Like many of the cities I visit three meals a day was not going to cut it to truly experiencing the best of Montreal’s culinary offerings – as a matter of fact, considering we were only in town for 3.5 days I rather doubt that ten stops a day would have covered half of the spots I’d heard good things about – but that didn’t stop us from trying as we eventually managed daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus thirteen spots for caffeine, sweets, carbs, and even in a couple of cases proteins and meats.
Beginning first with le cafe, something the French Canadians certainly do better than the French French, Toi Moi et Cafe would start the visit off right as we arrived from Ottawa low on caffeine but with big plans for the day. A small cafe near to our lunch destination of La Chronique I entered TmeC with modest expectations only to be greeted by a wall of coffees and teas plus pastries, sandwiches, and soups made to order. Decidedly Francophone in dialect I approached the coffee counter with a bit of trepidation only to find ordering simple as they had one of my favorite beans on roast – a rich Ethiopian Harrar full or deep earthy notes and sweet cocoa tones for $2 that would lead to me returning two days later to pick up two pounds for the ride home.
Another day and another stop would lead us to Brulerie St. Denis where I found not only great service and Free Wi-Fi but also two great roasts, the first a fruity and aromatic Ethiopie Yirrgacheffe that I tasted as drip in store and subsequently purchased for French Press brewing at home – a substantial step up that highlighted the coffee’s rich mouthfeel and assertive caramel notes that came through on the finish.
Moving next to something I’d not seen stateside in quite some time, my second pick from Brulerie was 60 grams of Jamaique Blue Mountain in a vapor sealed bag for $10. Certainly the most pricey coffee I’ve ever purchased in whole bean form and saved for home, first via Chemex and then via French Press I will admit that the flavor was sublime – a truly complete roast with surprising sweetness, low acidity, and aromatics that bordered of floral when made via pour over and allowed to bloom a bit but even better when pressed – a nearly creamy taste on the palate that I’d place in the top two or three cups of coffee I’ve ever brewed at home (though perhaps not the best despite being the most expensive.) Certainly not an everyday indulgence, I do think every coffee fan with the means should definitely try a cup at least once even if only to know the standard by which others can and should be judged.
For the final coffee-specific stop in Montreal, Myriade Coffee was on my list and featuring the most English friendly crowd and servers of the group (likely due to its hip/young clientele just steps from the Concordia College campus) I found the space to be quite familiar both in selection and in style. A small space on the interior with an exterior densely populated by kids who’d not look out of place in Williamsburg or Bushwick, Myriade manages to fit a lot of coffee and technique into a small space and with roasters and purveyors including 49th Parallel Vancouver, Heart of Portland, Squar Mile London, and Ritual San Francisco all on hand along with drip, press, pourover, and Toddy the options are – well – myriad.
Spending a few minutes checking out the whole beans and watching the baristas work, I inevitably settled on the only roaster I’d not experienced – Square Mile – and ordered a pourover of Rwanda Musashi, a coffee I’d never heard of (let alone tasted) that proved to be rich and balanced, slightly fruity but not at all acidic, and light with a lingering sweetness. Noting here that this single cup was more expensive than both my beverage at Toi Moi et Café and Brulerie St. Denis while, to my mouth not as good as the former and only slightly improved to the later I certainly understand the appeal of Myriade to locals as it represents some exotic choices, but as a visitor I’d rather experience beans roasted locally than a selection culled from other cities at a higher price.
Moving next to the only thing I like nearly as much as coffee, a pastry tour of Montreal was requisite and although not as elaborate, indulgent, or delicious as our visit to Paris it turned out quite well, beginning first with Boulangerie Kouign Amann, a small space on Ave Du Mont-Royal Est where a small wood and tile store is turning out some of the best rustic breads and pastries in Montreal.
