Montreal is a city infused with joie d’vivre and on a recent trip I learned why. It’s the food. Although I was in town for a business meeting I made sure I had time to duck into some superb restaurants, take a cooking class and even go on a food tour.
My culinary adventure began at the restaurant Montreal Plaza on Saint-Hubert Street, with a dinosaur. Not in the form of a Fred Flintstone-sized steak, but when I ordered sashimi de pétoncles I was served a small plastic triceratops sporting a raw sliced scallop, quinoa, clementine segments, and nasturtium leaves on his back. Although they delight in quirky surprises, co-chefs and life partners Charles-Antoine Crête and Cheryl Johnson, take their time in the kitchen seriously, especially since before opening Montreal Plaza in 2015 they had both put in time at one of the city’s top-ranked restaurants, Toqué! The small plates I sampled were outstanding, including whelk gratiné, lamb tartare, monkfish liver terrine, trout and popcorn and squash ice cream with torn up cake for dessert. Good thing I was sharing with friends. After dinner, to burn off a few calories we strolled along the Saint-Hubert Plaza, a strip of shops and restaurants where a clear glass awning hangs over each establishment to protect shoppers from the elements.
The next evening, I prepared my own meal at La Guilde Culinaire, a cooking school and kitchen accessories boutique. After a mixology lesson where we shook up tasty, berry cocktails, my colleagues and I were given various tasks, from simmering a huge pan of sugary blueberries, to whipping up a cake batter, grating fennel and poaching tender fillets of trout. Somehow, when you sit down to the fruits of your own labour, it tastes extra good.
One of my favourite ways to get a handle on a city’s food culture is to take a culinary tour. Montreal native Thom Seivewright met us in the hotel lobby and then we were off to indulge in bagels, cannoli, coffee, Quebec cheeses, and maple products.
Our first stop was in the neighbourhood of Mile End at St-Viateur Bagel Shop where we watched slabs of dough get twisted into circles, boiled in a honey water bath and then baked in a wood-burning oven. I bought a dozen, covered in sesame seeds. Thom cautioned me to wait and compare the taste with those at Fairmount Bagel. “These two bakeries are a tradition and kind of rivals. Some people swear by St-Viateur and others love Fairmount. They are both open 24/7 and get really crowded late at night after the bars close,” Thom explained. I scooped a half-dozen bagels straight out of the oven at the Fairmount outlet and then did the taste test. Hot, chewy with a very slight sweetness, the Fairmont product was delicious. Same went for the St-Viateur bagel, but it was just a tad more toasted. “St-Viateur wins,” I confirmed, chomping away happily. I was in good company. Thom told me it was the late songwriter and Montreal native Leonard Cohen’s favourite, as well.
In the Little Italy neighbourhood of the city, we headed to Alati-Caserta Bakery, a confectionary heaven that has been in business since 1968. Surrounded by fluffy cakes, fruit pies and creamy pastries, it was hard to choose. “People rave about their cannoli,” Thom advised. That was enough for me. The crispy shell was stuffed with sweet, creamy ricotta and melted in my mouth. At Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, we sampled Quebec cheeses and explored shelves stocked with every maple product imaginable. “Eighty per cent of the world’s production is done within a one-hour drive of Montreal. After the Maple Syrup Heist that happened between 2011 and 2012, the cost doubled,” said Thom who explained that 3,000 tons of syrup worth more than $18-million had been stolen from a Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers storage facility. It was a sticky business that saw five perpetrators end up in jail.
Our final stop was Jean Talon Market. “At one time there were 60 markets in Montreal but in the 1970s grocery chains had them all shut down. The population fought back and now we have the largest market north of Mexico in the summer,” Thom explained. Rows of stalls offered colourful produce, cheese, meat, fish, sweets, plants and baked goods. With all the eating we had been doing, I could only look.
Later, Thom drove us along Rue Vallieres, where Leonard Cohen had owned a home, and past the nine-storey Cooper Building just off St-Laurent Boulevard where mural artist Kevin Ledo has immortalized his hero. “This area is called Plateau Mont-Royal and is home to the country’s greatest concentration of artists,” Thom said.
My last meal in Montreal was at Un po’ di piu, a bustling, Italian-inspired eatery recently opened by the team behind the very popular breakfast spot Olive et Gourmando, Dyan Soloman and Eric Girard. “We were inspired by the slow-lived lifestyle of the Italians,” Dyan explained when she stopped at my table. “Dishes are made to share or mix and match. We’re open from morning to aperitivo time.” On the menu that night was pinzimonio, an eggplant and walnut dip with crudites, chicken gnocchi with squash, and dark chocolate cake with cherries and whipped sour cream. The best way to enjoy what’s on your plate here? Eat slowly and savour every bite.
Before going back to the hotel, I wanted to take a spin on one of the city’s latest attractions. Le Grande Roue de Montreal opened in 2017 and is Canada’s largest observation wheel, standing 60 metres tall. I scooted into one of the 41 climate controlled cabins, then leaned back and watched the city dance below me.
The secret to this wonderful city’s joy of life? It’s on the tip of my tongue.
A Feast for the Eyes
Montreal has many galleries and museums to explore if you are looking for something to do between sampling the cuisine. Here are two exhibits to feed your imagination:
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime – At the Montreal Museum of Fiine Arts (MMFA), this world premiere chronicles the French fashion designer’s impressive career. Runs until September. Mbam.qc.ca
Into the Wonder Room – Explore the history of cabinets of curiosities and collectors in six immersive rooms at the Pointe-a-Calliere in the Montreal Archaeology and History Complex. Runs until January 2020. pacmusee.qc.ca
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