From the Jewish legacy of Montreal’s bagel shops, to the tricolore treats found in Little Italy and the irresistible aromas wafting from the Portuguese rotisseries, there’s more to Montreal food than French flair and North American hearty fare. These days even us Brits get a look in on the menus. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the eateries we sampled.
Jean Talon Market
No visit to Montreal would be complete without a trip to Jean Talon market in Little Italy. It’s a locus for serious foodies with rows and rows of buckets of fruit and veg looking almost cartoonishly fresh, shiny and appetising. While most of the market is given over to the greens there are good fish, cheese and meat stalls, most of which encourage you to try a sample.
The middle eastern pastry stand is particularly alluring with delicate, glazed morsels beckoning you, while the cafe in the market is a great spot to watch the locals filling their shoppers while knocking back a deliciously unctuous, almost licquorich-like, coffee.
Le Beaver Hall, Downtown
This would be my pick of all of them. They do simple, high quality, unpretentious European food (which I think essentially means French, but correct me if I’m wrong Montrealers) Their foei gras candies are a particular specialty, but the sweet scallops and classic crepes suzette certainly did not disappoint either. Exemplary service struck a perfect balance between attentive and relaxed. It has elegant but restrained decor and a good family atmosphere.
BBQ, St Paul
This place gets a special mention as it’s where I lost my poutine cherry. For the uninitiated poutine is many things but the essential ingredients are: chips (usually deep fried, handmade style) gravy and cheese curds. It can be messy but no messin’ apres-pub takeaway food or it can be a very high end fancified stuff with lobster, foei gras etc. Mine was a fiendishly tasty pulled pork variant. It came as a generous starter portion in a cute little faux frying pan, but don’t hold that against it.
Ye Olde Orchard Tavern, Notre Dame de Grace
This is a strange place which seems unable to decide if it’s a pub or a restaurant. We came intending to just have a drink but needed to order food to hold the table and were eventually scared off from lingering by a rather overzealous pub quiz. Its specialty appears to be old fashioned British grub, with Irish Stew, Fish n Chips and a spicy beef and vegetable soup happily recalling childhoods past.
Lawrence, Mile End
This is a so-hip-it-hurts cafe with the seemingly de rigeur mismatched granny’s old crockery and one of those heavy velvet curtains to keep the cold out. Its frequented by an obscenely cool-looking 20 something crowd, serving up a tatsy brunch of mustardy ham and eggs on a crunchy bloomer late into the afternoon, again with definite old school Brit influences. They also serve a proper pot of tea from leaves, (or should that be ‘leafs’ hockey fans?) which was gratefully gulped down after several frustrating hours of blizzard staggering in search of Mile End.
Le Local, Downtown
Mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand it was hard to find fault with the food served up by their young George Michael-lookey-likey chef, with a rib eye steak cooked to ‘juicy inside, crispy outside’ perfection and a delicious tasting board of cold cuts, but service was a little diffident and the decision to sit us in the bar, which has a definite ‘pre-club warm up bar’ vibe, struck a bum note with us. Maybe we’re showing our age here, as it’s clearly one of the hipper dining spots not above a bit of cheffy menu waffle, in a land where foam and ‘deconstructed jacket potatos’ abound.
Staying at Fairmont, Bed-Ins optional
Our base for the second leg of our Montreal trip was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth. The hotel is famous for being where John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s staged their bed-in back in 1969 and where the couple also recorded Give Peace a Chance. Apart from a few framed photos on the wall little visible evidence of the event remains in the room now called the John Lennon Suite and indeed it feels like an oddly corporate place for such hippyish antics, but then again maybe that was the point.
Today the Queen Liz is the ideal Montreal pad for rail travellers, as it sits literally above the Central Station in the heart of Downtown. Fairmonts provide all the luxuries you’d expect from a five star hotel (large rooms, plush carpets, generous, soft beds) but it’s little touches such as proper filter coffee machines and ipod alarm docks that give them an air of homeliness.
Before you stay make sure you join up to their free Presidents Club, which gives you free internet access and local phone calls, plus access to preferential deals. We stayed on the Gold Floor, a premium service which provides high quality buffets twice daily, a private lounge with honesty bar and dedicated concierge staff. At the QE you also get access to a private glass lift with vertigo-inducing views of the glinting downtown skyline.
That’s assuming you can drag yourself out of your cosy bed-in long enough, but all I am saying is give Montreal a chance…