Eating like a local:- Exploring French-Canada (MTL edition)
Regional food specialties
Regional food specialties
We decided to take a trip for our second anniversary. My wife had the time available from work and I'm currently part timing so why not we figured? If it's one rule I try to live by it's the live for now mentality. At least while it's just us anyway. Why Montreal? Well we paired it with Quebec City but in truth it was Montreal that I really wanted to get to. It's a spot I'd been to about a decade ago but that was before I did stuff like this. So we did the typical stuff that 20 somethings do when traveling there. I think I ate poutine at the casino. Ha. So this trip would be much different. As always I had my eyes on Montreal for the food first and foremost. That paired with the facts it's only a two hour flight and early November was off season made it an easy choice. We wanted something similar to Europe.
Sights from Montreal
What's so similar to Europe? Well to start French is still the main language in the Quebec region of Canada. This alone makes you feel like you're somewhere overseas. Maybe not as much so as Quebec City but Montreal has some wonderful historic neighborhoods with cobblestone streets and such. I cant quite pinpoint what it is but I really did love Montreal after this second trip I took. We got lucky in that it was warmer there then it was in Chicago so we had basically 50 degree weather that was mostly sunny. I really want to go back during the summer bc like Chicago I imagine it's electric.
More Sights from Montreal
I always have these large google maps that I make of all the spots I want to try. I was surprised by how many were on my Montreal list. It's a big city and it seemed like my type of spots just kept popping up. Of course it was impossible to get to tall of them which is partially why I think Montreal is the type of city that warrants multiple visits. If you like strolling around town and walking through different neighborhoods than this is a good place to take a vacation. The public transit system was very much reliable and really easy to use. Clean too. Shouts out to the Hotel William Gray which is a very nice place to stay if you like the new school hip and modern hotels that take good care of you.
More Sights from Montreal
Montreal is home to a ton of iconic eateries. Some of them have been on my hit list for quite some time. Beauty's Luncheonette was one of them. Opened in 1942 by a son of two Russian-Jewish immigrants it's been a staple of the community ever since. Locals come for both the food and chit chat based on what I saw on our visit. I chose this as our first stop bc we got in early and the most ordered menu item at Beauty's is the Beauty's Special. It's a toasted Montreal bagel with lox, cream cheese, red onion, and tomato. A classic that I can always enjoy. Even if the bagel is toasted. Other popular menu items are the blintzes, challah French toast, and the smoked salmon with eggs. It just started to get packed as the kids of the founder were hosting some sort of get together for what seemed like friends and relatives. Go early or on a weekday if you can bc I noticed a line on the wkd.
The Beauty Special at Beauty's Luncheonette
Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann
Any time a city's direct comparison is France you better stop and see what's up with the pastries. Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann is said to be one of the best spots in town. We stopped in for both a croissant and also a bite of the namesake. Not bad at all. Maybe not Paris level or should I say San Francisco which is where I fell in love with the super buttery and flaky Kouign Amann pastry.
Kouign Amann at Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann
Larry is short for Lawrence which is a popular Montreal dinner spot. Helmed by a British ex pat who also runs a head to tail butcher it was one of many spots on my radar. I didn't get into the Restaurant Lawrence on this trip but we did get to enjoy some natural wines at his all day bar Larry's. If it's too early for drinks you can get coffee here and the menu is reflective of all three popular meals in the day. It's the rare chef driven all day spot that every city deserves. We got the chicken liver over toast from the section of toasts on offer and it was wonderful. Some of the best chicken liver pate I've tried.
Chicken Liver Toast at Larry's
Wilensky's Light Lunch
Seeing as how we were a short walk from the #1 spot on my hit list I made it happen early. It too is an iconic stop on Montreal's sensational sandwich trail. Wilensky's was opened in 1932 by a Russian Jew who made Montreal his home. There is no grill, or fryers. No plates or silverware either. That’s bc they basically serve one thing which is the famous Wilensky sandwich made with five slices of beef salami, one slice of bologna, mustard, and your choice of cheese (Swiss or cheddar). It’s pressed until the cheese melts and then served on a napkin. Don’t even think about asking for it sliced or served without mustard bc they have never catered to those requests. Don't forget to try a homemade soda and either some sweet or sour pickles. My cherry cola was made right before my eyes.
