TND – Montreal & Back Again

August 22, 2012

As noted previously there was no Dinner last week because my roommate and I took ourselves up to Montreal for a vacation.  I believe on Tuesday night we were tucking into plates of poutine (verdict: eh, I’d rather just have the cheese curds and gravy, I don’t really need the fries).

I really liked Montreal – I kept comparing it to other places I’d been (the outside, throw open the windows, sidewalk culture of San Diego – the French heritage of New Orleans – the quirky fierce independence of San Francisco – the sheer Canadian-ness of Toronto), but in the end I think that comparisons are a little unfair.  It feels like itself, and itself is a quirky city with charming neighborhoods that embraces its French heritage and its Canadian identity.  I’d cheerfully go back and spend more time exploring the Mont Royal neighborhood, going over to the Botanical Gardens which we didn’t have a chance to visit, peering in the windows of art galleries in the old port area, and gorging myself on excellent food and wine.

Best Church:        Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal
There is a particular kind of Victorian excess that is twee and tacky in small quantities, and kind of glorious when embraced on a grand scale.  Suffice it to say that the architect and interior designer of the Notre-Dame fully committed to their vision.

From the outside it looks like it’s going to be a generic New World rendition of a gothic cathedral.  But this is an object lesson in why you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, or churches by their facades.  Apparently it was inspired by Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and this makes total sense to me.  The interior is a riot of colors – deep blues, reds, and golds.  Every banister is carved and gilded, every pillar is embellished and crowned.  If there was a space that wasn’t painted, carved, or otherwise festooned we didn’t come across it.  Every church we saw after that suffered in comparison.

And, by other churches I mean Montreal’s Cathedral (Marie Reine du Monde) and the seat of the Anglican church in Montreal (Christ Church), both of which were nice enough but nothing like as inspiring.

Although, that said, while we didn’t go into the Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (part of the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum), I was very taken by the angels on the domes of the chapel (I’m sure this has nothing to do with Steven Moffat’s creepy imagination, and how I now see the potential for a weeping angel in all statues).

An egregious number of pictures of the interior of Notre Dame can be found here.

More pictures of Marie Reine du Monde and Christ Church are here.

And, more angles on Montreal’s weeping angels are in this gallery of photos.

Best Museum:        Pointe-à-Callière
“Pointe-à-Callière, a recognized national historical and archaeological site, leads visitors through centuries of history, from the times when Natives camped here to the present day.”

If you think that sounds like it has the potential to be lethally boring, so did we and almost didn’t go.  Fortunately, some of the other people staying at our Bed & Breakfast had been and raved about it and at the last minute we decided to go.

Pointe-à-Callière is indeed a museum dedicated to the archaeology of Montreal – a somewhat cheesy video presentation at the beginning of the visit is narrated by the Spirit of Montreal.  What makes it fascinating is that it demonstrates the archeology of the city to you by actually taking you down into the excavated foundations of the building and leading you up through the layers of history from the native settlement to a graveyard of the early European settlers to the brick foundations of the customs house that sat on the site until the 1940s (when rotted/crumbling foundations forced the city to destroy the building).  One of their future projects is excavating one of the original sewer mains for the city.  My roommate and I agreed to come back whenever that opened up to the public.

If nothing else it is a stellar example of the power of good museum-craft (much like the Shoe Museum in Toronto which remains one of the best museums I’ve ever been to – I mean, I actually happen to find the history of shoes interesting, but this museum could have been about the history of hockey pucks and I would still have found it fascinating because the exhibition was so well put together).

Best Food Eaten At A Table (i.e. in a restaurant):    Olive et Gourmando
This is emblematic of the ethic that simple is best.  The space is nothing fancy – just a small cosy coffee shop.  The food isn’t exotic or overworked, but the tomato & corn salad with fresh ricotta and garlic toasts, the cold beet soup with an herb swirl, and the farmer’s salad with a spicy dressing was possibly the best food we had while we were in Montreal.  It is also food that I am spending the next two weeks experimenting with replicating at home.

Best Food we (legally) Snuck Across the Border:    Tie between Fairmount Bagels & Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique

Everyone talks about Montreal bagels and I will attest that they are (a) different than New York bagels; and (b) possibly I like them better (I realize that for some this is heresy, but I’m neither Jewish nor a New Yorker so what do I know from bagels anyway – other than that they’re never supposed to be square, yes Edinburgh I’m looking at you).  Montreal bagels, it turns out, are thinner (which translates to more crispy edges when you toast them), and a little sweeter, and come coated in nutty sesame seeds.  I particularly liked them toasted and topped with thick slices of summer ripe tomatoes generously seasoned with salt and pepper.

Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique is also a Montreal institution that lives up to the hype.  It’s open 24 hours a day/7 days a week and apparently for most of those hours there’s a line down the block for one of their smoked meat sandwiches.  However, we managed to luck out and wander past them at a time when there was no line at all (for reference – 10am on a Wednesday).  We didn’t want sandwiches at that hour, but went in on a whim anyway since we were there and emerged 15 minutes later gleefully clutching a vacuum sealed package of smoked meat to take down to Stowe for dinner that night.  I’m not entirely sure what the meat was – brisket maybe? but warmed up and served with some maple mustard we also got in Montreal it was delicious.

Best Food we stared at longingly and didn’t sneak across the border:    All the produce at the Marche Jean Talon

We walked in to the market – which is one of several large produce markets that serve Montreal – I stared and turned to my roommate and said seriously, ‘you understand that if we moved to Montreal I would basically live here, right?’  She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say ‘yeah, tell me something I don’t know,’ and then kindly didn’t point out that I don’t like the cold and that Montreal has an entire underground city just so that people can survive the winter, so the odds of me ever moving to Montreal are slim to approaching non-existent.

The Marche is fantastic and all of the fruit and vegetables were gorgeously arranged and gleamed enticingly we walked past.  We succumbed to the lure of nectarines and cherries to accompany our lunch, and tasted a thing neither of us had ever seen before called cerises de terre (which, when translated into English, turned out to be young tomatillos – they taste kind of like a pineapple met up with a sungold cherry tomato and did the hula for a while).

Entirely too many pictures of produce can be perused here.

Most Baffling Thing about Montreal:     The sheer overwhelming preponderance of sushi restaurants
And when I say preponderance what I really mean is, there were sushi restaurants in Montreal like there are patisseries in Paris.  Or, translated another way, there was almost literally a sushi restaurant on every block.  When we went to the Pointe-à-Callière museum there was an exhibit about the successive waves of immigrants who came to Montreal, and we kept expecting there to be an entire floor devoted to the enormous and long established Japanese population.  Except, as far as we could tell the Japanese immigration to Montreal is both recent, and fairly small (at least in proportion to the other immigrant communities like the Portuguese and Koreans).  So, we remain baffled by the sushi extravaganza that’s going on in Montreal.

This should not be confused with the most baffling thing about the drive to Montreal, when we took a random exit off the highway in search of a bathroom and coffee and discovered that in doing so we’d time warped back to the 1970s.  On one side of the highway we came across a restaurant whose entrance was a mock covered wagon; and on the other side of the highway was an amusement installation which featured both a scenic mini train ride and a bear show (no, I’m not kidding, no I didn’t take a picture, yes I’m still kicking myself about that).

The list above does not even begin to cover all the other wonderful things we saw/found/did in Montreal (and on our way there and back).  Other highlights included:

The Lavender Farm we stopped at on our way up, and the wine tasting we indulged in on our way back.

Maple syrup crème brulee gelato and Pear Whisky sorbet at Havre aux Glaces (no website) at the Marche Jean Talon.

Chocolate shooters at Juliette et Chocolate.

The delights of the Marche Bonsecours – I was worried it might be full of touristy tchotchkes, but turned out to house a series of boutiques devoted to local artisans.  We spent entirely too much money there, starting with the bottle of maple syrup whisky, and ending with earrings and knitted sweater/shawl thing.

The wine that was recommended to us by a charming and attentive waiter at the bistro we went to the first night we were in town.  I will never be able to find it again, and I kind of regret that I didn’t have a second glass when I had the chance.

The signs for Café Starbucks (no really, they were so precious we had to stop and take a picture – ditto on the British Empire Building, although I suppose that’s less precious and more just a relic of a more honest era).

More galleries of places we went in Montreal are here.

Cajun Chicken Salad (w/ nectarines, raspberries, blackberries & candied pepitas)
Yogurt Biscuits
Cheddar Cheese
Apple Butter

Cajun Chicken Salad
Taking advantage of piles of summer fruit while it’s around.

Recipe previously given:  Cajun Chicken Salad

Yogurt Biscuits
Particularly tasty with the apple butter and cheddar cheese.

Recipe previously given: No Parade for Me


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