Saturday, July 16, 2011

Road Trip: Montréal

It has recently come to our attention that places other than Philly have food, restaurants, and the like. To investigate, we headed north of the border (inevitably in the slowest customs line) to that little slice of Francophone Europe in North America: Quebec. Montreal, specifically. The only other time I'd been there was in the winter, and unless you like frostbite and getting your tongue stuck to telephone poles, a word of advice: DO NOT GO TO MONTREAL IN THE WINTER.

Anyway, being blessed with gorgeous weather, we arrived and paid a visit to one of Lauren's former co-workers who is a Montreal native and now lives smack in the middle of the very historical and somewhat touristy Vieux Montreal neighborhood. We lucked out because there was a fireworks show that night, and her roof was a great vantage point. A most gracious host, she told us the best places to get two of the more well-known Montreal delicacies. After the fireworks, and getting close to midnight, we went out in search of bagels.

One $10 cab ride later we arrived at Fairmount Bagels, one of the two 24-hour bakeries (along with St-Viateur) vying for Montreal bagel supremacy. Even at this late hour, workers behind the counter were using absurdly long paddles to shuffle the bagels in and out of the wood-fired oven, and the bready delights were piling up, presumably headed for shops all around the city.

We got a bagel each and a tub of cream cheese and sat down on the bench outside. Shortly after finishing those, we were back inside buying another half-dozen to take back to the room.

Montreal bagels are different in that the hole is much larger than the typical bagel. They're also boiled in honey water, which imparts a slight sweetness to them. Though the classic flavor is sesame, we both really liked the "tout garni", which is like an everything bagel but with even more everything on it: sesame, poppy, onion, cumin seed, caraway, and I'm not even sure what else. Perhaps more remarkable was the Liberté brand cream cheese, which has a much more distinct cultured "tang" to it than good ol' Philadelphia. It made a great match with the bagels.

The second tip we got from our Montreal insider was to head to Schwartz's for a viande fumée, or smoked meat, sandwich. I had heard about this place in the course of my pre-trip research, but I was skeptical of it being one of those tourist-oriented joints that coasts by on reputation. Luckily, this was not the case.

Since it was just a short walk from our room, I grabbed a sandwich for take-out. Just as well, because even at barely 5:00 on a Sunday, the place was packed. Lauren doesn't like mustard, so I wanted to get some on the side, but the (somewhat acerbic) counter person said that they don't do that. Oh well. A few minutes later I was walking out the door with a greasy paper bag in my hand and a smile on my face.

Man. Great stuff. Like pastrami, but better: spicer, savorier, more melt-in-the-mouth tender. Even without the mustard, one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. Go there. You may be tempted to take one of the whole briskets sitting in the front window home with you, though good luck driving home with that aroma wafting through your car.

If you're interested in DIY dining, the Atwater Market is a great place to visit. Outside, there are produce stalls and scores of flower vendors, making it a nice place to stroll along and see some of Canada's native wildlife.

The inside portion has bakers, cheesemongers, and butchers featuring some really awesome-looking stuff. We stopped by one morning to assemble a picnic for the afternoon: cantaloupe, some jambon cru from Cochons Toutes Rondes (a little salty), some nice looking tomatoes, a cheese that turned out to be somewhat unremarkable (just our bad luck), and of course a baguette.

Since it was strawberry season in Quebec and the berries were piled high, we also got this attractive display to take home.

Finally, there was one more thing that I knew I couldn't leave Montreal without trying: poutine. Though its etymology is disputed, one interpretation is that it means "mess", and this is an apt description. At its base, it's a pile of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. At the recommendation of a co-worker, we went to Resto La Banquise to give it a shot. I was surprised that La Banquise was a pleasant, upscale-diner-type spot, having expected such a maniacal creation to come from the depths of some dive bar or greasy spoon. So here it is, the Poutine Rachel, which has sauteed onions, peppers and mushrooms in addition to the rest of the mess:

This is something I just didn't quite "get". The fries were good, impressively non-greasy ... the cheese curds gave some textural interest, but not a lot of flavor ... and the gravy was just sort of bland. It wasn't at all unpleasant, but it wasn't as outrageously good as you'd expect the combo to be. Personally I would have loved a richer-tasting gravy on them, but I don't think that's how it's done. Oh well.

We had a great time up in Montreal, and if you're anywhere near the border, I'd recommend a trip. Aside from the food, there are some great sights to see, and it's a nice town with pockets of European flair – a nice escape from being American that doesn't require a plane ride. Now to arrange a FedEx smoked meat delivery ...

Fairmount Bagel on UrbanspoonSchwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen on UrbanspoonResto la Banquise on Urbanspoon