Posted by cmh gourmand on August 26, 2009
YUL is the airport code for Montreal. So how do I make this post fit to the CMH Gourmand core mission of exploring culinary Columbus? Two things let me do this. First I am crafty. Second this is MY blog.
Well, yes, I can do better than that. One year ago, Hungry Woolf (a Columbus Food Blogger) posted about Montreal. I also decided to take what I liked about Montreal and share what elements of the city wish I could have brought back to Columbus.
About every three months or so, I take off to another city for culinary exploration. I have a few tenets to my trips:
I travel during off peak season and/or off peak days. I typically travel Saturday to Tuesday and often during what is called shoulder season – that lull between high and low season. I want to experience a city when it is having fun (Saturday), relaxing (Sunday) and working (Monday).
I stay at smaller “boutique” hotels or Bed and Breakfasts just off the beaten bath but within walking distance of the action. I usually get a good deal.
I only go where I can take public transportation to 90% of the places I want to dine or things I want to do. Google maps comes in real handy for this. I just plug in where I am staying and where I want to go and select walking or public transit directions. This is also how I decide which place I am going to stay – if I find my lodging is too far away from what I want to do – I keep searching. You learn a lot about a city by walking from point A to point B.
I look for a city with history, strong ethnic food traditions and places that are hot when Columbus is cold and cool when Columbus is hot. I am a 65 degree type of person.
I take one carry-on bag which makes last minute changes to my flight plans a breeze – a flexible single traveler with no checked luggage is a dream to airlines with overbooked flights. I often finagle some deal during transit. I have gone to Australia twice on airmiles alone so I know what I’m doing.
I don’t often write in detail about my out of 270 adventures. My previous two air to “fare” trips were San Diego and San Antonio. In June it was Montreal for my birthday.
When I am on “holiday” – I focus on the fun and the learning instead of the documentation. So here are my Canadian cliff notes with many details left out. I did not take any notes and often did not carry my camera.
On day one. I checked in to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel. The Fairmont is renown for superior service. The Queen Elizabeth is a historic hotel in the heart of the city – most famous for John and Yoko Ono’s sleep in. Since it was my birthday I opted to splurge but not too much. I have stayed at other Fairmont’s so I knew they have special weekend rates if you book way in advance. For $US130 US I got a suite with the perfect bed, a terry cloth robe and free wifi. The hotel is connected by elevator to a mall with good food choices as well as the the Canadian Rail station which is deep under the streets of Montreal.
After check in it was time to explore the sights, sounds, smells and smoked meats of Montreal. My first stop was the Frommers and Hungry Woolf approved Schwartz’s Deli.
This place is always busy but as a solo traveler a single stool at the counter serves me just fine and was available. I was able to watch all of the action of grilling, slicing and such. The banter of the cooks and servers was the best part. The counter guys have their own language that seems to be a fusion of Yiddish, English and Spanish with a French accent. When they were not kidding each other they were taking great care of me. This is a must.
3895 St-Laurent Boulevard
After several more hours of strolling I doubled back to check out an ice cream place I saw across the street from Schwartz’s.
3880 St.-Laurent Boulevard
My ice cream seventh sense did not fail me. After an afternoon and early evening watching almost everyone in Montreal consuming some type of ice cream concoction I did not want to stand out by making a poor choice or no choice at all. Ice Cream is the perfect accessory for roaming the neighborhoods of Montreal.
In Montreal, as in Europe, one first pays for the ice cream, then orders it. This is a bit disorienting at first but it makes perfect sense. How many times have you tried to juggle your ice cream, napkins, paying for and receiving change back for your ice cream at the same time? It is cumbersome. This was good practice for my ice cream quest the next day….
However, having flown from Columbus to Chicago (get the breakfast sandwich at Billy Goat Tavern at O’Hare or an Italian Beef if after 11:00 AM) and then Montreal, then taking the shuttle to the hotel, then walking 5 to 6 miles exploring and eating and exploring and eating, I needed a break. I took the subway back to town to watch a movie.
My next meal choice was made by instinct. I needed a late night snack and had recalled walking by (six or seven times while trying to get my bearings when I arrived) a place called Dunn’s Famous that looked popular. This spot has been a landmark since 1927. The location I visited had a diner feel and servers that can deal with any type of crowd. The thing to get was the mixed meat sampler. I also confirmed that the Montreal way to eat fries is with malt vinegar and mayonaisse. When in Rome…. I did, and it works – there is a flavor profile that comes together with these tastes. I have not been converted but I respect the choice.
Fries of this variety are a good gateway entree for Poutine, a heap of fries with a pile of cheese curds covered in gravy. Oui, I can see how this would be a good late night choice.
