I had the distinct pleasure of eating in Montréal last weekend, where the locals are still fuming about their hockey coach, who doesn’t speak French (frankly, I’d be more worried about the team, which looked absolutely lackluster against the Devils on Saturday). My original goal was to just visit Schwartz’s for “smoked” meat (more on the meaning of the quotations later) for an upcoming story I’m doing for ABC 7 in Chicago. But after talking with some colleagues there and doing a bit more digging, I discovered that eating in this city is as exciting as anywhere else in North America.
No matter where you go, French is the preferred language. But if you greet a local in English, they will just as quickly and seamlessly shift into English-speaking mode. It’s as if you’re in Paris with live subtitles. Patisseries and charcuteries line St. Denis and St. Laurent Boulevards – as do Portuguese chicken shacks and Italian pasta shops – and the bagels are not only legendary, they’re the best I’ve had. Anywhere. It’s truly amazing that just 90 minutes from Chicago there is a completely different cultural experience awaiting the adventurous eater. There are some things you need to try, like bagels and poutine, but there are also some specific places you need to visit; I’ve tried to reflect that in this week’s list. Here’s a must: be sure to call Ronald Poiré, who runs a number of culinary tours in Montréal. He was born-and-bred there, and knows more about the city’s history and food scene than anyone I know. He also has a great palate. You can connect with him on Twitter @FoodGuideMtl. Oh, Canada…
There are two iconic bagel shops in the city – Fairmount and St-Viateur – and the passionate loyalists are as vocal in their support of each as if they were Chicagoans talking about Al’s and Johnnie’s. Here’s the thing though: there isn’t that much difference between the two. They both make their dough from scratch, by hand, and roll them in-house; they both boil them first in water that’s flavored with honey; they both bake them off in wood-fired ovens throughout the day and they both specialize in the heavily sesame-coated spheres, with an occasional poppyseed-dusted version. They’re both best when warm; they’re both slightly crisp outside and properly chewy inside and they both have a wonderful sweetness that lingers in your mouth – neither really require cream cheese. I say hit both while you’re in town, they’re pretty close together.
Fairmount, 74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest, Montréal, (514) 272-0667
St-Viateur, 263 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest, Montréal, (514) 276-8044
2. Joe Beef, 2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montréal, (514) 935-6504
One of the great things about the new wave of talent in the food industry, has been the emergence of “fuck you” restaurants. I mean that in a good way. They’re the places where you dine at the chef’s whim. There are no substitutions; you don’t get the dressing on the side; the eggs are already jellied and the offal is already poached. If you don’t like it, too bad, because there’s a line of people waiting to get in who are eager to explore the menus, jam-packed with bold flavors. Joe Beef is a little like this. Two tightly-packed rooms, each with small bar counters, and a menu that’s written (in French) on a chalkboard. Don’t worry, the staff is bilingual, and can describe each dish deftly and confidently, as if they’ve prepped and cooked it themselves. The restaurant’s namesake cookbook is one reason people are flocking here, but the range of dishes – from lobster spaghetti to fried brains with peas or tiny corn flake-crusted croquettes of mashed potatoes flecked with eel – are impressive in their construction and simple execution. Pristine East Coast oysters, overflowing with their juicy liquor, are adorned with freshly-grated horseradish; the housemade beer is resplendent, as are the affordable list of French wines. The smoker out back gets a workout, and in the summer, a backyard garden supplies nearly all of the produce. It’s Paul Kahan staging at Longman & Eagle.
3. Smoked Meat
You can’t talk about Montréal food and not mention Schwartz’s. With a reputation like Manny’s in Chicago or Pat’s in Philly, it has its share of tourists waiting in line each day for the house special: smoked meat, or viande fumée; in the States, we simply call it pastrami. When the deli was opened in 1928 by a Romanian immigrant named Reuben Schwartz, they created it by first rubbing briskets in a dry cure of about 14 ingredients – cardamom, juniper, black pepper are definitely in there – and left it to sit/marinate for 10 days. Then they would hang the briskets in a tall smoker in the kitchen, and smoke them for 8 hours. Finally, the briskets would sit in a large steamer box behind the counter, where any remaining intramuscular fat could be broken down and they would be pulled out and hand-sliced to order. Served on light rye with a dab of yellow mustard, they’re very good. Here’s my problem: they’re not smoked anymore.
