|September 4, 2014||Posted by hog under Restaurant Reviews||
Having never been to Montreal, I had only heard of it described as a food town. Coming from San Francisco, no town can be described as a food town without a first hand, or is it, first mouth, assessment. Skepticism reigns supreme when you hail from a food town such as ours.
But, having just finished my 3 day juice cleanse, I was ready to eat. (I know, I know you are supposed to change your patterns. Whatever!)
My first glimpse of Canada was through a sea of 2,000 people. Customs was brutal and getting my daughter a student ID even worse. The squirrelly nature of systems was Twilight Zone-like: a parking ticket when you exit the rent-a-car place, and a machine to swallow the ticket 50 yards later? Try setting up a bank account when one teller tells you to write your dates European style, the other US style?! With misinformation at every corner, I discovered that what the Canadians lack in efficient systems, they excel in politeness and yes, delicious food—taken rather seriously, to boot.
My first toasted ham and cheese croissant at the very simple coffee shop, Hinnawi Bros Bagel & Cafe in the Latin Quarter was sublime: warm, crispy, buttery, falling apart with oozing gruyere and spectacular French ham. I was only looking for coffee, which was equally perfect and I’m smitten. Bye bye beet juice.
What’s so interesting about Montreal is how it seamlessly balances its French roots with so many other cuisines: Portugese, Lebanese, Korean, all live happily ever after within storefronts of one another. Although we never visited Chinatown, what we did see was the melange of ethnic restaurants everywhere. It was as though several ethnic groups simultanesly descended and agreed to share a block. French food still proliferates, with the open air seating and handwritten French menus–very charming, and oh so Paree does Quebequois. I stumbled through my broken college French, but the lovely part of the Canadian culture is unlike their snooty European relatives, they smile politely even when you give up and resort to English.
The four days started with hot tips from a superb resource, sweet friend and past Bon Appetit editor, Victoria Von Biel. Thank you, Victoria for recommending Lawrence, in the funky St. Laurent area known as the Plateau. A casual bistro that was participating in the World Omnivore Tour featuring a British guest chef. The restaurant could have been in the SF Mission: mismatched pendant lights, rough hewn wooden tables, simple but not austere and an ingredient-driven menu that stems from their history of butchering and baking. (They actually call themselves a Boucherie, or butcher shop.) The sumptuous $70.00 prix fixe included an herbaceous mutton broth, heirloom tomatoes and grilled rib; a lighter-than-air sheep’s milk gnocchi with girolles and samphire (if you lost me those are French mushrooms and sea beans;) an “old cow” steak, black cabbage bone marrow and horseradish; and suet, peach and crab apple pudding. Yes, these people know food, know flavor and know how to put it all together. We waddle home, easily able to skip lunch the next day.
Instead we head downtown to Reuben’s, to see if they stand a chance over Carnegie Deli in NYC. I’m shocked, but it’s a close second. Sure the rye bread is thicker, more airy and not as seedy, but that is typical for any rye out of New Amsterdam. Smoked meats are a Montreal treat and this corned beef delivers, not to mention here in Canada you can start with a hearty crock of French onion soup. See ya matzo balls!
Dinner finds us in the swankier part of town on Rue Laurier. You know you’re in trouble when you run into an Eres store— and how dare they sell bathing suits in front of these restaurants!
The very pretty and classic Restaurant Lemeac catches our eye and doesn’t disappoint. Nothing like the perfect poached egg and lardon salad, this time on romaine not frisée, and a tender juicy duck confit, roast fingerling potatoes and a simple mustardy tossed salad. Simple, yes. Straightforward, and just darn good. Plus they pour a beautiful negroni as my French improves. I like it here.
Next day–oh did I mention we were here to move my daughter into college? At some point she looked up and announced she should probably get to campus eventually so she could meet a few people before all the friend groups form, but the lure of Fairmount Street took priority.
One of the most famous spots in Montreal is Fairmount Bagel. Founded in 1919, the bakery is still opened 24 hours a day! Once again we’re transfixed with how well Montreal does NYC. These bagels, completely covered in sesame seeds, were hot out of the oven before your eyes. Chewy without being bready, a slight smokiness, thinly rolled but with heft; almost like a NYC street vendor pretzel met up with a bagel and started a family. Warm, milky cream cheese spread into an ample shmear… But wait, the tiniest, most popular ice cream store is right next store: Kem CoBa.
We’re screwed! A bag of bagels under my arm and now it’s time for the half and half pandan leaf meets a lovely orange cardamom scoop. The soft serve today is a coconut ice cream strawberry sorbet swirl. Who needs friends at school when you’re eating a lighter than air, completely unusual ice dream concoction. You gotta love a place whose motto is: we’re not sure what you’ll find each day since we make whatever flavor we feel like! And the lines wrap around the bend.
I finally drop off my daughter and have a solo dinner at L’Express, another Victoria recommendation. Another quintessential French bistro, think Bofinger in Paris. And, the perfect place to sit alone at the bar, nibble on cornichons and baguettes and people watch. A decorative dish of octopus on a bed of lentils is just simply as good as it gets. With the beautiful, alive environment to match you can’t ask for anything more.
My last meal is a bonus; as I walk around despondent on my last day of dropping off my youngest, I get a call from orientation: Mom, wanna meet for lunch???
Yeah, we’re having hot dogs so I thought I’d see if you’re around.
In a flash it’s time for Atti, the best Korean “cuisine” I’ve ever had. The bilgoggi special for $9.00 replete with miso soup and a course of kim chee is a superb deal, but the bibinbop with shrimp, seaweed, julienned sweet potatoes, carrots and eggs was beauty in a bowl. I could barely toss it since it’s verisimilitude to Cobb salad just fascinated me. Just another great win for the food scene in Montreal.
With my juicing memories all washed up, I think it is now time for a full fledge fast!! Or flying home cargo. I can’t know for certain if my daughter is upset that she hasn’t made any friends this weekend, but I can be sure she was well fed.
Thank you, Montreal, for ensuring that she won’t be homesick for San Francisco simply because of the food.
1045 Laurier Ouest, Montreal 514-270-0999
75 Fairmount Ouest, Montreal 514-272-0667
60 Fairmount Ouest, Montreal
3927 Rue St. Denis, Montreal 514-845-5333
2077 University Street, Montreal 514-842-2884