For my first vacation in a long while, I decided to take a trip to our neighbor to the North. I’d only been to Canada once before, and then for about an hour with an express purpose– to procure booze. And see Niagara Falls. You see, I was 19. And visiting a good friend in Buffalo, the same weekend I was introduced to pirogi. It happens. But that is not this story. This story is about the lovely city that is Montréal.
I had an amazing trip. Everyone keeps asking me “Why Montréal ?” and I honestly have no idea. Somehow I heard about the $100 round-trip Amtrak fare from NYC-Montreal and it just stuck there and poked at me until I bought a ticket. Yes, the train is 10 hours each way. I saw it as enforced relaxation. There’s no wi-fi on that route so I couldn’t be tricked into getting work done and I didn’t even bother to bring my laptop, which made for a relatively unplugged 5 days. Best decision ever. Also, playing gin rummy with a Frenchman, German, and two Aussies in the dining car was a uniquely hilarious experience I wouldn’t have traded. And can we talk about the leg room? I love train travel. There’s no security theater and you can actually sleep, or make new friends. Yay trains! My first meal of the trip was thanks to the snack bar, but I will save you from an analysis of why Cup Noodles is just the Best Ever.
My train got in late that Thursday night, which means that my first meal was….the breakfast at my hostel. Decent croissant and tea and off to take on the day! I was up stupid early as one of my dorm mates was up and noisy. I trotted down to Vieux Montréal and the Quays. First stop, since nothing else was open at 9am, was Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal. Everyone I talked to about my trip said I had to go to this church and walk around inside. I am so glad I did. What a feast for the eyes. Some of the most beautiful stained glass that caught the morning sun just so and made the architraves sing. I will go rapturous about architecture- blame the training- but now I’ll shut up. It was gorgeous. Go. Pay the $5 to go inside. Pick your jaw up from the ground and just wander. Should you be inspired to spend some time in self reflection, do so.
From Notre-Dame it’s a short walk to the Old Quays. I was lucky enough to be around for the weekend when a handful of Tall Ships were in for a celebration of the Quays’ 300th anniversary. Or something. I got to go stomp around on replicas of boats from the War of 1812. It was Really Cool. And the one based in Pennsylvania is taking new crew for next summer and it’s Really Tempting. Down the road from the Really Cool Boats (Ships), was the Pointe-à-Callière–the Archaeology and History museum– which I had to visit, because Archaeology and History. I do them! It was a small museum but well constructed and very interesting. The building is built over the original bank building, and you can actually see some of the old walls, as well as bits of fortification walls from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Bad ass, right?
And right down the street from that? Olive et Gourmando! The child of chefs from Toqué, one of the gustatory belles of Montréal, O+G is a cafe. Primarily a lunch spot, it also has gained some fame for their pastries and breads. Understandably so. The wait to eat in, even at 1:30 on a Friday, was nearly half an hour, but it’s totally worth it. They have a daily soup (Roasted pepper the day I was there. Drat) and a selection of both hot and cold sandwiches. There are also daily salad selections to choose from. I went pretty simply and got the Smoked Trout sandwich, consisting of hot-smoked trout, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and herbed cream cheese. It was really quite good. The smokiness of the trout blended so well with the rest of the ingredients and oh man, the bread. This is a great example of what a sandwich should be. Together in this way, the ingredients offer a taste palate you wouldn’t get from any other incarnation. The man next to me was determinedly devouring their Cuban sandwich, a favorite apparently. He sure looked pleased. On my way out I grabbed what turned out to be the best café au lait I’ve had in recent memory and a palmier pastry to nibble on later. I would go out of my way to grab a pastry here in the mornings. Did I mention you can get everything à porter (take away)?
Dinner that night was a family meal at the hostel. I wish I’d gotten a photo of it, but we had a horde of people descend on the meal and trying to stem the flow for a picture would have ended with me dead and without food. Josh prepared a Montrealer version of a shepherd’s pie. Apparently everyone has a version of this meal. His was: meat and onions on the bottom, a layer of creamed corn on top of that, potatoes and cheese to seal it all in. His secret is to add a bit of sugar to the meat while it’s browning. I noticed this to be a theme with Montrealer cuisine- they like to sweeten their meats. In any case, it was delicious. And free. Many beers followed this meal and at 2:30 in the morning I found myself in the basement of a some club trying to samba. It was that kind of night.
Saturday was my food day. I hit every single food that everyone told me I Had To Eat while in Montrèal. First up: St-Viateur Bagels! There are two rival bagel stores in Montréal, St-Viateur and Fairmont. I had every intention of trying them both, but free breakfast and lack of time necessitated a decision. So, St-Viateur it was. Montréal bagels are a totally different beast than NYC bagels. The texture is more like a pretzel, but without any salt and sweeter. It’s thinner and a bit bland on it’s own. However, it’s perfect for making a sandwich. With NYC bagels, I always feel like the bread:food ratio is too heavy on the bread side. Not so with Montréal bagels. They need to be eaten with stuff. Clearly, my hangover needed to be warded off with the application of smoked salmon, red onions and capers, which is exactly what I did. The sesame seed bagel was nice and nutty. Did I meantion that these babies are baked in a wood-fire oven? Oooh, yeah. Yum.
