Montreal is a food town like no other.
Nearly 2 million people call metropolitan Montreal, Quebec, home and, judging from the diverse and burgeoning culinary scene in this island city, countless numbers are foodies. It’s a town filled with hundreds of restaurants; nearly 100 per square kilometer (approximately 5,000) in the tourist areas, say tourism experts. That’s the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America. In addition to a vibrant restaurant scene, the city boasts plenty of bakeries, chocolate shops, food markets, kitchen stores, gourmet boutiques, culinary tours, several professional cooking schools and dozens of classes for amateur cooks, including a number taught by some of the city’s top chefs.
Montreal comes with a rich food tradition influenced by both French and British heritages. However, today’s culinary landscape has been transformed by the city’s diverse fabric of ethnic communities, including Italian, Greek, Jewish, and Lebanese, among many others. Estimates are that 120 different ethnic groups live in and around Montreal, each contributing their unique flavors and food traditions to the city’s culinary landscape. The Jewish community has been one of the largest influencers, bringing two of the city’s most recognized and prized foods: Montreal smoked meat and Montreal-style bagels.
The city’s smoked meat is kosher-style deli meat made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices, including cracked peppercorns and aromatic spices, such as coriander. For a week or more, the brisket is allowed to absorb the spice flavors, then hot smoked to cook through, and steamed to completion. Some Montreal smoked meat is brine-cured like corned beef, with the spices applied later. However, many smoked meat establishments prefer dry-curing directly with salt and spices. Montreal’s signature meat is hand sliced and typically served on rye bread with mustard.
You can get Montreal smoked meat in a variety of diners, bistros and even fast food places in Montreal. However, Schwartz’s (aka the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen) on Saint-Laurent Boulevard is Montreal’s smoked meat central. This famous culinary landmark, established in 1928 by Jewish Romania Reuben Schwartz, is a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the Plateau neighborhood. It’s so popular that residents and visitors line up, sometimes for more than an hour, to buy sandwiches, sliced meat, and even whole briskets. If you manage to secure a spot at one of the few small tables, you’ll likely share it with others clamoring for the signature sandwiches.
Schwartz’s owners claim their meat gets its distinctive flavor from curing the meat for 10 full days and smoking it in a brick smokehouse that’s covered with more than 80 years of smoke buildup. Whatever their secret, sinking your teeth into one of their tender meat sandwiches is a transcendent experience worth the wait. I purchased one of their small sandwiches ($7.50) to take on the plane, and the nearly three inches of thinly sliced meat on rye with yellow mustard was nearly impossible to get my mouth around (but I did). They’re open every day from 8 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. (hot meats are available after 10.30 a.m.).
Another place to sample flavorful Montreal smoked meat is at the bistro Chez Victorie in the Plateau Mont-Royale neighborhood. This popular café offers a smoked meat “burger” that’s piled high with their own thinly-sliced smoked brisket on a chewy burger bun and served with fries and a green salad that makes a satisfying and filling meal. They also make all of their own charcuterie and we ordered the charcuterie board for two, a large wooden slab filled with an impressive array of meats, including chorizo, pates, salami, and veal tongue. It’s served with house cured pickles, chunky mustard, and both crisp and soft chewy French bread.
Legendary Bagels and Hot Chocolate
Montreal bagels are another must-try for food-loving visitors. They’re smaller, denser, and sweeter than their New York cousin and the tiny, Jewish-dominated “Mile End” district (officially part of the Plateau borough) is home to the city’s two famous bagel makers, Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries, located on the streets of the same names.
St-Viateur Bagels, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, has been making bagels the same way since 1957. While there are three other St-Viateur bagel bakery/cafes, the humble bakery on St. Viateur is where it all began and it’s a culinary landmark. They claim to sell 1,000 dozen of the little dough rings daily, but the man behind the counter says with a wink and a smile, “We’re really not counting.”
When we walked into the St-Viagteur bagel bakery, we were instantly enveloped by the malty smell of warm, baking dough. In this tiny shop, one man expertly cuts and hand shapes the bagels, which are boiled for five minutes in honey water. Another baker then seasons them with sesame or poppy seeds, onion, and other toppings, places them on a long, thin board and shovels them into a cavernous wood-fired brick oven. A few minutes later, he uses the same board to remove crispy, hot bagels and dump them into a big bin. Customers place orders, and a baker fills a bag with warm bagels.
There’s nothing quite like a warm Montreal bagel fresh out of the oven—slightly toasty on the outside, chewy inside with just a hint of sweetness. These bagels are so good, you’ll want to eat them warm just as they are, without schmear or other additions.
