Montréal has been on my travel list for years because of its European culture and diversity, primarily. Why I didn’t assume that came with some of the best cuisine, I don’t know.
When the words “Montreal” and “food” pop up in the same sentence, you’re generally talking about three things: poutine, bagels and smoked meat. And while I like all three of those things in theory, none of them have the power to motivate me the way, say fresh seafood, perfect pho or epic pastas might. Poutine, frankly, sounds like something I might have come up with at age 12. Smoked meat …so like, pastrami? As for bagels, well, I was arriving directly from New York.
So what a surprise it was, then, on my first morning on the island city, when I procured a “tout garn” (everything) cylinder from the famed St.-Viateur shop, that I found myself wondering if I had ever actually eaten a bagel. Well, not a Montréal bagel, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong: I love New York bagels. The crisp exterior, soft interior is one of the perfect textures of all time. Or so I thought.
At St.-Viateur, on my first morning, a different version — smaller, with a larger center hole —was piled up on a wide chute extending from the wood-fired oven. There, a line forms at just about all hours of the day (it’s open 24 hours), the aproned workers at the front aptly handling orders in both French and English as they tossed the rounds into paper bags. St.-Viateur is one of two legendary bagel shops in the Mile-End neighborhood (the other is Fairmont, which I also sampled), a testament to the area’s thick Jewish roots with a wave of immigrants arriving in the city from Eastern Europe during World War II.
I ordered my “all-dressed” bagel and when I got back to the sun-dappled, plant-filled apartment I rented for the week, tore into the thing, sans cutting or toasting, as I was told the Montréalaise do, dipping each pull into a small tub of Liberté cream cheese. Just …wow. Doughier and more uniform in texture than the New York variety, there was just a hint of sweetness and smokiness from the wood char. Just as impressive was the cream cheese, tangier and more whipped than the Philadelphia most of us in the U.S. are accustomed to.
These days, I’ve found I’m almost annoyingly difficult to impress when it comes to food. After years of extensive travel, a stint as a food writer and an insatiable appetite for trying new things, I find myself disappointed with a lot of meals. My first few days in LA this summer were filled with duds, to be honest. In Denver, mostly everything was just fine. Even in New Orleans, one of the cities most talked about with food, my friend Megan and I struck out way more than we should have.
This context isn’t for the intention of sounding snobby or critical. It’s just to convey my feeling that in most places, the food scene has extended so widely that it’s hard to find truly elite consistency over a period of time.
And also to illustrate the impressiveness of my most recent jaunt. In Montréal, this bagel was just the beginning of a week of food that left me absolutely dazzled.
The evening before, after arriving, famished, I settled in at the iconic Lester’s Deli for some of that smoked meat I’d heard about. It arrived at my table as the finale of a perfect delicatessen procession: first a plate (a plate!) of perky dill pickles, the fastest way to my heart if we’re honest, a minute later, a small tub of vinegary coleslaw, then a mound of thick, brown fries, and finally, the meat — brisket that is cured, then smoked, then made less into a sandwich than simply piled within four walls of mustard-slathered spongey white rye. It WAS similar to stellar NY pastrami, but with abundant jolts of peppercorn and coriander. The meat itself was as rich and fatty as butter, begging to be scooped up by the forkful once the carb vessels were gone.
Still, I wasn’t completely smitten until I visited the markets. Walking around my Mile-End ‘hood, I was charmed by the little groceries whose produce counters spilled out onto the sidewalks during the day; black cherries and fresh fiddleheads gleaming in the sun. Then, I biked over to Marché Atwater, a labyrinth of stalls pressed up against the Lachine Canal. I walked into the boulangerie, Première Moisson, and instantly was having flashbacks of Paris, and the overwhelming cases of croissants, sugar dusted tarts, berry-filled pastries and every beautiful baguette, loaf and roll you could imagine. The next day, I ventured to the reputed Marché Jean-Talon and alone and time-crunched though I was, felt the urge to whip up an elaborate, vegetable-focused meal after ogling row after row of picture-perfect produce. There were heirloom tomatoes, dimpled and plump red, and equally ripe cherry tomatoes on tiny vines. There were chive flowers and long slender carrots, ropes of garlic scapes and clusters of purple garlic knobs, comically cute mushrooms and pristine lettuce cups. I sampled from the plates of cut bounty, sucked down half a dozen bright PEI oysters and grabbed a couple peaches and a small container of deep red Quebec strawberries for later.
Taking advantage of the extensive bike infrastructure across Montréal, over the course of the week I traversed the many neighborhoods, breezing past sidewalk benches and patios, marveling at the affluence of colorful, cornice-topped buildings with deep bay windows, spiral staircases and wrought iron balconies dripping with vines.
Each community was so distinct in feel, all giving ode to the striking diversity of this city of 1.7 million, an extraordinary example of bilingual capacity. Literally everyone I met spoke both English and French, at least conversationally, and I heard several other predominant languages, including Spanish and Yiddish, too. In Little Italy, I feasted on Neapolitan-style pizza, the fresh, tomato-y sauce slathered atop the mushrooms and cheese and anchovies. It was good enough to take the second half home and skip a dinner to eat it again. Nearby, the Alati-Caserta bakery boasted not just tempting cannolis, cakes and tarts of all sorts, but also sfogliatelle, chantilly cream-filled lobster tails and an air-light lemon granita I enjoyed outside, on the Maple-shaded stoop of a building next door.
In the Plateau, amongst blocks of brick walls cloaked with murals, I savored the best rotisserie chicken of my life from a styrofoam container inside a sweaty Portuguese nook — for $10, I received a quarter of a blistered bird, along with salad, rice and a mountain of fries. And the chicken, my god, it practically fled from the bones, bursting with juicy flavor and dunked in a buttery hot sauce. I was honestly flustered afterward (though thankfully I maintained the mental acuity to buy an egg tart before departing), it was so DANG GOOD.
In Chinatown, lured by noodles being hand-pulled in the street-facing window, I posted up at a three-seat counter and practically dove into a chili-laden bowl of beef noodles, the delightfully irregular strands buoyant in the spicy broth.
Finally, I trekked to Chez Claudette, the little haunt I’d selected for my first poutine.
In theory, poutine sounds like a mess. The idea of French fries in a saucer along with fried meat, cheese and gravy sounds like overkill, to be generous. Not to mention soggy. Imagining all of that together, as a full meal, is like contemplating putting the whole of McDonald’s menu into soup form. But this is Montréal, and I’d already learned, among other things, that fries here don’t need to be crispy to be great.
To my delight, my chosen poutine showed up not as a pile of slop but as a gloriously tousled arrangement of ingredients that had been given their own care: hot dog-like sausage and Canadien bacon, seared until the fat melted, then hardened into caramelized bits of crunch; cheese curds, equally melty and squeaky, as the Canadiens like to say; a silky ladle-full of umami-packed gravy; and underneath, the thick brown fries, saturated in a way that somehow made them better. Decadent, definitely. But the amazing part was the balance — some combination of acid and spice that kept me going for another forkful.
Wizards, all of them, I decided.
I heaved out of the little diner, stuffed to the brim yet already thinking of my last day of meals. As I walked back to my little Mile-End apartment, bikers whirring past, birds alighting on the treetops overhead, the thin crescent of the moon began to burn into view.
It looked like the beginnings of a bagel.