Saturday, October 31, 2015

A weekend in Montreal ~ Local Dining Treasurers

If you've never been to Montreal, you really should consider it at least for a long weekend. The city is in the Canadian province of Quebec and the largest city in the province and the second-largest in Canada with a population of over 1.6 million. It is named after Mount Royal, the triple-peaked hill in the heart of the city, where we had a lovely morning hike up and down the mountain.
On Mount Royal overlooking Montreal
French is the city's official language and is the language spoken at home by more than half of the population. Interestingly, it is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. But not to fear if you are not ‘parlant français’, because Montreal is one of the most bilingual cities anywhere. Nowhere did we encounter difficulties because of our lack of language skills.
The city is a cultural gem, producing jazz, rock, pop and many visual arts. But as a foodie, today I wanted to tell you about our dining experiences in this historic city.

This was my fourth time in Montreal and when I think back on my visits I find that food is such a strong part of the Montreal identity. Poutine immediately springs to mind, as well as their unique method of making bagels. Of course Montreal is also famous for smoked meat, fine French dining and the national maple syrup. So on this visit we attempted to once again enjoy each of these.

Bagels: You're not in New York anymore!
Montreal is a city shaped by an immigrant population. It's interesting to note how many of their foods have Eastern European, and specifically Jewish, roots. For example, is there any food that says “Montreal” more than the bagel?

Since 1957, St. Viateur Bagel’s 24-hour operation has been churning out 12,000 hand-rolled bagels daily. Founder Myer Lewkowicz brought his famous recipe over from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, one block over, Fairmount Bagel founder Isadore Shlafman was baking bagels at the Original Fairmount Bagel Factory using the same technique. Each has its fans, although I could not tell them apart, but each has a line out the door, Be prepared to wait.

New York-style bagels are soft, chewy and doughy. Montreal-style bagels, on the other hand, are smaller, denser, crispier and sweeter. Both are boiled before they are baked, but Montreal bagels are boiled in water that has been sweetened with honey -- a defining characteristic of this style. Additionally Montreal bagels are baked in a wood-burning oven, which makes them extra crispy. About half the size of New York bagels and containing a much bigger hole, Montreal bagels are not meant for slicing. You can dip them in cream cheese, but we've been told that most Montrealers wouldn't typically slice them and spread them with cream cheese like you would a New York bagel.

Poutine - A classic lunch!
This dish is pronounced,"poo-tzin" not "poo-teen", although the server will understand what you are ordering either way. Quebec's preeminent fast food staple of french fries with gravy and cheese curds, was recently promoted to the official rank of Canada's National Dish. 

Pulled Pork Poutine
In 2001, this dish became the symbol of chef Martin Picard’s groundbreaking highbrow-meets-lowbrow style. His version starts with a bed of french fries, topped with a cream sauce laced with foie gras and egg yolks, and a final topping of cheese curds and seared nuggets of foie gras, Picard’s poutine set the stage for restaurants of all types to add varying toppings to the dish. Kevin and I enjoyed two varieties: one with shredded duck and the other with pulled barbequed pork with bacon. Both were delicious at this microbrewery in Montreal's historic city center, Vieux-Montréal.

Gibby's - Steak and Seafood in an Historic Setting
The entrance archway to Gibbys stands on what was once the south bank of the Little St. Pierre River near the original Huron settlement in the old city. In 1833 the Little St. Pierre River was covered over to allow the construction of St. Anne’s Market, now Place Youville, where Gibby's is located. The site housed the Parliament buildings of the newly united Province of Canada in 1844 as well as part of a series of buildings once belonging to the Sisters of Charity General Hospital, founded by Marguerite d’Youville, and hence the street name. Most of the current building where the restaurant is located dates from 1765 to 1850 and was part of the Youville Stables.

Gibby's opened about 40 years ago and has been popular with locals and tourists alike. Because of its historic nature, restaurant reservations are needed well in advance for weekends and holidays, and are even a good idea on weekdays. Gibbys’s success can be attributed to not only have good food, but also friendly service, free parking, an extensive wine list, which pairs nicely with its warm decor with candlelit, stone-walled, low-ceilinged, wood-beamed dining rooms. As for the menu, think classic steak house fare plus extras, including sour pickles and warm bread. All main courses are served with a salad – and a small scoop of palate-cleansing lemon sorbet that arrives just before the main course. For seafood lovers, there was a local fish called a 'salmon trout', which consisted of a fillet of a large fork-tailed trout from the lakes of Canada. It had the pink color and flavor of salmon but the consistency and thickness of lake trout. Kevin pronounced it quite good. The shellfish options (from lobsters large and miniature) to shrimp prepared in different ways, were all quite good with generous portions. If choosing steak, I would recommend the "Gibby's Cut (bone-in)  Rib Eye, which has the best flavor and texture of the steak options.

