Of course, Montreal isn't exactly in the United States, should you be hung up on such details as international borders. (Obviously, I am not.) The city is in the province of Quebec, a part of Canada
as long as there has been a Canada. My belief that Montreal is really a lost colony of the United States is strengthened by the indisputable fact that our Continental Army captured and briefly held it in 1775. One need only glance at a map from those days, when the province of Quebec was nestled just north of the 13 colonies, to admire the logic.
Allow me to add this: The citizens of Quebec practically exhausted themselves trying to secede from Canada in the latter half of the 20th century, only to fail when a 1995 referendum lost by a few thousand votes. To me Montreal is spiritually a part of the U.S., a kind of New York City in miniature, although it's even more like an independent city-state.
The restaurants of Montreal are the attraction. Their evolution, which started in this century, has been swift. They are modest in size and technically proficient, and they provide a sense of casual fine dining that is embraced more wholeheartedly here than anywhere in the U.S. The dining culture is descended from those of both France and England— thankfully, more from France—leaving Montreal a sort of culinary orphan, free to seek its own path.
New York, which was considered the best American dining city in most eras, but no longer, has become ground zero for casual dining. (A restaurant critic for the New York Times recently announced his top dish of the year: a sticky bun.) Montreal has developed an engaging dining personality at the same time that New York has been losing the one it had.
Famed Montreal restaurateur David McMillan (Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon) says, "I'll tell you why Montreal is the best restaurant city, and it's not about the skill of our cooking. We have the most advanced dining public in North America. I serve lamb liver cooked rare to 17-year-old girls. I sell tons of kidneys and sweetbreads. Manhattan is one giant steakhouse. Everybody there wants steak, or red tuna. I don't want to know how much red tuna is sold every day."
Chef Normand Laprise, the grand old man of Montreal chefs (even if he is only 54), adds, "I visit pastry shops in the States, and I know Americans are not open- minded customers. It's hard to sell any- thing other than cupcakes and macarons."
Montreal has had multiple culinary revolutions in the past 50 years. When I worked for the Star the restaurants primarily served French cuisine, albeit not quite what you'd find in Larousse Gastronomique. The Beaver Club at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel featured such fantastical dishes as Le Coeur du Charolais Soufflé aux Splendeurs du Périgord. The top chefs, who came to Canada from France following World War II or stayed in Montreal after working at Expo 67, were a little too fixated on flambéing and melting cheese.
After the financial debacle of the 1976 Olympics, which almost bankrupted Quebec, the restaurants declined precipitously. The only noteworthy and enduring establishment was Toqué!, operated by Laprise. In 2001 came Au Pied de Cochon, which was informal and inventive. Chef Martin Picard embraced local products and reinvented old, somewhat primitive dishes such as jellied pig's head and poutine, an ungodly assemblage of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy that arose in rural Quebec in the 1950s. Picard created a regional cuisine and, more important, prized local products as few before him had.
Joe Beef, the next great restaurant, did away with tablecloths and menus (using blackboards instead). That was followed by Les 400 Coups (in the French tradition) and Lawrence (quite Anglo), establishments embracing either side of the local language divide. They were among the places that made Montreal the best for restaurants in this hemisphere, one where fine dining has been transformed into a modern ideal. No other city does it as well.
Daniel Boulud, who has a restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, tells me that a visitor can grasp the essence of the dining culture before arriving, simply by looking out an airplane window. "Twenty
minutes before you land, you pass over the farms, the greenhouses. This isn't California. Here you have really small farms next to each other, not industrialized." So as I fly in I peer out the window. First I see mountaintops and lakes, then silos and barns. Boulud is right.
After we land, my traveling companion and I head to Les 400 Coups for lunch. The room is primarily in shades of charcoal and black, understated. The clientele, like most people in this city, dresses stylishly. The food is auspicious. Our squash soup is not like other squash soups. No bulk. No boredom. It's speckled with drops of olive oil, as though they had floated down from a cloud. The duck croquette is precisely as duck should be: rich, savory, skinless, and easy to eat. If there were such a thing as a wagyu duck burger, this would be it.
Les 400 Coups also has a pastry chef, a category of professional disappearing from American restaurants. I don't mean to overdo the compliments, but the desserts are notable as well: delicious and artistic, a little Georges Braque, a little forest tableau; the lemon cream dessert includes sea buckthorn. I would not be surprised if the pastry chef forages when off duty.
I feared that our choice for dinner, Le Mousso, an all-tasting-menu restaurant that had just opened, would be like all the tasting-menu joints in America, the chef desperately seeking to express himself. Such food is occasionally brilliant. Too often it's awful. My friend was intrigued, certain it would be different here. She was correct.
