Travelogue: Montreal (December 2010)

A friend once told me that a quick trip to Montreal was like jetting to Paris for the weekend; I think the idea of a romantic weekend there has been on my mind ever since. The whole “North American Paris” label is probably one that vexes the Montrealans, but the region’s ties to France are hard to escape (as if one would want to). 

To celebrate ten years as a couple, Aron and I planned a long weekend in Montreal. We considered flying, but decided the roundtrip tickets were too steep. Amtrak has an 11-hour train route between New York and Montreal, but unfortunately it’s not overnight. So we crossed our fingers that no mid-December storms would wreak havoc on the roads and rented a car: Road trip! 

Aron had the unusual luck of finishing work early on Wednesday, so we hit the road and started our way up 87. Initially, we only thought we would make it as far as Albany or Saratoga Springs before stopping, but with a bit of a push through the mountain pass we made it to Plattsburgh. A recently re-modeled Holiday Inn proved comfortable enough that we slept right through multiple alarms until nearly 10am the following day. (I think we both needed the rest!)
We had stopped only an hour or so from Montreal, but I was glad we could have our first look at the city in the daylight. We found Le Saint Sulpice Hotel with no trouble: it sits directly behind Notre Dame, in Vieux Montreal. Our room was still being readied, so we set off in search of lunch.
Olive et Gourmando was warm and cozy and the first thing you see is their pastry counter, filled with a dozen or so things I would have been happy to try. Instead, we headed to the back of the room where the savory choices were equally tempting. Though my instincts were prompting me to choose something hot and cheesy, we decided to follow the advice of some loyal customers: Aron tried a delicious Thai salad; I had one featuring beets; and we shared a plate of ricotta that came with crusty, olive-oil soaked toasts. Dessert came from the pastry case: a berry tart and a deliciously salty-sweet chocolate and caramel bar. 

And so began the gluttony. What we did and what we ate are hardly distinguishable descriptors for this trip. We both worry that we grew our appetites over the four days; I’ve been working to remind my stomach that it doesn’t need to keep up the pace we established there. 
After lunch, we walked the few blocks back to the hotel and found our room was ready. We were really happy with Le Saint Sulpice, and settled easily into a routine of spending afternoons enjoying the fireplace and large tub. 
Aron had made dinner reservations for each of our nights ahead of time. Apparently Montrealans prefer to eat late, so we had enough time for a nighttime walking tour of the old city before driving up to the Plateau neighborhood for dinner at Au Pied de Cochon at 9:30. 

There were a few dishes of which I’d heard multiple times, having been told they were must-try specials of the city: bagels; smoked meat; and poutine with foie gras at Au Pied de Cochon. Though we quickly surmised that the portions of our mains would be satisfying enough, it seemed unthinkable to skip the poutine starter.
Poutine, a Quebecois mainstay, is already a fairly decadent combination of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds–the addition of foie gras is (perhaps literally) heart stopping! 
Consequently, I made barely a dent in my delicious bison short ribs. It was more fun to watch Aron enjoy his unusual dish anyway: he ordered another house specialty, Duck-in-a-Can. He was presented with a plate of mashed potatoes with cheese, with a hot can beside it. The waitress pulled out a can opener, opened the can, and emptied it over the potatoes so that duck and glaze and foie gras poured out in a loose pile. We had admired the desserts on neighbors’ tables earlier, but couldn’t bear to look at the menu after such a rich meal, instead waddling back out into the snow.
We had breakfast each day in the hotel’s dining room. On Friday we awoke to sunny skies and decided it would be a good day to check out the Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods. Along with a Frommer’s guidebook, we had brought lots of great suggestions from Hither & Thither reader-comments, and a Gourmet magazine on all-things Montreal that I’d been holding onto since March 2006 (!) for just such an occasion–and many highlights seemed to be along Saint Denis, St Laurent (“the Main”), St Viateur, and Laurier Avenue. 

