Where to stay
Housed in two restored buildings on chic Rue Saint-Paul in Old Montreal, this hotel is named after Quebec’s most famous poet, Emile Nelligan. European elegance meets loft-style living in the design, while a rooftop patio takes in an awesome vista. Doubles from £110. 106 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest, 00 1 514 788 2040, http://www.hotelnelligan.com
Le Petit hôtel
A quiet boutique hotel that blends modern elements with old stone walls and exposed beams. Unlike the rather narrow lobby, most rooms are generously sized. Doubles from £94. 168 Rue Saint- Paul Ouest, 00 1 514 940 0360, http://www.petithotelmontreal....
Le Place d’Armes Hôtel & Suites
Successfully mixing up urban style with some welcome luxury, this 133-room hotel is well positioned for exploring Old Montreal. Doubles from £120. 55 Rue Saint-Jacques Ouest, 00 1 514 842 1887, http://www.hotelplacedarmes.co...
Bag one of the generously sized suites, which come with their own terrace and kitchenette, and enjoy the sunshine between exploring the old town and hanging out in the new. Scoff breakfast in the hotel’s buzzy restaurant, Sinclair. Doubles from £150. 414 Rue Saint-Sulpice, 00 1 514 288 1000, http://www.lesaintsulpice.com
Time in Montreal is five hours behind GMT, and currency is the Canadian dollar. Journey time from the UK is just over seven hours. The weather in May is warm, with average highs of 19°C and average lows of 10°C.
Air Canada operates direct flights from London Heathrow to Montreal daily. http://www.aircanada.com
British Airways also operates frequent flights between London Heathrow and Montreal. http://www.ba.com
Québec original is the official tourist site of the provincial government, and has useful information for planning a trip. http://www.bonjourquebec.com
Tourisme Montreal features practical advice and essential information for making the most of the city. http://www.tourisme-montreal.o...
Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination by Bryan Demchinsky and Elaine Kalman Naves (Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, £13). A fascinating tour of the city as it has been depicted by poets and novelists, classic and contemporary.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Montreal produce 1.44 tonnes of CO2, meaning the cost to offset emissions for this trip via ClimateCare is £10.80. Donations go towards supporting environmental projects around the world, from clean-energy schemes to rainforest restoration. For more information, visit http://www.climatecare.org
Where to eat
Buvette Chez Simone
This neighbourhood gem focuses on natural and biodynamic wines, and takes tapas-style dining to a new level. Think salt cod fritters, duck rillettes, and salmon with mandarin oil. £17. 4869 Avenue du Parc, 00 1 514 750 6577, http://www.buvettechezsimone.c...
Chef Marc-Alexandre Mercier turns out some of the most innovative food in the city at this vegetable-led restaurant in Mile End. £33. 5171 Rue Saint-Laurent, 00 1 514 278 7000, http://www.hotelherman.com
On the site of a legendary 19th-century Montreal tavern, diners enjoy the region’s best produce delivered with style. £39. 2491 Rue Notre- Dame Ouest, 00 1 514 935 6504, http://www.joebeef.ca
Le Vin Papillon
Chef Marc-Olivier Frappier puts the likes of turnip and cauliflower on a pedestal at this natural wine bar from the folks behind Joe Beef. £25. 2519 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, http://www.vinpapillon.com
Artfully distressed decor forms the backdrop to chef Derek Dammann’s interpretation of Canadian comfort food. There’s the odd nod to England too, where he spent time working with Jamie Oliver. £26. 4720 Rue Marquette, 00 1 514 507 0555, http://www.maisonpublique.com
By day, it’s a patisserie (and a good one at that); by night a wine and dessert bar. Weekly pastry classes are led by its chef-owner, TV personality and author Patrice Demers. 2360 Rue Notre- Dame Ouest, 00 1 514 439 5434, http://www.patricepatissier.ca
Renard Artisan Bistro
Chef Jason Nelson is rather under the radar, so go now for his punchy smoked eel rillettes, silken ravioli of veal tongue with fresh morels, and home-made black pudding with braised endive. There are a handful of Quebec wines on the list, too. £25. 330 Avenue du Mont-Royal Est, 00 1 514 508 2728, http://www.renardbistro.ca
Restaurant Au Pied de Cochon
This place almost needs a health warning, but come you must – even if it’s just to sample the poutine and foie gras. And if you can’t stomach the stomach (it’s nose-to-tail eating here), then shuck an oyster at the seafood bar. £28. 536 Avenue Duluth Est, 00 1 514 281 1114, http://www.aupieddecochon.ca
Chef-owner Normand Laprise is a bit of a god around these parts, his influence spreading far and wide. Expect a highly polished plate of food using almost only Quebec produce, letting the ingredients sing on the plate. Tasting menu, £65. 900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, 00 1 514 499 2084, http://www.restaurant-toque.co...