I wandered around the Plateau for a bit before heading over to Schwartz’s, Montréal’s answer to NYC’s Katz’s, for a Smoked Meat sandwich. Smoked Meat is just Pastrami, as I informed my new Montrealer friends and they all replied “Ooooooooh, that’s Pastrami”. I got there right as it was opening and so decided to take a quick walk over to the eponymous Mont-Royal. After hiking around for a bit, I was ready for some meat. Again, there was a line, but by virtue of being a single I got pulled out and sat at the bar. One Smoked Meat sandwich, pickle and black cherry soda later, I walked out full and happy. I have to say that I prefer Katz’s. While it’s neat that you can request fatty, regular or lean cuts, I found Schwartz’s meat to be a little dry and not very seasoned and a bit sweet. It’s also served with yellow mustard on a light rye. The flavors at Katz’s in NYC are much more aggressive, from the seasoning of the meat, to the brown mustard and rye. It’s just a different version of a similar sandwich. Also, Montrealers are unaware of the half-sour pickle–a travesty.
From Schwartz’s I waddled over to the Marché Jean-Talon (Jean Talon Market). A huge outdoor market with everything from produce to charcuterie to fresh seafood to flowers to anything you could want. Marché Jean-Talon is, hands down, my absolute favorite place in Montréal. I wandered for a couple hours, tasting fruits cut open for me by vendors, talking about charcuterie with a local butcher, smelling flowers and running across ground cherries. I had every intention of entitling this entry “What the hell are ground cherries” but it turns out they’re like gooseberries. I had NO IDEA. The vendor who offered me one didn’t speak much English and my grasp on French produce vocabulary is severely limited. But we muddled through. Ground cherries look like a cherry tomato, but taste like a combination of a tomato with a pineapple. You just keep eating them to figure out what they taste like, it’s fascinating. While here I grabbed some fruit, some pâté, and cheese for lunch on Sunday. On my way out of the market, I indulged in a tasting plate of three types of fresh oysters. Life is hard. If you ever find yourself in Montréal, go to this market. It’s the best. What better way to get a handle on what a city eats?
Later that night, after a well-earned nap, I walked myself over to La Banquise, THE place for poutine in Montréal. Holy crap. This place, again with a line, had 32 types of poutine to choose from. 32. All of which were more involved than the last and equally gut-bombtastic. I ordered the Matty, the standard fries, cheese curds and gravy PLUS bacon, caramelized onions, and mushrooms. It usually comes with green peppers but I ordered without. Even with the regular portion I ate half of my serving. So.much.food. Delicious though. I wish I had gone with the Original, to be honest. I ended up just rooting out the cheese curds towards the end because wasting those would be a sin. My new French friends were appalled that I actually ate poutine, but they don’t know what they missed. It’s everything a comfort food should be: salty, fatty and carb heavy. Poutine is a drunk food for a reason. I have a feeling it will prevent any and all hangovers and might just prevent and and all diseases*.
Sunday was my last full day in Montréal. However! I had big plans. The Metro dropped me off at the Jardin Botanique and off I went. The Botanical Garden is one of the largest in the world, spanning 75 hectares (190 acres) and boasting over 30 theme gardens, 10 greenhouses, an arboretum and an insectarium. It’s a lot of garden. And it’s absolutely stunning. I spent most of my time in the First Nations garden which more resembled a forest than a garden. The Japanese, Chinese, Alpine and Rose gardens comprised the rest of my time there.
Lunch, however, was had under the shade of a tree in the First Nations Garden. The bread, pâté, cheese and ground cherries I picked up the day before made a wonderful lunch al fresco. Until a bee scared me away. Ok, there were like three of them and I’m allergic. Anyhow. I had two types each of pâté and a local cheese. The first pâté was a pâté de campagne, well seasoned and with great texture, satisfying but nothing out of my realm of experience. The other pâté, however, was one made by Les Couchons Tout Ronds in conjunction with a brewer in their area, using an ale as an ingredient. The ale made the pâté so rich I couldn’t eat much of it, but also added a depth that I think would be fun to experiment with. For cheese, I had Contomme Fermier, a raw milk cheese, and it was nutty and rich and I want more of it. All the cheese! After my rounds in the garden, I popped across the street to the Olympic Stadium and BioDome. And then I spent some time at the Museé de Beaux Arts to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit, which was very impressive. All told, I think I walked something close to 18km on Sunday, and about the same on Saturday. With great food consumption comes much walking needed to feel human again.
