With over 5,000 dining spots, Montreal is filled to the brim with choices. Less than a generation ago, most restaurants here served French cuisine. A few temples de cuisine delivered haute standards of gastronomy, numerous accomplished bistros served up humbler ingredients in less grand settings, and folksy places featured the hearty fare of the colonial era, which employed the ingredients available in New France -- game, maple syrup, and root vegetables. Everything else was "ethnic." Yes, some places offered Asian and Mediterranean cooking, but they weren't nearly as popular as they were in other North American cities. Quebec was French, and that was that.
While waves of ethnic food crazes washed over Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, and New York in the 1980s, introducing people to Cajun, Tex-Mex, Southwestern, and such fusion cuisines as Franco-Asian, Pacific Rim, and Cal-Ital, the diners of Montreal were resolute. They stuck to their French culinary traditions.
In recent years, however, this attitude has changed dramatically. The recession of the 1990s put many restaurateurs out of business and forced others to reexamine and streamline their operations. Immigration continued to increase, and along with it, more and more foreign cooking styles were introduced. Montrealers began sampling the exotic edibles emerging from the new storefront eateries all around them -- Thai, Moroccan, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Turkish, Mexican, Indian, Creole, Szechuan, Japanese.
Innovation and intermingling of styles, ingredients, and techniques were inevitable. The city, long one of the world's elite gastronomic centers, is now as cosmopolitan in its tastes and offerings as any city on the continent. True, some of the silliness that has attended culinary innovation elsewhere has afflicted chefs here, too. Plates arrive with towering overwrought presentations that might well incorporate spiky snow pea fans amid ponds of raspberry-beet coulis beneath wild rice and minced portobello mushrooms from which mini-groves of rosemary and thyme sprout. But for most chefs, novelty is still secondary to the freshness and appropriateness of ingredients.
Deciding where to dine among the many tempting choices can be bewildering. The establishments recommended in this chapter should help you get started, because they include some of the most popular and honored restaurants in town. Getting to any of them involves passing many other worthy possibilities, for numbers of good restaurants often cluster together in certain neighborhoods or along particular streets, such as Laurier, St-Denis, or St-Laurent. Nearly all restaurants have menus posted outside, prompting the local tradition of stopping every few yards for a little salivation-inducing reading and comparison shopping before deciding on a place for dinner.
It's a good idea, and an expected courtesy, to make a reservation if you wish to dine at one of the city's top restaurants. Unlike larger American and European cities, however, a few hours or a day in advance is usually sufficient at most restaurants. A hotel concierge can make the reservation, even though nearly all restaurant hosts will switch immediately into English when they sense that a caller doesn't speak French. Dress codes are all but nonexistent, except in a handful of luxury restaurants, but adults who show up in T-shirts and jeans may feel uncomfortably out of place at the better establishments. Montrealers are a fashionable lot, and manage to look smart even in casual clothes.
Few people want to dine in five-fork restaurants all the time. Many of this city's moderately priced bistros, cafes, and ethnic joints offer outstanding food, congenial surroundings, and amiable service at reasonable prices. And, speaking of value, the city's table d'hote (fixed-price) meals are eye-openers. Entire two- to four-course meals, often with a beverage, can be had for little more than the price of an a la carte main course alone. Even the best restaurants offer them, so tables d'hote present the chance to sample some excellent restaurants without breaking the bank. Having your main meal at lunch instead of dinner keeps costs down too, and is the most economical way to sample the top establishments. The delectable bottom line of dining in Montreal is that a meal here can be the equal in every dimension to the best offered in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York -- for about one-third less.
Alcohol-based beverages are heavily taxed, imported varieties even more so than domestic versions. To save a little, buy Canadian. That's not difficult when it comes to beer, for there are many breweries, micro to national, that produce highly palatable products. The sign Bieres en Fut tells you that a bar has brews on draft. Wine is another matter. Wine is not produced in significant quantities in Canada due to a climate inhospitable to the essential grapes. Given the high cost of Californian and European pressings, though, you might want to try bottles from the Cantons-de-l'Est (east of Montreal), from British Columbia, and from the Niagara Frontier. The vineyards near the famous falls actually take advantage of the frigid winters, allowing grapes to freeze in order to make the sweet dessert "ice wines." If you drink more than one glass of wine with dinner, the half- or quarter-liter of house wine offered at many restaurants is a better deal than ordering by the glass.
