden brown, add some wine and let it reduce, about 2 minutes. Add some chicken stock to loosen the sauce and continue spooning over the fazzoletti as it cooks, another 2 minutes. Sprinkle with some fresh, chopped parsley and serve.

Salicorne is available at Chez Louis--514-277-4670- in the Jean Talon Market until November.

Basi: 77 ave Shamrock (corner Casgrain) 514-750-0790.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Eat your Maine from a basket.

Fig.1. Swimming in a sea of beige. Clockwise from left: Clam chowder served in a bread bowl, fried scallops, fried clams and fried haddock and chips. All from Bob's Clam Hut.

I’m a sucker for food in a basket. It comes with the expectation of having to eat with your fingers and the absence of pretension. My recent trip to Maine was packed with such unpretentious and delicious basket food. Also in abundance was some marvellous New England style Americana which came in the form of roadside stands and signs.

Fig.2. Out of all the fried clams I consumed, Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery was the best. The place was full of men working on their gout as they waited for their wives who were busy in the numerous, surrounding outlet stores.

Fig.3. US Route 1 through Maine is adorned with great antique stores and signs such as the one above. Lobster in The Rough was recommended to us by some locals. It has no address and is only opened during peak season. As the name suggests, tourists and locals alike eat on outdoor picnic tables surrounded by trees and then get drunk around an opened air bar. Add some oyster shots and a CCR tribute band and a good time is had by all--except for the lobsters of course.

Every food writer knows it’s not so much the food as it is the experience. Ocean-side eating is a perfect example of this: Eating a Lobster in Montreal can be a great experience, but eating one on the beach, feet in the sand while listening to and smelling the surf pound the shore can be sublime. There are many such experiences to be had in Maine, especially as you drive along US Route 1 from Kittery to Kennebunk.

Fig.4. A short walk from the beach, Fox's Lobster House,on York Beach, is situated on Nubble Point next to the Nubble Lighthouse.

Fig.5. A lobster roll and a bowl of clam chowder from Fox's. I don't get the allure of the lobster roll, as for the clam chowder, the best ones are an hour's drive south in Boston.

Fig.6. Steamed clams from Barnacle Billy's in Perckin's Cove. It come with drawn butter and some water to wash off any sand still stuck to the clam. The restaurant was a bit of a tourist trap but the food was surprisingly good, especially the fried scallops.

Fig.7. The only way, it seems, to get color in your diet in Maine is to eat lobster. I couldn't find a vegetable anywhere. (OK, maybe I wasn't looking in the right place...or looking at all for that matter.) This beautiful specimen was consumed at, Lobster in The Rough. Served with some drawn butter, it was sweet, juicy, and delicious. A great example of proper, honest food.

Bob's Clam Hut, 315 US Route 1, Kittery 207-439-4233

Barnacle Billy's, Shore road, Perkin's Cove, 1-800-866-5575

Fox's Lobster House, Nubble Point, York Beach 207-363-2643

Lobster in The Rough, somewhere in York off of Route 1 in the deep woods.