Because this is a French city in a French province, Montreal is famous for chocolate too. There are a number of places where you can get fine, handmade chocolate candies, but it’s their European-style hot chocolate that’s really special. In the United States, hot chocolate (cocoa) tends to be thin and milky. In Montreal, it’s thick and assertively chocolatey. A great place to experience authentic Montreal hot chocolate is at one of three Juliette + Chocolate stores.
The Juliette + Chocolate shop we visited was a light and airy, two-story café and chocolate shop. The menu offers both large salads and plate-sized, chewy buckwheat crepes with fillings like ham, cheese, and vegetables. In a nod to restraint, we ordered both salads and crepes. But we weren’t fooling anyone: we were here for the hot chocolate. I ordered the semi-sweet, made with 70% cocoa chocolate and my friend ordered the bittersweet. We both asked for “grandma style,” thick, rich, and full of flavor. Our hot chocolates came in a little white pitcher with a white drinking cup and it was absolutely lip-smackingly delicious; hot chocolate you eat with a spoon. As my chocolate cooled, it took on the consistency of warm pudding and, though I was full, I couldn’t help but finish every rich drop.
You can’t come to a French city like Montreal without visiting one (or more) of patisserie for croissants and other delectable French pasties. On a half-day foodie tour with VDM Global, tour guide Nathalie, brought us to Fou D’ici, a gourmet store and bakery in the show and festival district (formerly the town’s red light district). The store is loaded with meats, cheeses, upscale gourmet items, and prepared deli foods. But we came for the croissants, light buttery bits of doughy heaven. The apple filled croissant was especially delicious and the ham, cheese, and herby dough twisty made for a wonderfully oily savory snack.
Nathalie also led us to Jean-Talon Market, an indoor-outdoor city market in the Little Italy neighborhood that surely ranks as one of the great food markets of the world. This year-round market has just about anything a foodie could yearn for at surprisingly affordable prices. We entered the market, walking through a patisserie with glass cases filled with delectable chocolate bombs, mousses, and all manner of French desserts and bins of freshly baked French breads, rolls, and croissants. Inside the market’s cavernous main space, there were vendors selling fresh, local fruits and vegetables, fish, meats, flowers, cider, maple products, and more. We stopped at a mushroom stand where other-worldly looking varieties of locally foraged wild mushrooms were for sale. The proprietors told us they also host five-course gourmet mushroom dinners.
We paused to sample tiny cups of ice hard cider, made with apples that have frozen on the tree that creates an intense apple-flavored liqueur. At a cheese shop, a young man sliced paper-thin samples of Fritz Vielli, an aromatic and deeply flavorful pasteurized cow’s milk cheese. At the maple products booth, I loaded up on chunky maple sugar and nibbled on maple candy in the shape of maple leaves. We ended our tour with bottles of cold, fresh apple cider that tasted like liquid fall.
Another Quebec food celebrated in Montreal is poutine, a mishmash of French fries, melty cheese curds, and brown gravy (the name ‘poutine’ means ‘mess’). Poutine was invented in Quebec, though not Montreal and has spread in popularity throughout Canada. This city, however, has embraced the fast food like none other and has raised poutine to new heights. The city boasts a number of poutineries, cafes that specialize in only poutine, and they even have a week-long festival held in February devoted to poutine.
The lowly potato, cheese, and gravy dish, reputed to be a hangover remedy, has been been transformed in this river city with ingredients like beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, and even the very French foie gras (duck or goose pate), added to the basic ingredients. The city’s must-visit poutinerie is La Banquise on Rachel Street in the Plateau. Open 24 hours a day and often with a long line of eager customers waiting to get in even in the wee hours of the morning, La Banquise serves more than 25 variations of poutine.
Food Festivals and Food Trucks
In addition to Poutine Week, Montreal features at least a half dozen major food festivals/events and dozens of smaller food, wine, beer, and spirits special venues throughout the year. One of the newest and most successful food celebrations is Taste MTL, a twist on restaurant week, which encourages Montreal residents and visitors alike to dine out at more than 125 participating restaurants and enjoy a diverse array of dishes at reasonable prices.
Held in early November, the 11-day Taste Montreal Festival is only in its second year, but, judging by how packed the participating restaurants were when we visited, it’s well on its way to culinary success. One of the things that makes Taste Montreal distinctive is that each restaurant must offer dishes made with a Quebec theme ingredient. This year, the ingredient was maple and the dishes, from maple sweetened foie gras to maple ice cream, were truly impressive.
