There's a north American city that has more in common with Paris than its neighbouring Toronto, stealing not only its language, but its fondness for food and wine.
It may be better known for its poutine and maple syrup, but Montreal is blessed with a large number of high-end restaurants and wine bars, and it's the latter that are igniting tastebuds. Springing up around the city, wine bars offer small plates and natural wines that are every bit as hip as those you find in Paris, where the minimal intervention craze began.
Yet Michelin have overlooked this French city, the province Quebec and even more widely, Canada, in favour of Thailand and more recently, LA.
Arriving on a warm autumn night, I first ventured out to the suburb of Little Burgundy where the long-established Joe Beef crew hold seat. You'd be hard-pressed to get a table at the original restaurant, which is booked out months in advance, but neighbouring Liverpool House, created to house the overflow, is a much easier proposition and serves the same hearty, French-influenced food, which, to put it politely, is well-suited to the harsh Quebecois winters. Taking a seat at the bar, my eyes skirt over random-yet-culturally-appropriate pictures of rolled over trucks, the Pope and beefeaters. Together with the white Queen Anne shelving and the quaint, mismatched crockery, Liverpool House feels homely, with the exception of the oysters resting on ice in front of me, expertly shucked by bar staff while they pour generous glasses of natural wine, selected to match your order.
The infamous tomato-based lobster spaghetti served here and at Joe Beef is decadent, as is the rhubarb tart to follow (my eyes were bigger than my belly). But even that's not it's not as rich as the special; bone marrow served with fried sweetbreads. This is a city rich in rich food; across town, at his restaurant Au Pied De Cochon, chef Martin Picard infamously treats diners to a fois gras degustation.
But the most recent addition to the Joe Beef stable mark a move away from the hedonistic to the more casual wine bar. Focussing on innovative small plates and natural wines, dimly lit Le Vin Papillon, right alongside its sister restaurants, does not accept reservations, plays raucous retro rock and disco pop and has a completely open kitchen. Its small plates include a lot of lighter, seafood and vegetable-based dishes such as smoked salmon with fried gnocchi, and for dessert, wild blueberry studded tarts.
Over the other side of town, new Mon Lapin does a similar job; however with two Joe Beef dinners under my belt and traditional French Sunday/Monday closures, I decided to mix things up a little.
Setting up camp north of the hip Le Plateau, Vinvinvin is a new player on the market. Buzzing but not overcrowded on a Sunday night, the wine bar has a modern feel with splashes of colour and geographical shapes, drop lighting and chequered tiles, like a mish-mash of mid-century modern design. The long list of natural wines focuses on producers from the likes of Georgia and the Czech Republic, and their funky natural orange wines. The small menu features plates that best accompany the wines (not the other way around) such as warm mackerel with red pepper sauce and quality olive oil, or a lemony fromage frais with basil, zucchini flower and tomato.
Nearby, Ratafia is a more polished dessert-only wine bar, where unique dishes like a too-beautiful-to-eat chocolate cake flavoured with black garlic can be washed down with a chilled red that "tastes like Christmas".
While all this imbibing can keep you up late at night, the city's brunch scene is also a force to be reckoned with. A little rough around the edges (natural wine does, after all, still contain alcohol), a ride on Montreal's efficient Metro - resplendent in colour and design - deposits you into the leafy suburb of the Plateau where some of the hottest eateries can be found. In what seems like a regular corner home, (except but for the giveaway queue), Maison Publique has been drawing crowds for dinners and brunches since the chef, a Jamie Oliver alumni, opened it in 2012.
This feels like a neighbourhood joint, with stuffed animals, framed photos and empty bottles lining shelves, as well as vases of bright flowers and hanging baskets framing the windows. I've ordered a 1980s throwback eggplant caponata on foccacia, but my neighbour informs me I've made a grave error and encourages me to try his pancakes, Maison's most popular brunch dish. Made with whipped egg whites, the extraordinarily fluffy pancakes are cooked until they are crispy on the outside, then piled high with crispy bacon and drizzled with maple syrup. This ain't your everyday stack.
With my newly-acquired pancake obsession in overdrive, the next day I head to the up and coming suburb of Saint Henri to try out Arthurs Nosh Bar, a bright, olive green and white modern Jewish cafe run by an ex-Joe Beef chef. Proving Montreal may be the best place in the world to eat pancakes, Arthurs' pillows of delight are made with cottage cheese and cooked to crunchy perfection, served in a pool of slightly salty maple. They're handily available in a half serve so you can try a famous Fairmount bagel - a slightly sweeter, crunchier, lighter version of those you'll find in New York, served with house-made smoked salmon, pickled onion, dill capers and a thick slice of beef tomato.
While bagels are big business in Montreal, with proprietors St Viator and Fairmont peddling varieties alongside condiments such as cream cheese and flavoured spreads 24 hours a day, baked goods of the sweet variety are also popular. Cosy modern cafe Olive and Gourmando, located in Vieux Port, peddle high-end pastries, cookies and coffee, and patrons queue for their famous toasted sandwiches daily. But it's the old-school kouign amman in Le Plateau that's truly memorable. A steal at $C2.50 a slice, the famous Breton pastry is like a sweetly-layered bread, doused in butter and topped with caramelised, salted almonds. The patisserie of the same name has only three tables and sells out of the French pastry by 4pm every day.
Those looking for a bit of Paris in Montreal could visit L'Express, an old-school French style bistro. It's the real deal; the ceiling has been painted yellow to cover the old stains of cigarette smoke. The bar is textbook Paris, the tables served by suited-up waiters are covered with white tablecloths set with cornichons, mustard and French baguettes as a guest is seated. While the food here is nothing revelatory, it's reliable French classics like steak tartare and ill flottante keep the restaurant busy until 3am.
But it's the wine bars that have my heart, and my stomach. In a desperate attempt to stretch out my visit (and my pants), on my last night I cross town to a place that came up time and again for being consistently great (and open seven days a week). Tiny, dimly-lit 30-seater Larry's, in the hip neighbourhood of Mile End, serves small plates of thoughtfully executed food. Think peaches with feta, corn and pickled peppers in a limey vinaigrette; an albacore tuna ceviche, and to finish, a chocolate tart that's more salty than sweet and again comes studded with those delicious wild blueberries that are as goods here as they are over the border in Maine. Natural Quebec wines make appearances in the line up alongside France's Loire Valley, and the friendly bar staff happily make recommendations. I'm tempted to come back in the morning for breakfast - which by all accounts is just as good - but unfortunately I have a plane to catch back home to Australia, the other country that Michelin forgot.
The writer was a guest of Destination Canada
Air Canada flies from Melbourne three days a week and Sydney daily; aircanada.com
Lofts du Vieux Port: Set in classic old Montreal building with views across its busy high street and beyond, these incredibly spacious serviced apartments are located in the heart of the Vieux Port district and come equipped with their own kitchenette; loftsduvieuxport.com