It is a cliché, but Montreal really does have it all – and then some. Montreal’s peaceful green spaces, pocket parks and colorful public gardens are perfect for picnics, summer strolls and romantic rendezvous. Shopping? Sophisticated and fashion-forward. Nightlife? Oui, bien sur. English is spoken in distinctive Montreal-patois — like French spoken by a pirate. If you missed the last festival, there will be another in a week, or the week after, year round. So make plans to visit our welcoming neighbors to the north for “cinq a sept” happy hour and a meal that will be a feast for your senses.
Montreal is also one of the safest and most convivial cities in the world. You can ask directions at any hour and not feel intimidated. Of course, don’t be foolish. But a city like this enables a woman traveling alone to feel very brave.
This year I have been asked by Real Food Traveler to check out the saveur and savoir of this magical city during the legendary Montreal Jazz Festival. I ask Andrés Menard, Jazz Fest founder, artistic director, native son and legendary bon vivant for some of his favorite eateries in Montreal. He obliges with a personal and eclectic list.
First up is Laloux, whose elegant and relaxed ambiance is a cool contrast to the packed Place des Festivals downtown. Rich regional cuisine includes homard (lobster) salad, a creative take on a Maine classic with sweet, fresh lobster on a bed of thin grilled cucumber and popped wild rice. Yes, popped. The rice has an unexpected, nutty texture — the salad is refreshing, adventurous and délicieux.
Laloux provides my first taste of Guinea fowl, hay-roasted with Labrador tea sauce, mushroom remoulade and green pea puree. The bird is robust yet the flavors are delicate. My companion teaches me a very handy word, “léché,” a hybrid of meticulous and delightful, that defines our dining experience at Laloux.
We argue, languidly, about the difference between bistro and brasserie. (Bistros are casual neighborhood restaurants serving French cuisine. They serve lunch and dinner at fixed times, usually lunch at noon to 2:30 or 3 p.m., and dinner from 7:30 p.m. until midnight. Brasseries serve throughout the day and are open late, usually featuring a larger menu with traditional French fare.)
We sip Québec wine, Les Pervenches, while, a few blocks away, the Montreal Jazz Festival rocks on in a sea of people, hot and raucous. Laloux is a cool island of white linen and inspired local flavors — well done, Andrés! www.laloux.com
Andrés’ pick number two is cool Brasserie Bernard, another Montreal classic. The Champagne sangria is a wonderfully boozy mix of rum, cognac and bubbly with a kiss of green apple. The faint chartreuse color is gorgeous, magnifique.
My veal ravioli with mushrooms is dense, rich and savory; a tart endive salad lightens things up. My companion’s steak frites feature local Quebecois beef and a veritable “montagne” of crispy fries. B. Bernard is classic French, down to the waiter who unabashedly carries his nose in the air — perfect. brasseriebernard.com
Savor the city staple, a messy smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s. This iconic deli and bistro in the upper Mile End serves signature smoked meat sandwiches on rye, with yellow mustard. Specify your the fat content — lean, medium, medium-fat or fat. I recommend medium-fat, just right, and don’t pass on the pickle and slaw. www.schwartzsdeli.com
Another of Montreal’s traditional spots is Moishe’s, the kind of place your dad might have taken your grandfather, also a cornerstone of this Jewish neighborhood. Savor chopped liver, varenikas (kreplach), and potato latkes. True: Moishe’s chicken soup is better than my Bubbe’s
If you can break from tradition, try their Pernod baby spinach, lovely, or grilled asparagus. Moishe’s sources fresh beef and produce from indie farms in the townships — no hormones or antibiotics.
Keep Calm and Carry On
I stay at the lovely Hotel St. Martin, a quiet, comfortable oasis in the heart of Montreal’s bustling downtown — exactly what the weary reveler wants. The excellent hotel staff is restrained, polite and helpful.
At Café L’Aromate on the first floor, my breakfast of “Pain Perdu” provides a sweet, robust start to the day. An upscale bread pudding with local goat cheese, berries and maple syrup, this is contemporary Canadian comfort food. Around me, the city rises slowly. In Montreal, I am an early riser — mon dieu. www.lestmartinmontreal.com
Returning to the hotel around midnight, things at L’Aromate are just getting started. World-famous for its nightlife, Montreal clubs and bars encourage partying to the wee hours. As I await a pre-dawn cab to the airport, couples totter unsteadily back to the St. Martin with blissed-out expressions. Coming from an uptight New Englander, this city has an enviable excess of joie de vivre.
New Bistros, Old Charm
Back in the day, there was a dearth of onsite eateries on the sprawling Place des Festivals. I am grateful and happy to report that times have changed. Two new restaurants have popped up that resemble mod “pods,” or shipping containers, with shaded outdoor seating and lots of hipster charm. We begin with Restaurant T!, the brainchild of Toqué founder Normand Laprise.
Marvelous native fare like goat cheese terrine with potato and beet is silky and served slightly warm. An inspired bit of local sourcing, the nearby Lac Brome cheese tastes of sunshine and grass. Next up is a mushroom plate, a variety of glistening sautéed beauties served with crusty boule and a few herbs. Native aparagus with shaved parmesan and basil is simple, elegant and plenty for two.
Don’t miss the sangria — red or white, it packs a delicious wallop and is a great thirst quencher in the simmering sun. T! is a smashing spot.
We also try Taverne “F,” located just beside Place des Arts. “F” is a Portuguese bistro with small-plates called “petiscos,” great for sharing while you enjoy cocktails, or, in my case, sangria. We savor superb African peppers with St. Maure goat cheese. Olives, lupini beans and giant capers bathed in olive oil was a beautiful plate. The Portuguese cheese board was a little redundant, but surprise!, cold food rules when the cooktop is closed. That detail, plus sketchy service, put us off a little, but “F” is a handy, onsite option with loads of potential — I can’t wait to give them another chance. www.tavernef.com
The Art of Food
Or duck into the Musee d’art Contemporain Montreal overlooking the Quartier de Spectacles, with the iconic “Lips” on the roof. I wander through the current exhibition, “A Matter of Abstraction,” with 100 works — Québecois and international — spanning seven decades and several media. I especially enjoy a music video on the “Whistling Cabbie” of Australia. www.macm.org/en/
The museum’s Bistro Contemporain is always a treat. Chef Mousseau’s salmon with herbaceous dill “sponge” is a work of art in itself. The youthful chef is grandson of abstract painter, Jean-Paul Mousseau, whose work is featured in the exhibition and permanent collection — a nifty intergenerational crossover. www.macm.org/en/general-information/restaurant
André’s last pick is Grinder, a hip-hopping newcomer in Griffintown. Raw rules the menu with four kinds of tartare, a “bloody cesar gazpacho,” beef and/or scallop tataki, and surf and/or turf carpaccio. Fresh oysters are showcased each evening. Grinder offers a cooked menu as well, with local favorites like the decadent foie gras torchon with raspberry. www.restaurantgrinder.ca/en
Griffintown sits at a hip junction of gritty factories and chic riverfront lofts. This livable, walkable neighborhood encompasses sprawling Atwater Market, a vibrant city market where local meets luscious. Food is a great way to explore the diversity of any city, and Atwater packs enough fragrance, flavor and color to fuel Montréal’s best chefs. Thanks again, Andrés — Grinder is the hippest “find” yet. www.marchespublics-mtl.com/en/marches/atwater-market
—Story and photos by Elizabeth “Libby” Margolis-Pineo, RFT Contributor