I visited Montréal over the August Civic Holiday for some hiking and Québecois goodness. Although I’d been once before — the year I moved to Canada — my trip was very brief. And in November. Not just any November, though. Indeed not. I went to Montréal in November 2007, one of the coldest Canadian winters on record, and my thin Texas blood hadn’t yet thickened enough to be able to stand the frigid Québec temperatures for longer than five minutes. Needless to say, I didn’t see much of the city that trip, save for the inside of my hotel room and the Bell Centre, where I was lucky enough to see the Montréal Canadiens play the Toronto Maple Leafs. As an aside, it was the rowdiest, and best, hockey game I’ve been to — and this Texas girl has been to a few! The Maple Leafs won, of course.
Long time readers will know that I’ve been hiking quite a bit lately and being the adventurous girl I am, decided at the very last minute to head to Mont Tremblant to experience their glorious hiking trails. It would give me a chance to see Tremblant, about which I’d heard amazing things, as well as spend some time in Montréal. Slight travel issues ensued, including a strike by Via Rail, which precluded me from traveling by rail. I ended up driving — the drive being much longer than I thought — and also got stuck in traffic on the 401 for an extra hour both ways. Not pretty.
On my way to Québec, I stopped in Kingston and Gananoque, Ontario, two cities along the St. Lawrence River in the 1000 Islands region. It was a cloudy day so, although I went down to each of their waterfronts, I couldn’t really see the islands. A trip back to the area, including a stop in the wine region of Prince Edward County, has officially been added to my Canadian traveling to-do list.
I arrived in Montreal, checked into my brand new, and way cool, hotel complete with second floor glass-bottom pool in Vieux Montréal, and ventured out straight away for some city anhiliation. I was immediately smitten. Quelle surprise! French speaking Canadians apparently just do something to me. It was like manna from heaven. I also immediately decided that I would not be wasting any time driving an hour and a half to Mont Tremblant the following day, but would spend it in the vibrant, gloriously old, je ne sais quoi city that is Montréal.
Even though I’d planned my trip in <48 hours, I still managed to snag a dinner reservation at one of the hip, nouvelle cuisine restaurants called Au Pied de Cochon. It was simply AMAZING. Owner and executive chef Martin Picard is somewhat of a cooking legend (think a French Anthony Bourdain) and not only was he there that night, but he was in his finest togs — jersey knit shorts, gas station attendant shirt (complete with name badge) and Crocs. Oh, how I love the Québecois joie de vivre! I was seated at the bar, which I usually loathe, but at Au Pied de Cochon, you literally have a front seat look into the kitchen. I got to experience the mise en place in real time. Everything — I mean everything — was freshly made there; they were literally pulling herbs out of potted plants and hand-making sushi rolls right in front of me. Au Pied de Cochon is known for their fois gras, which I personally take issue with but, when you read article after article about the foie gras poutine, you just have to give in. When in Rome, right? I’ll try anything once and because I was in a new city, I decided I’d be bold with my menu choices. I had the Tarragon Bison Tongue as an appetizer — thinly sliced pieces of tongue that, had I not known it was tongue, would have seemed like just cut-it-with-a-fork-it-was-so-tender slices of beef with delicious mustard and tarragon sauce; the “Duck in a Can” and frites for dinner; and the Sugar Pie à la mode for dessert.
Let me just talk for one second about the Duck in a Can. I’d read about it, was intrigued, and decided I needed to try it. Firstly, they brought out a plate with bread slices covered in a gravy. Then, I saw them literally pick a can out of a gigantic pot of boiling water, wrap a label around it, put it on a plate, and bring it to me. With a can opener. Oh yes! I had to open my Duck in a Can with an actual can opener! Talk about presentation! Except usually when you talk about presentation, you don’t talk about deliciousness. I know it sounds weird, but in this case, I could literally have put my face in that plate, it was so good. The process of Duck in a Can is to dump out the layered contents of the can — duck, 100g of foie gras, 60 mL of balsamic vinegar, 180 mL of cabbage, 1/2 a head of garlic and 2 branches of thyme — over the bread. After my first bite, the party of flavours in my mouth was more intense than anything I’d eaten in quite some time. Exquisite and luscious and delightful, they were. I washed it all down with a delicious glass of VDP Des Cotes Catalanes Rouge Baux 2004 – mas baux (basically a blend of Syrah and Cab Sav). The food was pure perfection. Not surprisingly, the Sugar Pie was like eating sugar and condensed milk in a pie crust. Who can complain about that?