Sandwich, Pickles, Drink at Wilensky's Light Lunch
Having been visited by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, and just about every travel publication out there it's a popular spot for both locals and tourists. I loved sitting at the counter and I loved the sandwich even more. I ended up going back for one on the last day as it was right there. I don't have a Hall of Fame of spots I've visited over years. But if I did Wilensky's is a first ballot entry.
The Wilensky Special
Montreal has that French connection which means there's also a Haitian connection. There's plenty of French speaking Haitians around town from what I saw. Agrikol is a hip rum bar where Haitian flavors star in the food. It took us straight to South Beach with it's presentation and vibes. That said I've never quite liked a place in SoBe the way I did Agrikol. Both the food and drink were killer. Specifically the food. I've had my fair share of Haitian down in Palm Beach County and Griot is one of the most popular menu items. The fried pork is one of the cuisines signature dishes and Agrikol gives it a wonderful fresh fry resulting in a piece of pork as juicy as the freshest fried chicken. What takes it over the top is both the wonderful citrus flavors and also the pikliz. The latter of which is a diced up pickled cabbage loaded with sneaky heat. Haitians put this on everything so it's at each table like BBQ sauce is at a smokehouse. Whatever you order make sure you turn it up to 10 with pikliz.
Griot at Agrikol
Au Pied De Cochon
You know the drill. When most people look into where they should dine while in Montreal there's two spots that always pop up. Au Pied De Cochon is one of them. Run by the famous Martin Picard it's one of Montreal's OG new age fine dining restaurants. New age meaning all the rules from the fine dining of your youth are kicked to the curb in favor of rustic French-Canadian cooking with lot's of fireworks involved. As in an entire section of the menu dedicated to different preps of foie gras.
Foie Gras Nigiri
I forget where I saw the Nigiri but it was on one of the shows as these guys are a popular visit from food and travel people. I believe they were on Bourdain's show a couple times. The foie gras nigiri was as good as advertised. I could eat that stuff all day. No surprise to find foie gras and rice going so well together as it's not the first time I've tried the two paired together. After what was an almost unbearable wait we received our entree. Honestly every single restaurant had anywhere from good to great service with this spot being the exception. Our waiter was hardly friendly which is fine as long as I don't have to wait close to an hour for my food. I think it might've been sitting at the station for a good 15 minutes while the waiter chatted wines with another table. Oh well I rarely care about service. I would still go back but after all the great hospitality before this it was a letdown here. The Tajine Pork was extra fragrant and quite delicious but also rather one dimensional with cumin being the dominant spice. I liked it but I didn't want to eat it all night. Good thing we got a single portion.
Curry Pork Tajine at Au Pied De Cochon
If you couldn't tell by now Montreal has a ton of locals favorite type spots. Places that have been around as long as many of Montreal's people. Located in a pretty residential area is this iconic diner. So beloved that there was a documentary made on Cosmos and it's founder. Tony Koulakis opened his diminutive diner in 1967 after emigrating to Canada from Crete. It quickly became a local landmark known for it's greasy spoon breakfasts and the friendly owner who served them. The documentary titled 'Man of Grease' lives on but unfortunately Tony does not. He was tragically killed by his son back in 2013. His picture still sits overlooking the small counter that seats maybe six.
a peek inside
In spite of his tragic death Tony left behind a legacy in both his diner and it's food. One of the most popular menu items is the famous creation sandwich. It's made with bacon, salami, fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on toasted challah. I watched from the counter as the lady whipped up three of these as everyone in there was eating them. Upon my first bite it was easy to understand why it was such a popular way for Habs to start their day. It's a damn fine sandwich. Shit I should've got two.
