Parfaitement Montréalais

Jeffrey Steen |
Travel

Somewhere north of my hotel, in a remarkably Parisian arrondisement, a brasserie buzzes with mile-a-minute French, violently gesticulating hommes des affaires, and three-inch-thick pain perdu made with homemade brioche and salty-sweet butterscotch. Lunch is a lost art; it's two o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday and I'm dipping spindly pommes frites in a crock of mayonnaise.

In any American café, my french-fried indulgence would be the unmistakeable mark of life gone awry—a breakup, perhaps, or a job lost to a souring economy. In Montreal, however, such indulgences are the norm. After a movie, couples stroll to the nearest café for beef tartare and a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau; the curtains fall after the fat lady sings and friends gather in the local bar for Asian dumplings, calamari, and green tea martinis; the morning lulls on a winter Sunday and strangers converge on the doorstep of a bistro for poutine au foie gras. It would seem, I muse as I polish off the last of my curly frites, that Montreal is a city that eats—regardless.

 

Saturday, 1:30pm

Emerging from the recesses of his 24-man kitchen, Chef Charles-Emmanuel Pariseau nods to the loyal brunch crowd at his French brasserie, Leméac. Rarely do chefs mingle with diners in this city, but there are notable exceptions. 

“I'm on my way to look over the lunch rush,” he mutters with a rich French accent, constantly looking over his shoulder for signs of a needy line cook. But as we talk and I nurse my nutty café, he calms. “I have been here as executive chef for two years. The only thing we've thought of changing is the color of the sign.” In its seven-year history, the brasserie—an ever-popular concept in Montreal—has never seen much of a change.

The mantra here is classic with a touch of new—a common theme in French-tinged Montreal restaurants. The recognizable features from the Old World are all accounted for: seared foie gras, Potatoes Dauphinois, Coquille St. Jacques, beef tartare. But it's the modern adaptation that keeps the concept fresh. It would be anathema to soak homemade brioche in butterscotch in a Parisian kitchen, but it's a popular feature at Leméac.  

Chef and I exchange a few laughs as I finish my potent cup of coffee, and he heads toward the kitchen. It's nearing dinnertime, and I have a reservation at Brontë, the swanky French restaurant on Sherbrooke. 

 

Saturday, 7:30pm

Lined with strips of light, occasional high-backed booths, and unadorned tables, Brontë is a study in New Age French. Or, perhaps, more appropriately, New Age Montreal. Once upon a time, the old city lost its place as center of society, and instead of renovating the old, natives spread out and created the new. Brontë, with its minimalist design and constant bustle, carries much the old city would have nothing to do with. The cuisine, fashioned in small with courses aplenty, graces the palate with art culinaire nouveau. On a lavishly spent night, a pair of scallops melt in my mouth, pepper-crusted Kobe beef crashes my vanilla senses, and olive oil-poached salmon smoothes the bite of a fruit-forward New World Cabernet. Conversation rolls between the courses as conversation should—busy talk of business, the complex world of French-meets-English in Quebec, and how mille feuille is far superior to banal puff pastry (each layer is filled with flavored cream, you see). Two sips of an espresso later, my cohort and I are collecting our coats and hailing a taxi in the bitter cold. Another meal—perfectly executed, perfectly French. No—not French exactly.Parfaitement Montréalais.

 

Sunday, 9am

Bundled in as many layers as my winter coat allows, I stumble out of my hotel and call for a taxi. I'm headed to the legendary Jean-Talon Marché, followed by lunch at NewTown and dinner at KOKO. 

The Marché is kin to Seattle's Pike Place Market—a hodgepodge of vendors huddled together in one corner of the city, selling everything from meat to imported olive oil and handmade pastas. But where I expect to find older, experienced, full-of-life vendors guarding their wares, I find instead young teens counting out change loudly in slurred French: “Un, deux, trois, quatre!...” Meanwhile, behind me, the scent of cinnamon buns and French bread wafts up from the collection of boulangeries that guard the entrance. On the outskirts of this giant market sit quiet storefronts with their own specialties—boucheriesfromageries, and shops whose shelves are filled with 1,001 varieties of vinegar. Sampling a little, getting a little lost, and plodding through my first-grade French, I leave the snow-covered Marché with a giant palmier—flaky puff pastry dough rolled in sugar, flattened, and baked. Breakfast has never been sweeter. 

