With so much pastry, fine dining, and Canadian comfort food to be sampled on our brief visit to Montreal ‘breakfasts’ as a proper sit-down entity were still not to be overlooked (much to my family’s dismay and with a schedule heavy on museums, churches, and hockey along with the food mornings would be early – and thankfully so would be the opening times of each of the three breakfast spots we decided to try.
Beginning first with perhaps the most oft raved breakfast in the city we almost ended up taking a pass on Olive + Gourmando because the traffic and parking on the tight streets of the busy business district is nothing short of a nightmare during the morning rush – but thankfully, as fate would have it a spot opened up on our third trip around the block and with streets uneven and crowd bustling we made our way into the small store and restaurant only a few minutes later than anticipated.
Owned and operated by Dyan Solomon and Eric Girard Olive + Gourmando reminds one much of Panera as you walk in – a few dry goods and baked items up front along with the local paper plus a busy kitchen in back, but with communal tables consistently packed as people vie for space and the air rife with notes of coffee, butter, and vanilla there is clearly more than “quick casual” at play – specifically the use of all natural, organic, and high quality local ingredients in each of the restaurant’s creations; items I was left to select for the group as my mother and aunt attempted (successfully) to procure seating.
Utilizing both the pastry counter, kitchen, and servers to facilitate service the modus operandi at O+G is to order at the pastry counter, find a seat, and wait for the items to arrive – a successful approach even despite my over-ordering that led to an impressive pile of food arriving perhaps 10 minutes later – each item warmed or hot and from the coffee to the sandwich to each of our four baked goods everything looked fantastic despite the simple style of preparation on brown paper in wooden baskets.
Beginning first with the coffee – mostly espresso but also offering an Americano I eschewed my traditional ordering and went with a double based on the recommendation of the barista that the beans taste best without the added water and with the roast very low in acidity I had to agree, particularly given the smoky top notes and mellow caramel tones underneath – no sugar was added and none was needed.
Moving next to the pastries, a quartet was selected and attempting to make selections that would appease all I ran the gamut of flavors from fruit to chocolate and light to heavy beginning first with two spirals of brioche; one Raspberry Cheesecake, the other Valrhona Chocolate, and both exemplary. Beginning first with the eggy bread – crisp on the shell with a wispy and rich pull-apart within and lightly kissed with an egg wash before its trip to the oven both curls were rife with their respective ingredients and as much as I love Valrhona dark it was the cheesecake that impressed most – a rich balance of the cream cheese’s smoothness with sweet pureed raspberries complete with seeds.
Moving on to the measuring stick, an oblong almond croissant, I found myself somewhat less impressed than I had expected largely due to the texture produced by such a tightly wound crumb. Certainly tinged with almond and packed with butter this simply was not the texture I would expect for a croissant – more like a breadstick in its lack of an air-pocketed leavened crumb. Good, but not on par with the rest of the choices, including the Chausson Aux Pommes sharing its basket. Translated literally as ‘slipper of apples’ it would be hard for me to find something more comforting than this hand-pie and no matter what language the crispy golden shell and dense core of pan cooked cinnamon apples was lovely – the only thing that would have made it better was ice, or perhaps whipped, cream.
For our final choice, the only kitchen item that screamed ‘must order’ we received the “Poached Egg on Your Face Sandwich” – a pressed panini made with house ciabatta filled with sauteed onions, a thick curl of aged Comte, confit tomatoes, griddled speck, and ‘cooked egg salad.’ Hitting on pretty much all of the savory notes with the caramelized onions and bright tomatoes acting to cut the fat just a bit the most intriguing aspect of this dish to me was the ‘salad’ – a texture somewhere between rough chopped hardboiled eggs and a lightly poached egg but very interesting on the tongue. A great meal from first sip to last bite with only a slightly disappointing almond croissant to mar the experience I definitely understand the hype around Olive + Gourmando and compared to our other Montreal Breakfasts it is the only one to which I’d return.
For a second breakfast stop, my mother decided to sleep in (conserve capacity) while my aunt and I trekked to Beauty’s, the 1942 bruncheonette on the corner of Mont Royal West and St. Urbain. Perhaps not as famous as St. Viateur or Schwartz’s, fans and the local media still place the small diner on the same “Best of” and “Iconic” lists and unlike the former, original owner Hymie Sckolnick is still involved as he approaches his tenth decade of life.
With an opening hour of 7am, and after a near-ticket with a local police officer targeting people for taking left-turns on a nearby street we arrived at Beauty’s perhaps fifteen minutes after opening and after looking at the myriad articles posted in the small entry way entered to find only a few locals sitting at the bar. Greeted promptly by one of three servers we were led to a booth where menus were provided, coffee was ordered, and we were left to make our choices from a number of deli classics and a few Montreal specialties such as the “Mish-Mash.”
Sitting and browsing the menu as well as the space, Beauty’s is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an old-school Jewish diner – kosher meats, a small selection of baked goods, and breakfast staples like pancakes, challah French toast, bagels, cream cheese, and lox in a room full of small booths and a long counter where short-order cooks quickly and quietly put together breakfast plates while chatting with the clientele while friendly waitresses performed their duties expediently.
