Montreal for Foodies
If you live in Montreal you don’t have to escape to Europe. Montreal offers a European feel without the long flight across the pond, and if you live in Western Canada this means something as it takes almost as long to cross the country as it does to cross the Atlantic en-route to Europe. Walking down the narrow cobblestone streets and hearing French spoken around almost made me pinch myself to remember we are in Canada and not Europe. And I loved it.
We were there for a reason but arrived in advance and I had plenty of time to explore culinary Montreal and get a feel for the place. We stayed at a hotel right in the center of things although not in the old town and that meant no kitchen so we ate at restaurants every day. What follows are places I tried and can recommend and would go back to next time.
Jean Talon Market / Marché Jean Talon
My first stop in a new place is often the local market. This is where I head as soon as I drop my luggage at the hotel or apartment whenever I travel. There is nothing like a market to give you a feel for what the city is about. And Jean Talon Market was more than I expected. Situated smack in the middle of the city on the edge of Little Italy it is one of the largest markets I have seen and it offers just about anything and everything you can think of. It is the oldest and largest among a number of Montreal’s farmers markets, opened in 1933 and has been in continuous operation since then. It is open and operating year round but it does shrinks a bit in the winter as they install canvas walls around part of the market and the vendors that sell in the winter all set up their stalls inside.
There is no question that Montreal is a food culture. This is not a culture where anything would do for the kitchen. It has to be the best and the freshest and it was fun watching the locals, both city folks and chefs, shop, discuss, choose and pile their baskets with local vegetables, cheeses, olives, meats, breads, pastries and more. This market has a book written about it: Market chronicles: Stories & Recipes from Montreal’s Marche Jean Talon, written by Susan Semenak. a narrative about the vendors who breath life into the market along with recipe, some of which came from the vendors. We went on our own and I am sure we missed some of vendors unique to this market. It’s good to take a market tour with of the local food tours companies. That’s what i usually do as they know what special in each place. I did however do some research and made it to at least some of the special vendors of the market. Here is my list:
An iconic cheese operation in Montreal with a few locations throughout the city, this market location is set up in an inverted U shape so you shop walking around with the exit on the other side, a little different but efficient considering the number of people who frequent the store.The store has a walk-in refrigerator that keeps the cheeses at ideal temperature and humidity levels and Hamel employees will walk you inside and assist you in making your selection. Brrr. As soon as you enter you are offered a tasting of two or three fabulous cheeses and are welcome to sample as you make your purchase decisions for the day. Did I say the day? yes, I did. You are asked when you plan to serve the cheese and about refrigeration. Did I mention Europe-like? yes, I think I did. Forget about buying cheese for next week. I was going gaga in that store, lied about refrigeration and bought a couple of cheeses to try with a baguette in my hotel room. Don’t tell anyone. They were impeccable in flavour and texture. Although they make and offer a large variety of local artisanal cheeses, Hamel’s cheeses are not only local. They have a good selection of imported cheeses and fly some in directly from France and Italy.
After strolling the market aisles for a while walk into Premiere Moisson, a local boulangerie, for a bowl of cafe au lait (they call it latte) and a sampling of their breads or pastries. We settled at the counter by the window with our coffees and freshly bakes brioche and watch the market activity in front of us. It is a large space functioning as a bakery, cafe and a lunch place and you can buy French style baguette sandwiches and many other deli and lunch items throughout the day. Their breads looked tantalizing and I snuck a baguette to my hotel room, at least what was left of it by the time I got there. It was crusty and full of warm yeasty flavours with good crumb and chewy crust, the way bread should be. They make more than 20 varieties of breads with organic unbleached and stone ground whole wheat flour. They allow for slow fermentation to let the dough develop flavours and bake them on stone shelves in gas ovens. I visited their other location at the Atwater market and came back to the hotel from there with a bag full of baked goods. Can’t help it and why even try. I brought home some of their specialty jams, I tried them with their croissants at Atwater Market and they were worth the extra weight in the suitcase.
A beautiful food emporium specializing in Quebec products run since 2000 by Suzzane Bergeron and Tony Drouin, who clearly have passion for the local and authentic. You can find everything here from maple products to unique jams and honeys, mustards, vinegars, ciders, foraged foods, dairy products, patés, terrines, foie gras, smoked fish etc. and a selection of home made alcoholic beverages from wines to microbrewery beers and ciders (and more). To top this all they also have some beautiful cookware and tabletop items that were hard to leave behind (I did, another time perhaps).