Gibby's Shrimp
Dinner is not inexpensive, and main courses run between $30 and $50 Canadian dollars. There’s no children’s menu (perhaps surprising considering the number of families that you see here) and if there is a birthday in the group let them know in advance for a free birthday cake. Portions are large, and a soup or salad is included with the main course, which explains why there are so few appetizers listed on the menu. Overall, a nice dining experience that travelers should enjoy.

Schwartz’s Smoked Meat
If you’re a Montrealer, chances are you grew up eating smoked meat. There are countless restaurants in the city where you can get a good smoked meat sandwich, but the one that has been the subject of documentaries, inspired musicals and written about in books is Schwartz’s. Founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, Schwartz’s is a long and narrow, white-tiled room packed with communal tables where everyone sits elbow to elbow enjoying his famed sandwiches with fries, Cherry Coke and pickles. The preservative-free smoked meat is made from briskets marinated with herbs and spices for 10 days and then smoked. The hand-slicing of the hot brisket, results in slices of smoked meat that retain their shape and juiciness, and when spread with yellow mustard and served between slices of rye bread is perfection.  But like the famed bagel houses, the lines are out the door from noon to the wee hours  of the morning, so be prepared to wait.

Fine French Dining
Montreal is packed with well trained, creative chefs and it's not hard to find restaurants that prepare food in the French haute cuisine style, which is characterized by meticulous preparation and careful presentation of food (usually at high prices). This trip we enjoyed two such dinners, one at the dining room of the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth and the other in old Montreal at Chez l'Épicier.

We rarely ever eat in hotel restaurants as the food is not usually anything to write home (or this blog) about. However, we were intrigued by the seasonal table d'hôte menu offered at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth (Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth) where I always stay when in Montreal. Fairmont hotels are well known for the quality of their food, well trained and creative chefs and exceptional service. So we decided to try the October's Mushroom Festival menu. Each course was creative and well prepared, but not stuffy or arranged so as to impress only visually. Each course was of a moderate size perfect to enjoy the flavors of the season, which were complex. And as you can see in the photo, the menus were in both French and English. The price was also extremely reasonable.

Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Mushroom Festival
HOTEL SELECTIONS:  As noted above I always stay at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal because it is both centrally located and one of the best hotels in the city. If you are just wanting to tour the old town or you are attending a convention, then Le Westin Montreal Hotel or the InterContinental Montreal are both good choices. The Fairmont sits between the old town and Mount Royal, in the business district. Within a few block you have shopping and museums. An easy 20-25 minute walk takes to the Basilique Notre-Dame (highly recommended) and then right into old Montreal. The same 20-25 minutes in the other direction and you've entered the park at the foot of Mount Royal. The service and staff are incomparable at the Fairmont. 

At Chez l'Épicier you'll find a classic French fusion menu printed on brown paper, with tables covered in crisp white linens.  The menu includes seasonal creative dishes. Chef Godbout is a master of his trade and a meal at Chez l'Épicier is a feast for all the senses, if you choose to splurge. The restaurant is listed on USA Today's 10 Best, although you might be surprised at this when viewing the venue humble storefront located in the heart of tourist area in old Montreal.

Chez l'Épicier in Vieux Montréal
Chez L’épicier’s trademark cocktail is a classic sparkling apple cider with a splash of blueberry maple syrup and it's recommend you begin your evening here. The amuse–bouche (complementary small appetizer) for the evening was a melt-in-your-mouth Macaroon flavored with an olive and goat cheese filling, for which the restaurant is also well known. It whetted our appetite for the first course (mine the seasonal squash soup and Kevin's the raw fish), both of which were playful and full of flavor. Kevin greatly enjoyed the duck entree, which had been de-boned and the meat placed into a round mold surrounded by the crispy duck skin. It was tender, juicy and flavorful. I enjoyed the scallops for the main course, and while very tasty, were unremarkable. Montreal Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman probably put it best; “In a nutshell, I’d say Godbout’s food is out there, with fancy plate presentations that you will either appreciate or leave you scratching your head. I like his food when it’s simple, but when he plays it fussy, it’s VERY fussy.”

Maple Syrup & Poor Man's Pudding
According to the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers, 77% of the world's maple syrup is produced in the province Montreal calls home. The inhabitants of the  province consume more maple products per capita than anywhere else in the world. And when you've tasted the sweet maple sap in its many forms, you can understand why. While it's sold everywhere for tourists to take home, find the time to enjoy it during breakfast or made into one of many pastries and desserts.

One of my favorites is pouding chômeur (poor man's pudding)  which is a dessert that was created by factory workers early during the Great Depression in Quebec.  Pouding chômeur is served as a regional dessert, perhaps more popular during the saison des sucres, when maple sap is collected and processed. It is usually part of the meal at a sugar shack where the hot syrup is poured over the cake mixture before baking.  The cake then rises through the liquid which settles at the bottom at the pan, mixing with the batter and creating a distinct layer at the bottom of the dish. For these reasons, it is best prepared in individual ramekins and served with a whipped cream topping.

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