Orders placed and by now working on my second cup of thin but well flavored ‘joe as my aunt sipped on a large glass of fresh squeezed orange juice it would not be long before our first item arrived – a small order of house made “Pouding Au Riz” for $4 plus a 40ml serving of pure maple syrup for $2.50. Realizing, of course, that profit margins at a place like Beauty’s are not that high and setting aside my general distaste for paying extra for a condiment I will say that the rice pudding itself was unremarkable in most ways – a bit too thick, a bit too congealed, and not enough of the golden raisins to balance the lack of vanilla or sweetness. Adding a bit of the syrup helped, but I also had to conserve for my main course.
Moving next to the aforementioned mains, pancakes for my aunt and French Toast for myself – specifically Apple Cinnamon pancakes and Challah French toast and the former once again proving the point that my aunt simply cannot and should not ever order pancakes as each disc was pleasantly golden but far too dense and largely lacking any semblance of apple or cinnamon flavor aside from the few small chunks of apples mixed into the batter. Not one to fancy syrup but instead opting for powdered sugar or sugar on her cakes I think my aunt had anticipated cooked apples served overtop but instead was left high and (quite literally) dry for $7.50.
For my part, particularly with the addition of the overpriced syrup (which they did not even provide me in the special “Beauty’s” glass bottle,) I have to admit that the $7.50 Challah French Toast was the star of the morning with the dense eggy bread nicely saturated with vanilla tinged custard and seared to a golden tan. Slightly crisp on the exterior and just a bit ‘wet’ in the middle there was nothing fancy about the toast – just a good rendition of a classic making me wonder if perhaps Beauty’s is the sort of place where one should just stick to the script and order eggs and bacon…an answer I’ll probably never know as I’d be very hard pressed to return.
For our final breakfast – and perhaps the biggest curveball of the trip to Montreal – we settled on L’Avenue even though I’d heard very mixed things; some claiming that its only appeal was that locals found it to be kitschy and “American” while others claimed it was worth the often interminable waits, lousy service, and French-only menus as the restaurant served the best breakfasts in town. No stranger to early arrivals for great food but not particularly sold on the Eggs Benny-centric menu (apparently not as ubiquitous in Montreal as in the United States) we waxed and waned on L’Avenue until the last minute and in the end, after a very late night at APdC we decided “why not?” and arrived thirty minutes after they opened the doors.
A hip restaurant – long and narrow with reclaimed wood and spray-painted exposed brick plus vinyl, motorcycles, and oddly positioned manikins the dominant features aside from a long bar and partially open kitchen – our arrival at L’Avenue would be met by a largely open dining room with perhaps only three tables already seated and greeted at the door by a young woman who’s English was only slightly worse than my French we were led quickly to a table near the front where Vinyl-album style menus (French only) were provided and drink orders were placed – deux café et une lait – the former acrid, luke warm, and rarely refilled while the later was first delivered as café au lait and later completely forgotten until the server was reminded…not a good start.
Seated and listening to the music overhead as I translated the menu for my mother and aunt it would be some time before our server returned and after the drink order we set to simply pointing out our options on the menu to be sure all went well – a successful strategy as it would turn out, though it would take twenty minutes before she returned to inform me that the poutine I’d selected could not be ordered until after 10am and another fifteen minutes thereafter before our plates would arrive along with an unexpected $1.50 side of bacon that no one knowingly ordered (and was subsequently removed from our bill after speaking with an older woman who explained to us that our server was ‘new’.)
Moving on to the reason we’d originally selected L’Avenue, namely the food, the humor of the previous day’s fail extended on when my aunt’s mixed fruit pancakes turned out even worse than those at Beauty’s and although the Blueberries, Strawberries, and Banana all proved fresh and tasty the cakes themselves were not only doughy but shockingly dry to the point of nearly being inedible. Again refusing to utilize any maple syrup (I’m rather certain a blend rather than being pure) despite the fact that these ‘cakes were clearly in need all we could do was laugh – another fail from the only person I know to have ordered dry pancakes at Hollywood’s Griddle Café this disaster simply seemed appropriate.
Moving on to the bigger and better things, my mother’s selection of Caramel Banana Crepes served with a fruit skewer would prove to be a good choice while also surprisingly light as the dainty crepe was doubled over and folded around raw bananas lightly tinged with warm salty caramel. Again paired with an accompaniment of high quality fruit despite the later winter/early spring I particularly enjoyed the toothsome whole wheat texture of the crepes, though I think we’d have all preferred the bananas to at least be warmed.
For my selection, without doubt the most decadent of the group, Chocolate, Caramelized Pear, and Maple Caramel Pancakes would arrive with the same lackluster texture of my aunt’s selection but with an ample layer of Belcolade bittersweet chocolate disks, sautéed pears, and a half-cup of buttery pear jus mixed with maple syrup and salty caramel over top there was no semblance of ‘dry’ on this plate, just a whole lot of richness and a distinct lack of subtlety where a little went a long way; the best item of a nearly $45 breakfast after tax and tip where the only real ‘highlight’ was the bathroom – a really cool bathroom – but not a bathroom warranting a $15/pp admission price.