Frank Silva, the GM at Schwartz’s, told me they stopped smoking them in the 60s, because they couldn’t burn wood inside the building. I found that argument a little puzzling, since both St-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel still burn wood in their ovens. Regardless, the name “smoked” meat is more than a little deceiving. I also tried Lester’s smoked meat at the Canadiens’ hockey game, where it’s served at the Bell Centre with fries and a Molson for $18 (not bad, but couldn’t tell if the meat was actually smoked); I would still like to try the Main Deli across the street from Schwartz’s (no line, no waiting) to see what theirs is like. You can also stop next door to Schwartz’s, where they have a take out shop, to get your meat, bread, pickles and coleslaw to go. I had another version, produced by a local smoked meat producer, served at Marché du Vieux in Old Montréal (kind of a touristy area) but surprisingly delicious, smoked or not.
Schwartz’s, 3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montréal, (514) 842-4813
4. Jean-Talon Market, 7070 Avenue Henri Julien, Montréal, (514) 277-1588
Now here’s a place I could spend literally all day. From small, artisanal shops selling Quebéc-only products like late-harvest cider, maple syrup and cheese.. to full-blown restaurants, Italian and Portuguese food shops, bakeries specializing in maple pies and tarts and even a dude who just sets up shop and makes duck confit and cassoulet in large, circular pans that could fit a small animal. You can easily get to the market by subway, but be forewarned: you’re definitely going to leave with bags of stuff that you’ll have to shlep back to your hotel. Everytime I see a market like this – whether it’s in San Francisco, New York, Toronto or even Portlandia – it makes me yearn for something even remotely similar back home in Chicago.
We’re really going to talk about French fries? Yes, because poutine is to Montréal what hot dogs are to Chicago. It’s everywhere and it’s been re-interpreted by just about every Québécois chef in the province. At its most basic level, it’s fries covered in gravy and cheese curds, consumed by drunk kids after bar time (my era’s gyros). In the hands of a chef like Martin Picard, of Au Pied de Cochon, it’s pitch-perfect fries – crisp tender – coated in cheese sauce and curds, plus meaty gravy and a few seared lobes of foie gras for good measure. The restaurant everyone suggests you go for poutine is La Banquise (we tried, but couldn’t handle the 45 min. wait). If you can’t get in, don’t worry. You’ll see signs for poutine pretty much everywhere in the city.
La Banquise, 994 Rue Rachel Est Montréal, (514) 525-2415
Au Pied de Cochon, 536 Avenue Duluth Est, Montréal, (514) 281-1114
This was the most hyped of my destinations, especially by other food pros, but I honestly thought it was fat overkill. Yes, the breads are as good as anything I’ve had in France (or Sweden) and there were some highlights, such as onion soup and the foie-laced poutine, but the homemade boudin was tongue-coating tar funk over mashed potatoes as thick as Alan Richman’s eyebrows, and the “duck in a can” – while rich – was just a sloppy, fatty mess. Great wine list and super casual, informed service made it tolerable. I’d rather go to The Publican any day of the week.
Brasseurs de Montreal, 1485 Ottawa Rue, Montréal, (514) 788-4505
Located in a section of the city that looks like a perfect place to dump a body, this former warehouse is home to a truly local selection of beers, all made on-site. Daily selections are written on a chalkboard, and the range is impressive – from golden pilsners and dark stouts, to hoppy and tart lambics. They also serve food here, which pairs very nicely with this mildly alcoholic brews.
Brit & Chips, 433 McGill Street, Montréal, (514) 840-1001
I saw this joint on “Unique Eats” on the Cooking Channel, and just had to go. Apparently, all things British are coming back into fashion in Montréal, so this is no surprise. What is surprising, is that they’re using things like Orange Crush and maple syrup in the batters, while serving up “mushy” peas, pork pies and top-notch frites that are served crisp and hot. The homemade tartar sauce is also pretty great. Grab a pint and linger for a bit before you walk the nearby Old Montréal section.