Grazing our way through Montréal…

chickpea salad

My fluent French flew away years ago. Before we left for our vacation in Canada, I tried cramming a few words back into my chaotic file cabinet of a brain via CDs in the car. I could not drive far enough even if I commuted daily from Dallas. It was really best if I kept my mouth closed in Montréal and Quebec City. I actually heard myself utter one sentence containing equal parts French, Spanish and English in alternating phrases to a perplexed Canadian.

But I did learn apportez votre vin is the Mister’s favorite French phrase. We were always on the lookout for AVV prominently displayed in a restaurant window because that meant BYOW, bring your own wine, with no corkage fee. You can stop in the ever-present convenience store nearby and grab a bottle to accompany your meal. Duluth Street in the Plateau Mont-Royal area, where we were staying, has a large number of these spots welcoming budget-conscious winos. Unfortunately, most of these are open only for dinner when we were generally too stuffed from multicourse table d’hôte, or prix fixe, lunches, despite having walked for hours.

This post will not be of interest to my regulars but is part of a pledge we make every trip and rarely keep – to try to assemble whatever we can remember about restaurants for other travelers who rely as much on web reviews as we do. Memory already is an issue a month later (see paragraph 1), but here is my best attempt.

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We arrived hungry on a Saturday evening, and our landlord suggested a spot near our apartment in the Plateau-Mont Royal neighborhood. We headed out on foot to a restaurant that looked nice, but vaguely chainy. It was packed, packed with people predominantly less than half our age engaged in spirited, animated conversations. They all looked so happily settled in at Dans la Bouche, we decided to wait 30 minutes for a table.

After the waiter explained the promotional menu, we understood how those conversations were fueled and why they grew louder and louder. “Men and women eat free” every night. You order something like $29 of alcoholic beverages and then can choose from a menu of three-course offerings, including  filet mignon and lamb chops with reduction of porto, cooked rare as we requested. A cocktail each and a bottle of wine, and we ate for free. We wouldn’t go back, but our service and the food were good, if not exciting. Best left to those 20-30 year-olds.

Although lunch the next day in Old Montréal left us longing for that bargain and wondering if the city was more expensive than we desired. Marché de la Villette was overflowing with a crowd seemingly 3/4 tourists and 1/4 downtown regulars. We ordered the house red wine with our lunches and ended up dropping almost $100 including tip.

Part of this was my fault; I hadn’t really taken the time to review the special combos. I ordered French onion soup and salade nicoise, about the most expensive lunch item. The soup had plenty of cheese, but the onions had been rushed and the broth wasn’t rich enough. The salad was not what I envisioned. Instead of nice chunks of white tuna, it had a mound of super-mayonnaise tuna salad in the middle of a stack of an otherwise dry salad with white and pale green beans seeming slipped directly out of a jar. This might be the traditional Montréal preparation, but other menus warn you about the tuna salad. The Mister wisely ordered a croque madame, which appeared to be what the regulars do; it was a great sandwich with thinly sliced lean and flavorful ham. Fortunately, the rest of our excursions were more reasonably priced.

Which brings me to sandwiches. I don’t eat them very often in San Antonio. This country has been so slow to recover from the culinary catastrophe of 1925, the debut of uniformly sliced bread – Wonder Bread. For generations, Americans consumed unnaturally white, flavorless bread that could be gummed easily before our first teeth arrived.

But everywhere in the state of Quebec, the bread was incredibly good and varied, even in train stations. Canadians also seem to take what goes in the middle of their bread seriously – great meats, cheeses and the freshest greenery. Pestos, instead of lifeless mayonnaise, packed flavor.

We ate wonderful roasted-vegetable panini at the Café des Amis at the Smith House after hiking up Mont Royal through the tree-shaded park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Oh, and the Canadian beer falls in the same category as the bread – much better than mass-produced American beer. Perhaps my favorite sandwich was my basil pesto, fig and goat cheese panino at Boîte à Lunch at the Montréal Botanical Garden.

Despite its location in the heart of touristy Old Montréal, Olive + Gourmando was filled with downtown workers at lunch time. The Mister enjoyed a Cajun chicken sandwich, while mine was goat cheese and caramelized onion with a raspberry dip, which was not even necessary. We shared a refreshing chickpea salad.

Ethnic diversity complicates dining decisions in Montreal. We sandwiched in a light dinner by getting to-go less than two blocks from our apartment – a kafta pita from Les Deux Oliviers. Although not hungry, we were envious of the regulars from the neighborhood embracing everyone in the kitchen before mounting the steep stairs to the second-floor dining room and having covered tagines of more bountiful Tunisian specialties ported up to them.

The ultimate bargain in the heart of the central business district and adjacent to the major museums is Boustan. White-collared suits stand in line at the counter next to blue-collar workers to get plates overflowing with Lebanese food. No white table clothes here; efficiency trumps atmosphere. While the dishes displayed behind glass and warmed in convection ovens can be off-putting, the flavors were wonderful. The $7.50 vegetarian plate was among the most diverse and ample vegetable plates I have ever enjoyed.