Creperie du Marché and Along Pancakes
What’s a market visit without crepes? You can stop at one of these two creperies for sweet or savoury crepes any time of the day. At Creperie du Marché the variety changes with the season and you can find crepes with berries or chestnuts depending on the time of year. I like the simplest best: crepes with sugar and lemon. I can’t pass a stand that sell these without sampling. They had sweet crepes with salted caramel, chestnuts and cream, apples and pears, what have you. The savoury crepes came with onion, tomatoes, spinach, vegetables, smoked salmon, lemon and chives and more. They make buckwheat crepes cooked in a cast iron skillet or regular white or whole wheat flour crepes. Along Pancakes is Parisian style crepes-to-go a to-go counter with an excellent variety to enjoy while you are walking around.
Olives et Epices: (affiliated with olives & olives)
As the name suggests this is a must stop for spices at the market. Founded by a caterer and chef couple Ethne and Phillip Vienne who realized that to produce the flavours they experienced in their travels they needed to have the local spices. They traveled the world in search for quality spices and begun collecting sources and a “loot bag full of spices”. It seems that their hobby got out of hand and developed into a successful business. Their products are classified and sold not just by name but also by exact location and specific conditions of the origin of the spice. The products come from everywhere: Asia, Africa, Middle East, South East Asia, you name it, they have spices from there. Knowledgeable staff walk you through the selection letting you have a whiff of the aromas and feel of the texture of the various spices. They carry a substantial variety of spice and blends, herbs, chilli peppers, salts, olives and olive oils as well as a tea selection. They published a cookbook Spice hunter/Chausseur d’Epices in which they tell about their travels and foods and provide recipes for some of their spice mixtures. You can buy their spice box gift package containing a 20 spice metal jars set together with their book , a wonderful gift for your foodie friend.
Other than specialty shops that I am sure I only visited a fraction of you can walk among the gorgeous stalls featuring every and any produce you can think of. I am not sure where all the produce come from as there were gorgeous artichokes and asparagus next to pears, pumpkins and quinces. The markets I am used to are much more local and seasonal and you would never see asparagus at the same time the fall root vegetables are in season. Being such a vegetable lover I was walking around in a daze and am not about to complain about sources or seasonality of anything I saw. This market was European in style and the “Ne touchez pas” (“don’t Touch”) signs were abundant. In Europe you can have your hand slapped for touching. I didn’t try it here. The market trip was a wonderful way to begin our Montreal adventure, I only wish I had time to go back there a couple of times to explore more.
Another good market to visit allbeit not as large as Jean Talon is the Atwater Market on Avenue Atwater in the Saint -Henri district. I have heard Montrealers say that this is a high end market but this is not necessarily the sense I got from visiting it. It is smaller and more compact than Jean Talon, has all the major vendors and high quality vegetable and fruit stands.. Atwater is comprised of a building housing a number of stores each accessible from the covered outdoor “promenade” part of the market, and a second floor mostly for boucheries (meat vendors), a beautiful Premiere Moisson boulangerie location, as well as a series of outdoors stalls for vegetable vendors. I walked into every store and checked out every vegetable stand and the vendors both inside and outside were very friendly and put up with my requests to take pictures, offering me a taste of this or that as I was walking around drooling over everything. It’s easy to find everything as the market is linear and signs are clear. On the ground level don’t miss the Fromagerie Atwater, the Fruiterie Atwater and the Chocolates Privilege at the end. Make sure you walk upstairs and stop for some coffee and pastries at Premiere Moisson or for some more cheese at the Hamel location.
Breakfast in Montreal:
Let’s face it, in Montreal breakfast is an art form. So many good breakfast places in one place make your head spin. Do your own research but I can recommend two places that I thoroughly enjoyed.
This restaurant in the old city is a must for breakfast or lunch. The crowded, cozy place bursts with life and the breakfast is just as much fun. Die hard locals and tourist alike frequent this restaurant, often lining up outside waiting for a table. We managed to get right in on a Tuesday morning but soon thereafter a line begun to form. Table turnover was rather fast so people were seated quickly. The pastry display at the counter would challenge even the most disciplined eater. I wanted to try the chocolate brioche and the server had to run back behind the counter and grab the last one before someone else did. I ordered a simple breakfast of fresh fruit bowl and granola with honey yogurt. The granola was so delicious that I bought a couple of bags to take home. My husband had the breakfast panini, a little rich looking but apparently good. I loved the way they served tea, a small Japanese style tea cup and pot on a wooden base. There were so many items on the menu and on display I wanted to try but alas, can only eat so much. There were a number of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu as well.