I’d spotted a cookbook by the chef Martin Picard on my way in, and I thought it would be a fabulous way to remember the experience, so I asked if he’d sign a book for me if I bought one. His staff said “oui!”, had me write my name on a piece of paper and a few minutes later, returned with my book in a large, brown paper bag. I opened up the book and he’d signed it “To Carmen, Enjoy the read, Cochonne, Salut”. I knew “cochon” meant “pig”, so I asked if he was calling me a pig and the servers kindly informed me, after giggling, that the translation loosely means “horny” in French. I guess the chef saw us laughing together, so he came over to say hello and to ask how I enjoyed my dinner. My server, who I’d already told we don’t eat mayonnaise with our frites, told the chef and he asked in broken English “where are you from?” to which I replied “Texas!”. He jokingly said “is that near Brussels?” and then said “you don’t sound like George Bush”. Except he said it in that gorgeous Quebecois French, which sounded more like “Zhorzh Boosh” than “George Bush”. We all laughed, I paid my very large bill and off I went. An amazing Montreal experience, indeed.
The rest of my weekend was spent doing all kinds of things: walking around the residential neighbourhood of Plateau Mont Royal (whenI travel, I like to spend as much time as possible in the *actual* areas of the city rather than the big tourist traps, which prolly explains why I’ve still yet to venture up the CN Tower, even though it’s less than 200 metres away from my house), visiting the Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire, le Fleuve de Saint Lawrence, Place Jacques Cartier, the Basilique de Notre Dame, and the Vieux Port, having lunch at Olive et Gourmando and dinner at Santos, running into a eccentric French soirée as I ambled through the Latin Quarter, spotting the plethora of fleur de lis literally everywhere, and seeing no fewer than three weddings — three! Let me just add that the Québecois put the word “wed” into wedding (yeah, I know, but work with me). After the wedding, the newlyweds are driven through the downtown streets while the driver honks and honks and honks! It was way cool. I’m totally doing that the next time I get married in Montréal. 🙂
Alas, the curtain was closing on my lovely weekend and it was time to return to chez moi. Before I left, though, I still had two things to check off my Montréal to-do list: eating smoked meat and poutine, and all their accoutrements. I’d only eaten poutine once before and a pleasant experience it was not. I knew that if I was going to find good poutine, it was going to be in Québec. I jumped in a cab and asked to be taken to Schwartz’s, the legendary Montréal smoked meat house, and Maamm Bolduc for poutine. When my chauffer pulled up to Schwartz’s, the line was literally wrapped around the building. Twice. I’ve never seen anything like it, with the exception of waiting to get into a film at the Toronto International Film Festival…just about the *only* thing for which I’d wait in line that long! It was *totally* pouring down rain, so I asked him if he knew of anywhere else I could try smoked meat and poutine that would be good. He said “what about La Fleur?” and I said “M’okay”, because what did I know?! He started getting all excited about it and telling me about how they slice the potatoes for the poutine right in front of you, so I was thinking “this is gonna be great!”. He rounds the corner and says “here it is!” and when I look up, it was a fast food place. Classic. I thought what the hell, les chauffers know all the best places to eat, hopped out and went in. The staff didn’t speak English very well and after a couple of tries, I finally got both of my requests in one place: smoked meat sandwich and real poutine. I loved the smoked meat and the poutine was okay, but I still don’t get the big deal. I think it was basically the McDonald’s of poutine places. I’m a french fry fanatic — I could basically live on them — but maybe I just like mine with sea salt and ketchup, and not covered in gravy and cheese curds. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, for sure, but I think it’s probably more of a late night, game day, hangover-recovery food than it is an actual dinner food. But I’m from Texas, so what do I know?!
Despite what I constantly hear from Ontarians about the Québecois, I found them to be affable, funny, and avant-garde raconteurs. Basically, I fell in love with Montréal — it was trés cool. I will continue to be a travel ninja this year with trips planned to Calgary/Banff/Jasper, Alberta and Whistler/Victoria, British Columbia. While I’m sure those cities will be just as off-the-chain as the other cities I’ve visited in my adopted country, I seriously doubt they’ll be quite as soigné or magnifíque as Montréal.
Merci beaucoup, Montréal! Au revoir! J’adore.
Check out the rest of my Montréal photo goodness here.