The mission for day two was to transition to another hotel in Old Montreal then start my bagel expedition of the city. Montreal is known for a very specific style of bagel. These are smaller, crustier and denser than their New York cousins. There are strong opinions on who has the best. I was determined to sample the three leading candidates. Doing so also allowed me to explore pedestrian friendly neighborhoods of via Rues – Rachel, Duluth, Lauier, St Laurent, Mont Royal and Bernard.
My winner was St. Viateur Bagels. However, my disclaimer is they win because the location I sampled first is also a cafe that makes incredible sandwiches with the finest meats and cheeses with fresh greens a variety on house made sidedishes. Most of the shops make bagels in house and you can watch them going into and coming out of the cooker. Here is where you go:
St-Viateur Bagel Café
1127 avenue du Mont-Royal Est
The original St. Viateur Bagel location is still around at 158 rue Saint-Viateur Ouest.
Fairmount Bagel at 74 avenue Fairmount Ouest has an advantage in being open 24 hours everyday. They provide an alternative to late night poutine.
Many of the restaurants and cafes of Montreal have large, door sized windows that open up to the sidewalk creating a patio atmosphere inside. This adds the the neighborhood feel of the streets I was walking through for days. I had the sense that many people lived, shopped, ate and gathered within a few blocks of friends and neighbors everyday. I could see true signs and symptoms of community and established neighborhoods. There is an expression – Cote soleil, which roughly translates to “the sunny side of the street”, these open air restaurants cater to that concept and it felt good. (There are two examples in Columbus: Marcellas in the Short North – does not work; Barrio, downtown….does, kind of, if we add in a bagel place, an ice cream shop and a lot of young people speaking French).
Deep in one of these neighborhoods and far away from a strip mall or shopping complex was my ice cream objective –Le Glacier Bilboquet in Outremont. Yum.
By this time I has mastered Montreal’s subway system. A city transit day pass was all I needed as long as I did not mind walking a mile or two on occasion.
I was able to get to the restaurants, farmers markets (Jean Talon and March Atwater among others), cheesemongers, parks, university bookstores and chocolatiers. Then I discovered something to add to my fun and expand my range. Bike kiosks are in all of the hot spots in town. There are self service stations with 10 to 20 bikes at each location. The first 30 minutes are free. You can rent a bike for 24 hours for $5 and turn it in wherever and whenever you are done with it. All you need to do is swipe a credit card and you get a 5 digit code that gives you access to any bike at any station and any time for 24 hours. The bikes are sturdy with baskets for hauling bags and booty. And while there is a good chance you will be pegged as a visitor if you are riding one without a helmet, many locals use the bikes as well (with and without helmets) so you don’t feel like you are shouting out “here I am, a Tourist!” Natives use the bikes for short commutes or to help haul groceries back from the store.
After a long day in the town I returned to my new base of operations in Old Montreal – Hotel Bonaparte, 447 rue St-François Xavier. This might be described as a small hotel / pension. The owners of the attached restaurant bought this property several years ago and connected the two businesses. French style breakfast is included as part of the stay.
Dinner time took me just down the street to Restaurant Stash Café Bazaar at 200, rue Saint-Paul Ouest. I had an incredible polish sampler meal here which is on the menu every day and is quite a value. My very helpful server also guided my selections on local and regional micro-brews so that I had the full Quebec experience.
I spent the next day doing more exploring, walking, biking, and bageling. I strolled the parks and rode my borrowed bike out to the island to see some locals.
When I got back, I sought out my perfect place (I always have a back up plan) for my birthday dinner, but alas two of my top three choices were closed for the day and the other was closed due to an emergency. I did get to see each of my picks from the outside. The next morning, on my way to the airport, I gave myself consolation prizes by stocking my carry on bag with food and baked goods from Olive et Gourmando – 351 rue St-Paul ouest. This is one of the finest bakeries I have ever enjoyed. For those that are impressed by culinary pedigree, the roots of this restaurant come from Toque.
When I go back to Montreal, I am hitting the above mentioned places again as well as (my intended birthday dinner):
AU PIED DE COCHON
536 Duluth Est
514 281 1114
So Columbus – what do I wish I could have brought back through customs:
1) More smoked and cured meats with the pickles, peppers and other deli goodness that go with them as well as the crusty, perfect sandwich bread that a deli can always procure.
2) Open air windows for restaurants – it could work in Victorian Village and off High Street areas in downtown.
3) Self serve bike rental.
4) Expanded public transportation.
5) A city with a population that can better adapt to being greeted in a language that is not English.
6) We will now pay for our ice cream first and order it second. So say we all.
Thanks to Hotel Bonaparte for making this post possible, I may not have left my heart in Montreal but I did leave my camera.