The Creation Sandwich at Cosmos Snack
Continuing along on my little self guided sandwich crawl was another must stop spot on my hit list. I was feeling the Italian sausage subs served at this extremely popular sandwich shop in a pretty Italian heavy area. I visited right around Noon and it got hopping real quick. I think I read that they've been in the area since the 70's. A bunch of Canadiens memorabilia on the walls as well as TV's and drafts of cheap beer gave Momesso the feel of a sports bar. The menu has hot sandwich offerings with the Italian being the first one listed. For good reason. It's their most popular. They take a seasoned Italian sausage patty and fry it up on a flattop before putting it in a bun and topping it with tomatoes, onion, cabbage, oil. Cups of homemade pepper relish come served on side at each table. Delicioso!
Italian Sausage Sandwich at Momesso Restaurant
Gibeau Orange Julep
So I had a lot of must stops on my lists and this next one was another. I've wanted to check this place out for a long, long time. Partly do to the food but also bc of the building itself. As you can see in the pic above the Gibeau Orange Julep is housed in a big orange orbit. It's impossible to miss if you're driving past. It opened in 1932 and over time has become a roadside attraction for both the building and the famous orange julep drink. For those familiar with an Orange Julius drink this is pretty much the same thing. They also serve burgers and hot dogs. I was tempted to try a hot dog or maybe a burger but those were coming soon so I held off. But I really liked the creamy orange drink.
Gibeau Orange Julep
For those that may have been wondering there was no trip to Schwartz's. What gives? Well first is the fact I went there on my trip a decade or so ago. The other is the long lines and locals talk of it being overrated. They're not the only smoked meat sandwich game in town. The smoked meat sandwich being the most crucial of Montreal's regional foods. The bagels may be the most celebrated but those in the know understand how special the smoked meat sandwich is. Like the bagels the smoked meat sandwich is a product of the city's Jewish community. It's made using a Kosher brisket that's been salted and cured with different spices before being smoked and sliced for sandwich meat. Snowdon Deli is said to serve one of the best in the city and I'll be damned if it isn't bc it was f'ing spectacular. The meats tenderness reminded me of the best brisket I've ate in Texas. Notice they don't slice it too thin? That's bc it's hand sliced. Pictured is a "medium" in terms of fattiness. IT. WAS. PERFECT.
Smoked Meat Sandwich at Snowdon Deli
As always my wife was on the cocktails and Bar Henrietta was near the top of her list. It was on mine too but more so for the food. As you can read in the neon pictured above this is a trendy Portuguese style tavern. Montreal has a really nice sized Portuguese community and Bar Henrietta is an ode to some of the older taverns found around town. Aside from the drinks they also do a small bar menu of Portuguese inspired bites. We loved all three of the plates we tried to the point where I really thought about coming back. The chicken liver pate was decadent. The roasted octopus with fried sliced potatoes was perfect. We also tried the Bifana sandwich which is one of a handful of popular Portuguese sandwiches. Made with thinly sliced marinated pork and cheese that's pressed in a Portuguese roll and served with sides of mustard and cornichons. So good. Pretty similar to a Cuban.
Portuguese Bar Snacks at Bar Henrietta
Many of you already know about Joe Beef. Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Canada. The Kings of restaurant gluttony have built themselves quite an empire. Aside from their original project they have another spot next door as well as a natural wine bar and an upscale luncheonette. Joe Beef being the spot that gave them the ability to do all the others. So as you can imagine people book reservations here well in advance. There were no spots left by the time we knew we were going to Montreal however there is a way to enhance your chances of getting to go. So long as you're willing to find out if so on the day of the meal. There's a Canadian dining app called DINR that you can download for free. Once on your phone you can open it and select your city where you'll be brought to a page with a bunch of popular restaurants around town that have last minute reservations available. From what I could tell Joe Beef has spots on the app every day. We got in easily. After taking a seat at the bar (I prefer sitting there) we were greeted by some enthusiastic locals. Five star hospitality.
Quail Stuffed with Sausage in a dill infused broth
The bartenders / waiters were full of life and obviously enjoyed their job. As was the case with just about every place we ate, they were all about the fact we were from Chicago. I swear every bartender and or waiter we had in both Montreal and Quebec City has either been to Chicago or was going and they were all visiting for the food and drink. So them knowing we were from Chicago I think made them bring their A game as they all had nothing but wonderful things to say about our city. All of which I could shoot back at the Quebec region and it's people as the service was stellar just about everywhere. Food wise we weren't let down either. Pictured above was a sausage stuffed quail in a sip it dry dill infused broth. The menu changes daily but you'll never have trouble finding something good.
