Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Montreal, QC (Canada)

Our arrival into Montreal was a little dubious. It was very late. The street signs were difficult to read through the grubby windows of the airport shuttle, and the indifferent driver made no announcements about the stops. As each tired traveler came to this realization, there was a series of amusing French-English pantomimes, like some sketch out of The Fast Show, as visitors and Quebecois alike tried to puzzle out where we were, using the map that only Rich and I had had the foresight to pick up. We made it to our hotel fine in the end… only to be greeted by a slurring, glassy-eyed man at reception who, I’m afraid, was very, very drunk.

Our outlook was much improved in the morning with bright skies above and a crisp autumn breeze. Our strolls through Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End, and the Latin Quarter reminded us of the townhouses in D.C. and Chicago neighborhoods. The main difference is that, in Montreal, nearly every door has its own steep, external staircase to the sidewalk. Though all the styles and colors are pleasing to the eye, the sheer thought of the trip hazards over the long Canadian winter made me shiver.      

Jean-Talon in Little Italy is one of the oldest public markets in the city. While it’s not a great challenge to make fresh produce aesthetically appealing, the vendors here do a smashing job with beautiful vegetal arrangements like bouquets. We were fascinated by the different varieties on display: eggplants as big as your head, figs like tennis balls, and tiny plums the size of cherry tomatoes. The strangest by far though was an alien cauliflower whose pale green florets spiralled in mesmerizing fractals!

The city has some excellent cooked eats also. Like New York, Montreal is proud of its own take on bagels (handmade, boiled in honey water, and baked in a wood fire) and smoked meat sandwiches (beef brisket cured for days, smoked, and steamed, then sliced thinly and served with mustard). We also tried Quebec classics like poutine (pillowy cheese curds and rich gravy over fries) and tire d'érable (boiled maple sap on snow to make maple taffy… just like Laura Ingalls Wilder used to make!).

For serious stick-to-your-ribs grub, we headed to Au Pied du Cochon. Martin Picard’s spin on Quebecois cuisine is so extravagant that, along with standard sections like Starters and Sides, there is one dedicated to Foie Gras. Seared with a balsamic reduction, our choice brought back delicious memories of San Sebastian’s tapas bars. The canard en conserve (a literal duck in a can) was opened tableside to reveal duck breast, vegetables, and even more foie gras. Not to be outdone for gluttony, the melting pot had pork belly, roast pork, boudin blanc sausage, and black pudding over a heaping helping of mashed potatoes. The charming yet cunning waiter even convinced us (à la Monty Python’s “Finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint…”) to share a traditional pouding chômeur, Quebec’s maple-syrupped answer to a sticky toffee pudding. Rich & Julie: 0, Gout: 2. 

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