A Continuation of our #Vacationland Travel Diary
We’d be lying if we said Montréal has always been at the top of our travel bucket list.
The truth is: we only wanted to go after watching the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode on Montréal and Quebec City. Something about his food adventures and escapades called to us — cooking foie gras in an ice hut, carrying truffles around in a pouch for constant access, sugar shacks devoted to all things maple, and lively characters speaking a strange form of French. We were in as soon as the credits rolled.
The reality of what happened, however, surpassed every expectation we had.
Yes, we followed in Mr. Bourdain’s footsteps in all things culinary, but we also approached this trip as a way to uncover a new destination with a blank slate and a sense of adventure.
Sure enough, Montréal was nothing short of an adventure. We had our fair share of mishaps, but also plenty of subsequent triumphs to balance out the proverbial scales. We misjudged travel distances, battled intense sun exposure, grossly underestimated traffic, and wrongly assumed that French meant French. But what we came away with was more valuable and more memorable than any of those miscalculations — we reveled in two of the best meals of our lives, we experienced true urban bike commuting at its finest, we got lost and didn’t care, and we opted for the locals-centric view of a city we now love.
So without further ado, here are our top 8 favorite experiences, takeaways, and ramblings from our time in the City of Saints.
1. Liverpool House. Liverpool House is one of the restaurants Anthony Bourdain visited on his grand foodie tour of Montréal, so obviously, that was our first dinner reservation in town. Located in Little Burgundy, this bucket list spot — sister to one of Canada’s most famous dining establishments, Joe Beef — is owned by the extravagant David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, who hilariously hosted Mr. Bourdain with ungodly amounts of foie gras, truffles, and fine dining. Well, their restaurant is no different. The blackboards inside are scrawled with tantalizing French delicacies which, gratefully, come out in plates of satisfying proportions. Fresh, briny oysters from the raw bar, the iconic lobster spaghetti with its lobster stock and cream sauce, a hangar steak paired with perfectly steamed-then-charred broccoli and anchovies, and an Amaro orange liquor to pair with our post-dinner coffees. Sure we were tempted by the beautiful blueberry bombshell dessert and even the peach pie, but we honestly left so happy and so cuisine-ly content, we didn’t care. Expectations, met and surpassed.
2. Au Pied de Cochon. The Au Pied de Cochon Cabane à Sucre was yet another “must” on the Bourdain-paved trail. There is an Au Pied de Cochon restaurant in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood of Montréal, but the Cabane à Sucre [sugar shack] in the city outskirts is the true coveted reservation. Unfortunately, the sugar shack was booked out through the remainder of the year, and we seriously doubted our pleads to be on the waitlist would be heard, but work they did! After crawling in rush hour traffic and dreading missing our scheduled 5:30pm seating time, we finally made it to this countryside slice of gluttonous heaven where the waiters give you doggie bags upon arrival because the platters of flavor are too much for any one person to consume in one sitting. To say that this dining experience was highlight of our entire trip and an experience we remember for the rest of our lives almost feels like an understatement. 12 [yes… 12!] epic courses of perfection included corn on the cob smothered in gouda, chili powder, and popcorn served on a candelabra; caesar salad with a fish I actually liked; rabbit poutine wrapped in blood sausage, foie gras, and cherry compote atop brioche; salmon three ways — tartar, nigiri with [more!] foie gras, and glazed fish head; chicken smoked with sage sauce and gnocchi and mushrooms; salmon and tuna pastry served with egg-based bechamel; fall-off-the-bone lamb leg soaked in lamb stock and stewed tomatoes; and four different desserts ranging from bonbons and ice cream to apple pie and carrot cake [plated atop the chef’s cook book]. Every course seemed better than the last, causing me to tear up several times from being so happy with our fortuitous luck. This is officially our #1 recommendation for anyone visiting Montréal and a pilgrimage we are already planning on making again in the very near future when the seasonal menu changes into something completely different than the one we had. Trust us, just go!
3. Bicycling. Montréal is a bicycling mecca. BIXI bicycle rental stations are more common than Starbucks cafes, and designated, protected bike paths line even the busiest roads. Indeed, the bike lanes were perhaps one of our favorite features of Montréal. All of our bike rides were completely different in terrain and fitting for anyone looking to get a locals’ glimpse of the city. First, we recommend taking the pedestrian/bike-only Lachine Canal from Old Montréal all the way to Terrasse St-Ambroise, the drinking terrace of the Montréal’s legendary Mcauslan Brewery which is conveniently located right off the canal bike path. Marché Atwater [Atwater Market] is a fun stop along the way to take in the local produce and food artisans, but the Mcauslan Pale Ale, Griffon Blonde, Apricot, and Citroille are the true rewards after an activity-filled day. For a more urban bicycling experience, we opted for Rue Saint-Urban and Boulevard Saint-Laurent in the Plateau Mont Royal neighborhood. The street art and bike flow is something truly exceptional and exciting for bike-loving people such as ourselves. From Little Italy all the way down to Quartier des Spectacles, then west along Avenue du President-Kennedy to our hotel in Downtown, we never felt nervous and had a protected bike lane the entire way. [Though please note that we also discovered that Canadians are wonderful, considerate drivers, even amid the overwhelming driving directions and volumes of vehicles saturating Montréal.]
