Taste of the maple spirit

Bring a hearty appetite when you delve into the food culture of Montreal, writes Terry Durack.

Eating like a local in Montreal is not like eating like a local anywhere else. It's a death-defying Cirque de Stomache, a theatrical dive into a series of historic, independent, culturally diverse neighbourhoods fuelled by maple syrup, pork fat, bagels and beer.

You either love Canada's second-largest metropolis or you double-love it, with extra fries. I double-love it, because the people are big, loud, crazy, strong and stubborn, and love food and wine, theatre and music, preferably in huge quantities and all at the same time.

Not so much the heart of French-speaking Canada as the belly, Montreal has built on its original French and North American Indian roots to develop a unique food culture that's as deep as the Rocky Mountains are high.

New impetus has been injected by the current breed of wine-savvy, food-hoovering, classic-with-a-twist chefs, restaurateurs, bar-keepers and food-truck operators, who combine old-school comfort and hospitality with new-school street smarts and an honest, up-front attitude.

From the cobblestones of touristy Old Montreal to the boho chic of the Plateau Mont-Royal, the streets are paved with bagel bakeries, organic food markets, food trucks, smoked-beef joints, cool cafes and chocolate shops - all 60,000 of them. It's a great place to be a local, and a great place to eat like one - if you can handle the pace.

EAT PORK FAT

The pig is big on Montreal's menus, and nowhere is it celebrated as religiously as at renowned chef Martin Picard's pumping, nose-to-tail gastro-temple, Au Pied de Cochon, where even a salad comes piled so high with smoked pork that the few green leaves underneath it don't stand a chance.

The menu includes pig's head for two, pork hocks braised in maple syrup, pigs' trotters stuffed with foie gras, and the "Melting Pot", loaded down with pork belly, pork loin, boudin, pork sausage, sauteed onions and mash.

Advertisement

The only known antidote when faced with so much pork is to drink like a fish from the spectacular wine list. Worked for me.

Au Pied de Cochon, 536 Avenue Duluth, The Plateau, 514 281 1114.

EAT AT WILENSKY'S

Aaah, Wilensky's. If you don't get Wilsensky's, you don't get anything. The straight-shooting, plain-speaking Wilensky family has been running Montreal's favourite corner caff since 1932, when Moe Wilensky first came up with the imaginatively named Wilensky Special. Don't expect too much - the "special" is just a warm, soft, pressed bun layered with beef salami, beef "baloney" and processed cheese, always served with mustard and NEVER cut in half - but don't expect too little either. You're eating history here, not just lunch.

Chef Dave Chang of Momofuku in New York says it's his favourite place in the world, but then, he's said that about a few different places now.

Wilensky's Light Lunch, 34 Avenue Fairmount Ouest, 514 271 0247.

EAT AT THE MARKET

In Montreal, the markets are not just for Christmas, but for life, whether it's the cosmopolitan Atwater, Maisonneuve, Lachine, or the biggest and best, Jean-Talon, which opened on an old lacrosse field-turned-bus terminal in Little Italy in 1933. Eat your way from one end to the other on sweet organic berries and freshly boiled, butter-slathered sweet corn in summer, and local oysters and fabulous cheeses in winter.

Come for Quebecois specialties such as maple syrup (and maple sugar, maple butter and maple water), or queue for the maple caramel ice-cream from Le Havre au Glaces.

Jean-Talon Market, 7070 Avenue Henri Julien, 514 903 2113.

EAT BAGELS

Myer Lewkowicz. Isadore Shlafman. These are the great immigrant names behind the Montreal bagel, smaller and slightly sweeter than its New York equivalent. Shlafman founded Fairmount Bagel on Fairmount Avenue in 1919, and Lewkowicz opened the evocative St-Viateur in 1957 (now run by the hard-working Moreno family).

Boiled first as tradition dictates, the bagels are finished in magnificent wood-fired ovens, giving them a wonderfully crusty, chewy, Montreal-y quality. Both bagelries are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because otherwise there would be riots.

St-Viateur Bagel, 263 St-Viateur Ouest, 514 276 8044.

Fairmount Bagel, 75 Fairmount Avenue Ouest, 514 272 0667.

