Ernest Hemingway once called Paris “a moveable feast.” The second-largest French-speaking city in the world, Montreal, could also be described as such, for its remarkable and unforgettable juxtaposition of the old and the new throughout the city and its variety of flavours – in every sense of the word.
Last week, along with my group of guests – we were a truly diverse group, as my guests were from New Mexico, another from Illinois, another from Florida, and one from Holland, Netherlands – finished up our whirlwind tour (and their first visit) of the city with a focus on Old Montreal and on local foods.
Browsing in Old Montreal
Thursday morning we headed down to the Old Port where we shared breakfast on Place Jacques Cartier. Unfortunately, I’m starting on a low point by mentioning this. One reason why a lot of locals don’t go to the Old Port is because it’s home to many poor-quality restaurants that rip tourists off. Paradoxically, it is also home to some of the greatest restaurants, but you have to be really “in the know” (and have a fat wallet) before trying a restaurant out. (What are the good ones? I’ve heard Kashmir, Le Club Chasse et Pêche, and Brit & Chips are among the best). The casual tourist is likely to get ripped off. True, even the poorest restaurant will provide a spectacular view, but you have to tolerate their food in order to enjoy it. We ended up at one such establishment on the Place Jacques Cartier. Great ambiance, horrible service and food.
If you want a fantastic and affordable brunch in Old Montreal, I suggest Montreal breakfast institution Eggspectation on St-Jacques near the Notre-Dame cathedral, or a simple (and inexpensive) breakfast at the locals’ favourite diner, La Belle Province. You could also grab a croissant or bagel and coffee to go elsewhere in the city and bring it over to the Old Port for a mini-picnic. For an affordable and delicious lunch or dinner… walk to neighboring Chinatown.
The Thursday we were in the Old Port, the 4th hour of the Today Show with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb was in town taping to promote the city as a “European vacation in North America.” They actually produced a number of entertaining and lively segments that highlighted some of the major attractions in the city. Like the good Americans we were, we flocked to watch them along with a number of other Americans who live in the city. (And yes, two of my friends and I were shown on camera when the camera panned the passers-by at one point during the taping, much to the delight of my grandparents back in the U.S. who were watching.)
Regardless of the season, the Place Jacques-Cartier is spectacular at any time, with musicians, street performers, and a lively ambiance. It’s definitely worth strolling through.
The Old Port is in general a wonderful place to simply wander and get lost in the old architecture and scenery. I love to walk along the scenic Rue St-Paul and along the docks, or Quays. I also love stepping into the majestic Notre-Dame cathedral and the quiet Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours and Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market).
At Cabaret du Roy
On Friday night, I took a risk and took my guests to Le Cabaret du Roy, a restaurant that promised to be a 17th-century traditional Quebec-style restaurant, complete with waiters and musicians in period dress acting as though they were from the era. The decor re-created a very traditional Quebec, appearing to be the interior of a wood cabin with remnants of ships and old candelabras. The musicians added a lively and very traditional flair. Role-playing a 17th-century tavern patron was fun. The food was stunning and spectacular, with very hearty portions. All ingredients were consistent with what is found locally, cooked according to traditional methods and presented in a way that was authentic to the era. I ate an absolutely fantastic piece of salmon topped with a light lemon and lavender sauce, served with mixed steamed vegetables and small cubes of buckwheat croutons. As always when you go to a theme restaurant, don’t expect intimate conversation and be prepared for lots of diversions and socializing (read: interruptions by the musicians who blare out 16th century folk songs while drinking pints of beer), but I give them major props for such a unique and memorable concept.
We ended our grand tour of “the other moveable feast” with a veritable feast for all of the senses at the Atwater market. This market peaks around August, as local produce flows in from the neighbouring country towns. Everything is sumptuously displayed at the Atwater market, as decadent as a Dutch still life; the sellers are friendly and helpful, the prices are fair. My favourite items to pick up are the local berries in June and July, peaches and pears in August, and apples in September. There’s also an incredible bakery, which I recommend visiting early in the day because they sell out of many of their fresh, affordable artisan breads by afternoon. I also love the local flower vendors who sell fresh-picked bouquets all summer. The florists who stay year-round aren’t bad, either, especially when you need a perk-up in the dead of winter. The market is open all year, thanks to some clever heated enclosures and permanent storefronts. In the late winter, I highly recommend visiting to taste-test locally produced maple syrups and to enjoy the tire sur la neige (maple taffy poured over snow) without having to drive an hour outside of town to a traditional Cabane à sucre.
Old Montreal in winter: Gorgeous, but COLD!
I cooked dinner for my friends on their last night here and we enjoyed great conversation. It was a fitting end to a visit to this city. As evidenced by its cafe culture and relaxed atmosphere, this city is, bottom line, all about good company and good conversation.
I will greatly miss it when I leave for the Southern Hemisphere this weekend!