Named after the famous Breton butter pastry, Boulangerie Kouign Amann looks as though it could be as old as many of the pastry stores in Paris and with chipped signage in red and yellow you’d barely notice it unless you were looking – though judging from my ten minute visit the locals certainly know it is there. Manned by two bakers and a young woman serving as the hostess and cashier it was not long after I entered that I was asking in French, then in fluent English if I knew what I wanted and deferring to allow others to proceed I browsed the options largely to wait for a the last slice of the restaurant’s namesake to be packed up so a new, fresh one would be procured from the wire racks; at that point I stepped forward and placed my order for the two items I’d come for plus a third selection at the young woman’s suggestion.
With each item packed in brown paper and a modest tab of two toonies and a loonie paid I stepped into the street to enjoy my items and beginning first with the item suggested by the server I nearly went back inside to buy more as the Raspberry Custard Danish would prove to be the best Danish I’ve ever had – a flaky butter pastry stuffed with rich vanilla custard at its center plus a half-dozen ruby colored berries and a dusting of powdered sugar. Soft and dense but with a light crackle along the edges plus soft hints of butter and cream melding with the slightly tart raspberries – it was remarkable to put it lightly.
Moving next to my selections, well, when an outstanding almond croissant isn’t the best pastry of the day you know you ordered right. Beginning first with the croissant, a double-baked beauty loaded with sliced toasted almonds and a light dusting of powdered sugar, it was perhaps the messiest version of the pastry I’ve ever tasted as it shattered with each bite releasing crumbs, almonds, and sugar in plethora. With a soft center rife with butter and only a kiss of frangipane it was divine – I almost went back for another.
For the final bite – the signature Kouign Amann, but this time different from those I’d experienced prior as the large butter pastry was actually a cheese-like wheel subsequently cut into slices with a crackling caramelized top and bottom surrounding what essentially tasted like butter and sugar suspended in air. Light and perfect, texturally complex, and still warm – if you live within a roadtrip of Montreal this is reason enough to go (amongst so many others.)
Another day, another bakery, but this time somewhat less successful than Kouign Amann would be Le Fromentier. Having visited the day prior only to find them out of everything but a few loaves of bread plus various sandwich fixings and charcuterie we returned early morning a few days later to find a larger selection with some interesting pies and tartes plus two croissants I had to try, one almond and one maple…of course bearing in mind the large market style layout of Le Fromentier ordering these two pastries was easier said than done since the bakers were at work and the cashier had apparently ‘stepped out for a moment,’ but after a short wait my items were bagged and ready to go.
Having spent time browsing the sandwiches, charcuterie, foie gras, and unique beverages at Le Fromentier I was excited to try the baked goods and with each item shaped more like a traditional butter croissant than like an almond or filled croissant the texture too was unexpected as the almond seemed the dantier of the two but was actually filled with far too much slightly artificial tasting flavor creating a sticky mouthfeel while the maple was graced with a thin smear of cream both inside and out creating a sort of ‘frosted’ butter croissant. With the exterior crackling and the interior of each appropriately buttery with good separation between the layers I think it is simply a case of personal preference that the texture was a little too wet for me, even if the maple cream version was quite subtle and pleasant. I wager a simple butter croissant would have been quite good, particularly if it were warm – perhaps even with a bit of maple cream on the side as opposed to being added and allowed to sit.
Continuing a theme of French Pastries, but in a more modern light, our visit to Olivier Potier was similar to that at Le Fromentier in that our first visit, around 9:00am, found them with only breakfast pastries while a visit later in the day around 6:00pm found them entirely sold out of most of the dessert pastries aside from a few macarons – it was almost enough to make us give up, but a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts directly across the street would prove the adage of the ‘third time’s a charm’ as we entered the semi-subterranean space to find a full array of options from the former Laduree (and so many other places) patissier.
A small space, heavy on wood and brick, with pastries and breads up front plus a small seating area and café in back, the service at OP was impressive from the moment I walked in and with the young woman waiting patiently as I weighed my options she offered her advice to another gentleman who seemed confused as to what pate de fruits actually are before returning to gather my order, bag/box them elegantly, and wish me an au revoir as I made short work of the packaging.