The restaurant is very Brooklyn, with an array of seating options at tables and counters, plus hanging lightbulbs and a chef, Antonin Mousseau-Rivard, who sports a short beard, a knit cap, tattooed arms, and Adidas shower sandals. He is self-taught, mostly via Instagram, and he says, "I didn't even work at a good restaurant in my life."
We are handed a printed menu. It looks weird, but tasting menus always do. We eat seven dishes, all marrying ingredients never previously combined. But the wagyu beef from Quebec accented with slightly salty sturgeon caviar is masterful, as is the cool arctic char nestled in what appears to be a paint box of colors and flavors. Even the desserts are arresting, and desserts prepared by savory chefs are rarely that. The first is labeled sang, which means blood. I'm frightened, as I'm sure the chef means me to be, but it's blood sausage ice cream as Häagen-Dazs might make it, plus Quebec cheddar crumble in an apple-vinegar reduction. (Yes, Quebec has a flourishing cheese industry.) I suggest to Mousseau-Rivard that he might be a crazy genius, and he replies, "I like the word crazy more than genius."
A few blocks from the Parc du Mont- Royal, a revered green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, sits Beauty's, a luncheonette owned by Hymie Sckolnick, 95. He is always there. Hymie bought the shop in 1942 for $500. He is nice enough not to brag about his investment prowess.
Breakfast at Beauty's followed by a park stroll serves two vital purposes: The park provides visitors with an aware- ness of the physical glory of the city, as it's built on the slopes of the multitier hill Mount Royal, and Beauty's remains a notable example of Montreal's enduring (and somewhat inexplicable) fascination with Jewish food, most famously its bagels—smaller, sweeter, and superior to New York's—and its pastrami-like smoked meat.
At Beauty's, bagels from the St.-Viateur bagel shop (officially La Maison du Bagel) accompany the "famous mishmash," a kind of omelet that would be scorned by French chefs, inasmuch as it is not golden yellow or elegantly contoured. It consists of eggs, scrambled and browned a bit, the way my grandmother made hers, plus hot dog, salami, green pepper, and fried onion. You will sigh. You will burp.
Unmatched in Montreal (or anywhere) is Le Vin Papillon, owned by David McMillan. The food is casual, mostly vegetables. The place takes no reservations and for a long time was nearly impossible to get into, although recently it doubled in size and the struggle has subsided. I recommend arriving at 3 p.m., when it opens, although take care not to wait by the wrong door, the permanently closed one, or you'll feel as if you've been locked out.
We have celery root ribbons bathed in bagna cauda, a Piedmontese sauce made with garlic and anchovies; charcoal-roasted white turnips with housemade pomegranate molasses; and the best dish of all: a curiously savory hummus of hubbard squash with homemade focaccia.
We don't leave until 6 and decide to skip a formal dinner, choosing instead a late smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's, which seems to be open day and night. Schwartz's never changes, although the ownership has. The original proprietor, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, is long gone, and Schwartz's is now the property of a consortium that includes Céline Dion.
I order my smoked meat fatty—most customers request medium or lean—and the waiter says, "Good for you." Maybe the place has changed: That's a long speech for a Schwartz's waiter. The rye bread continues to be tasteless, the smoked meat is still really good, the cole slaw reminds me of North Carolina, and the fries aren't as great as they used to be, but they're not bad.
Maison Bould is admirable for who owns it (Daniel Boulud), for where it resides (in the historic Ritz-Carlton), and for its lovely location adjoining a small garden and duck pond (request a table overlooking both). The restaurant is among the last of its kind, a French one (well, mostly French) in a city where French cuisine is vanishing. (This is happening everywhere in North America; it just seems more baffling in Quebec, where more than half the population is French-speaking.) I order a lunch that spins me back in time: housemade pâté of startling freshness and eminent richness, and confit
of guinea fowl leg in a miraculously silken foie gras sauce. The kitchen sends out lovely ravioli stuffed with sheep's milk cheese. It doesn't taste French, and shouldn't—the executive chef, Riccardo Bertolino, is from Bologna.
Dinner that evening is entirely anglophile, at Maison Publigue, an appealing tavern that offers only Canadian wines (and somehow pulls it off) and plates of mostly meaty foods that sound peculiar, as British cuisine almost always does. I never miss a chance to eat here. We order andouille sausage (reddish, dreamy, and fiery) spread on toast, and tender lonza, or salumi, made from free-range piglets raised for the restaurant in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
The main room has an old wooden floor, dark paneling, and mounted deer heads with soccer scarves wrapped around their necks. The menu is a well-lit corkboard to which is pinned a list of food and drink. Folks gather around it to discuss the dinner choices, a sign of changing times. When I lived in Montreal in the 1970s, during the separatist movement, concerned young people gathered in bars and pubs to sing protest songs demanding freedom from Canada. Now they chat about the origins of local meats and vegetables.
