How did I end up in Montreal in the dead of winter? I’m still trying to figure that one out, but it happened. I had originally planned to stay in Toronto over the holidays, but in light of a last minute changeup in my plans, Montreal happened instead. I arrived there on a bus early Saturday night with a backpack and agenda that was simple: Eat as much kickass food as I can, and try to stay warm.
I managed it for the most part, but damn, that city is cold. And there is no end to how many people wait in lines in the middle of it just to eat something amazing. Why? Because food can do that to a person. And the food in Montreal is exceptional.
I crashed at my friend Marion’s house and went out early Sunday morning to check out L’Avenue, a trendy upscale brunch restaurant in the Plateau District. I realized pretty quickly that going on a Sunday was a mistake, as the line looked like it would take at least an hour. Screw that, I thought, and went to a diner somewhere else. I came back on Monday morning and got a table without any wait or hassle.
The atmosphere was comfortable, with a tall ceiling, trendy decor, graffiti, artwork, hip decorations, and decadent breakfasts. A young, attractive French server approached me to take my order, deliberately standing an inch away from my shoulder with her hand on the back of my seat. No reservations indeed. I didn’t mind; I like attention. I was in the mood for something good and savory, and ordered their Montreal smoked meat benedict.
Handcut slices of Montreal’s signature smoked brisket piled on an English muffin, buried in poached egg with creamy, rich hollandaise and a dash of seasoning, it will bring a tear to your eye and a what the fuck weakness in the knees, I shit you not. It was maddening and beautiful to eat. The smokey, salty flavors from the beef blended amazingly with the egg and hollandaise sauce, creating a savory mess that was truly divine.
I cleaned that plate in minutes, and would do it again in seconds. Congratulations, L’Avenue, you serve the best Benedict I’ve ever had.
An iconic poutinerie in the Plateau, La Banquise is just as popular as L’Avenue, perhaps even more so. With at least 30 different poutines in their menu, they draw lines out the door, even in off hours, even in horrible weather. I figured that out the hard way. I saw a line during lunch break and made the mistake of waiting until mid-afternoon, only to come back and see it double in size. Not even the shitty cold snap rolling in could dissuade these people.
I finally got inside after 45 minutes, thawed out, and ordered the large pulled pork poutine. Imagine a whole backyard barbecue of pork, cole slaw, sour cream, gravy on a pile of fries and cheese curds. It was a huge bowl of kickass, and remarkably, I got through it all.
Other options in their menu include combinations of bacon, peppers, sausage and smoked meat. I was beginning to notice a trend in this city.
I heard from multiple sources to check this place out, and I’ll admit I was skeptical. It’s just a bagel, I thought, could it really be this cool? It turns out that it can. I went to their store first thing on Tuesday morning before starting my work day. I got their standard sesame bagel, bit into it, and the flavors came alive in my mouth as steam rose from the rest of the bagel and faded into the dry morning air. I felt every hot sesame seed on my tongue, and thought yes, a bagel really can be this cool.
Why? I guess it’s because they prep their bagels with a sweet combination of malts, eggs, and honey, coat them in sesame seeds, bake them in wood-fire, and send them out the door by the thousands. That’s probably why. Fuck, I went back inside and got another one.
By my third day, it was obvious that smoked meat was a really big thing here. I wanted to find out why. So I went to Schwartz’s, one of Montreal’s best known delicatessens, to find out once and for all what all the fuss was about. And once again, I ran smack into a huge line of people who were all thinking the same thing. The sun was going down behind Mont Royal, the temperature was dropping by the minute, and freezing wind blew against us as we huddled like penguins outside the front door.
I finally got inside and they seated me with three other single people. A young Asian girl, a bald dude with a beard of two years, whom at my first glance I thought he listens to Times of Grace-era Neurosis. And then a guy next to me who was so normal that I don’t remember a single thing about him.
We were there for one reason: Montreal Smoked Beef. In places like Schwartz’s, it is salted and cured for at least a week in a secret house blend of spices, put in a smoker for a day, steamed to moisturize, and finally handcut and served to multitudes of patrons day in and out. Most people order the sandwich, consisting of a large helping of meat with mustard served between two slices of rye bread. I however, like Mike Ehrmantraut, don’t believe in half-measures. I ordered a large pile of just the meat served right on a plate with a side of sliced bread. Nothing fancy about it. It was simple, pure and delicious.
No visit to a new city is complete without at least one visit to at least one home brewery. On this trip, I found two: Vices et Versa and Dieu du Ciel! They were both charming, dimly lit, full of strong, hoppy aromas, and both had beer menus en Français that I couldn’t read. But variety is always key, and they had plenty of it, listing out their beers by the number on chalkboards. I gambled 5 or 6 choices each, and gave my random numbers to the bartenders.
I ended up with a good variety of sample draughts, polishing off the last two evenings with an array of blondes, wheats, IPAs, porters, stouts, and a cider for good measure.
Before I knew it, I was back at the bus station, boarding a Toronto-bound Megabus and leaving that fine city behind. Awesomesauce.