4. Old Montréal / Old Port. A city’s historic center should be an essential stop for any first-time traveler, thus Old Montréal [Vieux-Montréal] was our first order of business upon arrival. We opted to walk the 20 minutes there from our Downtown hotel, stopping en route at the Gare Central [Central Station] for a breakfast pastry and a glimpse into the city’s public transport nervous system [which is awesome, by the way]. Nearby, the Underground City is worth a peak at [or to take a full-day tour of]. We eventually found ourselves meandering down Rue Notre-Dame and witnessing the historic cobbled streets of Old Montréal come into view. Saturated with 19th-century architecture, art galleries, designer stores, charming souvenir shops, and plenteous restaurants, Montréal’s historic district is a delight simply to explore on one’s own. A visit to the Montréal Clock Tower [Tour de L’Horloge] in Old Port is ideal for the views and the “beach” setting, while Place Jacques-Cartier transports you to a scene out of Paris with its flower covered terraces and delightful bistros. But our favorite impulse stop had to have been to Delices Erable & Cie Galerie Heritage, a museum/shop dedicated to all things maple. We tried a little bit of everything at their insistence and even got to taste maple taffy as it was meant to be consumed: on snow. While in Montréal, we definitely recommend stopping inside before or after lunch at one of the adorable restaurants in West Old Montréal, like The Stash Café for Polish food or Olive et Gourmando for delicious sandwiches and salads.
5. Churches. Not everyone loves churches, but beautiful cathedrals and massive feats of architecture are totally our jam. Luckily, Montréal is full of them. The Notre-Dame Basilica is an especially unmissable and unbelievable icon — certainly worth the $5 entry fee. Its striking blue and gold color, glowing prayer candles, and stunning mix of paintings and sculptures left us in awe. It is probably one of the most beautiful churches we have ever entered, despite all of our touring throughout Europe. The surprise organ concert was a huge plus too, as it allowed us to hear the 99 stops on what was certainly a beast of an instrument. We also loved our excursion to Saint-Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, a basilica and shrine on the western slopes of Mount Royal. It isn’t as impressive as the Basilica but we were mesmerized nonetheless by the incredible architecture [it features the second largest dome in the world only after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome], expansive gardens, and panoramic views. It also doesn’t hurt that the entire park system of Mount Royal is right next door.
6. Jean-Talon Market. The Jean-Talon Market is the culinary crown jewel of Montréal. Considered the largest market in North America based on the number of producers present, Jean-Talon showcases 150 local Quebec farmers/producers 361 days per year. Instead of just wandering through the market, we decided to let the locals introduce it to us. Which is why we booked a guided tour through Spade + Palacio, a company that prides itself on non-touristy tours. Sure enough, our morning with them was like having a local take you to their favorite vendors, restaurants, and highlights away from the tourists and crowds. With them, we tasted our way through the true range of Montréal around the Jean-Talon Market, Little Italy, Latin Quarter, and Mile-Ex neighborhoods. Our wanderings introduced us to authentic horchata and pupusas at a local El Salvadorian pupuseria; regional cheese, gelato, spice, forager, and charcuterie vendors at the market; beer and cheese tastings at a microbrew pub; cold brew coffee from a Montréal roaster; and a southern comfort food picnic of fried chicken, hush puppies, and sweet potatoes in the park. But it wasn’t just a food tour — it was full of little revelations like: sea asparagus is real, and it’s delicious; Quebec is the only Canadian province that openly facilitates the use of raw milk in the creation of their cheese; Alexandra Platts is the place to go in Mile-Ex for drinks and sunset views; and direct trade, farmer-to-roaster coffee establishments do exist and can compete with the Big Guys… just ask Dispatch Coffee.
7. Public Art. Montréal is covered in public art — a fact that pleased my creative-conscious soul. Inspired by the art-centric policies of Philadelphia, Montréal is on a mission to reach more than 1,000 accessible public artworks, created by close to 500 Québec and international professional artists and displayed throughout the Island of Montréal. The industrial Mile-Ex borough is full of hidden gems — as introduced to us during our Spade + Palacio non-touristy tour — but the creativity on display along Boulevard Saint-Laurent are definitely the most thrilling and inspiring. A pilgrimage to the massive mural collection on the corner of Rue Milton and Boulevard Saint-Laurent is worth it for the colors alone.
8. Poutine + other meals. Poutine is a bit of a favorite of ours, so we were super excited to learn about Montréal’s poutine reputation. The level of poutine provisions encompasses everything from the higher-end Chez Tousignant to the popular 24/7 La Banquise quick-and-dirty establishment. No matter the spot, we promise it’s some of the best. Also some of the best? Italian coffee, chocolate croissants, and Lebanese food. Caffè San Simeon in Little Italy isn’t necessarily the best coffee in the world — it was dark and bitter and begging for sugar — but it was perfectly representative of its Little Italy home. The owner was especially pleased that we were Americans and loved speaking to Jason in French so much that he gave us our coffee on the house. [Obviously, we’re fans.] For those looking for something sweeter, we can’t recommend Au Kouign-Amann enough. Jason admittedly ate at least one chocolate croissant per day on our vacation, and this humble, happenstance bakery boasted by far the best one. And finally, we were under the false impression that staying Downtown would have its limitations food-wise, but we were pleasantly surprised by the palate changing offerings at Garage Beirut, where the Lebanese flavors were solid and Jason was introduced to his first taste of halloumi. Win-win!
As you can tell, our time in Montréal was some what of a game changer for us. Never did we ever think we would fall in love with Canada, but with a city as cosmopolitan yet humble, creative yet classic, and eclectic yet unifying as Montréal, we were goners from the beginning.
Rest assured, we will be back. There were way too many things we didn’t do [such as explore the parks, gardens, and Biosphere of Ile Sainte-Helene] and way too many restaurants we didn’t get to try [the salad dressing of Tartine & Chocolat and the famous bagels of Fairmount Bagels immediately come to mind]. But in the end, we have a feeling that
if when we do come back, the sugar shack will be waiting and our stomachs will be ready.