We have made no lunch plans, but when desperate I always call the nearest hot dog joint. On Saint Lawrence Boulevard is the Montreal Poll Room, which opened in 1912 in a different location not far from the current one. (Other changes have occurred: no more pool tables.) In case you have trouble finding it, directly across the street is the garish marquee of Café Cléopatre, which features stripteaseuses and danseuses à gogo.
My friend calls the Pool Room and asks, "Are you open? Are you serving food?" A sweetheart of a counterman replies, "Yes, madame. Hot dog, hamburger, cheeseburger. You come, you eat."
She has her first Montreal hot dog. They're famous, even if they're bland compared with New York's. Here they're served correctly: steamed and topped with mustard, relish, and mild chopped onions. She also insists on poutine. I await her disappointment, but she loves it, saying, "It filled my every poutine expectation." If you're from New Jersey and enjoy disco fries, you might love poutine too.
Hot dogs followed by poutine can be filling, which makes Hotel Herman—it's not a hotel and there is no Herman—an excellent option for dinner. It offers small plates that are unusually small.
The food is unexpectedly elegant, given the rough-hewn decor (wide plank floors that look as old as Montreal itself, tin ceiling, bare lightbulbs). Little logs of housemade foie gras are brilliantly composed, topped with crumbs and cranberries. The chef, Marc-Alexandre Mercier, bakes his own bread, dark and earthy and easily worth the $2 surcharge. The sweetbreads come with mashed potatoes from a variety called Ozette, grown in Quebec. They are mesmerizing, and it's not just the added buttermilk and cream. Mercier tells me his way with vegetables is a result of childhood trauma: His mother made him eat a bowl of rutabaga so awful it made him cry.
Lawrence, among the most Anglo of the Anglo establishments, is blessed with big windows that allow in an abundance of light, a major reason I love to have lunch there. The staff is sweet, the wine list
just right, the crockery seemingly from a church basement sale, and the menu filled with dishes you might never have eaten before. Fried endive topped with snowy crab, an unlikely concoction, is crunchy and juicy, impeccably fresh. The desserts are simple but superlative, the "burnt" chocolate pudding much like an all chocolate crème brûlée, and the warm ginger cake is topped with a crème anglaise that I'm tempted to drink.
In the evening we set out to see two new restaurants with unusual appeal. Both feature wood-burning ovens, which are unusual in Montreal, and both are in newly gentrified sections of the city.
Hoogan & Beaufort is in a former industrial park in Rosemont where the Canadian Pacific Railway once built locomotives. An excellent consequence: It has stunningly high ceilings. William Saulnier, one of the partners, says that in the restaurant's opening days many of the calls they received started out, "Where are you?"
Foxi is in a neighborhood once largely populated by Irish immigrants. Both of these spots are following an established American trend, moving away from midtown to more remote locations where rents are cheaper and space more generous. We weren't able to eat at Hoogan & Beaufort, only peek in, because we were dining with Lesley Chesterman, a friend who is the restaurant critic for the Montreal Gazette, and she was reviewing Foxy. She seemed to like my theory that Montreal belonged to the U.S. She said, "Montreal has never felt less Canadian to me."
I leave the analysis of Foxy to Chesterman, enthusiastic about everything except the two dishes prepared in the wood- burning oven. About my favorite she wrote, "I loved the flatbread we ordered. Covered in melted raclette cheese, red onions, potatoes, and house-smoked ham, it was reminiscent of an Alsatian tarte flambée. We scarfed it back in minutes, the only problem being that one of the pieces of ham popped off my slice and, as I discovered the next morning, fell into my purse under the table."
For me, departure days begin with a trip to the St.-Viateur bagel shop, where I buy a few dozen to take home. The price these days is 80 cents each. Hymie Sckolnick told me they used to cost two cents. When I complain to the counterman, he laughs and tosses in a few extra. Hymie's is a good name to drop in Montreal.
Our getaway meal is lunch at Toque which is run by Laprise, that most essential of Montreal chefs. His new establishment is a member of Relais & Châteaux, and his kitchen is a marvel, overflowing with cooks. The food isn't what I think of as new Montreal cuisine—it's too precise and luxurious—but it's up there with the best haute cuisine in North America.
An appetizer of arctic char is creamy and silky, tasting of smoke and lemon. My Montreal Star pal Boone, joining us, calls it "the cotton candy of fish." Chicken, prepared sous-vide, is so moist there's beading on the breast. My friend has what the waitress calls "a perfect egg," cooked slowly, with a sauce made from a long-simmering duck reduction.
Dessert is so ethereal—mostly honey, jelly, and cream—that on the way to the airport we stop at Patrice Patissier so I can pick up a few stuffed-on-the-spot chocolate-banana cream puffs. Patrice Demers, the owner of this new shop on Notre Dame West, was the first pastry chef at Les 400 Coups and thus is a hero of mine. But then, so many Montreal chefs are.
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