Food and Travel Review
Queues have started to form for Patrice Demers’ kouign amann. A yeasted French pastry from Brittany made with crisp layers of dough, copious amount of butter, and heavy with sugar, it’s traditionally eaten warm with a glass of cider after sunday lunch. But this isn’t Quiberon, this is the canadian state of Quebec. And the Quebecois are rather partial to their kouign amann for breakfast with a latte. To be fair, it’s not just the kouign amann they’ve come for. Demers is a huge star in Montreal, where his bakery is located. His popular TV show, Les Desserts de Patrice, is shown on canal Vie, his books have become bibles for the sugar- obsessed and his patisserie is a pilgrimage for baking enthusiasts, who flock to his three-hour demos (it’s pâte brisée tonight) and scoff his wares in his little Burgundy shop.
And lest you think it’s all about the classics, you can think again. Demers does cutting-edge, too, such as signature dessert ‘The Green’: cubes of green apple, extra virgin olive oil, white chocolate, yoghurt, pistachio, green apple granita and micro coriander. Yes, all on one plate and, yes, delicious. What a way to start what turns out to be an unexpectedly thrilling gastronomic trip. Ask anyone who hasn’t been here before what they know about Montreal’s cuisine and they’ll shrug, ‘Poutine?’ A gunky pile of thick- cut fries, homemade gravy and cheese curds might be Quebec’s staple (and it hits the spot after a night on the booze), but it’s a far cry from the innovation and imagination currently coursing through the veins of Montreal’s top chefs, where the city’s French heritage meets the best of North American dining. Montreal is a serious challenger to New York’s long-held claim on the gastronomic top spot and to journey here from the UK takes roughly the same length of time. Just saying.
Montreal is the largest city of this mostly French-speaking province, and the second largest in canada – 2017 will mark the 375th anniversary of its foundation. Named after Mount Royal, the triple-peaked hill at its heart, it sits on an island beside the mighty Saint Lawrence River. Not that we get to see the water that much – most of the action faces landwards, congregating in vibrant neighbourhoods or in the tourist-thronged, cobbled Old Montreal.
We deliberately avoid the sprawling subterranean shopping malls and 33km of paths that weave beneath the pavements, keeping the city going during the long, bitter winter months. instead, we’re firmly above ground on the sunbaked streets, craning our necks upwards at the imposing 19th-century mansions along Rue Sherbrooke Ouest and pressing our noses against the windows of expensive art galleries on Rue Saint-Paul. But for all its european heritage, Montreal is a modern canadian city with more festivals than there are weeks in the year – not to mention an appetite that needs constant attention. There were more than 6,000 restaurants on Montreal island at the last count, boasting some 80 different cuisines. This is for a population of nearly 1.7 million (3.8 million in the greater Montreal region). And we clock a fair few of its chefs loading up with produce in the two main markets, Atwater and Jean-Talon. if you want to get a sense of a city, hanging out in a market is always a good place to start.
At Jean-Talon Market, we watch a chef in whites picking through a box of fiddlehead ferns. With their green, curly tips, and a taste somewhere between green beans and asparagus, the ferns are most commonly found in the northeast and Great lakes states of the US where they grow in wet, brackish forests. Each spring, when the snow melts, the ferns push their way up through the forest floor uncurling slowly, and it’s at this point they are picked before being sautéed and fried. We also sample sweet, juicy Quebec strawberries, and stock up on maple syrup, choosing the dark one on instruction from the stallholder, who shares a promising recipe for cooked ham in maple syrup using a slow cooker (60ml dark maple syrup, half a bottle of dark beer, ham on the bone, salt and pepper – smother ham with mixture and cook on low for eight hours).
We drop by the Qui Lait Cru Fromagerie and nibble on Gouda-like Old Fritz, followed by a Roquefort-style Bleu d’Élizabeth. ‘it’s getting tougher and tougher to make unpasteurised cheese here in Quebec,’ grumbles the stallholder, handing over a sliver of mushroomy, chalky (unpasteurised) Gré des Champs for us to try, before we cross the road to check out regional wines and produce at Les Marché des Saveurs.
