Devouring le MontrealMitchell Davis
August 11, 2016
If you’re anything like us, the first thing you do when planning a trip—perhaps even before booking a plane ticket—is figure out where you’re going to eat while you’re there. Museums, sightseeing, and shopping are all well and good, but food is often the main attraction. To make trip planning a little easier, we’re compiling lists of our can’t-miss pit stops in some of our favorite places. Below, our executive vice president (and resident globe-trotting gourmand) Mitchell Davis shares his absolute must-eats in Montreal for this special international installment.
Montreal is a food city. With French roots that date back centuries, it comes by this designation naturally. But in the last few years, as in many cities across North America, there has been an explosion of young talent in, and enthusiasm for, restaurants and other food businesses. A recent visit only whet my appetite to return so I could continue exploring the many bistros, bakeries, butcher shops, wine bars, and other delicious offerings. There’s a laid-back vibe to the restaurants (and the town) that reminded me of Portland, Oregon, only with a French-Canadian accent. In fact, that accent, a favorable exchange rate, and a Canadian politesse makes a weekend in Montreal—barely an hour’s flight from the Big Apple—feel like a vacation to a faraway land.
2491 Rue Notre-Dame O
It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying and delicious restaurant anywhere. The style is over the top, like caricatures of traditional French food—think very grand plâteau de fruits de mer—sometimes with a modern and sometimes whimsical take—“Horse Radish” was horse tartare with radish salad. The menu is written on a large blackboard and changes regularly. We had many favorites, but I can’t get the warm smoked lake trout with everything bagel topping and homemade raw milk cream cheese out of my mind. That seafood platter might be the best I’ve ever had, with the freshest, most delicious local seafood you can imagine. In nice weather, the terrace is the perfect place to eat. Reservations (made well in advance) are a must. Owners/chefs David MacMillan and Fred Moran were described to me as the gourmet godfathers of the Montreal restaurant scene. From our dinner at Joe Beef I understand why.
Le Vin Papillon
2519 Rue Notre-Dame O
The more casual wine bar of the Joe Beef team is every bit as satisfying as the restaurant—maybe more so, because you can sit and sip and eat for hours on end. The doors open at 3:00 P.M., which for a town in which it’s hard to find a restaurant open at lunch, is a godsend. The wine list is long and smart. Among the food highlights were a carrot pastrami éclair (yes, really) and an asparagus hot dog.
Hoogan et Beaufort
4095 Rue Molson
Located literally in the middle of nowhere, that is, in the midst of an industrial park to the east of city center, this was my favorite of the contemporary restaurants I visited. The handsome, modern dining room with its open kitchen and a roaring wood fire for cooking elegant, delicious food are hard not to like. We had a seasonal selection of dishes at lunch that included beet and pistachio soup, an asparagus salad, and beautiful haddock served on ramps.
5201 Boul St-Laurent
Lawrence is a charming bistro where the food is homey and satisfying. A spring lunch menu offered several braised dishes that that we found pleasantly un-Instagrammable but delicious. I especially loved a braised octopus served on white polenta, and an asparagus salad. Felt very local and comfortable.
Olive et Gourmando
351 Rue Saint Paul O
Oversized baked goods and generous breakfast and lunch entrées served in a rustic environment make this a good starting point in old Montreal. It had the feel to me of a place on Paris’s Ile St. Louis. And it’s just around the corner from the Phi Centre, a cultural arts institute that often has interesting multimedia programming.
Pitty the gluten-intolerant in Montreal, where it seems a hungry population can support a dynamic bakery scene.
2360 Rue Notre-Dame O
One of the city’s best pastry chefs, Patrice Demer, has a great bakery on Notre Dame that is not to be missed. The viennoiserie is excellent, and I loved a kouign amann as well as a sea buckthorn éclair, and a huckleberry Danish—but his plated desserts are also special. We had a complex bowlful called “vert” which included green apple, olive oil, pistachio, foam, cream, ice, and many other delicious green things.
5091 Rue de Lanaudière
A charming pastry shop and café, a little out of the way, with enough tables to sit at and enjoy the classic-with-a-twist desserts that Stéphanie Labelle creates. Restrained and scrumptious.
Maison Christian Faure
355 Place Royale
Like walking into a pastry shop in Paris, this traditional pâtissierie and school run by the eponymous MOF (Meilleure Ouvrier de France) pâtissier is comme il faut. The viennoiserie is exemplary. The pastry case is full of more complicated temptations, of which the éclair was among the best I’ve had. In general, I didn’t think the mousse-y creations were as satisfying as the buttery baked goods, but you won’t regret giving everything a try.
Cantinho de Lisboa
I stumbled into this Portuguese bakery, café, and shop in Old Montreal while waiting with my friend for Olive et Gourmando to open for breakfast. And we were glad we did. Exemplary pasteis, custard tartlets (available in miniature, which is good when you are eating an entire town in a couple of days). Also delicious bean tarts and other classic Portuguese treats. Next time I’ll come back for lunch.
Boulangerie Hof Kelsten
4524 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
A new bakery by Jeffrey Finkelstein making old-style Jewish treats. Totally loved it, especially the caraway rye and Finkelstein’s take on chocolate babka. His passion and hard work is evident.
St. Viateur Bagels
263 Rue Saint Viateur O
Montreal is famous for its bagels. Although I wish I were, I’m not generally a fan. Too much sugar and not enough salt. But what isn’t delicious, piping hot out of a wood-burning oven? My predilection for NYC bagels shouldn’t stop you from trying this and/or Fairmount for a true Montreal experience. Take some home for your friends (you can buy bags of St. Viateur bagels in the U.S. terminal at the airport), but be sure to tell whomever receives them that the bagels should be toasted and spread with something salty before eating.
Although I wasn’t looking to buy ingredients—no place to cook—I couldn’t help but stumble into a bunch of lovely food shops while wandering the streets of the city. And these are in addition to the bustling Jean Talon and Atwater markets. Québec has a long history of producing cheese, foie gras, saucissons, and other traditional French treats, but now there is also a new wave of young artisans creating contemporary specialties. Here are a few that caught my eye.
Bleu & Persillé
1475 Avenue du Mont-Royal E
A lovely cheese shop with a large selection of local and imported specialties. Note the beautiful beehive in the back surrounded by lavender. Yes, they are making their own lavender honey right there in full view.
5237 Saint Laurent Boulevard
Located next door to the restaurant Lawrence, this hipster meat locker also has several local, artisanal products that would make great gifts.
Grinder Butcher Shop
1654 Rue Notre-Dame O
I may have never seen a more visually spectacular butcher shop anywhere in the world. Giant quarters of animals and other cuts hang in the window of an all glass refrigerator. Chefs think it’s all for show, as the hyper-popular Grinder restaurant down the street attracts a stylish but culinary bankrupt crowd. But this butcher shop is worth seeing.
Want more travel inspiration? Check out the rest of our JBF Trip Planners.
Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.