It’s very easy to fall in love with Montreal. The city has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi charm to it. Its joie-de-vivre is contagious and ooh-la-la captivating.
Text by Jennifer Ellson I Photos by Amorvida Muyrong & Tourisme Montréal
(Originally published in Food & Travel Singapore)
Montreal’s natural beauty is a sure turn on for both locals and visitors. Some call it la belle ville, the beautiful metropolis, while others describe it as the Paris of North America. It is not surprising that this Canadian city, in the province of Quebec, has been compared over and over to the illustrious French capital. But what sets Montreal apart from the famous European city is its culinary landscape. Montreal gastronomy, from home-cooked to highfalutin, is as varied, genuine and endearing as the city itself.
Indeed, Montreal’s heart and soul can be found in its cuisine, influenced by the multinational fabric of its immigrant communities. It is not only renowned for its exceptional French-Canadian fare refined by generations of Québécois, but also for the Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Jewish, Middle Eastern and Asian cookery that have contributed to the making up of Montreal’s delicatessens.
For Montrealers like me, fuelling our famed joie-de-vivre is serious business. Our allegiance to gastronomic pleasure is evident in the way we eat: we don’t consume; we enjoy. Our most important decision of the day is a toss-up between the food-wine pairing and the perfect hors d’œuvre, both absolutely essential. Singaporean visitors will feel at home, seeing that Montreal has its own ‘hawker’ scene, with its many cafés, bistros, brasseries (a café doubling as a restaurant with a relaxed setting), outdoor terraces, wine bars and restaurants in every street corner to bring them to culinary heaven. From the Lebanese falafels and Cantonese lobster to the French foie gras and typical Canadian delights like maple syrup, ice wine and iced cider, we celebrate our passion for food on a daily basis.
For instance, waking up to the aroma of freshly baked bagels being served at the patisserie nearby is an everyday episode. Be warned though: Montrealers don’t take their bagels lightly. Whatever you do, do not confuse the Montreal bagel with its arch-rival, the New York-style bagel. The Montreal kind is a distinctive variety that is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven. The Montreal bagel has a sweet, chewy, doughy interior with browned and crisp exterior, while the New York bagel is puffy with a moist crust. In many Montreal establishments, bagels are produced by hand and baked in wood-fired ovens, often in full view of the customers.
Along with bagels, smoked meat is very popular in Montreal and has taken such strong root in that city that many Montrealers, and even tourists, identify it as emblematic of the city’s cuisine. Montreal smoked meat comes in two flavors – the ‘old fashioned’, where the meat is naturally aged or cured and ‘regular’, where additives are used to age the meat. Both residents and tourists alike make a point of visiting Montreal’s best-known smoked meat establishments, which are all very easy to remember with their single syllable names like Reuben’s, Dunn’s, Abie’s, Chenoy’s and the most famous of them all – a Montreal institution – Schwartz’s. Again, do not confuse the Montreal smoked meat with the New York variety, the New York pastrami. True aficionados of Montreal smoked meat vociferously argue that the consistency, flavoring, seasoning and color of pastrami differ significantly from that of smoked meat. Smoked meat can similarly be found across Canada, although the true fans know that it cannot be obtained in its tastiest, most authentic form, outside of Montreal. Several restaurateurs have offered to franchise Schwartz’s in cities across North America. Its owners, however, have always refused.
Another Montreal staple is a heaping plate of Poutine, a definite crowd-pleaser composed of thick-cut French fries and fresh cheese curds smothered in hot gravy. It’s so much a part of the Québécois diet, similar to what a Hokkien mee is to Singaporeans.
Montreal’s beautiful scenery complements its culinary landscape very well. It is home to historical buildings and enchanting structures still in their original form: Notre-Dame de Montréal Basilica, the impressive 19th-century headquarters of all major Canadian banks on Rue Saint Jacques, and the Saint Joseph’s Oratory are just a few.
Montreal has been called Canada’s cultural capital. The streets of Montréal—like Laurier, Saint-Denis and Saint-Paul—are lined with one chic boutique, art gallery and funky café after another. The vibrant neighborhood of Plateau-Mont-Royal and the bohemian Latin Quarter are the city’s most effervescent areas due to their urban vibe, animated by literary and musical activities. Street performances are abundant, from musicians to contortionists that it is no wonder that the city gave birth to the likes of Celine Dion and the Cirque du Soleil troupe. The city is also home to the world musical festivals, including the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Montreal Francofolies, a festival of French-speaking song artists.
Old Montreal is said to be the heart of the city with a dazzling display of arts, antiquity and artisanal food boutiques. The architecture and cobbled streets of Old Montreal have been maintained or restored that I always feel like I travel back in time during each visit, as every turn reveals a cachet of history, complete with the picture-perfect view of horse-drawn calèches evocative of the colonial times.
Montreal takes its fun very seriously, and its seriousness lightly. It’s a city known for its crazy spontaneity. Even a local like me loves being constantly surprised by trends that the city’s denizens come up with, like mixing and matching designer wear with quirky, second-hand items.
Montreal is undeniably a fascinating mix of urban thrills and natural wonders, neatly contained in one pristine island setting. The past, present and future converge in this city. Its six universities and 12 junior colleges give Montreal a vibrant feel amid its old-world atmosphere. Montreal is indeed very old but also au courant, avant-garde and very à la mode. J’adore.
When to go:
Montreal’s four seasons make it an alluring year-round destination. It can be a winter wonderland during the cold season from December to March, as well as fabulous summer destination, with a spate of festivals including the legendary Jazz Festival and the Grand Prix invading the city from June to August. Autumn offers a picturesque backdrop, while spring brings a wonderful feast for the senses with the city’s sights, smell and sounds coming to life at the first sign of the end of winter.
All rights reserved (Jennifer Ellson).
- First Montreal Bagel (therobotmusteat.com)
- Smoked meat, Céline-lean (myjourneywithaids.wordpress.com)
- Magnificent Montreal Mavens: Let’s open the doors of Montreal! (montrealmavens.wordpress.com)