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Montreal Dispatch: A Virgin Taxi Adventure & the Greek that Became Tuscan

Sara Berg-Johnson is lucky to be living (and eating) in what that Chowhound founder Jim Leff considers to be the best food city in the world: Montreal.

Hungry and raring to dig deeper into the culinary scene in La Belle Ville, she ventured out on her very first taxi adventure last week. Despite her nervousness about yielding her food fate to a stranger, she landed in front of a plate of delicious cannelloni. I hope you enjoy her story.

Meanwhile, if you’re willing to get into a random cab, ask the driver to deliver you to his/her favorite place to eat and write about the adventure, I’d love to share your story with other Taxi Gourmet readers. Email layne@taxigourmet.com for details.

I got into the taxi with my friend not knowing what to expect, somewhat nervous, but I put on an enthusiastic smile and said to the driver: “Okay, I have a strange question to ask, but do you know any good places to eat? Like a not too expensive place?”

“Well there’s plenty right on this corner…” he replied, which there were.

“No, I was more wondering where you like to eat when you’re working?” I said.

He replied, “McDonalds” and pointed over his shoulder.

I said, “No, I’m looking for something that’s not a chain restaurant… where else do you eat when you work?” He looked at us quizzically for a moment, and I broke down and explained that I was writing for Taxi Gourmet.

He laughed and said, “Really, so I’ll be on a website?”

“Yeah!” I told him, giving him the address.

“Well what’s your price range?”

We told him we were looking for something in the $15-$30 range. He thought for a moment, then said, “Yeah, there’s a Greek place I used to go to on Cote St-Luc road. They had great pita and salads there, only $5!”

On our way to the restaurant, he told us he’s been driving a taxi for three years, but when I asked him how he got into it he simply replied, “Circumstances…” and I left it at that.

When he isn’t driving he said he liked taking walks, reading…but he didn’t seem to want to elaborate, or maybe he was just unaccustomed to random questioning. He had a wife and kids as well – I was too nervous and didn’t think to ask him more about his family, though.

He told us about some of his more memorable passengers: a gay couple wrapped up in each other, quite literally, some drunken teenagers that got sick, a couple that he had to break up verbally after they went overboard in their affections, and an incredibly lost German passenger who directed him all over the city, racking up a huge bill as they drove around for an hour and a half.

We finally got to the restaurant, thanking the cabbie profusely and giving him a good tip in return for being victim to my first foray into the world of taxi-themed food blogging. I remembered just before getting out to ask his name, which he said was Alex. I introduced myself and my friend and he shook my hand with a smile and a laugh, saying to come back again.

So I got out, still a bit shaky from first-time nervousness, glad that I had succeeded at the first part of my mission. Now for the eating part!

We studied the outside of the restaurant: instead of the Greek place Alex had told us about, it was now called Carmine’s Tuscany Grill. They had a banner announcing a summer pasta festival for $11.95. We decided to go in even though it didn’t seem like the cabbie had been there since they changed owners.

There was a five minute wait to be seated, but the place was full on a Monday night, which was a good sign to me. Our young waiter was courteous and fast, leaving us just the right amount of time to look over the menus and decide what to order.

The menu had a medium-sized selection, all Italian, and it seemed like the classic stuff: pasta, chicken, seafood, pizza, and some veal and beef. Some of the more expensive chicken and fish dishes ranged from $12 straight up to $25.

I had the house salad. At first I thought they had forgotten to put vinaigrette on it, but when I tasted it I realized they had just perfected the balance of vinaigrette to salad – there was a barely noticeable sheen of dressing on the lettuce, adding just enough flavor. My friend’s leek and potato soup was light even though it had a cream base and “well worth $2.95.”

We’d both decided to take advantage of the summer pasta festival. I had the veal canneloni with rose (tomato and cream) sauce and mozzarella, and he chose Gigi’s pasta plate: mixture of pancetta, prosciutto, mushrooms, and shallots sautéed in a rose sauce.

Both were delicious: the veal in the canneloni wasn’t at all the texture of ground meat I was expecting, and I scraped up every last drop of my sauce, while my friend was sold after his first few bites of pancetta and prosciutto-flavored pasta. The parmesan and freshly cracked black pepper went really well with it, too. We didn’t have wine or dessert, preferring water and being too full for anything sweet.

As I headed home to wallow in a food coma I thought about the evening. I was quite pleased at the success of my first mission and was already looking forward to the next one.

Carmine’s Tuscany Grill
5525 Côte St. Luc Rd.
Montreal, Quebec H3X 2C6
Tel. (514) 484-7525

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