Starting first with a selection of three macaron in the standard flavors of pistachio, caramel, and the more exotic pear my first taste of Potier’s wares was not favorable – the salted caramel macaron was far too gummy, almost as though it had been wet or refrigerated and then thawed, but from there things improved substantially as both the pistachio and pear crackled on bite giving way to a smooth filling with intense flavors, the pear every bit as flavorful as the real thing and one of the better macarons I’ve had in North America.
Moving next to two more esoteric takes on French classics, Potier shows a deft hand with his use of choux in both the Litchi and Raspberry St. Honore as well as the Praline, Almond, Hazelnut Paris Brest. Dubbed by my mother as one of her happiest memories of the whole trip through Canada the St. Honore was truly a breathtaking dessert with the dough perhaps a millimeter of crunch followed by an airy interior piped with citrus and cream subsequently topped with an airy mousse of berries plus a slightly sticky glaze – “refreshing” is not generally how I’d describe a St. Honore, but it was quite appropriate here. Moving next to the Brest – one of my favorite pastries, it was certainly not ‘light’ or ‘refreshing’ but the choux again was miraculous, this time with a light sugar glaze, while the interior of the lower shell was stuffed with light almond cream and the top decorated with a swirl of more dense hazelnut mousse. All things being equal, aside from one aberration in the caramel macaron, I’d say Monsieur Potier’s time in Paris was well spent and Montreal is lucky to have him.
For the final French Patisserie a bit of a mix between modern and rustic would meet us at Patisserie Rhubarbe, a small space with odd hours on a tiny side street – a place you’d miss if you were not looking for it, no doubt. Owned and operated by pastry chef Stephanie Labelle, a former student of Herme at his Paris flagship the newish space was reportedly quaint according to my friend who recommended it, while the pastries were apparently quite the opposite.
Closed Mondays (when we were just down the street at Fromentier) and opening at 11:00am on Tuesday we entered the shop just as they opened and with Labelle and her team just filling the racks our selection was quite limited for a moment so we sat down and browsed the cute space full of knick knacks before the daily display was available and after browsing, chatting with the chef, and weighing or options we each chose an entement while my mother opted for a quartet of macarons before we returned to the car, eating as we walked.
Beginning first with the less interesting items, a simple carrot cake was presented as a tall cylinder topped with the lightest cream cheese frosting yet to touch my lips and rife with both carrots and pineapples plus a touch of nuts it was toothsome and quite nice. Equally nice, a small bar of lemon meringue tarte was the epitome of smoothness with the light meringue and dense lemon forming a lovely mouthfeel atop a crisp butter crust. Citrus based and thus appealing to my mother, the most interesting aspect of this dish to me was the addition of candied lemon peel and a touch of mint, both subtle but present and giving the dish a sort of freshness that I hadn’t expected.
Moving next to the Macarons, only two flavors were available so early in the morning at Rhubarbe and with one lemon and the other maple chocolate walnut it was easy to know who would rave what, though admittedly both were quite good as the crisp cookies gave way to intense fillings, the first nicely sweetened to balance the sour and the second a dense ganache that actually helped to temper the maple rich exterior…or at least seemingly maple-rich until we tasted our last option – a Maple Religeuse with dense impeccable choux stuffed to bursting with rich maple custard and topped with lightly toasted maple sugar plus a crown of impossibly light whipped cream. One part crunch, one part cream, and over the top sweet this certainly wasn’t a pastry for everyone, but for me it was a perfect marriage of traditional French technique and Montreal’s most famous ingredient…a must taste to anyone visiting the city who loves both.
Moving from ‘French’ to more of the North American vibe (but still with Canadian touches) the first of our next three sweet shops to visit would be Les Glaceurs, and although some will claim the trend is played out I still love the concept of individual sized desserts that allow me to sample a variety of flavors and therefore while it may seem outside my ‘gourmet’ tastes that means I still love a well made cupcake.
Apparently a small chain centered in Montreal, Les Glaceurs had originally been left off my agenda as we had planned to get ice cream at Bilboquet, but when the shop was inexplicably closed and we found ourselves faced with cupcakes AND ice cream as an alternative we figured ‘why not’ – a surprisingly good decision that eventually led to us ordering three great cake including the standardizing Red Velvet, Salted Caramel, and the monthly special Tire d’Erable.