 

Sunday, 12:30pm

Across the city in a much more modern neighborhood sits NewTown—a trifecta of lounge, restaurant, and club started, unusually, by a Formula One racer. It sits quietly next to a handful of bistros and the ubiquitous Hard Rock Café. 

As I wander in from the dank cold of the metro, my hands still covered in sugar from my palmier, I ask for a seat in the lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Rue Crescent and Concordia University. Cozying into my low-lying plush chair, the waitress meanders over and asks me in the fastest French I have ever heard if I want something before something something.

She registers my confusion and switches instantly to English: “Would monsieur like something to drink before ordering lunch?” I nod, finding the wine list on the table in front of me. I point to a glass of rosé—something light, I imagine. “Bon,” she smiles, and gracefully wanders back to the bar. Meanwhile, I eye la carte du jour. Prominently featured, as though it were as common sensical a lunchtime indulgence as a hamburger at McDonald's, is NewTown's beef tartare—bedecked with minced onion, fresh capers, and sided with a mound of pommes frites

Fifteen minutes later, balancing cubes of Kobe beef on a french fry, I resign myself to being full. I down my wine, pay the bill, utter my obligatory mercis, and trudge back out to the snow. In the distance, shards of ice crunch in syncopated motion on the St. Lawrence; behind me, families funnel into cafés for afternoon chocolats chauds

 

Sunday, 7pm

My hotel sits on Rue Sherbrooke, or, as the natives seem to know it, Restaurant Row. To the east, a healthy helping of un-French restaurants congregate—abut the predominantly French west. There is no avoiding the constant balancing act of French and English; even the street signs struggle to find a linguistic home. 

OPUS Hotel, the second of its kind (the first was opened in Vancouver), aptly carries marks of both the old and the new. The entrance takes guests in through the open-air, minimalist lobby up to angular rooms, each painted in a different color. Flanking this side of the hotel is a partially restored, early 20 th century building that bears the marks of the old city. OPUS prefers the casual high-end hotel experience, but defers to local culture when appropriate. 

After a siesta, I wander down to KOKO where Executive Chef Felix Turianskyj has prepared a pre-fixe menu for me and the host of OPUS's directeurs—Owner John Evans, Food and Beverage Director Chad, and others whose names I'm sure to forget. In one corner, a white-capped bar stretches with green tea martinis and vodka-crans. In another, pale white tables nestle together, keeping with the clinical motif. 

“Cocktail?” a curiously young waiter asks from over my shoulder. I've paired at least two meals today with glasses of wine, but this seems to be the norm. “Yes, gin and tonic, please.” What happens in Montreal, stays in Montreal, right?

Meanwhile, dishes appear at regular intervals in front of us. This is, I'm told, the only small plate Asian restaurant in Montreal. Given the ever-growing crowds, I can imagine it's been successful. 6,500 restaurants in this city, and KOKO has found an unexplored niche. 

As cocktails flow and wine swills, courses mount. We sample everything from the light and simple—Asian salad with a coconut-lime vinaigrette—to what might well be considered New Age comfort food—shrimp and pork dumplings, soft shell crab, and Kobe flank steak. And, though I've eaten more than most competitive eaters, I find that I'm strangely hungry. 

The conversation volleys between past weekend exploits to la culture Montréalaise, followed by a tribute to the work of our eminently capable chef Felix and how much I need to try the bagels at the Fairmount. Slowly, the courses fade. Cocktails continue, and in a whir, our tables are reconfigured so that KOKO becomes what it hinted at earlier—a lounge aglow with orange-tinted lights. Young college kids meander through as a DJ plays aggressive dance music. My dinner companions and I sprawl out on plush white couches to rub our stomachs. 

“Ah, Montreal,” I slur, ever so slightly intoxicated. Everyone nods in agreement. “I've only been here three days, but I could stay another three.”

As the music fades from one song and transitions into the next, I feel my stomach grumble. 

Is it possible? I'm hungry again.