EAT POUTINE

The Quebecois have loved poutine, an over-the-top combination of french fries topped with teeth-squeaky, raw-milk cheese curds and runny gravy since some strange character invented it in the 1950s. The trick, apparently, is that the potato is kept on ice (not frozen) before frying, which gives it a special non-greasy softness.

This may or may not be true, but the combo certainly turns fries into an outrageously satisfying meal, perhaps best consumed when two sheets to the wind.

Tourists and locals flock to the 45-year-old La Banquise for its 28 different varieties of poutine, 24 hours a day, although my heart was stolen - and its arteries blocked - by Au Pied de Cochon's foie gras poutine with foie gras cream sauce.

La Banquise 994 Rue Rachel Est, 514 525 2415.

EAT FROM FOOD TRUCKS

Food trucks were banned in Montreal for 66 years, until last year. Now they're rolling out with a vengeance, especially in spring and summer. The best on wheels include the cheeky banh mi and Quebec lamb-curry tacos from Montreal's first mobile food truck, Grumman 78; chef Gita Seaton's challah-bun burger from the Winneburger van run by popular local bistro Palais Nouveau; and the gourmet hot dogs topped with snails, caviar or bone marrow from Chaud Dogs.

EAT SMOKED BEEF

OK, time to be controversial. Every two-bit tourist guide will send you to Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen. And why not - the oldest deli in Canada has been churning out its steamy, hot-smoked beef sandwiches every day since 1928. Sold to a consortium including Celine Dion in 2012, it's equally famous for the long line of hopefuls out the front waiting for a stool. But just like a local, I've discovered my own favourite smoked-beef joint, which just so happens to be across the road.

The Main Deli is classic Montreal - walls lined with booths and tables covered with condiments. The brisket here is miraculous - sweetly spiced, gently smoked and steamed, finely sliced and piled high between two slices of fresh rye. And the clincher? Fading cuttings of long-time regular Leonard Cohen on the wall.

Main Deli, 3864 St-Laurent Boulevard, 514 843 8126.

DRINK A LOT

The Quebecois play as hard as they work, and excellent French wine, craft beer, whisky and cider have a real place in their rich food culture.

Drop in to the casual Furco for a beer and a tin tray of charcuterie, dress up for a glass of Prince Edward Pinot Noir at Pullman downtown, and start or finish every night at the Joe Beef team's Liverpool House in Little Burgundy. You can even do a three-hour walking tour of "brew pubs" with Local Montreal Tours.

Furco, 425 Calle Mayor; Pullman, 3424 Avenue du Parc; Liverpool House, 2501 Rue Notre-dame Ouest 514 313 6049; see localmontrealtours.com.

EAT OUTSIDE

Well, within reason. And season. Once the winter snows have melted, Montrealistas love sitting out on their beloved terrasse restaurants to people-watch in the sun as they thaw. I didn't find too many terrasses with brilliant food, but for the sleek, newish Brasserie T that opens up in summer to the colourful Place des Festivals in the heart of the arts district. Here, fine-dining pioneer Normand Laprise's free-wheeling chef, Charles-Antoine Crete, feeds theatre-goers, tourists and locals alike with deconstructed saucisson brioche, steak tartare and garlicky snails, along with affordable wines.

Brasserie T, 1425 Rue Jeanne-Mance, 514 282 0808.

EAT A LOT

Don't leave without the infamous Foie Gras Double Down (two slabs of foie gras, breaded with crumbled potato chips, deep-fried, stuffed with bacon, cheddar and aioli, and drizzled with maple syrup) at Joe Beef. It's just plain silly, but eating here is like parking yourself in the lower intestine of Montreal's soul and refusing to come out for anybody. Finish on rich, dense chocolate brownies from the charming little La Maison Cakao, or take home a loaf of the beautifully bittersweet chocolate bread from artisanal boulangerie Le Fromentier for breakfast, and you're as close to eating like a local as can be, without physically shutting down all your arteries.

Joe Beef, 2491 Rue Notre Dame Ouest, 514 935 6504; La Maison Cakao, 5090 Rue Fabre, 515 598 2462; Le Fromentier, 1375 Ave Laurier Est, Montreal, 514 527 3327.

The writer was the guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Comments