After another well-earned nap, I ran out to the grocery store to grab food for the train ride back to NYC. I’d made the mistake of not bringing snacks once, I was not about to do that again. I figured I’d grab some chips and water and nuts and dried fruit. Oh, no. Not when there’s an entire case of pâté priced from $3-4 each. Why don’t we have this in the US? Why do our stores fail us so badly? Don’t even get me started on the other types of cured meats in the deli section. If I hadn’t already been considering a move to Montréal, this alone would have prompted the thought. I walked out with only one type of pâté along with some chips, cookies and bread. But it was venison and guinea fowl pâté . Venison and guinea fowl. Seriously, America, can we get on this pâté train already? It was a close call between the one I bought and the deer, bison, wild boar and pork pâté or the rabbit and pork with white wine pâté . Eeny, meeny, miney, mo made the decision. It made for a most welcome two meals on the train, with some left to share with my neighbor, who was equally distraught when informed that such products cannot be procured at the average market. I was just sad when it was gone. However, I’m definitely interested in experimenting with layered pâté, now. I’d never thought about mixing meats much.
My last meal in Montréal was a doozy. Friday evening, I made sure to walk over to Au Pied de Couchon when it opened in order to make a reservation for the weekend. Even as a single it was impossible to find a spot for Saturday, so Sunday it was. I took a shower, put on some makeup and took myself out on a date. In doing research for this trip, the internet screamed “Au Pied de Couchon”! It’s apparently extremely popular right now. However, I thought there would be a bit more couchon in my dish than there actually was. What this place is known for is their foie gras dishes. Had I known, I would have tried to get a reservation at Toqué or another restaurant that served high end local food. I have no regrets about this meal, however. Excellence, all around. The restaurant itself is a nice size- intimate without being cramped- warm and welcoming. The kitchen is open and gives off an air of controlled chaos that lends a more casual air to the whole ambiance. After being seated, I struck up conversation with the woman on my left, a fellow Los Angelina in town for business. She insisted I take some of her duck-fat fried french fries. I knew duck-fat roasted potatoes were good, but oh my god. These were insanely good. Crisp on the outside, flavorful–everything you want in a good french fry. My waitress recommended a Bergerac Cabernet Francais, which was exactly the perfect pairing. To start I ordered the Roast Piglet, served cold and thinly sliced with a tuna mayo. Yes, tuna mayo. I was apprehensive, but it was a perfect pairing. The pork was perfectly cooked and velvety with the mayo. I brought home the left overs, since it was a huge plate of meat, to give to the girls on duty at the hostel (yay new friends!) and they devoured it with as much surprised glee as I did. I apologize for the quality of the photos from this restaurant– I’m still not really comfortable with just whipping out a camera in the middle of a meal. So these will have to do for now. And it’s just more enticement for you to go and experience them yourself!
For my main I got the La Plogue à Champlain. Buckwheat pancake, potatoes, foie gras, maple syrup, thick cut maple cured bacon (which tasted more like lardo), and cheddar cheese. I thought this was going to be too rich, too much and it was rich, but really well balanced and not overwhelming at all. There was the perfect amount of salt and sweet to offset the richness of the foie gras and the earthiness of the buckwheat pancake rounded the whole thing out. The fatty bacon was so freaking good. Because of how it was cut and cured, it tasted more like a cured pork and lardo, as opposed to just bacon in a dish. It kind of blew my mind. It’s pretty much impossible to pick out the individual ingredients in this dish. They just all meld together to attack your senses with a most pleasing result. I’m sure I made all sorts of happy noises as I ate. It happens, OK?
I thought I couldn’t eat any more after this. So much sweet! So much salty! So much foie gras! But my new friend to the left offered the uneaten half of her dessert and who am I to decline a gift of pot de crème au chocolat noir? Like everything else here, this is Rich. Definitely a dish to be shared. The velvety chocolate pudding was topped with graham cracker crumble and whipped cream. Pretty much perfection. Thankfully it wasn’t too sweet, just the right balance of good chocolate flavor. A successful meal, entirely.
Next door to Au Pied du Couchon is a lovely chocolatier by the nameLes Chocolates de Chloé. While I was waiting to make a reservation for Sunday night, I stepped into this store, just to take a few deep breaths. Of course, I had to buy a truffle. I’m a sucker for a good fleur de sel truffle and Chloé’s was exceptional. Just the right balance of salt and chocolate that sits on your tongue and melds together until it’s gone and you wish you could go back those few seconds to experience it again. Chloé was working the counter and gave me a fig and balsamic truffle, gratis. I would go back for that in a heartbeat. I’m just sad I didn’t think to get a box of truffles to bring home. Also, the website is adorable.
I wish I had more than three days to sample the delights of the Montréal culinary landscape. I hit the main ones that everyone says you Have To try, but next time will make sure to hit the places the locals really eat. All I can say is, Montréal cuisine is a wonderful mix of old and new worlds. They clearly cherish their French, British and First Nation roots, but are interested in pushing that dialogue with their cuisine into the future. It is easy to eat well in this city. I highly recommend even just a weekend. And bring some pâté back, yeah?