48 Hours in Montréal
Author: Pat Nourse
First question: are you going to get your bagels from St-Viateur or
Fairmount? In the
interests of science you'd probably better try both of these
institutions. You could start fights with New Yorkers talking about
which city does the better bagel. Fun as that is, it's probably
more useful to think of them in terms of two distinct styles of
bagel, each springing from a different but equally established
Jewish community. Montréal bagels are boiled in water sweetened
with honey before being baked in a wood-fired oven. They're
smaller, slightly sweeter and the differences in their preparation
give them a flavour and chew all their own. Grab a coffee from
Myriade on your way from one shop to the other.
Or you could let Beauty's Luncheonette decide for you. The café has been in business more than 70 years, and its classic diner lines are the backdrop to breakfasts to be reckoned with - the Beauty's Basic comprises two eggs, ham, bacon or sausages and home fries on a (St-Viateur) bagel.
From here you've got two choices. One: segue directly into deli worship at Schwartz's, where the "charcuterie Hebraique" includes a celebrated doorstopper example of the Montréal smoked meat sandwich, "smoked meat" being the peppery local take on pastrami. Or, option two, stretch your legs and check out Jean Talon covered food market. There's lots to like here: the charcuterie at Porcmeilleur, cheese at Qui Lait Cru, fiddleheads and mushrooms picked wild from the woods at Les Jardins Sauvages - Marché des Saveurs, it should be noted, has a particularly fine range of maple products, many grades of maple syrup being the mere tip of the iceberg.
Which brings us to lunch, and therefore L'Express. Few restaurants capture the feeling of being at once an institution yet perfectly alive to the moment, but that is the Express's essential charm. It's not quite as old as Harry's in Venice, nor as edgy as St John Bread & Wine in London, but it shares their robust competence, their solidity, their pace. You'll barely have sat down when water, bread, mustard and a jar of cornichons are set before you. All that remains is to dip into the superb wine list, order some rillettes and eggs mayonnaise and kick back, or push the boat out with some specials: duck hearts with morels and broad beans, perhaps, or fat spears of asparagus in a sauce gribiche.
After a wander around the shops of St-Denis Street, a ramble up the Mont Royal for some fresh air or perhaps a restorative nap, a refreshment is in order. Montréal has a thriving bar scene, but even by its impressive standards of diversity and energy, Agrikol is one out of the box. There's something particularly fascinating about immersing yourself in French Caribbean culture in the heart of French Canada, especially when the link is forged by Arcade Fire band members (and local residents) Régine Chassagne and Win Butler. The sounds and scents of Haiti come to life through bright, bold murals, big flavours and rum. Lots of rum. Mardi Gras beads hang from a chandelier, while the snacks menu runs to the likes of gryo, fried marinated hunks of pork shoulder, and accras, cod fritters, all complemented by seriously spicy pickles.
Dinner brings a dilemma even more harrowing than the decision presented at breakfast. Will you go with Joe Beef or Au Pied de Cochon? One thing is certain: there's no doing both on the same night. Both restaurants are excellent, both are pillars of Montréal's reputation as one of the great eating cities of the Americas and both have (some) lighter options on offer, but there's something about the combination of powerfully tasty food and stellar cellars common to both that can tempt even the sturdiest souls towards overindulgence. Consider it win-win. at Au Pied de Cochon, foie gras is a specialty, and chef Martin Picard offers it in croquettes and hamburgers, nigiri and cheung fun, as well as in an epic foie-laden take on poutine, Quebec's signature dish of hot potato chips smothered in gravy and fresh cheese curds. At Joe Beef, meanwhile, a meal might kick off with a platter of clams, oysters, urchin and crab on ice, paired with hot puffs of squid ink-blackened dough, segue into battered nuggets of hen-of-the-woods mushroom, asparagus in brioche with hollandaise and salmon roe, lobster spaghetti, and conclude a muscular steak "Monsieur Joe Beef" au poivre, all with a full chorus of Burgundy so good you'll want to pour it into your eyes.