Priced at $3.00-3.50 each and perhaps only 3-4 bites per cupcake expectations were high for the quality of these tiny treats and beginning first with the Red Velvet we were adequately impressed (aside from the red hot on top.) As the only un-filled option of the three the cake to cream ratio was spot on with the former dense and cocoa laden while the later was light and smooth with a bit of added sugar on the outside for texture. Moving next to the filled options, Salted caramel was an equally well constructed cake with a light vanilla batter topped with rich buttercream frosting and a drizzle of caramel, but what set it apart was what was inside – a liquid caramel center rife with sea salt plus a light dusting of fleur de sel on top.
Moving last to the Tire d’Erable, an obvious choice given the season, our location, and my predilection to anything Maple – it was probably the best cupcake I’ve had in 2012. Beginning first with the same dense vanilla base as the Salted Caramel but this time swirled with maple in the batter and then replacing the buttercream ice cream with one of whipped maple butter before adding caramelized maple syrup and maple candied walnuts this was a flat out embarrassment of sweetness that pined for a glass of milk or coffee while also wishing I’d have ordered another – or picked up a few for breakfast the next day.
Having missed the ice cream at Bilboquet and deciding on cupcakes over frozen treats at Les Glaceurs an impromptu frozen yogurt stop at Yeh! would interrupt our travels midday on a particularly warm afternoon. With my family still feeling the effects of a hefty lunch and myself simply wanting to see how this Fro-Yo stacked up to some of the better options I’ve had in Boston and Los Angeles I made my way into the brightly colored store and grabbing a large bowl proceeded to partition out perhaps an ounce of each option – the total less than $3.00 but plenty for a good sampling.
Noting here that most frozen yogurt has generally failed to wow me in the past my tasting started out with the ‘original’ and with just a touch of sour beneath the sweet this flavor was more of the same – good, but nothing I’d crave…but thankfully the rest would prove much better with a unique array of flavors including Caramel Dipped Apple, Red Velvet, Peanut Butter, Java, and Dark Chocolate all showing off strong flavors and a light texture, the apple and java particularly memorable and although not as much to my fancy as ice cream or gelato a decent enough choice in a city with a veritable dearth of quality frozen goods.
Another short impromptu stop as my mother and aunt sought gifts for friends at home would take us to Les Délices de l’Érable and with myself largely underwhelmed by the selections they found what they were looking for in a variety of maple candies and confections – the candies largely maple sugar shaped like maple leaves and the rest of the items largely forgettable save for a Maple Sable that was so bland and poorly made that it stuck out like a sore thumb for its mediocrity and stick of frozen maple sugar that was actually quite good – a sort of “Sugar Daddy” meets popsicle of maple syrup. All things being equal this is a spot to grab souvenirs for friends and maybe a bottle of maple syrup you could get cheaper elsewhere while wandering Old Montreal but it is certainly not a destination or must visit in a city with so much better to offer.
Transitioning from sweet to savory the last three spots to visit on our snacking list were all placed I was told were “MUST” visits in Montreal and although none of them were the sorts I places I generally seek out I figured the cultural significance of each justified the time, cost, and calories.
Starting things off with smoked meat, a dish that appears to be amongst the most famous in the city, a requisite stop at Schwartz’s served a double purpose in that I could see what the place was all about and have a bite of the sandwich to appease my curiosity while my mother and aunt could order dinner to go since I was to dine solo at Europea that evening – a good plan, I thought, and a plan well met when we arrived to find no line.
Founded in 1928 and proudly displaying both this fact and their myriad awards throughout the premises much like Katz’s in New York the space at Schwarz’s was small at cramped at the entryway but with ample seating in back and almost immediately on entering we were greeted in verbose French by the man at the counter who quickly transitioned to English when he registered our blank looks. With the menu larger than anticipated but the object of our desire displayed prominently the order was placed and asking if we preferred “fatty” or “medium” I suggested he give us whatever was better and he said “medium” before turning to a younger man who prepped and wrapped the sandwich, grabbed a can of Canada Dry, and bagged it for us to pay another young man at the door – the whole interaction took perhaps five minutes before we emerged on the street.
