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Montreal Gastronomique

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By Malcolm Jolley

Last month, for three nights and three days I ate my way around Montréal, principally as a guest of The Montréal Highlights Festival and Tourisme Montréal. The trip was a sort of homecoming for me, since I went to McGill and lived in the city for four years in the early 90s. By the time I graduated the recession had hit with enough force that St. Catherine and St. Laurent Streets had boarded-up shops, and Quebecers were gearing up for the second referendum. With the prospect of a job to go to back home in Toronto, I hit the 401 and hadn't been back since. I think I was scared to return, even for a weekend. What if I enjoyed Montréal so much it would make Toronto seem altogether grey and boring? So, it took nearly 15 years and a free ticket to get me to return to the city that, among other things, taught me how to eat.

Below are my notes from the trip…

Thursday, 4PM:

Upon arrival to my downtown hotel, I have an hour or so to kill before meeting up with my pool of fellow journalists to be taken to dinner. I decide to stroll around St. Catherine Street below, and head for a SAQ (the Quebec liquor retailer) to buy a bottle of wine, either as a souvenir or as a tonic, should dinner go poorly.

I find a SAQ in Les Ailes, the high-end mall in what used to be Eaton's (or "Eaton" in deference to Bill 101). It is clearly a high-end one, akin to the fancier Vintages stores in Ontario. In fact, it's hard to find a bottle under $50 among all the Yquems, Moutons, and DRC's. 90% of the wines are French, and most of them are either Burgundy or Bordeaux. I find the Rhone section, which is comparatively small and find a Vacqueras for $30 or so - probably the cheapest bottle in the store.

On my way back to the hotel I am struck at the big city energy of the place. Maybe it's the compact nature of the island, but the city projects urbanity in way that Toronto or Vancouver don't.

5PM: Meet Hugo Leclerc, my guide from The Festival and Bertin Jacques his counterpart from Tourisme Montréal. I am put into a pool with a husband and wife team of journalists from Atlanta and a French journalist from Santiago who is covering the festival in relation to the featured wine country, Chile. She speaks little English and the couple speak no French, so there is lots of translation in the bar of Le Teatre du Noveau Monde, where we drink a Boreal before getting into a cab for dinner.

7PM: Dinner at Les Cons Servent, a storefront-sized, wood tabled bistro up Papineau, past St. Joseph. The name is a word play, meaning "the jerks are serving" but sounding like "the conserves" or "jams". The menu is super Gallic, but also playful. The starter is brilliant: a terrine de pot au feu: essentially the deconstructed bits of a stew turned into a jellied, head-cheesy terrine. I started going to restaurants as an young adult (as opposed to my parents' guest) in Montréal, but I had forgotten how monolithically French most restaurants are. If a restaurant is Italian, Greek, Chinese or whatever then so be it, but everything else is pretty much French. It would be silly to say that Montréalers "get Bistro" (a compliment given in Toronto to chef's who can pull of a good tartar), because it's really second nature. The really great thing about it though, is that innovative restaurants lie Les Cons can play with the tradition.

Friday, 8AM

Off to the Jean-Talon market with our gastro-tour guide Ronald Poiré from Visites de Montréal. On the bus drive up St. Laurent (my old student hunting grounds: some changes, but much is still there) he explains the culinary renaissance of the city: French Chefs brought over for Expo 67. This makes sense, it's unlikely habitants had much time to make foie gras.

The market is pleasant enough, having been reduced and enclosed indoors for winter, but the stores in and around it fantastic. First La Librairie Gourmande where I meet proprietors Anne Fortin. She and Roland agree that the hottest force in Quebecois cooking today is Josèe di Stasio. Of course I have never heard of her, a deplorably sad commentary on the two solitudes. But anyway, I bought her latest, Pasta Et Cetera, which is a beautiful imprint. (Because of their universal schemata, I find reading French cookbooks quite easy a rather nice way to practice la langue.) I also buy Martin Picard's Pied de Cochon: L'Album en francais to match my English one. This version begins with a October Crisis cartoon rather than Anthony Bourdain's introduction. Seems more authentic.

From their over to Le Marché des saveurs du Québec, a supermarket retailing only Quebecois food and drink. Cheeses, charcuterie, smoked salmon, confit de canarde, beer, wine, cider and ice cider, preserves, just about anything grown, raised, farmed, hunted, caught, brewed, vinified between the Ottawa River and L'Ile de Madeleine. Every city should have a store like this, I think. Then a quick dash over to La Depense ("the pantry"), Philippe de Vienne's spice store. There I buy his book, written with his wife Éthne, La Cuisine et le goût des epices.

Back on the bus and down to the Plateau to eat a freshly baked Fairmount Bagel. I am/was more of a St. Viateur man (probably because it was closer to my old apartment), and having one sober at 11 AM is not the same as after a long night of partying, but it's still pretty darn good. It's worth repeating that Montréal's two great contributions to the cuisine of the world, bagels and smoked meat, come from the Jewish community. Then we cross The Main and hit a stretch of Laurier just past St. Denis full of little boutiques, including Le Formemtier, one of the city's original artisanal bakeries. Le Formentier shares space with a cheese store, Le Maitre Corbeau, and the charcutierie La Queue de Cochon. Next to it a quick olive tasting at Olive et Olive (not sure why, but whatever-it was very nice oil) and a hot chocolate at La Maison Cakao, which was also sort of bizarre, since we hadn't had lunch. The hot chocolate was insanely rich, having been made with whipping cream and melted chocolate.

