It’s no secret that I fell in love with my hometown of Montreal all over again during my recent summer holiday. The food lover in me couldn’t resist our daily picnics in the park, local farmer’ markets, and of course, the never-ending list of home grown eateries and restaurants just waiting to be discovered and explored!
Without further ado, here is my list of “must try” Montreal culinary experiences for you to sink your teeth into. Note that this is not a review, just my humble opinion and are in no particular order.
Le Bremner – After putting it off for years, I finally made it to the celebrated Old Montreal restaurant and got a reservation on a crowded Friday night. Walking down an unassuming, old stone staircase into an 18th century building in what looks like a historic wine cellar, Le Bremner oozes cool without the attitude. The menu is seasonal, short and sweet. Everything is done right, service and all. Tuna sashimi with tahini, lobster risotto, grilled sea bass, and fresh local corn artfully sliced off the cob tableside, were among the delicious delights that graced our dinner table. Homemade gingerale and a Bourbon “cola” were as unexpectedly delicious as they were refreshing. For dessert, just order one of everything – you’ll be happy you did.
Joe Beef – With chefs like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang singing it’s praises, it’s no wonder that this decade old restaurant located in Montreal’s Little Burgundy District has received such global attention. During my chat with founder and chef David McMillan, it’s obvious that he is a true restauranteur who is dedicated to preserving the essence of his culinary vision. Drawing inspiration from whom he refers to as “the adventurous eaters’ of Montreal,” Joe Beef is a place of big meats and bold flavors. If you want to see a menu dominated by prime cuts of meat, rabbit, lobster, clams and fresh fish, then this is right up your alley. Upon arriving at the restaurant, you’ll be on a first name basis with your server in minutes, and with a drink in hand, get ready to be whisked away to the garden for a peek at some of the fresh produce that will leap onto your dinner plate. This is as seasonal and as local as you can get. While McMillan’s food philosophy is uncomplicated, Joe Beef sets the bar high on the Canadian culinary landscape. Head over to its sister restaurants, Le Vin Papillon and Liverpool House – both equally as impressive as their big brother. Totally worth a visit on your next trip to Montreal, book way in advance.
Park Restaurant – Located just outside of Montreal’s urban core in the city of Westmount, I almost missed what I considered one of the culinary highlights of my trip because I thought it out of my way. Thankfully, I came to my senses as my eyes were drawn to the pages of a Japanese menu like I had never seen before. What sets chef Antonio Park’s vision miles apart from the traditional sushi restaurant are the subtle hints of Korean and South American flavors woven within his cooking style. Our sashimi of salmon, snapper, Hamachi, and a brown rice Unagi Maki were accompanied by sauces of avocado, chimichurri and a “secret” golden flecked sauce. A Korean-inspired salad piled high with fresh seasonal vegetables, and a quinoa bibimbap were among the dishes we savored. While presentation is no doubt a feast for the eyes, what impressed me the most was chef Park’s ability to strike the right balance between clean, delicate, and often robust flavors within his unique approach to modern Japanese cuisine. Delicious.
L’Express – With it’s black and white tiled floors, tables draped in pristine whitewashed linen, and black tie clad waiters – L’Express is reminiscent of eras gone by, and the epitome of the classic French bistro (note the vintage photo below for historical reference). Very little on the menu has changed since the restaurant opened 35 years ago, and for good reason – you know a restaurant lives up to its name when it’s the place that most chefs frequent for their off-duty meal. Chicken liver pate with pistachio, beef tartare, veal ravioli, and hangar steak are all signature dishes that are prepared with the consistency and sophistication that L’Express is known for. Don’t get me started on their fries, they are as perfectly French as you could ever imagine! If you still have space for dessert (trust me, make the space), the apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream, and chocolate tart are not to be missed. With many of the staff clocking in twenty to thirty years of experience at L’Express, you can rest assured your dining experience will be in trusted hands.
Olive et Gourmando – With nearly 20 years under its belt, this fun, eclectic restaurant is a tiny jewel on Old Montreal’s St-Paul West Street. It’s charming, cute, and casual, with a lunch lineup that runs beyond it’s front door.. I used to live around the corner many years ago – I’m not at all surprised that it has as much of a buzz about it now as it had back then. Co-owner and founder Dyan Solomon has poured her heart and soul into making this one of the finest casual eateries in the city. It would be almost criminal to miss out on their signature chicken sandwich made grilled bread, guacamole and fresh mango. With salads changing more often than the seasons, there is always an element of surprise within the menu, and their endless variety of freshly baked goods is worth waiting for. O & G has respected the art of the perfect cup of coffee, and to this day, I remain obsessed with their signature Valrhona brownies. Well worth the wait.
Pizzeria Gema – I discovered this “gem” of a pizzeria while wandering the streets of Little Italy with my family on a sweaty summer afternoon. Too hot to sit on their outdoor terrace, we were greeted by friendly wait staff who welcomed us into the buzzing little restaurant. Beautiful thin crust pizzas with toppings of fresh pomodoro, local mozzarella, basil, artichokes, and salami made their way to our table, along with perfectly crisp calamari and a seasonal market salad. A great casual eatery with pizza that’s spot on.
Foods to Try
The Markets – From hard to find exotic foods at specialty grocers to your local honey farmer, Montreal’s markets have it all. The Jean Talon Market and Atwater Market, locatied in Montreal’s Little Italy as well as by the Lachine Canal, respectively, are the spots you’ll want to source the finest local produce, gourmet and artisanal ingredients. Open year round – yes, even in the depth of Montreal’s sub-zero temperatures – the markets boast some of the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables around. Cheese, meat and other specialty food shops line the periphery and interiors of the market. Don’t forget to stop by the many food stalls that are nestled within. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the summer months as I did this year, Québec’s seasonal berries are a treasure not to be missed.
Montreal Bagels – If you haven’t tried a Montreal bagel before, sorry folks, then you haven’t tried a real bagel. Hand rolled dough, bathed in sweet boiling water, then baked in a deep wood-fire oven – there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a piping hot, fresh bagel that’s been slathered with cold cream cheese. For me, both St-Viateur and Le Fairmont make the best bagels in town, and arguably the best in the world. The smell when you walk through their doors is enough to put you in a hypnotic state – a cult-like zen-ness overtakes the lineup while you wait in suspended time. With a crisp, sesame coated exterior that’s sweet and chewy when you bite into it, it would be easy to polish off a dozen in one sitting. I have to admit that I packed over 120 bagels from both shops on my way back to Dubai this summer. I probably would have skipped my flight if they didn’t make it on the plane! In fact, they’re sitting in my freezer at the moment, as my family toasts and fights over them, one breakfast at a time.
La Diperie & Le Chocolat Favoris – As a mother of three ice cream lovers, I was amazed by the highly addictive trend that has taken the traditional chocolate dipped cone to new heights. Soft serve ice cream is turned upside down and dipped into flavors like salted caramel, smores, dark chocolate, almond crusted chocolate, pistachio, white chocolate, cookie dough (and the list that goes on). Cones come in different sizes, with the mini-cone being the closest to a guilt-free option. If you appreciate ice cream as much as I do, you’ll have to take the dip and try every flavor at least once. Note that the sprinkles in the photo below are far from obligatory!
I could go on and on about Montreal’s food scene, but the truth is, there is always something special to discover. The best way to truly experience what the city has to offer is to put on your most comfortable walking shoes, and roam the streets in search of the culinary jackpots that are worthy of biting into. Give me a shout whenever one crosses your path!
* Special thanks to Joe Beef, Olive et Gourmando, & L’Express for providing images of their restaurants.