There’s something about Montreal, Quebec in general, that just appeals to me on a very base – almost instinctual – level. Maybe it’s because they speak French, maybe it’s the food, maybe it’s a mélange of everything that creates a near perfect urban experience. Whatever the reason, I love Montreal and when I visit this is how I love to spend a few hours in the capital city of French Canada.
Old City – Montreal has a long history and luckily for us much of that history can be seen throughout the city, but especially in the old part of town near the water. It was hear where the nascent city first took root and the quarter has tried to keep much of that look and feel from historic buildings to cobblestone walkways. Key features along this walk include museums, shops, plenty of restaurants, City Hall, churches and many other important buildings that in their own way helped create the modern metropolis of Montreal that we know and love.
The Underground City – Montreal’s Underground City or RÉSO includes tunnels that span 20 miles spread out over almost 5 miles in Montreal’s downtown. The collection of underground complexes connects everything from malls to metro stations and even hotels and I love it. The system started in the 1960s and the building of the metro system quickly aided in its expansion. Over time as new buildings were constructed above ground, work was completed below ground as well which has resulted in one of the largest underground cities in the world. Not only is it handy during the cold, winter months but it’s a lot of fun any time of year to figure out how to navigate the maze and get to where you’re going.
Schwartz’s – 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.
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.
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.