So we drove up to Rue Saint-Denis and walked up and down the street, stopping in great shops like Bleu Nuit, Kusmi Tea, and Arthur Quentin. 
From there, we moved further along to Saint-Viateur and parked across from one of the two most famous bagel shops in Montreal, St. Viateur (the other is Fairmount Bagel). Loyal customers will tell you that the bagels in Montreal–cooked in a wood-burning oven–are superior to our chewy, boiled rendition from New York. I can’t say either of us are converts. I’d bet our favorite Ess-a-bagel would win in a throwdown. Of course, that didn’t keep us from enjoying three fresh bagels (or the fourth that we picked up when we returned to the car).
In between bagel munching, we picked up cappuccinos at Club Social and did some more shopping: we stopped in Annex Vintage and admired plenty of window displays. We thought the restaurant, Le Moineau, was especially pretty. Aron also got himself another treat–a Greek pastry–after a few more blocks. 
And we didn’t make it far before we were eating again. First, there was dessert at la Pâtisserie de Gascogne, a beautiful gourmet shop with sweet and savory counters.
The savory came slightly later: we followed Rue Laurier back into the Laurier Village corner of the Plateau. We shared a pressed grilled cheese sandwich at Lapin Pressé. This cute little sandwich shop is adorned with colorful, nostalgic album covers and seemed to appeal to equally cute, young women.
The street was packed with other culinary delights, like some seriously good looking bread and charcuterie at Le Fromentier. We were being strong and resisting any further temptation until we spotted La Maison Cakao. A cup of thick hot chocolate seemed like a good way to cap off a thoroughly decadent afternoon. 
On our way back to the hotel, we happened upon the pedestrianized street Rue Prince Arthur–and nearby Saint Louis Square–and were drawn toward its twinkle lights like moths to a flame. We strolled around the park and admired the surrounding homes before continuing on our way. We decided on another quick detour to see the “underground city,” or RESO–essentially small shopping centers and other public buildings connected by corridors to keep the public out of the cold–but didn’t stay long.
After some time relaxing back at the room, we went to Toqué, for a celebratory dinner courtesy of Aron’s parents. Toqué was noted in all of our guides as having some of the best food in the city, so I was excited to hear that Aron had made reservations. We decided to skip the tasting menu, but even while ordering off the a la carte menu it was a decadent affair. We both started with an amuse of celery-root soup and some sort of amazing, infused foam; I followed it with a delicious plate of cured La Quarcia prosciutto, served with honey, hazelnut oil, and apples; and a rich Cavatelli pasta topped with truffles, butter, and foie gras. Aron chose to start with a dish of Chanterelle mushrooms and arugula salad, served with thyme whipped cream and melted cheese; he finished with suckling pig shoulder, served with blood pudding sauce and Japanese artichoke. We skipped the dessert, but enjoyed some chocolates nonetheless.
The snow looked beautiful the next morning, and the city was newly dusted with white. We enjoyed our hotel breakfast and picked up some more pastries to-go from Olive et Gourmando (they would be closed the following day and we wanted one more taste).
We took another tour around the Vieux port, which looked completely different on this bright, silent morning…
…and caught our first glimpse of the frozen St. Lawrence river.
I recognized the Bota Bota spa from a recent post on Jauntsetter: “Once a steel liner in frigid northern waters, the boat that houses Bota Bota became a showboat in 1967, before transforming into an avant-garde spa right in the heart of the city.”
Some of our readers mentioned that the Puces Pop (a “flea market” of independent crafts and artisan vendors) would be going on while we were in town, so we made our way over to the St Enfant-Jesus Church in Mile End, where it was being held.
One of our favorite booths was Sabine Alpers’ Felt Factory, which displayed felted representations of trophy animal mountings. The bison reminded me of the one that would sing at the Golden Horseshoe review in Disneyland’s Frontierland–a favorite sight from childhood.
The space was filled with a variety of great artisans, and we had fun browsing the aisles. Of course we found more food… a maple-glazed bacon donut was just too wild to resist.
When we exited the church, the most beautiful Clydesdales were passing by, pulling a giant sled.
For lunch, we grabbed a table at Réservoir, a brasserie just off the Main that’s known for its beer–brewed on-site. I had a great plate of fish and chips: fresh-fried Haddock with a trio of house-made sauces for the fries; Aron thought the short ribs were terrific.
We had intended to hike around in Mont Royal park, but ended up just taking a quick tour. People were sledding, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, and generally enjoying the snow. We drove around the perimeter of the park and also took a peek at some of the gorgeous McGill University buildings.
We were hanging out at the hotel before our dinner reservation, later that evening, when we heard fireworks. We could just barely see them over the river from our room, so we ran the few blocks down to the port and found a huge crowd gathered to enjoy the fireworks that were lighting up the skies. What a nice surprise!


Aron had made reservations at Chez L’Epicier for our final dinner–it is part gourmet store, part seasonal restaurant: a charming combination with fresh, innovative food. They also gave us some fireworks of our own!
The next morning, we packed up our bags and reluctantly made our way out of town, but we couldn’t leave without trying the famous smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s. The spot (which we’ve heard compared to Katz’s Pastrami in New York) is legendary–and we could see why.
Nor could we miss stopping  for donuts at Tim Horton’s (a legend in its own right). It was a sweet end to a great trip.

We fit a lot into our four days–and consequently don’t fit into our clothes anymore; we were thoroughly impressed with Montreal. I would love to come back in the summer and see the city spilling out into its beautiful parks and onto its charming sidewalks.

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