This is another breakfast place in the old city that you shouldn’t miss. The long and bright space with white washed walls and high ceiling has urban wood and metal decor that is very NYC like and appealing. Some of the wooden tables offer a communal dining opportunities or you can sit at the long bar to have your breakfast. They are known for their weekend brunch but we were there on a weekday. Breakfast was scrambled eggs and goat cheese piled on a long slice of grilled country bread (tartine, essentially) served with roasted potatoes and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. So good. The menu had so many interesting things to try, too many foods, too little time. I have to spend more time in Montreal, that’s a given. Go there, you can thank me later.
Montreal legendary bagel shop located, where else but in the Jewish neighbourhood, opened its doors in 1957 and has been in continuous operation ever since. Myer Lewkowicz, a Jewish immigrant who came to Canada in the early 50’s opened the bagel bakery with his wife after learning the trade under another baker. The current owner started working at the bakery when he was fifteen and eventually took over the business and currently runs it together with his three sons. It is a butsling operation and the work is done right in the open in front of your eyes. Bagels are rolled, rise and baked non-stop at this small but extremely busy place. Warm bagels are put in your bag fresh from the oven and you can even buy cream cheese right there to enjoy the bagels the way they were meant to be eaten – with cream cheese. The half dozen bagels we bought disappeared in no time together with the cheese. I am not Jewish for nothing.
If you are still in the Jewish part of town and you like falafel try the falafel at the Green Panther. A brand new location in a large and bright space is decorated with high gloss wooden tables and vintage chandeliers. The falafel is served Israeli style inside a pita pockets (we get it here rolled into a pita sandwich) and it comes in half or full size pita. Ingredients that go into the falafel are organic, local when possible and served on recycled materials. The menu is essentially vegan and vegetarian with tofu and tempeh substituting for animal protein in some of the menu offerings.
Vegan and Vegetarian foods:
This was one of the eye opening experience of my stay in Montreal. I was invited on a Living Table tour with Melissa Simard of Round Table Tours that I wrote about in a previous post. After touring a few local businesses operating according to sustainable principles, we settled down to eat at two restaurants, each with an all vegan menu that simply astonished me with the range of flavours they were able to coax out of simple ingredients.
A vegan and raw food establishment that promotes organic and sustainably sourced food served off a menu they call “raw living cuisine”. On the tour Melissa ordered their living sushi and when it came I knew I had found something special. Their living sushi was made of raw vegetables and sprouts wrapped in an uncooked Nori sheet, topped with pea shoots and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The sushi rolls floated on a nut based paté, drizzled with ginger and “cream” sauce and served with a bottle of water tinged with green chlorophyll. Delicious is not describing the sushi fairly. The range of flavours and textures and balance between savoury and sweet were perfect for my palate and I could have easily stayed there alone with the sushi and not shared a bite. I took some pictures in a hurry but they do not do justice to the dish. It was fresh, flavourful, beautiful and had just enough familiarity and just enough surprise in each bite to make it a memorable culinary and artistic experience. And all it was was vegetables and herbs, remarkable. The Crudessence group published several cookbooks that have been translated to english and I am certainly going to get a few of them. They now run three restaurants and are definitely on my list to go to when I am back in Montreal, which hopefully will be soon. The menu features a few raw rice paper wrapped salad rolls they call wraps and interesting salads that I would like to taste, as well as sandwiches, “bowls” with Japanese style black bean noodles or quinoa and millet, even vegetable lasagna, burger and pizzas (remember, it’s raw). Although we only tasted one item it certainly gave me a new appreciation for the raw food phenomena that has been springing in around the world.
Another stop on Melissa’s tour provided another eye opener experience in flavours coaxed out of plant based (okay, vegan if you wish) foods. Melissa took us to ChuChai, a vegan Thai cuisine restaurant on Rue Saint Denis where we tasted a number of dishes and two types of rice (steamed and sticky). The food at this establishment is vegan made from ingredients obtained from mostly organic farming with no animal by-product whatsoever. The dishes, shaped and texturized to look like chicken, beef, fish or shrimp are made with seitan (wheat gluten) and tofu (soy protein) and beautifully served with exquisite sauces and vibrant vegetables. I can no longer remember the exact dishes we had but vaguely remember either eating or seeing on the menu beef satay, spicy beef salad, ginger chicken and lemon fish cakes. I usually don’t like to create “imitation” dishes but these brought the whole concept to a new level. It was a taste experience so beautiful to both the eye and the palate. The intricacies of flavours and accurate textures are something to experience and savour.
