A Consistently Underrated Food City Awaits Just Over the Canadian Border
Our correspondent shares what he ate on a recent eye-opening, five-day exploration of Montreal
Even after spending a full five days eating my way through Montreal, as the taxi ferried my wife and me to the airport, I realized I didn’t want to leave. Much like its favored snack, poutine, the city is a fascinating mishmash of different cultures, influences and ideals that create something truly unique.
In the same way New York City has been and still is a conduit for waves of immigrants into the United States, Quebec’s largest city functions as a primary entry point for people into Canada. Many are from the former colonies of the British Empire and French-speaking regions, but nowadays, the city is home to immigrants from just about every country, with nearly 33% of its residents born abroad. Nowhere is this mélange of humanity more evident than its enviable dining scene, one which rivals many larger metropolises.
Over the last decade, the city’s previously underrated dining scene has elevated itself to a new level, garnering worldwide attention. Young chefs serve farm-to-table dishes alongside 80-year-old Jewish delis. Venerable dining rooms turn out French-inspired plates, while Haitian street food is offered at a grab-and-go joint next door. All this is provided in the laid-back, casual style that seems to ooze from the city’s heart.
The Humaniti Hotel, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection, served as our base camp between outings throughout the city. Hovering eight stories above the downtown streets, its 193 rooms are elegant and refined with a slight mid-century vibe. It’s part of a sleek complex, officially labeled a “smart vertical community,” that also includes residential units, commercial spaces, dining and one of the city’s few outdoor rooftop pools. Sipping a glass of wine from their Wine Spectator award-winning selection on the terrace became our go-to late afternoon planning routine.
The hotel concierge solved the problem of figuring out where to eat first. When we mentioned to him that we were a bit overwhelmed by choice, he pointed us toward three food halls within a few blocks of the hotel: Le Cathcart, Le Central and Time Out Market. All three opened within four months of each other, from September 2019 to January 2020, and had weathered the effects of the pandemic shutdowns that blanketed Montreal. Offering over 50 different micro-restaurants between them, each has its own unique identity and it’s an easy way to tap into the diverse food scene (helped along with a few local beers and distinctive cocktails).
Housed inside the expansive Centre Eaton shopping center, the Time Out Market has a lot going for it. From the Caribbean flavors infused into Chef Paul Toussaint’s dishes (his conch fritters and jambalaya transport you to the beach) to Vietnamese street food at Le Red Tiger (try the papaya salad, it’s ridiculous), one can span the globe easily. Perhaps the most interesting spot was Mezzmiz, where the Lebanese small plates of homemade hummus, Moroccan chicken and crunchy falafel from Nadim Hammoud bristle with flavor. Possibly best of all was the Canadian Old Fashioned I grabbed at the main bar. Made with real maple syrup and Forty Creek Confederation Oak Canadian whisky, it was the ideal drink for north of the border: a little sweet yet just enough of a kick to ward off the incoming winter chills.
Just a few blocks away, Le Central has a distinctly modern vibe. Its blazing neon lights, bright mural covered walls, glassed in entrance and polished concrete floors are rinsed in the festive sounds of residents stopping in for a quick snack or drink all day long. Housing 25 stalls helmed by local independent restaurateurs, it perfectly highlights the creativity and cultural diversity of Montreal. The spicy Piri Piri chicken at Cantine Emilia reminded me that you don’t have to fry chicken to make a great sandwich. At the same time, the Birria Poutine, a flavor bomb that combined spicy beef, Filipino sauces, fresh onions and cilantro with gooey cheese atop tater tots, was a highlight at Le Petit Vibe, a Filipino-American street food joint.
At the newest of the three, Le Cathcart, besides the food you’ll find one of the best spots in town to have a drink in its covered glass rooftop Biergarten. Its three full-service restaurants and nine food kiosks are aimed more at the downtown business crowd, however it still offers dishes from some of the city’s more established spots. And the Korean fried chicken from Chef Michael Lewis’s Chikin and the braised pork belly bao buns at Hà make it more than worth the stop.
The beauty of spending a little time in any of the food halls is that you get the chance to meet the people that call Montreal home — they really are ridiculously nice. In just a few minutes of talking with them (lunch is a great time to stop in), we garnered a list of recommendations for places and neighborhoods to head towards to further our culinary adventures.
Fleurs & Cadeaux, a new casual Japanese snack bar in Chinatown in an old building that was formerly a gift store and florist, was ridiculously wild. A continual flow of old-school hip-hop records kept dropping on an open turntable while the intimate interior allowed us to feel like we were part of the staff (I felt the urge to hop behind the bar to crank out a round of drinks). Its flavorful small dishes, natural wines and sakes, and inventive cocktails have led to long lines to grab a table. The perfectly chewy pizza dough and relaxing backyard terrace at Elena made it the perfect place to unwind after a long day riding bikes through the city. At one table was a friendly French Bulldog who kept visiting us, at another a group of college students were celebrating, so you can’t knock the vibe there, either.
Perhaps no other restaurant exhibits the creativity that seems to be brimming over in Montreal more than the newly opened Mastard in the Villeray neighborhood. Owner Simon Mathys was recently named the best chef in Quebec by Lauriers de la Gastronomie Québécoise, the region’s top culinary award. His continually changing menu features dishes crafted with items picked up at the nearby Jean-Talon Market and local farms. The night we were there our tasting menu featured a scallop accented with squash and a basil purée, a filet of walleye that melted in our mouths, and a rhubarb dessert that paired perfectly with their selections from their natural wine list.
After five days filled with neighborhood exploration and evenings jammed with food halls, restaurants and an untold number of cocktails, it was time for us to head home. As our plane lifted off, we were already discussing when we would return to Montreal. Both of us couldn’t get enough of it. We had heard many of its residents tell us that it was a city that required one to spend more than five days visiting, that it was best to marinate in it, like that ridiculous chicken sandwich we had at a no-name food truck we bumped into during one of our bike rides. We had to agree.
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