The greatest heartbreak of my life was not for a person but a place. My husband Allan and I were fortunate to live in Montreal from 1990 to ’97. We fell completely in love with the city and its people, food, and vibrant culture. However, by the time Allan finished law school and we were struggling to find steady work, it became clear we’d have to leave. With heavy hearts, we packed our bags and headed down highway 401 to Toronto to start a new life. However, we still try to get back to visit whenever we can, as was the case this past weekend.
Autumn is a wonderful time in Canada and Montreal is especially beautiful. The city is compact enough that you can easily explore the downtown core by foot. With unique shops, great people watching and an abundance of restaurants and bars, putting on your walking shoes and wandering around is a great way to spend the day.
The first place we headed on Friday afternoon was to Boulevard St. Laurent (‘The Main’), a street that divides the city into east and west. There are countless shops and restaurants along the street but we had one destination in mind: Schwartz’s for smoked meat. Schwartz’s is a Montreal institution – founded in 1928, they serve fantastic smoked meat sandwiches and other deli staples. However, almost everyone goes for the smoked meat. Despite the late-afternoon hour, the small deli was packed with happy diners enjoying their sandwiches. We each ordered a smoked meat sandwich with medium fat (don’t order lean – you need some fat for flavour!), a plate of fries, a pickle and a couple of black cherry colas. The sandwiches are piled high with freshly sliced smoked meat and the bread is impeccably fresh. There are places in other parts of Canada that claim to carry authentic ‘Montreal Smoked Meat’ but none I’ve been to compare to Schwartz’s (and don’t even get me started about Subway’s ‘smoked meat’ subs!). If you go to Schwartz’s during peak time, prepare to stand in line but if you like smoked meat, I guarantee it will be worth it.
After our feast, we decided it was a good idea to get some exercise so we walked down to Old Montreal. When we lived there in the 90′s, Old Montreal was more of a tourist destination, full of tacky souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants. However, in the past decade the area has undergone a bit of a renaissance and there are now funky boutique hotels, wine bars, art galleries and popular restos. After exploring a few shops, we stopped for a glass of wine at VersesBar in the Hotel Nelligan, a charming boutique hotel in the heart of the old city. The bar was also offering cheeses and baguette slices for patrons but we were too full of smoked meat to even consider it!
We returned to our hotel, Le Germain, to get ready for dinner. Le Germain is part of a small group of boutique-style hotels. Housed in a former office building, the exterior facade is nothing to write home about but the interior is modern and stylish and the rooms are comfortable and spacious. It’s centrally located on Mansfield Street, just off Sherbrooke Street so it’s an ideal launching point for exploring the city.
Our friends Steve and Lindsay invited us to stop by their house for pre-dinner drinks so after a short rest at the hotel, we headed out again. We were greeted by a platter of Canadian cheeses including La Sauvagine, a soft Quebec cheese that is buttery and rich and Avonlea, a cloth-bound cheddar from PEI. Accompanied by some wine, olives, Spanish hams and good company, it was the perfect start to the evening.
Despite the temptations, I was careful not to eat too much ham and cheese so I’d be ready for our dinner at Joe Beef. Located in the Petite Bourgogne (Little Burgundy) neighbourhood, Joe Beef is a casual resto that is intimate and comfortable. The menu is listed on a large chalkboard and changes regularly, depending on what is seasonal and available. I started with a locally made burrata, a cheese I’d been wanting to try for some time. Burrata is a fresh Italian-style mozzarella that is filled with cream. It’s rich and decadent but highly perishable so it must be consumed within a couple of days. As a result, it can be very difficult to find. A handful of places import burrata from Italy (and charge premium prices for it), but luckily some North American cheese makers have started making it as well, notably in Ontario, Quebec and California. My burrata was accompanied by a delicious mix of french green beans, lentils, pickled shallots, cured ham and a light vinaigrette. Divine! Allan ordered the oysters, a specialty of the restaurant. They were from Glacier Bay, N.B. and were sweet and briny.
Our mains arrived shortly after. I got the smoked pork with stewed peppers while Allan went with the duck. The pork was moist, which was a welcome departure from dried out, fat-free pork that is all too common these days. Allan enjoyed his duck dish and the portion was very generous. For sides, we sampled their frites with mayonnaise and some mixed vegetables. The vegetables were a highlight of the meal: buttery white beans with garlic, a bit of tomato and sauteed red swiss chard. We were getting pretty full by this point but after a short pause, we were able to share a bit of dessert. Pannacotta with stewed figs was delicious and we finished with espressos. Our server, Vanya, was excellent: knowledgeable, friendly and attentive, she really made our dinner special. A huge thanks to Steve for his part in making our experience so wonderful.
The next morning, we headed to Jean Talon Market. We took the métro, getting off at Jean Talon station and walking over to the market area. Even though it’s late in the season, there were still a lot of produce stalls artfully displaying the best of the season. Piles of leeks, carrots in a variety of colours, multi-coloured cauliflower, various types of cabbage and fresh-picked apples were just some of what was on offer. I found the produce very inspirational and came up with a lot of new recipe ideas to try in the near future. There are also some great shops at the market, including butchers carrying Quebec products, an artisinal ice cream maker, a cookbook store, an olive oil shop and a fishmonger.
Our market visit whet our appetites so it was time to find some lunch. We discovered a little Italian place next door to the market called Vinizza, which bills itself as an enoteca and pizzeria. It was quite busy so we decided to give it a try. The menu is basic Italian, featuring pizzas cooked in a wood burning oven. We split an appetizer of rapini with sausage and garlic accompanied by a glass of chianti. For our mains, Allan chose the handmade tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms while I opted for a pizza. While none of it was groundbreaking, it was well-executed and a great way to cap off our trip to the market. We walked off our lunch by strolling down St. Laurent Boulevard, through Little Italy. We stopped at our friends’ Lloyd and Kim’s apartment along the way for a drink and a fabulous view of Mount Royal and downtown.
We opted for a late dinner Saturday night because we had tickets to a hockey game. If you’re a Montreal Canadiens fan, there is no better place to watch a game than the Bell Centre. We had great seats and the game proved to be an exciting one. The Habs won 4-1 over Phoenix so the crowd left happy. Many thanks to Dan in NY for arranging the tickets.
By the time the game was finished, we had worked up an appetite again so we headed to dinner. Montreal has no shortage of late-night dining options that stay lively past midnight. We chose Holder, a bustling brasserie in Old Montreal that serves French classics. I started with a simple salad with shaved parmesan, pine nuts and greens while Allan went with the slightly heartier option of foie gras served with gingerbread and cranberry. Both were delicious. For my main dish, I had the braised beef cheek in a bourgogne-style sauce and Allan had spaghetti a vongole, a favourite of his. We finished our last meal in Montreal with a glass of iced cider produced in the nearby Eastern Townships by a company called La Face Cachée de la Pomme (The Hidden Face of the Apple). It’s produced from the fermented juice of pressed frozen apples, resulting in a sweet, concentrated cider. It was the perfect ending to an excellent weekend.
Whether we will ever live in Montreal again remains to be seen but at least it’s close enough to Toronto that we can visit often and dream about returning. Until then,
À bientôt et bon appétit!