A few years ago, when I was seven months pregnant, my husband asked if I would mind if he and a friend went off on an adventure. “It may be my last time,” he said eyeing my ever-expanding belly.
The destination was at Au Pied de Cochon (APDC), Montreal madman Martin Picard’s celebrated mecca of carnivorous Quebecois comfort food, with an enthusiastic emphasis on pork. Shoehorning my bloated body into a Mini Cooper, riding six hours north and watching others consume raw oysters, bottles of wine and fatty foods was not sanctioned by What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I graciously wished him bon voyage.
When visiting a hero it is always appropriate to bring a token of respect; and since we own a sustainable butcher shop, my husband decided that half a pig might be a fitting gift. A few days later the Mini, groaning under the weight of this corporeal cargo, crossed the border. I didn’t want to even contemplate the consequences of getting caught trying to smuggle a pig into Canada, so I was relieved when they called to say their transnational transgressions had gone unnoticed and that a side of heritage pork was in fact the perfect present for Martin, who was unable to obtain black-footed pigs in Canada and was delighted by the contents of the coolers.
“It was,” my husband relayed, “as if they had opened the Ark of the Covenant.”
He and his compatriot were invited back for dinner that night, and from the disjointed texts and blurry photos I received it was a meal that set the bar for every meal to follow—filled with lobes of foie gras, an entire pig’s head served with an entire lobster emerging from its mouth and towers of raw, glistening seafood accompanied by gallons of beer, wine and Cognac. The next night found them at a restaurant recommended by an APDC staff member who said they would love what Fred Morin and David McMillan have created at their restaurant, Joe Beef.
More badly spelled texts followed, the last reading, “I promis…” before communications ceased for the night.
I could only hope that he meant he promised he would take me there when I was ready. It took a year, but eventually I found myself in Joe Beef’s garden surrounded by some of the most unbelievably delicious—and entirely unpretentious—food I had ever experienced. There were raw oysters, cold, creamy and briny—redolent of the waters of Prince Edward Island from which they had been plucked. A beer-can chicken—accompanied by the actual can of crappy Canadian beer—that still managed to elevate that humble dish to new heights. JB’s famous lobster spaghetti, a Parc Vinet salad (named for the tiny but lush backyard gardens) and a disc of foie gras the size of a hockey puck.
Though decadent, the meal was rustic. With its mismatched silver, multi-patterned china and casual yet gracious servers, Joe Beef felt like dinner at the home of a good friend. It has become our sanctuary. We love it passionately. And although we love Brooklyn passionately, too, Montreal has become home away from home.
Like the many tourists who know the city as a weekend retreat—whether for jazz fest in July or January’s Fête des Neiges—we first we stayed in hotels and ate out. But soon we switched to renting apartments with kitchens so we could avail ourselves of the bounty at the markets and specialty shops. We learned where to find the flakiest croissant or the widest selection of sparkling cider.
One night last summer my husband and I sat in the Joe Beef garden again, drinking crisp white wine as if it were water. Our rickety metal table rocked gently as a platter of New Brunswick oysters was set down between us, and I felt so fortunate to be among the kale, twinkling lights and friends. The owner, Fred, who created these gardens behind his restaurant, calls them his “happy place.” They have become that for us, and can be yours, too.
Dinner at Le Filet. By the owners of Club Chasse et Pêche, one of the hipper restaurants on the Montreal restaurant scene, this less-stylish sibling gets well-deserved raves. Seafood is the kitchen’s main focus, and the menu is amusingly broken up into raw, warm tide, amphibians and earthly. Sit at the bar, turn your back on the room’s terrible art and let the extremely competent waitstaff guide you through a menu meant to be shared. Highlights might include velvety-smooth corn chowder studded with house-smoked oysters.
After dinner, stroll down Rue St. Laurent teeming with students, hipsters and general late-night revelers. Grab a beer or a glass of wine at one of the many bars that line the street. Or wander up St. Laurent toward the bar/café Sparrow, where soothing, woody decor and comfortable couches might be the perfect nest to wind down at the end of your day.
Rise early to beat the crowds at L’Avenue, a wildly popular brunch place in the heart of the Plateau. Loud thumping music, über-hip waitstaff and downright weird bathrooms (think black light and nature documentaries) may not be your usual way to start your day. But the huge portions of delicious eggs Benedict, crepes, pancakes and smoothies more than make up for the bizarre decor—and if you have kids, they’ll love it. The menu is in French but the waitstaff, though harried, is helpful. If disco balls and B&D mannequins are not your thing that early in the morning, check out Café Souvenir, a Montreal institution whose crêpes matin have nursed me through numerous hangovers.
After brunch we like to check out the Jean-Talon Market (Marché Jean-Talon), a riotous explosion of fruit and vegetable stands and specialty food stalls. After a raspberry-mint pop for our four-year-old, we hit Le Ryad, whose immense selection of Middle Eastern rose- and honey-perfumed pastries are some of the best I’ve ever had.
Since we are butchers and are always looking for top-quality sustainably raised meat, we love Boucherie Les Fermes Saint-Vincent for things we can’t find at home, like elk or horse tenderloin. Porcmeilleur, which specializes in locally raised pork, is right next door. A quick dash across the aisle gets us figatelli and strolghino—delicious hard sausages perfect for an impromptu picnic—at Les Cochons Tout Ronds, a nitrate-free charcuterie stand. The rest of the market is filled with gorgeous produce stands, maple syrup purveyors, foragers, cheese shops (Fromagerie Hamel is our favorite), chocolatiers and Olive & Épices, an extraordinary spice shop that sells everything from fresh Thai herbs to house-created masala mixes and even a lovely cookbook store, Librairie Gourmande. We usually have a quick lunch of fish and chips at Aqua Mare before heading over to Havre Aux Glaces for dessert, where we debate the merits of fig ice cream versus strawberry-black-pepper gelato.