I often take walking food tours in areas I visit. Local guides tend to know their city and the special places that as a tourist you may miss. Even if you know where to go, they add the behind the scene stories and know the chefs and business owners, making it a more interesting experience than walking the neighbourhood alone. There are several food tour companies in Montreal and I was invited to join a sustainable food Living Table tour with Melissa Simard of Round Table Tours. I wrote a full post about this eye opening tour and enjoyed meeting the capable and informed Melissa and spend an afternoon together exploring the green side of the food scene in Montreal.
Melissa Simard offers tasting expeditions to explore Montreal’s cultures, neighbourhoods and food genres through tasting and stories of the chefs and entrepreneurs. You can take the Living Table tour focusing on sustainable food production and urban agriculture, or the Iberian tour of the Plateau neighbourhood, a food truck tour, an iconic dishes tour featuring Jewish Montreal and a few other tours and eating expeditions. She will also customize a tour to your needs. Melissa holds a Canadian Studies degree from Mcgill and has a DEP in professional cooking. After setting up her business in 2012, she has already received a “Best Female Entrepreneurial Project” award and won second place for services to businesses in the 2013 Quebec Entrepreneurial Contest. She has been filmed in documentaries about Montreal, is a regular presence in local media and usually ranks first on Trip Advisor for Montreal foodie tours. See my post about the tour with Melissa here.
There are several places to have cooking classes in Montreal. I took a class in one and attended a book signing in another.
A beautiful bookstore with extensive cookbook collection in both French and English. The store has a beautiful and well equipped kitchen in which Chef and proprietor Jonathan Cheung teaches both demonstration and hands on cooking classes. The classes are based on a selection of cookbooks they feature and are geared to all levels of culinary skills. All classes include a tasting of the menu and in most classes the book is included in the price of the class. Oh how I would love to have regular access to this place. The cooking classes were full unfortunately but I was invited to a book signing by the Greek Author Aglaia Kremezi launching her book Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. This too included a demonstration and tasting.
A beautiful cooking school in the heart of Old Montreal with a large commercial hands-on teaching kitchen and a long list of cooking classes throughout the season. Dinner (fruit of your labour) is served at a long table in an adjacent dining room, course by course as you prepare the food under the watchful eye of their chef. There is a catch though. Classes will be taught in French unless everyone speaks English. This was not made clear when I registered (in English) and although it worked for me as I speak enough French and have enough kitchen experience to understand what’s going on, it didn’t work for my daughter who is a talented but novice cook and doesn’t speak French. The promise to translate the “important things” dwindled down to nothing and I had to ask for translation occasionally that was responded to by the chef in a minimal fashion. Other participants who worked beside us and the sous-chef helped with explaining some things that were not clear. A link to the recipes were emailed apparently before the class (I received mine afterwards) and other than the language issue I had no complaint. As head of the “Complaint Department”, that’s pretty good (inside joke).
There were several places on my list that I had to leave for another visit as my interests range from food to music to history, culture and art and we had to leave time for each of these other pursuits. Since we do not live on bread alone we fed our soul with things other than food:
If you love music don’t miss a concert at one of the gorgeous concert halls at Place des Arts. The quality of the orchestra and the exceptional acoustics of the halls are spectacular. We attended a concert at Maison Symphonique led by conductor Julian Kuerti (son of notable pianist Anton Kuerti) and attended another event at the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, also at the Place des Arts. The music scene in Montreal is worth a special trip.
If you a wandering around Old Montreal or just finished breakfast at Olive et Gourmando wander down a block or two towards the water to this fascinating museum built literally over the archeological remains of where Montreal was first established. You can decent to the lower level by elevator and walk among the ruins which are preserved with respect to history and heritage. The temporary exhibition when we visited was dedicated to the establishment and history of the Plateau section of town: “The Life and times of the Plateau”. History, art, architecture, politics and religions were all showcased and explained in a fascinating multimedia presentation on the second floor of the museum, two stories above the archeological remains of where Montreal was born.
We could not get enough of this beautiful old part of Montreal and returned there several times to wander the narrow streets, stop for coffee, have lunch at one of the many lovely restaurants, shop at local boutiques and visit the cathedrals. Dating back to 1642, Old Montreal is set between the St. Lawrence River and downtown Montreal. It is spread over a square mile and is easily accessible and explorable by foot. We usually started our exploration from the main Place des Armes square in front of the Notre Dame Basilica and walked down towards St. Paul street, exploring side streets along the way.
We had delectable tea and exceptional cupcakes at Les Glaceurs at 453 Rue St. Sulpice just down from the Notre Dame Cathedral. Flavours ranged from red velvet to salted caramel vanilla to fudge to lemon-vanilla and more. Needless to stay this place became a regular stop on our excursions to Old Town Montreal.