The participating restaurants offer pre-fixe menus of at least three courses at three price points: $19; $29; and $39. We dined at the hip, sleek EVOO. My mid-priced meal started with a tiny and delicious amuse busche (a tiny one-bite appetizer that literally translates to “something to please the mouth”) of pressed beet topped with crispy salmon skin. Next came my starter: salted foie gras, an ultra-silky, disk of buttery deliciousness processed for seven hours in salt to give it a unique, tangy flavor. It came with crispy mushroom crumble, sweet eggplant jam, and kumquat confit along with soft toasted egg bread that made for perfect bites.
Our waiter also brought chewy homemade rolls made with toasted tomato and green onion that were served warm with soft butter.
Next came braised pork cheeks, fall-off-the-bone tender bits of pig, served with rapini (broccoli rabe), grilled green onion, with maple syrup sauce and maple sugared pecans. The pork was so rich, I couldn’t finish it all, and felt entirely satisfied.
After a tomato pop to clear our palates, came dessert—Banaffee, which consisted of sweet caramelized bananas, dulce de leche (Mexican caramel), dollops of foamy crème fraîche, butter shortbread, and crispy homemade toffee. It was the perfect end to an enjoyable meal.
Festivals aren’t the only food-oriented events that bring Montrealers out into the crisp, fall weather. Weekend brunches are a tradition in Montreal and they’re much more than the pancake-and-egg offerings offered in the U.S. Where can you dine on duck confit and foie gras at 10 a.m.? In Montreal, it’s a given.
On a bright and brisk Sunday morning, we joined friends in the Plateau neighborhood at Chez Choze, an intimate neighborhood bistro with simple, modern furnishings. Ten o’clock is still early for Montrealers, so for the first hour, we had the café to ourselves. Shortly, however, the place filled with locals.
I ordered a thin egg omelet filled with rapini (a broccoli-like vegetable), creamy goat cheese, and pieces of chewy, smoky duck. It came with a couple of roasted fingerling potatoes, fresh fruit (pineapple, grapefruit, mango), and lightly dressed fresh greens. My companion ordered duck confit (confit de canard), a leg and thigh portion perfectly cooked so that the meat was rich and juicy and the skin flawlessly crisp. We shared an order of foie gras, a three-inch disk of silky duck deliciousness with a nice rim of fat, and served with crisp and soft French bread. We also ordered hot chocolate, which wasn’t the pudding-thick indulgence we’d experience at Juliett + Chocolate, but a thinner, deep chocolate flavored cup of morning warmth.
Montrealers love food no matter the hour. We joined Ronald Poiré of Montreal Food Tours for an early evening walking journey through the former slaughterhouse district that’s undergoing a major transformation led by young innovative chefs and other foodies. The neighborhood is still rough around the edges, with plenty of empty storefronts and graffiti, but on nearly every block, there’s a new food- or drink-oriented business.
Ronald, a big man who’s equal parts tour guide, food historian, and neighborhood booster, stopped every block or so to tell us about another innovative business moving into the area. We popped into Rustica, an upscale bakery just eight months old that was crammed with customers. Among other sweet delights, they specialize in big, chewy macaroons that are crispy on the outside, coconutty soft on the inside, and sweet, mini-tarts in flavors like custard, apple, and pumpkin.
A few blocks further, there was a 1950s bar that young entrepreneurs have brought back to life. The place still sports kitchy orange globe lights and hockey blares from televisions, but behind the bar, young staffers slice fresh baguettes and charcuterie for patrons ranging in age from 20 to 70.
The final stop on this grunge food tour was Grumman 78, a restaurant in a refitted garage lit with Christmas lights that has a very relaxed and cool ambiance. Grumman 78 also operates a food truck in different locations every day around the city. They let loyal customers know where they’re going to be via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
Inside the cinder block building, Grumman 78’s tables are made from recycled wood pallets and industrial wooden spools. The fare here is re-imagined Mexican. We ordered cold, local artisan beers and delicious pork tacos that take on Asian flavors with sliced local pickled carrots, cabbage, and toasted sesame seeds. Paired with traditional Mexican hot sauce, the unusual fusion created an explosion of flavors in our mouths and made us yearn for yet another one of these unique tacos.
As we stepped out of Grumman 78 into the cool night air, I felt satisfied and happy. These young culinary artists are rehabilitating a forgotten piece of Montreal. They’re experimenting with the best local products in wildly unlikely combinations. And they’re making sure that this foodie city will continue to tempt palates for years to come. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor