MONTREAL, CANADA — Bundled up tightly in a trench coat, boots, gloves, scarf and a wooly hat, I have left the still sunny Northern California climate to make my way around Canada’s second largest city in the chill of early November.
I am joined by eight other food writers from around the globe, all of us hosted on this trip by Tourisme Montreal.
Our mission? To eat, drink and get to know Montreal’s vibrant food scene.
Naturally, we are more than up to the task.
I should have realized just how serious Montrealers take eating when I disembarked the plane at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and went through Canadian customs. When the agent realized I was a food writer visiting his country for the main purpose of eating, he asked to see my itinerary, then proceeded to point out which restaurants on the list he had visited and which he particularly liked. If that isn’t an auspicious beginning to a trip, I don’t know what is.
Later, one of our guides would describe Montreal as being shaped like a chocolate croissant. You have to love a city that’s so food-centric. And so artsy that it boasts different styles of street lamps in each neighborhood. Plus, so civilized that on May 21, the government actually gives a free box of fresh blooms to every household to decorate their balcony or front doorway with to celebrate the end of winter.
Despite the brisk temperature, light rain and even morning dusting of snow, early November can be a great time to visit this cosmopolitan city, where French is the official language, but most everyone speaks English, too. That’s particularly true because of ”Taste MTL,” Montreal’s version of “Restaurant Week,” in which participating restaurants offer a special prix fixe dinner for 11 nights priced at $19, $29 or $39 (Canadian). Organized by Tourisme Montreal, this marked the first year of the city’s “Restaurant Week.” It proved so successful, it will return in early November 2013.
If like me, you’ve found other “Restaurant Week” events in other locales to be rather lackluster with more often than not unimaginative menus that hardly tempt, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Montreal’s version. I know I was after trying a couple of the $29 menus. I found them quite the bargain for three courses that were thoughtful, creative and quite generous in size.
The $29 menu here offered two choices each for the appetizer, entree and dessert.
For my first course, I chose the “Gelee de Soupe de Poisson” or “fish soup jelly with garnishes.” I envisioned little, wiggly cubes of translucent jelly made from fish stock. But it turned out to be not what I expected at all. Instead, it was a shallow bowl of a thick, cold fish soup garnished wildly with seafood and bok choy. It was beautiful to behold, but fell short in taste and texture. It was as if you’d taken a pureed soup or sauce, stored it in the refrigerator overnight until it congealed, then served it just like that.
The next two courses made up for that. The pork medallion was quite juicy, its meaty flavor married with dried fruit and creamy, pureed Jerusalem artichokes.
The finale was white chocolate mousse with fresh berries gone glam in a martini glass. The promised hit of absinthe in the mousse was quite faint, so much so that I wished there had been more of the anise-flavored spirit to really announce its presence.
The next night it was on to another $29 “Taste MTL” menu, this one at Au Cinquieme Peche, a dimly lit, convivial bistro in the lively Mont-Royal neighborhood.
With six of us dining together that night, I had a chance to taste both first courses offered. We were all curious about the seal poutine. After all, it’s not every day that you see seal on a menu, not even in Montreal. This version of poutine — the famous Quebecois he-man dish of french fries, cheese curds and gravy — was reborn in a contemporary version with gnocchi instead and the seal fashioned into sausage. The sausage slices were quite tasty, but you couldn’t necessarily distinguish seal in it.
The other first course, a trout salad with endive and apples, was bright and lively, with the trout having been lightly pickled.
My entree was a dynamite roasted salmon with red and yellow beets, almonds and the most amazing puddle of thick orange-marmalade-like sauce I’d ever had. One of my colleagues longed to use it in a tart. I just wanted to lap up every drop.
For dessert, the Gateau Susie arrived as cubes of a brownie-like chocolate cake with cranberry compote. A scoop of fragrant hibiscus sorbet added a lightness to this rich send-off. Even now, I still marvel that meal was all of $29. Unbelievable.
Of course, we did do a fair amount of walking to burn off all those calories. One destination foodies won’t want to miss is the Jean-Talon Market, the largest farmers market in Canada that has been in operation since 1933.
Even in fall-winter, there are plenty of produce purveyors and specialty gourmet kiosks still open to buy cheeses, fresh breads, dried spices, flowers, pastries, tins of foie gras, and bottles of cidre de glace (ice cider made by pressing the juice of frozen apples, akin to ice wine).
You also can check out a replica of an 18th Century kitchen at the Chateau Ramezay. Formerly the stately governor’s mansion that was built in 1705, it is now a history museum.
The kitchen was fun to see, mostly because of the slatted contraption you see at the upper right corner of the fireplace. Can you guess what it is?
It’s a dog wheel. Yes, much like a hamster wheel, families back then would apparently would put their dog in the wheel, and as the canine ran, it would turn the mechanism to operate the spit over the fire. Walking the dog and cooking dinner at the same time. Genius.
Not far from there is the dramatic looking Notre Dame Basilica. The expansive, ornate Gothic Revival-style church was built in 1830. You might recognize it because it was the setting of Celine Dion’s grand wedding.
One of the most interesting sites we explored on this trip was the La Maison du Gouverneur. Originally built in 1885, it was once the mansion where the director of the Montreal prison lived with his family. The home was constructed right on the grounds of the prison. When a new prison was built more inland, the house was vacated, then eventually restored to become the headquarters of SAC, La Societe des Alcohols du Quebec, the alcohol commission.
The former underground prison cells were turned into private wine cellars, which are so coveted that there’s more than a two-year wait to rent one.
Upstairs, the rooms, which have been restored to their original grandeur, can be rented out for private events such as wedding receptions.
The gallery serves as a museum to wine, showcasing the SAC’s unique collection of 50,000 bottles from around Europe and the United States. The oldest one? An 1834 Chateau d’Yquem. Worth millions, it’s safely ensconced behind glass in its own solitary confinement.
Plus: A Visit to Quebec City