Moving on to the sandwich – three quarters of a pound at least, if I were to guess – I have a little bit of trouble describing exactly what I ate because I really have no reference standard, but with a touch of mustard largely avoided and sampling both the brisket on its own and with the rye bread I have to say it was actually quite good – a supple mouth feel with big notes of smoke complimented by what I believe was mostly peppercorn and coriander plus a slight sweetness that worked nicely with the rye. While certainly not something I’d crave on a daily basis definitely a worthy place to check out – particularly as the remaining sandwich and a few bagels from down the street served a more than ample dinner costing less than $10 for my mother and aunt.
Having already mentioned the bagels our next stop was obviously St. Viateur and much like Schwartz’s my question walking in the door was how something so simple could garner so much press…I mean, sure I did not grown up in a bagel town like New York and my sample size is rather low but honestly I’d never had a bagel that made me say ‘wow.’
Set on a the road for which it is named St. Viateur is actually more than one store and with some locations opened 24/7 while others hold more traditional hours it took a bit of finagling the GPS to sort out which was which before we arrived at the small shop and walking through the doors I realized right away that part of what made the space was the experience – three men standing around a wood fired oven and large vats of water hand rolling the bagels, boiling them, and loading/unloading them from the flames. Friendly but busy one of the men broke away from his work to take our order and after a moment weighing the options I decided to make it easy – half a dozen (2 of each flavor) plus a block of cream cheese – and settling the modest tab made my way to the street as there is no place to sit at St. Viateur.
With the bag toasty warm in my hand and the smell of dough and yeast still fresh in my nares it would not be long after emerging to the streets before we opened up the bag and with my mother and aunt preferring a schmear (Philadelphia Cream Cheese – nothing special) I went with my tastes plain and tasting each in succession I was adequately impressed by the slight crunch of the exterior giving way to a supple chew within, but still not ‘wowed.’ Semi-sweet and certainly different from any other bagel I’ve tasted before or since I particularly enjoyed the Sesame Seed option while the Poppy Seed and Plain were equally well textured but not as interestingly flavored. Certainly understanding the simple bagel’s cultural importance and the fact that St. Viateur seems to be everything right what I’ll take away most from my visit was the experience of watching the bakers at work – in the end it just seems I’m not a bagel guy, no matter how good.
For our last stop in Montreal, both in this long-winding post and literally, I couldn’t leave the city without trying the poutine and although we’d just eaten a filling breakfast at L’Avenue we made our way to La Banquise – what better than cheese curds, fresh frites, and gravy at 9am…or any time, 24/364?
While many in The States may not even be aware of what poutine is, the staple Montreal comfort food has apparently been around since the 1950’s and featured prominently on most menus in the city in one way or another ($2 at Burger King, or $23 at APdC) I was told by no less than 5 people that La Banquise was where to get it – in one of no less than 30 varieties. A seemingly small place from the outside but much larger within I found the restaurant without difficulty and entering the doors was greeted by a small line as the open prep kitchen stood to the right with seating on the left. Given a few moments to make my selection from a menu on the wall or laminate version for dining in I was greeted in English and after placing the order plus a few minutes preparation time I emerged to the street with a Styrofoam clamshell of Poutine Classique.
Clocking in at $6.25 for what seemed to be about 6 pounds of food my first bite of the poutine more or less confirmed my thoughts about what good, classic gravy, fries, and cheese would taste like and while not as upscaled or refined other versions I’d tried in the past the words “comfort food” rang through with aplomb. Rich, starchy, salty, and at times crisp while at others silky the gravy was simple yet perfectly seasoned with plenty savory and a touch of sweet while the cheese curds were presented squeaky fresh yet slightly melted from the heat of the crisp, yet somewhat oily fries. A food no less comforting than mac n’ cheese or spaghetti and meatballs this was one Montreal icon I could definitely embrace and with 30 options I’d gladly return on future visits…perhaps for a “real” breakfast, as they serve that (with a side dish of poutine) as well.