If it’s a nice day we wander over to the 55-year-old Quincaillerie Dante in Little Italy, stopping at any one of the great little cafés for an espresso. If my husband could live in a store, his would be Dante—where colorful Le Creuset pots tower over glass cases filled with Japanese knives and guns. Yes, Dante is a cookware/gun store, perhaps the only one in the world; if you are looking for a place where you can find the tools to hunt, cook and eat, you have found it. Elena Faita, the irrepressible owner is also head of Mezza Luna cooking school, and offers classes in both English and French. (Her winter Quail & Rabbit session is already on my calendar.)
If Dante is an inferno of color, the nearby Les Touilleurs Cookware Shop & Cooking School is an oasis of neutral calm that sells some of the most beautiful cookware I’ve ever seen—and offers evening classes with some of the city’s finest chefs. Take stock of your purchases at Dieu du Ciel, a microbrewery right down the block, and try some of their unusual offerings like hibiscus beer (Rosée d’hibiscus) or the Charbonnière, which is brewed in the tradition of Belgian smoked ales.
Make your reservation for dinner at Joe Beef far in advance because this cozy take on a French bistro is always filled with crowds hungry for outrageous offerings like their “foie gras double down,” which packs two slices of deep-fried foie gras between a potato roll and layers it with bacon, cheddar cheese, “chicken-skin” mayonnaise and a swirl of maple syrup.
Au Pied de Cochon should be on your short list if for nothing else but their decadent take on the Montreal classic poutine—fries swimming in gravy covered in cheese curds and, here, chunks of foie gras. This is not cuisine for the literally or figuratively faint-of-heart. Owner Martin Picard is known for turning classic French bistro food on its (pig’s) ear, and his offerings like bison tartare or ox-heart salad may be unusual but they’re also surprisingly simple and overwhelmingly delicious.
After a dinner of butter, foie gras and offal you may want to disregard the dessert menu and head to Cremerie Meu Meu on St. Denis, which is open till midnight and offers the perfect palate cleanser—pamplemousse (grapefruit) sorbet. Or drop into Montreal’s classic bistro, L’Express, open till 2 a.m. Sit at the bar and share a Floating Island: caramelized sugar, clouds of meringue and crème anglaise.
If you can’t get into Joe Beef or APDC, don’t despair. Liverpool House (owned by the Joe Beef team and ostensibly Italian but far more eclectic than that would suggest) is right next door to JB. Or check out Nora Gray, a lovely Italian place started by a Joe Beef alum where I’ve dined on perfectly cooked soft-shell crabs and an even more delicious squab. Their menu changes every day, which makes me long to go over and over.
Wherever you dine, make sure you end your night at Big in Japan’s new speakeasy hidden behind a red door at 4175 Rue St. Laurent. Whiskey bottles hang from the ceiling, and the unflappable bartenders mix a perfect cocktail. Patati Patata right next door has a good poutine, which may mitigate the hangover you are bound to have after sharing a Pimm’s Cup the size of a fishbowl.
Montreal bagels are sweeter, chewier and more enthusiastically encrusted with seeds than their New York counterparts, and always best warm. There is much debate over which makes a better bagel, Fairmont or St. Viateur Bakery, both in Mile End (Brooklyn’s own Mile End deli, which imports bagels from St. Viateur, takes its name from this Hasidic-meets-hipster neighborhood reminiscent of a less-gritty Williamsburg), but at either shop you can witness the miracle of bagel-making, Montreal-style. Hand-rolled circles of dough are boiled in honey-sweetened water and then baked in a wood-fired oven; after exactly 17 minutes they are pulled from the oven using long paddles and into your open hands. Both shops are open 24 hours, but I have rarely been there when there hasn’t been a crowd. Grab a warm bagel and then an espresso at Café Olimpico and head down St. Laurent for a real meal at Lawrence, where queues are common but with a bagel in hand you won’t mind the wait.
Lawrence’s lovely, light-filled room offers family-friendly, simple, just-decadent-enough brunch fare. Donuts filled with a tart fruit jam, dark chocolate cream or lemony-vanilla custard should start the meal, followed by baked eggs, a perfect runny yolk mingling with celery root purée and oyster mushrooms.
If you have room (and even if you don’t) check out Kem CoBa for amazing soft-serve ice cream. The flavors change seasonally but recent offerings included twists of almond milk/sour cherry and dark chocolate/orange-banana and blueberry/honey.
Le Canard Libéré, not far from Mile End in the Plateau, is devoted to all things duck. From breasts to bricks of foie gras, this superstore is a duck lover’s paradise (and the place to grab a foie gras poutine if APDC is not in the cards). While in the area, check out Mycoboutique, where mushrooms can be found in every shape and form—from fresh to freeze-dried to an iced “chagaccino frappe.” They hold classes (en français only) in foraging and identification throughout the year.
Before heading home we always stop at another public market, Marché Atwater, to load up on fresh fruit, local cheeses and dried sausages (don’t tell the border guards). Atwater is considered THE meat market and though many of the other offerings are the same as at Marché Jean-Talon, Atwater’s boucheries (butchers) really do stand out. Atwater is a great place to buy gifts as well; there are two chocolatiers, both with luscious treats, some damn good hard ciders and the ubiquitous cans of maple syrup.
By this point, we are stuffed, sticky, tired and happy. I can only wish the same for you.