Venezuelan arepas at Arepera in Plateau Mont-Royal reminded us of our trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The only flaw was we arrived without fortified beverages in tow; the Mister actually was reduced to a non-alcoholic beer.

A rainy day, AVV and a convenient store across the street led us to duck into Restaurant Alexandre on Duluth. The service was great, and no one rushed us through the leisurely, multi-course, two-bottle-of-wine lunch that kept us dry for several hours. While no course stood out as a nouvelle inspiration, the fish was well-executed and everything else good.

Of course, that detour left us not very hungry at dinner time, and we were not eager to walk in the rain much longer (wimpy San Antonians that we are). Sandhu to the rescue. Piping hot pizza delivered to our door. Embarrassed to confess, we did this on both rainy nights. But the grilled vegetables, particularly the eggplant, Sandhu loaded up for us were great.

All-you-can-eat moules frites, a four-night-a-week special, sent us to Bières et Compagnie in Plateau Mont-Royal on another evening. Even narrowing down our choice to mussels in advance did not make decision-making easy. Five flavors of mayonnaise for the frites, about two dozen types of mussel preparations and 100 varieties of beer are available. While I halted after the initial kilogram of mussels, the determined Mister opted for more.

The casual, neighborhood atmosphere led us to wander over to Café des Entretiens twice for dinner. Among the dishes we enjoyed were a hearty vegetable couscous, a rich marscarpone risotto and a healthy preparation of blue marlin on a bed of quinoa with a mango salsa. The pianist and bass player on the second visit were perfect for our final night in Montréal.

À vous de jouer: Random snapshots and superficial observations of Montréal

You fly in and plop into a setting without any logical geographical approach; obviously your impressions are superficial. So I do not pretend to delve into the distinctions between North American neighbors, Canada and the United States. This is a quick take from someone who has lived in Texas, a long way from that border, for all her adult life.

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1. How ignorant am I? Up until I climbed Mont Royal, I was clueless that was the derivation of the name of the city I was visiting.

2. Staying in the Mont Royal Plateau area, we were plunged into a land where everyone was youthful. Frequenting Southtown San Antonio, we’re accustomed to being the oldest one in a restaurant.

3. Montrealers are fit. They walk; they ride bikes; they climb stairs. While we were there, the marathon ended a few blocks from our house. We walked a lot. We were staying  in a Bermuda Triangle of metro stations, in the exact center of three stations, each probably a little more than a mile from our flat.

4. I bike-share in San Antonio all the time and threatened to make the Mister do so in Montréal. Stations are everywhere and highly used. I read the more people riding, the safer they are. It’s true car drivers are extremely alert and diligent about yielding to both pedestrians and cyclists in Montréal, but, be careful what you wish for. Although numerous, the bike lanes are crowded, particularly during rush hour. Someone like me riding would have tailgating traffic piled up behind. These people are serious commuters; they are not riding leisurely.

4. Canadians are incredibly calm and orderly drivers. No squealing brakes; no cursing; no birds shot; no screeching starts. Once in a great while, you might hear someone give an extremely slight tap to their horn.

5. Canadians have longer attention spans than I. In museums, they stop and read all the accompanying text in exhibits. They patiently sit through all related documentaries. They stay in their museums a long time. While I found the Samurai exhibit at Pointe-à-Callière interesting, I felt an unappreciative, uneducated bumpkin breezing through in contrast to the Montrealers devouring the detailed description of each warrior’s outfit.

6. The housing stock in Montréal is amazing. Miles of three-story, sturdy structures all being refurbished for young urbanites.

7. Living in a loft, I’m accustomed to hauling groceries up a floor to the kitchen. Staying in a second floor apartment in Montréal was fine. Loved the space. But my stairs are inside. Most of their stairs are wrought-iron and outside. How in the world do they manage maneuvering them when iced over in winter? Thank goodness this Texan did not have to try.

8. While I did not witness hoards attending mass, Catholicism is emphasized, if only to remind everyone this is not turf conquered by the Church of England.

9. Quebec is amazingly stubborn. French is dominant, but it has been hanging in there for a long time. The French were expelled by England more than two centuries ago.

10. My belated apologies to Dr. Wayne Reilly. I was pretty all-knowing while I was at Hollins College. Or at least I thought I was. I preferred the laid-back, liberal air of Dr. Henry Nash. I concentrated on important, real world issues; my thesis surely would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Brought up provincially in then-little Virginia Beach, I totally dismissed Dr. Reilly’s focus on separatists in Canada. What a waste of time. When the secession vote came squeakily close in recent years, I felt my face redden in embarrassment for my attitude 40 years prior. Mea culpa.

11. You have to love a city where a piano sits on the sidewalk inviting people to play. Someone always seems to be playing, and an appreciative audience is always nearby.

To view more snapshots taken during our vacation in Montreal, visit shutterfly. The Mister shares photo credits. If a photo is taken at some wild angle, it definitely is mine. It really bothers some people, but I have this theory. People don’t always look at things geometrically straight on, so why should photos have a level point of view?

Or maybe, that’s just me. I’m the only one not pausing to see things squarely.

Maybe that explains a lot….