Munching through Montreal

French savoir-faire infuses city’s cafes, markets and restaurants

Bakers at St. Viateur Bagel Shop prepare to fill another day’s order. The shop has been a fixture in Montreal since 1957.
Bakers at St. Viateur Bagel Shop prepare to fill another day’s order. The shop has been a fixture in Montreal since 1957.

— It was a dark and stormy night - the sort of rain-verging-on-snow evening that sends bedraggled tourists in search of a dry restaurant and a wet martini.

A friend had tipped me off to the charms of the upscale Beaver Club at Montreal’s Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel, and although I’m usually more at home in bistros and brasseries, on this dreary night a little pampering seemed just the ticket.

Arriving soaked, umbrellas turned inside out by the wind, my husband and I must have looked more woebegone than we realized. As soon as we were seated, a sympathetic waiter rushed over. “First a glass of champagne, no?”


And things got even better after that.

The cuisine proved to be about as far from run-of-the mill hotel restaurant food as one can get, and we blissfully ate our way through lobster Charlotte, unctuous lamb chops and a delicate citrus souffle. Service could not have been better, even on this busy night.

There was even entertainment of a sort. A tiny woman with a large wicker basket over one arm was strolling around the room, chatting with diners. Soon Beaver Club manager Jean-Yvon Le Dour asked, “Would you like a visit from the mushroom lady?”

Pourquoi pas? Why not? Especially when said mushroom lady looked as if she had just stepped out of a fairy tale. Before long, Jacqueline Beaudry Dion was regaling us with everything we could ever want to know about wild mushrooms, pulling samples from her basket that ranged from tiny gelatinous blobs to sturdy brown caps as large as my hand. The storybook aura lingered when, as she turned to head back into the stormy night, she said, “You know those brightly colored mushrooms in all the old fairy tales? The ones with the spots? They’re very poisonous and shouldn’t be in books for children.”

The rain and the mushroom lady - to say nothing of the excellent food, which appropriately enough featured lots of mushroom sides and garnishes - lent an air of enchantment to our evening at the Beaver Club. We were tempted to return on another night, but in a city proud of its more than 6,000 restaurants we wanted to explore as many as we could during our short stay.

On another cold but fortunately rain-free evening, a friend met us for dinner at Brasserie T in the city’s lively Quartier des Spectacles, the cultural heart of the city where public events ranging from festivals to high-tech lighting displays are held throughout the year.

Close to the Museum of Contemporary Art and quickly accepted as one of the city’s newest hot spots, Brasserie T is in the same deft hands that have turned the restaurant Toque into one of Montreal’s premier dining establishments. Less pricey than its glam sibling, Brasserie T focuses on upscale comfort food and an excellent wine list. We warded off the evening’s chill with plenty of wine, starters of cod brandade and a goat cheese salad, entrees of meaty pork shank cooked until it slithered off the bone, and a shared plate of raw milk Quebec cheeses. The one member of our party still able to face dessert raved over a feather-light eclair.

Not yet ready to call it a night, we headed to Pullman, a three-level wine bar on Parc Avenue on the outskirts of Montreal’s trendy Plateau area. It was a Thursday evening, but the city’s young professionals were out in force, sharing bottles of wine and nibbling on olives and cheese.For an early start to the weekend, it couldn’t have been a better choice. Above our heads, an enormous chandelier twinkled. A second glance showed that it was made entirely from bar glasses.

On Saturday morning we stopped at an old favorite, St. Viateur Bagels, for sesame bagels still so hot from the oven we could barely bite into them. Despite our early arrival, lines snaked out the door. Montreal bagels are lighter than their New York cousins, and, being made with a touch of honey, are sweeter as well.

Bagels fueled us for a morning-long visit to the Jean-Talon Market where, throughout the year, Montreal farmers sell their produce in carefully arranged displays so color-coordinated that they look like fine art. Here, too, you can buy breads, pastries, unusual cheeses and a variety of imported foods. Several inexpensive market restaurants offer cuisine ranging from Italian to Syrian, but it’s also possible to cobble together a lunch from samples offered by the vendors - a slice of pear here, a bite of cheese there, a sip of cider, a chocolate truffle - while mooning over perfect red apples and wedges of pate.

Jean-Talon Market is one of four city-run markets in Montreal, the most famous of which is the huge Atwater Market. Known as a great place to hobnob with Montrealers, Jean-Talon is less touristy than Atwater, more earthy, and more oriented to the everyday needs of the city’s year-round residents.

Of course there’s more to do in Montreal than eat, although foodies will find it hard to tear themselves away from the restaurants for long. Montreal’s fabulous Underground City is full of shops where it’s easy to while away an entire day (and nosh on Montreal versions of fast food). Just north of the city is the excellent Montreal Casino for anyone wanting to commune with Lady Luck (or dine at its elegant Nuances restaurant, a reason even nongamblers make the trek here). And, back in town, are some 34 well-regarded museums - many with cozy cafes serving surprisingly good, and sometimes unexpectedly sophisticated, fare.

The cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, offers everything from the ubiquitous croque monsieur to venison tartare with red curry. Near McGill University, at the McCord Museum of Canadian History’s little gem of a cafe, you can put together an inexpensive three-course lunch of soup or salad, a main dish (usually pasta, chicken, or fish), and a light dessert that will set you up for an afternoon of shopping or museum hopping.

Having munched our way through markets and museums, there was just one more stop to make. I’d heard that Birks, the upscale Phillips Square department store known for its fabulous diamond jewelry, had opened a cafe serving lunch, a weekend brunch, and afternoon tea. Birks Cafe turned out to be very classy indeed, and to my delight in this city where much seems achingly modern, very retro.

In a bow to the past, ladies who lunch arrive in dresses and pearls or neat business suits; the wait staff dress formally in black, and the food is served on elegant china. The whole idea of dining in a store mezzanine harks back to the days of huge department stores where one might have had lunch with Maman and Tante Camille after a morning of shopping.

That’s by no means a criticism, however, and no department store cafe in my experience ever came close to this fabulous place. Birks is a charming spot to relax, and the food, if a bit expensive, is well worth it. We happily ate our way through big bowls of curried butternut squash soup dotted with tofu and seasoned with coriander, followed by homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and garnished with mushrooms and truffles.

An interesting twist here is that most of the dishes have been tweaked by a dietitian and the menu highlights each item’s health-enhancing vitamins. Still, desserts star, as you might expect in a cafe where you are greeted on the landing by an enormous chocolate lion. Diners choose among macaroons, chocolates by Christophe Morel, who created the chocolate lion and whose work has already won widespread acclaim, and Birks’ signature desserts presented in slim glasses called “verrines.” These include cheesecakes and mousses of all flavors from chocolate to chestnut, many adorned with fresh berries.

They say an army travels on its stomach. So, of course, do many tourists. In Montreal it’s a pleasant journey indeed.

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Travel, Pages 56 on 03/06/2011

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