Montreal: The Food
Of all the places we planned to visit on our cross-country road trip across Canada, we looked forward to the food in Montreal more than anywhere else. Vancouver and Prince Edward Island were also often noted as excellent travel spots as far as food was concerned, and we had amazing food experiences there as well as Quebec City, but we knew Montreal would have the sort of French and French-inspired cuisine we had loved so much on our trip to France a few years ago along with a good selection of hip new restaurants, traditional Canadian food, and markets full of fresh, local, seasonal foods.
Unfortunately, our calendar did not match up with our desires to eat as well as it might have. As in France (as in many places in the world), Montreal’s restaurant scene is mostly shut down on Sundays and Mondays, the only two nights we would be in the city. But if anything that actually helped us in making eating choices, since my large, researched list of potential meal sources was shortened to just a few when we figured out what would be open while we were there.
We arrived in Montreal mid-day on Sunday, and even though the rain fell in steady sheets we headed out on a wander in the Plateau Mont Royal neighborhood, a kilometer or so south of the neighborhood where we had rented an apartment for our stay. I had found a basic outline for a food-dominated walking tour of the neighborhood from one of Montreal’s major food writers, and added other markets, bakeries, restaurants, and shops that I had found in articles, message boards, and blogs about food in Montreal.
In our few hours of walking we must have passed more than fifty food-related businesses – bistros, pubs, delis, markets, bakeries, chocolateries, a weekly farmers’ market, an up-scale homewares and kitchen supply store, and more cafes and coffee shops than we could even stop to notice, from within the only vaguely dry confines of our raincoat hoods. (In fact, we walked part of the same route the next day and were amazed at things we had failed to notice when the rain was falling.) I imagined myself having this neighborhood as one giant grocery store and deli, from which I would wander and pick among the millions of interesting options and have the best stocked kitchen and pantry in all of Canada. But instead we only had two days, so I made do with the time we had …
Early in our walk we stopped for lunch at Schwartz’s Hebrew Deli, noted everywhere as the top place to go in the city for Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches. Despite the rain, the line to sit inside the deli (as opposed to its adjacent take out-only location) wove to the end of the block, everyone water logged but talking excitedly about the sandwiches they were looking forward to. We had heard about Montreal smoked meat from the day we entered Canada way back on the West Coast, and what we had at Schwartz’s so exceeded even our high expectations that we ended up going back for dinner the next night (our budget and the lack of open restaurants aside; we would have chosen this anyway). From all appearances the inside of Schwartz’s hasn’t changed since it was established more than 80 years ago, giving it an old-fashioned deli feel perfectly fit to the style of the food.
The traditional Schwartz’s meal, as far as we can tell, is the classic sandwich – piled high with beef smoked on the premises, bursting from within the precarious confines of sliced white bread and a slather of yellow mustard – coleslaw, a “1/2 sour” pickle (only half as pickled as their normal pickle, as far as we could tell), a pickled hot pepper, fries, and a black cherry soda. Across the two meals we tried all of these things, plus the normal (full sour, I guess you’d say) pickle. We couldn’t really tell what made the fries notable and the pickles and peppers we could have easily done without, but the sandwich and the cole slaw were out of this world, and of course you can’t go wrong with a black cherry soda. The menu included a limited variety of other options, like smoked turkey and platters of meat, but we went for what we wanted and we wanted sandwiches, and they were pretty much perfect. No bits of meat were left on our plates (nor our paper placemats, to be honest), and we talked about those sandwiches for days after we left.
Our first night in Montreal, we splurged on a nice restaurant meal (as we had decided we would do in each of our major Canadian destinations) and chose Restaurant Leméac for both its reputation as having excellent Canadian-style French cuisine and for its late night discount – appetizer, entree, and coffee or tea for $27/person after 10 p.m. This wasn’t too much lower than their otherwise fairly reasonable prices (considering the quality and fanciness of the restaurant), but still helped us stay within our budget. The restaurant was classic and fairly conservative, unlike some of Montreal’s newer and more hip options, but the food was delicious and we could tell the ingredients were high-quality and fresh. The restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived, but filled quickly with people taking advantage of their late-night deal. We ended the meal with the absolutely most decadent brioche french toast with maple syrup and vanilla ice cream, and were happy for a walk back to our apartment before falling into bed.
My preparatory research into Montreal’s food scene made it clear that we had a judgment to make between the Pleateau Mont Royal neighborhood’s dueling bagel bakeries. Which is the best? Some say Fairmont, some say St. Viateur, and it was up to us to decide which would win. We picked one for each of the two mornings we were in the city, and while both were surprisingly similar, we decided that St. Viateur won out just barely, for a slightly crispier exterior and a slightly less sweet dough. Both bagels were unlike those we’re used to here in the US – much smaller and thinner with a much larger hole, and much softer and chewier, a texture similar to packaged grocery store bagels (but much, much better). The storefronts were surprisingly similar as well – in each you could watch the crews of bakers pull bagels in and out of the large brick fire ovens, first dredging the raw bagels in toppings like sesame or poppy seeds. Wanting an equal comparison we tried a sesame and poppy seed bagel at both, and in each case St. Viateur’s options came out slightly ahead.
Before our second trip to Schwartz’s for dinner on Monday night, we headed to Dieu de Ciel, claimed in a variety of places as perhaps the top microbrewery in all of North America and also highly recommended by one of our friends. Dieu du Ciel features a variety of types of beer, including both conventional options and a variety with interesting added flavors, like blondes flavored with hibiscus flowers or ginger and a pale ale with rye. We sampled five beers among the two of us: the ginger and hibiscus flavored blondes, a stout flavored with cocoa and vanilla (my favorite), an IPA, and a bohemian-style lager. The inside of the bar felt more like a cafe than a beer hall, cozy and warm and full of wooden tables – but reviews online tell me that it is often far more crowded and raucous inside, likely on nights other than Mondays.
Before heading to Quebec City, we stopped at the Marché Jean-Talon, widely hailed as the city’s best farmers’ market. Like many of the markets we visited across the country, this one is open daily and features both producers and distributors of local and international produce, prepared foods, and pantry items. This one was one of the larger ones we visited, and offered for sale a large variety of food items including a few stand-alone stores selling soaps, spices, cheese, meat, and other non-produce items. We left without making too much damage – a small bag of local apples, a jar of pickled wild mushrooms from a producer specializing in items foraged from area forests, and a hilarious travel tin of Maldon salt (for those who can’t stand being anywhere without their Maldon), which I absolutely could not pass up.
I know we could have eaten and drank and purchased much more in Montreal – I’m sure we could be there years without doing the same thing twice, even – but we made great time of our 48 hours there and hit up some of the city’s best restaurants, markets, and other food-related businesses. I look forward to going back and trying the rest!
Here are some of the places we loved in Montreal:
The apartment we rented – perfectly located for some of the city’s best eats!
Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen (smoked meat sandwiches) 3895 St-Laurent
Fairmont Bagels 74 Avenue Fairmont Ouest
St. Viateur Bagels 263 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest
Restaurant Leméac 1045 Avenue Laurier Ouest
Stella Estrela (Portuguese bakery) 22 Avenue Duluth Est
La Vieille Europe (market – amazing pate and cheese selection) 3855 St-Laurent
Arthur Quentin (beautiful homewares and kitchen supplies) 3960 Rue Saint Denis
Suite 88 (chocolatier) 3957 Saint-Denis Rue
Dieu du Ciel (microbrewery) 29 Avenue Laurier Ouest
Marché Jean-Talon (farmers’ market) 7070 avenue Henri-Julien, Corner of Henri-Julien and Jean-Talon