Lobster Spaghetti at Joe Beef
One thing you will most always find on the menu is the lobster spaghetti. It's pretty much their signature dish. Not much selling needed by our waiter for this one. The picture doesn't do justice the fact that there's an entire lobster on that plate. It's a dish that pretty much anyone who likes shellfish would love. I like shellfish and so does she. Thus we loved it. At first I couldn't decide between a steak and a beef cheek but in the end it was actually pretty easy. When you see slow braised meats on the menu at Joe Beef you'd be well off to make them your dinner. French-Canadian cooking is all about comforting yourself up on a cold winter night. But it doesn't need to be cold for it to be good.
Slow Braised Beef Cheek at Joe Beef
Montreal's Bar Scene
As always we popped around to a handful of the hot local drinking spots. I'd give Montreal's cocktail scene a B+ as it was better than many spots I've been to but not quite on the level of some of the worlds best. We enjoyed drinks at a Vietnamese inspired bar called Nhau. The food is also supposed to be good but we stopped there before reservations elsewhere. Perhaps the best cocktail I've had in some time came from a backdoor spot called Cold Room. It was called the Ube-Macapuno and it was made with rum, purple yam ananas, suze liquor, dry curacao, Bols yogurt, pineapple, and mint. It had an amazing taste that I've never quite experienced. I imagine this is what the cocktails are like in Tokyo. That said the service was SLOOOOOW so be prepared to wait and maybe even order two.
Cocktail at Cold Room
One of my favorite things about Montreal's food scene is all of the local fast food spots. They call them Casse Croutes but they can also be diners. The latter of which is what Greenspot is. The diner has been around for more than 70 years. Just like in the States these spots tend to be owned by Greek and or Albanian immigrants. Greenspot felt alot like many of the old school diners in Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit. They became popular for their hot dogs which are huge in Montreal. Equally big if not bigger is poutine. Greenspot was said to have a good one so I made it breakfast one day. Though they have something like 27 different poutine options you can't beat the classic. Thick fresh cut fries are topped with a deeply beef flavored brown gravy and fresh squeaky cheese curds. I've always liked poutine even though it's something I don't eat often. Greenspot's was the best I've ever had. This place was a perfect ex. of a greasy spoon diner. I wish I could be a regular.
Poutine at Greenspot
Ma Poule Mouille
When it comes to regional treats Montreal has more than their fair share. Portuguese grilled chicken is another one of them. Peri Peri Chicken shops such as Ma Poule Mouille are beloved for their charcoal grilled chicken dripping in spicy peri peri sauce. It's just one of many dishes the Portuguese adapted into their own as peri-peri is originally an African snack. Mozambique to be exact.
Charcoal Grilled Chicken
Ma Poule Mouille isn't the oldest of the bunch but it gets mentioned often as the best in the city. Same goes for their poutine which they add slices of Spanish chorizo into. I wanted to try the poutine but had plans for another stop so we got a half grilled chicken which comes with salad and fresh cut fries. Everyone loves a good plate of charcoal kissed chicken so it's no surprise this place stays packed. In a city where you can easily spend $20+ on lunch this is a great option for the locals.
Peri Peri Chicken at Ma Poule Mouille
Pataterie Chez Philippe
Next stop up was on my list for a Michigan. What's that you ask? It's basically what they call a chili dog in Montreal. What's the reason? I cant promise you it's 100% accurate but I do know that they also call them "Michigan's" in upstate New York which isn't far from Montreal. So that's the most likely reason but why do they call them that in NY? My guess would be bc the people in New York named them after the Coney Dogs of Michigan. Detroit to be exact. Pataterie Chez Phillipe is a longtime Montreal casse croute that the locals love for both hot dogs and burgers. I hear the fries are great and the poutine is too by extension but I couldn't do all three. So I rolled with one Michigan and a cheeseburger with everything. The burger had some unexpected fantastic crispy laced edges and was really well made for something like $4. They grind the beef in house. The hot dog was a standard skinless frank from the popular local supplier but the sauce was pretty popping. Great little stop.
