Montreal: Pack Your Appetite!

The smell of garlic filled the plane. Folks congregated in the aisle around me. But I wasn’t sharing. Matter of fact, I was torn between spasms of ecstasy at the taste of the world’s best beef sandwich and fits of sobbing as it quickly became mere memory.

Sure, people visit Montréal for its famed Cirque du Soleil and for its miles of trendy shopping. Still others stroll the portside passages of Old Montréal, as did explorer Jacques Cartier, or steep themselves in its museums. Gay blades head to The Village, arguably the best Boys Town on the continent. All well and good, and worth the stamp on your passport. But me, I came for the food.

They tell me the city boasts more than 5,000 restaurants. The food scene, they instruct, exploded after the 1962 Olympics, when France sent many of its chefs to feed the masses. Seeing an untapped opportunity in a city of food-starved Francophones, they stayed on, and opened many a sweet café. As current billboards around the city slyly demand, “Leaving Montréal? But where would you go?”

Those chefs loved the local products they encountered, which pushed farmers, cheese makers, bakers, and such to provide even more, even better. The dining public quickly learned to get pretty picky, so farmers markets began to flourish—such as Jean-Talon Public Market, where you can sample local cheeses galore, all things maple, and garden bounty polished to a blinding shine. One section boasts a selection of 400 Quebec microbeers alone (no Molson’s, thank you very much).

Follow your nose, and the masses, to the section occupied by Première Moisson Bakery, where you can choose (I dare you) among 30 kinds of breads, from grains the owners grind themselves, and dozens of dainty pastries. Better yet, grab a table, and breakfast, as le tout Montréal seems to, on toasted slices of baguette on which to spread pâtés of duck and venison, or crottin, a lushly rich (read: fatty) pork mix defined as “poor man’s pâté.” Add a slick of housemade strawberry-rhubarb jam and a bowl of café au lait—OK, maybe a croissant or two—and rethink your plan about leaving.

The market is a cornerstone of one of Montréal’s many vibrant ethnic neighborhoods—this one, Little Italy, which brings us to Dante’s Hardware, where you can outfit a gourmet kitchen (Mamma also gives cooking lessons), or purchase a rifle, giving a new spin to one-stop shopping. (Both lines were equally long.) Around the corner, Milano Market is my idea of heaven, with items like fresh pasta, antipasti of all persuasions, and pizza to go raining into its narrow aisles.

“Bonjour” gave way to “Bon Giorno,” but not far along, on Parc Avenue, the tongue in all its restaurants is Greek. Then, cross over into the domain of the black-hatted Hassidics, to St.-Viatur Bagel, producing, as few would argue, the best of the breed on earth. Here’s the reason: They’re boiled, as all bagels are, but then paddled into a wood-fired oven to pick up that unique and haunting flavor. Fortunately, the hole-in-the wall is open 24/7 to serve as the community’s culinary ER. You leave with half-a-dozen, and maybe four make it to the corner.

Speaking of Yiddish, it’s off next to Reuben’s, the spot that gets the blame for my airplane sandwich. It’s the home of Montréal’s famous “smoked meat,” aka garlic-rich brisket, thin-sliced, à la corned beef, and piled so high, your jaw cannot maneuver. Another institution.

So is poutine, French Canada’s improvement on French fries, some say, and an acquired taste, others swear. I’ve acquired it. Fries, like the takeaway cone offered at the Belle Provence chains, are slathered in a thick, brown gravy studded with chewy hunks of cheese curds—a poutine, a “mess,” the first fella whose two orders got mingled swore, but the practice stuck.

And nowhere are they better than at Au Pied de Cochon, where they arrive in a cast-iron skillet topped with, ahem, a hunk of foie gras bigger than your fist. But that’s just for starters. Foie gras rates its own section of the menu here, at this informal but madly trendy café, launched to showcase the exact opposite of haute cuisine. Thus, antlers decorate the seatbacks. Portraits of pigs get top billing, as do their body parts (all of them) on the menu: sausage, chops, deep-fried pork rinds (talk about a death wish, but you’ll expire purring), and trotters—including pigs’ feet stuffed with foie gras.

Back to that heavenly liver: It’s featured in a puff pastry tart, along with caramelized onions; in a hamburger; in terrines; and in a dish called Plogue à Champlain, where 100 grams of it (think softball-size) rest atop a mélange of bacon, potatoes, maple sauce, and egg—as well as atop pizza and cooked with apples.

How about a braised pig risotto instead? Right, I thought so. Join me in heading to Club Chasse et Pêche, housed in a cozy setting of understated chic in Old Montréal, where that dish, topped with foie gras shavings for good measure, stars among the starters. The cooking is deliberately more refined here, honoring fare from the hunt and the sea, as the name trumpets—such as scallops with fennel puree and lemon confit; sea bass with leeks, oranges, and almonds; or wapiti (elk, I learned) served lusciously rare atop a mix of rutabagas, faro grains, pine nuts, and blue cheese. Could have stopped right there, and gone to heaven. But one last bite before the Pearly Gates: a caramel tart livened with fleur de sel, served aside an ebony chocolate sorbet.

Speaking of chocolate, while you’re meandering among the funky-to-fancy shops lining St.-Denis, stop in at Suite 88 Chocolatier, where you can purchase chocolate shooters filled with apple martini, sake, and the like, alongside gorgeous bonbons displayed as in a jewelry shop.

But most of those 5,000 cafés we mentioned are simply bistros (often, made even more affordable by BYOB policies), offering classics, like the fare at Café du Nouveau-Monde. Sampling from every plate within my reach, I tasted the best salmon tartare of my lifetime, topped with piquant flying fish caviar; goat cheese bathed in caramelized onions; duck rillettes with pear chutney; monkfish served over warm lentil salad; and a classic steak frites.
Even Montréal’s scintillating Contemporary Art Museum boasts its own bistro, charming folks with duck jeweled with dried fruit; pork tenderloin with mustard; and turbot in parsley cream.

As the sign says, why would you leave? Only if I must, and not without my sandwich.
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