Lunch is smoked meat, but alas not Schwartz's - no time to wait in line, so it's a downtown deli, which is good enough. Then, I had to hurry back to the hotel for a phone call, so I missed dessert.

5PM: Drinks at The Pullman with the Festival's President Michel Labrecque. Here Elizabeth Baird from Canadian Living joins us and I run into my first visiting Toronto Chef, Carlos Hernandez, whose tapas-y starters we enjoy. Carlos echoes the sentiments of the other chefs I (eventually) talk to, including Jamie Kennedy, Anthony Walsh and Lorenzo Loseto: they're having a lot of fun and enjoying the comraderie and the chance to eat out. Elizabeth has had trouble flying in from Toronto, which does not bode well for Mrs. Gremolata, who is supposed to be arriving soon. We leave for dinner at the Casino.

7:30 PM: Nuances is the fancy restaurant housed in the Casino de Montréal, in what was the French Pavillion at Expo '67, appropriately enough. I am really hoping some high roller will swoop into the room, having just won a fortune, and buy us all Champagne. But this does not happen. Not that there isn't Champagne. Dinner tonight is being cooked by Steve Benjamin, Joel Robuchon's main man in Las Vegas, and it does not spare any glitz: we start with foie gras foam and quickly get into course upon course of things with truffles, langoustines, lobster, and on it goes. All of it is delicious and perfectly matched with wine. The best dish, though was the simplest: an egg en concotte with ham, parsley and mushrooms. Each ingredient simultaneously blending and standing out. Service is exemplary (all wait staff are trained sommeliers, which is kind of cool) and when Mrs. Gremolata (MG) arrives late her courses have been held for her and she quickly catches up. The meal, and the restaurant lived up to international standards and was flawlessly executed in every way.

11PM: Time for a little fun. MG and I are in a cab heading up Papineau to the fringes of Rosemount. We're off to check in with Jamie Drummond who is pouring Ontario wine for his chef, Jamie Kennedy, who is cooking at Le Jolifou. We arrive after service, but scan an all Ontario menu, which won Kennedy praise in the Montréal press: this was exotic around here. We also meet Chef David Ferguson and his wife and manager Helene, who is very pregnant.  At their resto, which is not far from the Jean-Tallon Market, they practise the sort of locavorist simplicty that makes them natural allies of the JK crew. Ferguson explains to me the origin of the name: it's the name of a tavern depicted by the great Canadian 19th century painter, Cornelius Krieghoff. Apparently it was the last place to get a drink along the Ottawa river for the westward bound courieurs des bois. In this sprit, Ferguson and his staff took Apple and me, Kennedy, Drummond and JK Kitchen's Ken Steel to Le Bar Paspebiac, which specialises in Gaspesian Country and Western Music. Many a Molson and cinquant were sipped to the soothing sounds of Franco-fiddle tunes.

Saturday 11AM: Slow start after a rather late night. No Festival activities today. We meet Drummond at Beauty's back up in the Plateau. It has not changed a bit. Nor has the food: Drummond orders and enjoys a Mishmash of eggs and hotdogs, while I stick with Special: bagel and lox. Joining us is sommelier David Pendon, an Ottawa native who has lived and worked in both Montréal and Toronto who is currently pouring at Brontë. Dave explains that Montréal wine culture generally puts Burgundies at the top, with light Gamays as the choice of those with less to spend. Interesting: this explains the selection at the SAQ on Thursday.

David leaves and the three of us wander around St. Denis for an hour or two arriving at the door of L'Express. We're not hungry, but we can't resist a drink or two at the bar. It is impossible, and unwise, to visit Montréal without stopping by this bistrot non pareille. I am thrilled when Drummond orders a croque monsieur because it means we get a jar of their house made cornichons, with wooden tongs for extraction, and baguette rounds with Dijon. An elegant couple in their 50s strolls in and seats themselves next to us at the bar. They order a plate of Oysters and a bottle of Loire white as a snack.

8PM: Drummond has gone off for dinner at Au Pied de Cochon. He asks if we want to join him and we are sorely tempted to join, wanting to see the master of foie's works. But we stick to our plans. À la prochaine. Instead we are headed to Le Club Chasse et Peche (more or less "the hunting and fishing lodge") in Old Montréal. But first a drink at XO in the Hotel St. James. The room is crazy baroque: having once been the trading floor of the Montréal Stock Exchange. We cannot help ordering Champagne by the glass and are nearly late for our 9 PM reservation, since the streets are clogged by both snow and the legions of festival goers: this evening is also Nuit Blanche.
Club de Chasse et Peche is a perfectly Montréalais restaurant: it is respectful of tradition and terroir but also irreverent and unafraid to share a joke. We start with oysters that come in shot glasses and begin a romp through the menu which plays on traditional French and Quebecois terroir. There is nothing crazy, just interesting and well thought out plates. The room retains the feel of an Old Montréal tourist trap, and is also kind of clubby with black walls and ceilings. I don't think it would work in Toronto, and when we had our last bit and staggered out to leave, it was still full of revellers.

12PM: A crappy sandwich at the airport in Dorval. Not suicidal at the prospect to returning to grey old hogtown, but certainly glad to have visited an old friend.


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