"Michigan" Hot Dog and Cheeseburger at Pataterie Chez Phillipe
After five straight days of hearty meat-centric French-Canadian fare we wanted some seafood. This newish small plate and natural wine spot popped up the night of this need. In a true testament to Montreal's dining depth it was one of the best meals of the trip, and it wasn't even on my radar. For starters we had a fantastic plate of octopus with fried chickpeas and eggplant. We got our seafood in the form of a whole fried sea bass with baby bok choy sitting over ginger noodles. I loved this dish and it's light Asian flavors. Also so as to not suffer meat withdrawal we got a plate of pork belly with chicharron, apricot, and barley. Normally I prefer the belly crisped up but this was insanely tender. The natural wine recs by our waiter were really good as well. Cadet is a spot I'd return to for more.
Dinner at Cadet
Montreal Pool Room
As I mentioned earlier Montreal'ers love their hot dogs. Or Steamés as they call them. Montreal Pool Room is one of 100's of hot dogs stands in the city but it's also one of the oldest. They've been in business since 1912 and thus have pretty much always been there for locals in need of a late night hot dog fix. Maybe they used to have pool tables, I don't know, but these days I know they don't. Now they may not compare to a perfectly made hot dog in Chicago but I still found a spot in my heart for steamés. Everything on these is diced cabbage, onions, and mustard. Most folks get at least two.
Steamés at Montreal Pool Hall
Fameux Gyros Elatos
One of the things I noticed in my research was Montreal's love for souvkali. The Greek grilled pork skewers are found all over town. Many spots specializing in them. Every Habs fan has a souvlaki spot. I scouted this old school looking spot in a Greek dominant neighborhood and made my way over on the last day. Elatos is a compact family run Greek counter. It had the feel of a diner. I think it was father, daughter, and son running the place. I originally came here for the souvlaki but when I arrived I was greeted by a huge cone of fresh layered gyro meat. Thus my decision to get a combo plate was an easy one. Both the souvlaki and the gyro rocked. Would've liked a bit less sauce on the gyro so I could really taste the meat straight up but it was still super satisfying. Another good one.
Gyro Sandwich at Souvlaki at Fameux Gyros Elatos
The other smoked meat sandwich that I wanted to check out comes from Lester's Deli. This old school spot has been a part of the heavy Jewish neighborhood since 1951. You can feel the nostalgia upon walking inside. I was tempted by the smoked meat breakfast plate but a sandwich is hard to beat. The typical way to eat a smoked meat is just mustard though some folks get cheese. This was yet another killer sandwich to be found in Montreal. Just fantastic. They have a spot at the airport too.
Smoked Meat Sandwich at Lester's Deli
St. Viateur Bagel Shop
You knew this one was coming. Reason I waited until the last day to stop here was I wanted to bring the bagels home. I arrived to a pretty tame shop but within three minutes the place was packed. St. Viateur has been making their wood fired Montreal bagels since 1957. There's an argument to be made that it's the number one attraction in the city. Just realize that they only sell bagels. I think they have a fridge with cream cheese and such but you'll have to make your bagel sandwiches on your own. Montreal bagels are a bit sweeter than their NY counterparts. I'm not a hardcore bagel guy so I cant comment on which style is better. I can just share my thought on these which is pretty good! Like so many other famous food stops St. Viateur has a dueling competitor in the nearby Fairmont Bagel. I stopped there after going into St. Viateur but there was a huge line and I had to go pack.
Bagels at St. Viateur Bagel Shop
After packing up we had an hour or so to chill. So I walked over to the Chinatown area which we had only Ubered through earlier. With it being the weekend there were quite a few people out and about eating noodles, dumplings, and such. I ended up stopping at a spot called Qinghua which specialized in dumplings. Actually I was surprised by how many specialty dumpling shops Montreal has. This one wasn't at the top of my list as reviews were mixed. But the spots I wanted to try weren't in Chinatown so this was my fallback. Not bad but I felt what others were saying in that there's better.
Dumplings at Qinghua Dumplings
Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE for my google maps guide to Montreal. Stay tuned for Quebec City.