Food is one of the most important parts of travel and also one of the most enjoyable. We all have to eat after all and it’s usually our culinary memories that survive the longest. That’s why I tend to write so much about food and travel not because I think it’s important, because I really enjoy sharing it with you all. Some destinations are better suited to this however thanks to an abundance of delectable foods; Montreal is just such a place. Below is what I would call an iconic list of five of my favorite Montreal meals and it’s by no means all inclusive of everything great to eat in the city. There’s a wide range of international cuisine that I’m not highlighting here, but is nonetheless deserved of attention. No, for this post I wanted to look at the foods I think of when I think of Montreal, the foods that make me smile and want to return.
1. Poutine – Poutine is the stuff of legends, much to the chagrin of many Canadians. It is the one food non-Canadians seem to know the most about and a snack of this heavy dish is at the top of the list for most visitors to Montreal. Even though it can be found throughout Canada, poutine got its start in Quebec back in the 1950s and truly is a collage, some would say train wreck, of ingredients. The classic recipe is simple really: french fries topped with brown gravy and curd cheese. But this simple explanation really doesn’t do it justice. Like many other comfort foods poutine may not be the healthiest dish but there is just something satisfying about the experience. I love sharing a big bowl amongst friends, each armed with a fork scouting out the best fries and melty cheese curds as the gravy drips drop by drop into the bowl below. There are a thousand varieties of poutine, including BBQ, lobster and even foie gras, but there’s nothing like the simple original version. So to my Canadian friends I say do not be embarrassed by this national treasure, instead embrace it for what it is, the spirit of love and friendship on a plate.
2. Smoked Meat – My partner is from North New Jersey, not far from New York City and as such has certain ideas when it comes to the preparation of certain foods. Pizza, bagels and certainly a proper pastrami on rye must all be made to exact specifications in order to appease his spoiled and finicky palate. So I was a little dubious when we pulled up a chair at the famous Montreal deli/diner Schwartz’s for our first Montreal smoked meat experience. For years I’ve seen this traditional deli featured on travel and food shows and I couldn’t believe I was there in person, ordering the classic lunch of smoked meat on rye with mustard and a side of fries. The Cherry Coke was thrown in for good measure. If you’re expecting a New York style sandwich though, you’ll be surprised by what is actually brought to the table. At their roots, the Montreal smoked meat and NYC pastrami are similar; both are kosher deli meats made by salting and curing beef brisket with a variety of spices. The Montreal version though isn’t as sweet as the New York version and uses more aromatic spices than they do in the Five Boroughs. The presentation is pretty similar with the Montreal meat having a slightly thicker cut. So what about the taste? The Montreal smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s was delicious, but shouldn’t be compared with cured meat in other parts of the world. What I enjoyed that day is not a derivative, it is it’s own tasty category and visitors should keep that in mind when they enter the crowded deli. For my money, lunch at Schwartz’s was one of the best foodie moments of our trip.
3. Bagels – A vibrant Jewish culture didn’t just bring kosher delis to Montreal, they also brought bagels. Once again however we see Montreal in an unlikely competition with its foodie rival New York. For a true Montreal bagel experience we stopped by St-Viateur Bagel where they’ve been making these breakfast staples since 1957. I was in for a surprise though when I saw my first Montreal bagel. Unlike their American cousins, the Montreal bagels weren’t as doughy and only come in a few flavors: plain, poppy and sesame. The bagels are also smaller, with larger holes and are always made in a wood fired oven. Talking with a local expert I also learned that the secret ingredient in Montreal bagels is honey-sweetened water, in which the bagels are boiled before baked in the oven. So what did I think? Well, to be honest I prefer New York style bagels, but I absolutely enjoyed my first Montreal experience. Served with some fresh cream cheese, we stood there in the shop munching away on the savory snacks watching as scores of locals streamed in, leaving with heaping bags of warm bagels. So they may not be the same as New York bagels, but they are absolutely one of the best bites in Montreal.
4. Coffee culture – Maybe it’s the chilly winter temperatures or the preponderance of university students or maybe even the over abundance of urban hipsters, but for whatever reason coffee culture is an important part of Montreal foodie life. A drive through downtown reveals the expected chains, Tim Horton’s and even Dunkin Donuts, but with a little neighborhood exploration you can find a quiet coffee shop from which to escape the weather and spend good times with friends. One of my favorites was a little place not far from the Old Port in the city’s historic core. Sure, this is an area infested with tourists, but there are a lot of great finds in the neighborhood as well. Over the last decade more people have decided to call this once forgotten part of Montreal home, which has led to new restaurants, cafes and shops to spring up everywhere. The coffee shop I found was in a basement and as soon as I walked in I knew it was a winner. I’ve always loved small, cozy coffee shops where I can perk up and catch up with friends and family. Even though the coffees smelled delicious, hot chocolate called my name that day which I happily drank, warming my hands over the steamy vapors and devouring with all due haste a fresh chocolate croissant. That cafe may not be in any guide books, but it’s a great example of the warm and friendly coffee culture in Montreal.
5. Brunch – Sure, this isn’t endemic to Montreal, but it is something they do extremely well. I love sleeping in on a Saturday morning and joining friends for a delicious brunch to catch up and enjoy some great food. Montreal takes leisurely enjoyment of breakfast foods very seriously and for that I am thankful. Oddly enough the one I enjoyed the most was at our super mod hotel, the Hotel Gault. I’ll review the experience later, but the hotel is uber modern and takes minimalism to all new heights. Yet they have also managed to maintain a luxury hotel environment, especially in their food. The lobby is large and airy and small tables strewn about comprise the totality of their dining area. The menu features some classic dishes like eggs and bacon and big doughy pancakes doused with maple syrup, but I was drawn to the breakfast sandwich. Eggs topped with meat and tomato and doused with a truffle aioli combine to create a surprisingly high end brunch dish. Generous refills of strong coffee kept us there longer than we had intended, but after all isn’t that the mark of a great brunch?
These were five of my favorite culinary moments in Montreal, what are yours?