‘There are about 50 wine producers in Quebec, with half of them located around Dunham,’ explains the shop manager. You can even do a wine trail, although the sommeliers we later speak to are less than enthusiastic, moaning that the weather is just too cold and the grape varieties too inferior. There’s a notable absence of Quebec wines on the lists of the city’s top restaurants – and none that we saw on offer by the glass. No, cider is more Quebec’s thing. And beer – lots of beer.
The Molson Brewery is Montreal’s (and Canada’s) best- known beer producer, founded in 1786. But the current buzz surrounds the explosion in microbreweries in the region – there are now more than 100, with 40 in Montreal alone. Doing a microbrewery tour is a great way to discover different neighbourhoods. One to try is Nathalie Thivierge, http://www.nativetours.ca, from a certified tour guide. Most brewpubs offer beer flights, so you can sample as you go. High points include the hibiscus wheat beer and rhubarb stout at Dieu du Ciel brewpub (29 Avenue Laurier Ouest) in the Plateau district; while the Summer Sessions beer at Brasserie Benelux (245 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest) provides a great quaffer on a warm day.
So it comes as no surprise to see a table of diners sipping microbrews instead of fine wines at Toqué!, Montreal’s swankiest, most celebrated dining spot. Chef-owner Normand Laprise is a huge deal around these parts, collecting accolades galore and a guru-like following from a legion of the city’s star chefs. He grew up on a farm in the Fifties. ‘We had nothing back then. If you wanted to eat well in the winter then you made it all in the summer. it gave me a taste of good produce,’ he tells us.
Not that restaurants took advantage of the region’s bountiful produce in those days. ‘When I started cooking, everything was imported, so it got me thinking,’ remembers Laprise, who is credited with driving the farm-to-fork scene, which now rules in Montreal and beyond.
‘So, 90 per cent of the produce on the menu right now is from Quebec,’ he declares proudly, showing us around his extensive roof garden, a lush oasis that sits among the 2,000 or so suited workers shuffling to and from the CDP skycraper where the restaurant is located. There are leeks and radishes, fennel and aubergine, plus abundant herbs and more, all kept in neat raised beds.
Other favourites? ‘I love Quebec game birds, from duck and pigeon to pheasant and quail. And Quebec shellfish is excellent – right now there are plentiful lobsters, snow crab and sea urchin, plus scallops and razor clams,’ he enthuses. In fact, instead of air-freight sea bass, you are now more likely to see local fish walleye (a bit like John Dory) on the menu of gastronomic hotspots.
Quebec’s other highlights include red meat ranging from lamb to deer, says laprise, plus ‘intense’ berries, from black raspberries to blueberries. In the winter months, pickling, curing and salting rules at Toqué!. ‘When the season is short, you appreciate things so much more,’ he says.
Alex Cruz works with just about every top chef in the city, including Laprise. The co-founder of société-Original, he finds artisanal foods and ingredients throughout Quebec for chefs and the public alike. ‘Our aim is to share our culture through these foods that offer an idea of our territory and its people,’ he says. We’re discussing this over dinner at Maison Publique, which was opened by chef Derek Dammann (of the former DNA restaurant fame) in partnership with Jamie Oliver. Cruz is a key supplier. The local food champion is doing his best to change opinions, moving chefs away from imported goods and steering them towards homegrown delicacies that haven’t been gracing the menus of smart restaurants, until now.
‘Food is not a fashion, it’s constantly evolving. We source ingredients such as wild catfish and yellow sturgeon. chefs didn’t know about these fish until we introduced them,’ explains Cruz. ‘For me, Quebecois cuisine has a definite identity – it’s about small roasted birds, corn on the cob, asparagus, chanterelles, fiddlehead ferns, to name just a few.’
Dammann has bought into it, along with many of the key chefs in the city. ‘Fat is another important component of Quebec’s cuisine. look at any local recipe and there is a sizeable amount of fat involved. Our cuisine is actually more English than French,’ adds Dammann, as he places a dish of lardo, strawberries, lemon thyme and Marmite mayonnaise (a nod to his time spent in England working with Oliver) in front of us. And star dish of the night goes to ‘roast fat on toast with vegetables’ – a plate of outrageous unctuousness, made with the leftover fat and crunchy bits of a roasted porchetta, slathered over toasted sourdough and cut through with a garnish of shaved fennel, radish and baby beets and lemony dill dressing.
Martin Picard lives on fat – or rather foie gras. Even his poutine comes with a plump lobe on top. Vegetarians should look away now. The menu at his long-standing bistro, Au Pied de Cochon, is a meat lover’s fantasy, with sections devoted entirely to pig, poultry, beef and foie gras.
He is a disciple of nose-to-tail eating and as much influenced by Quebec’s rustic cooking traditions as by the classic French kitchen, successfully making the point that Quebec has a cuisine worth shouting about. Picard’s version of pea soup is fattened with foie gras; his meat pie, a Quebec classic, comes stuffed with the whole beast. His pancakes are fried in duck fat.
It’s an education, albeit an artery-furring one. Our induction starts with horse tartare served in an edible cone, and continues with blood sausage tart (topped with more foie gras), finishing with ‘pudding chômeur’, a riot of butter, cream, eggs, breadcrumbs, sugar and maple syrup. We wash down the food with a digestif of tableside-prepared absinthe, complete with flaming ladle. It’s about as macho as cooking gets.
It is something of a relief to take the testosterone levels down a notch or three at le Vin Papillon. However macho and meat-loving the city’s chefs are, when asked about their favourite places to dine out, this venue seems to come near the top of their lists. Essentially a wine bar – and a natural wine bar at that (wines made with minimal intervention) – le Vin Papillon serves vegetable-inspired dishes. Not vegetarian, mind – it’s about vegetables taking centre stage and meat playing the part of a condiment, adding a burst of umami here and a crunch there. it’s all the more exciting because of that.
Owned by David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, the boys behind Montreal landmark Joe Beef a few doors away, it opened in 2013 and has been rammed ever since, thanks to charming floor manager Vanya Filipovic and her talented partner, head chef Marc-Olivier Frappier, who hop between here and Joe Beef.
‘This place reflects what we want to eat after all those years of eating meat,’ grins Frappier, as a signature dish of ‘cauliflower rotisserie’ lands in front of us, with its crispy shards of chicken skin, strewn with herbs and lemon. It’s exciting stuff, from the celery root bagna càuda to the ‘wine cheese’, the often-funky accompanying natural wines working in unison.
And we couldn’t come to Montreal without a visit to Joe Beef, so we head back into the little Burgundy district the following night (little tip: book well in advance). It’s about as perfect as a city restaurant gets in our book, with Neil Young on the sound system, lots of interesting stuff by the glass (we start with a wine from Valais and end with one from Georgia), and plate after plate of knockout food that hits all the comfort spots. smoked meat croquetas, clam aioli, piglet ham on epoisses toast, ‘asparagus and wieners’ and fiddlehead carbonara are all devoured in an atmospheric space, or rather a series of spaces over three cosy rooms, plus a flower- and candle-decked garden for dining out in the warmer months.
Our final night is saved for a restaurant that was consistently top of our list of chef’s recommendations – Hôtel Herman. It was the first restaurant (it’s not a hotel… long story) that tripped off their lips when quizzed about the top scoffing spots and, rather interestingly, vegetables are also the main focus.
‘We’ve done nose-to-tail eating so it was a case of what else?’ says co-owner Ariane Lacombe, who runs the place in the heart of the trendy Mile End district with business partner Dominic Goyet and chef Marc-Alexandre Mercier. But Hôtel Herman is no gimmick. The food is thrilling and comforting in equal measures, demonstrating a passion for their region and their suppliers. ‘One of our farmers plays music to his rabbits,’ drops in Mercier, as he delivers a plate of white asparagus, fried breadcrumbs and brown butter hollandaise.
Other highlights include roasted buckwheat with trout eggs, smoked cream and Arctic char; parsnip gnocchi with roasted parsnips; and seared sweetbreads with glazed turnip, raw turnip salad, turnip leaves and burnt onion butter. All this paired with white wines plucked from a small but exciting list, stretching from irouléguy to Valle d’Aosta.
Michelin is missing a trick not publishing a restaurant guide here – there are stars galore for the taking and in the making. Not that you suspect Montreal’s chefs would be bothered by all the fuss. They’re just doing their thing with a distinct identity, which is refreshing and more than a bit exciting.
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