Quebec cheeses deserve attention, and many can only be sampled in Canada because they are often unpasteurized in the French manner, and cannot be sold in the United States. Quebecois themselves have come to a new appreciation of this native product, in part due to recent interruptions in importation of European varieties. Of the almost 70 different cheeses available, often as a separate course in better restaurants, you might look for Mimolette Jeune (firm, fragrant, orange in color), Cru des Erables (soft, ripe, made of raw milk), Oka (semisoft, pleasantly smelly, made of cow's milk in a monastery), Le Migneron (semisoft, from goat's milk), and Le Chevre Noire (a sharp goat variety covered in black wax).
When "cuisine" is the last thing on your mind and you want a quick meal that will do minimal damage to your credit-card balance, Montreal doesn't disappoint. Numerous places serve sandwiches and snacks for only a few dollars. Many of them go by the generic name casse-croute -- which means, literally, "break crust." They couldn't be simpler: often just a few stools at a counter, with a limited number of menu items that might include soup and chien chaud (hot dog) augmented by such homey Quebecois favorites as tourtiere (beans and pork baked in maple syrup and served as a pie) and poutine (french fries doused with gravy and cheese curds). In addition, a number of mostly ethnic eateries serve two-course lunch specials for under C$8 (US$5.70). Look, in particular, to Thai, Chinese, and Indian restaurants for all-you-can-eat lunch buffets at that price.
Prices -- Prices listed for main courses in the entries are for dinner unless otherwise indicated (luncheon prices are usually lower). Prices do not include wine, tip, or the 7% federal tax and 7.5% provincial tax that are added to the restaurant bill. Food purchased in a market or grocery store is not taxed.
Parking -- Because parking space is at a premium in most restaurant districts in Montreal, take the Metro or a taxi to the restaurant (most are within 1 or 2 blocks of a Metro station). Alternatively, when making a reservation, ask if valet parking is available.
Smoking -- The Quebecois are no longer the heaviest smokers in Canada, that distinction having recently shifted to Nova Scotia's puffers. And even in still-addicted Montreal, new regulations require most restaurants to provide nonsmoking sections.
Tipping -- Montrealers consider 15% of the check (before taxes) to be a fair tip, increased only for exceptional food and service. The easiest way to calculate the amount is to add together the federal and provincial taxes, separately listed on the check. They total 14 1/2%.
Montreal is a city that loves and respects food. We demand that it be fresh and well-prepared. Fortunately it's not a problem. Individuals and professional chefs alike have access to exceptional farmers' markets (such as Jean-Talon and Atwater) and a multiplicity of ethnic specialty stores, including of course, stores on The Main - the fabled Boulevard St-Laurent - which bisects the city between East and West. Barry Lazar's Taste of Montreal: Tracking Down the Foods of the World is an eclectic annotated guide to over 200 Montreal shops and restaruarants. A 'must-have' for food lovers.
Montreal is one of those rare North American cities where you can eat out inexpensively without compromising taste or quality. We are fortunate to be able to share food cultures from around the world, and we have access to a staggering array of different kinds of foods. Here is a selection of wonderful restaurants where you can get a full, tasty and satisfying meal in the evening for under $15 (before taxes, tip, and wine).
Casa Gaucho5834 Ave. du Parc (at Bernard)
Bus: 80 (du Parc)
Hours: 4:30pm-2am daily
Credit cards: V, Interac; Alcohol: all
Wheelchair access: no
Average complete dinner: $15
This Argentinian Grill is a meat lover's paradise on Avenue
The specialty here is meat, grilled to perfection, complemented by the house-made special chimichurri sauce. The sauce is so good it's sold by the jar to take out. Soup is life- sustaining, chock full of meat in a tasty broth. Empanadas made here are superb, among the best around town. The real deal though is the grilled meats, available individually or in combinations as complete meals with soup, dessert, and beverage. Portions are very generous and two portions of the special Argentinean grill easily serve three normal people. Beef and pork are tasty, tender, and lightly charred. The sausage is typically Argentinean, half beef and half pork. Boudin is meltingly tender and tasty. Tripe, kidney, and sweetbreads can be substituted if they are not to your taste. You can mix and match meats if you like. The charcoal grill is brought to the table with your chosen assortment and everything is fresh and hot. Salad is ordinary but still a welcome counterpoint. They will do take-out but this food tastes best hot off the grill.
Carlos Sansone came to Montreal in 1968. He worked at Joe's Steak House until he opened his own place in 1973. Since then he has owned and operated several legendary Argentinian places: Rio de la Plato, Argentina 78, Las Brasas, Martin Fiero, and Noches de Tango. He opened Casa Gaucho in 2000 and knows his business. Service is friendly and helpful although it may seem a bit slow at times. Everything is prepared to order, so be patient, it's worth the wait!
Chopin4200 Blvd. Decarie (bet. Duquette & Brodeur)
Metro: Villa Maria
Hours: Mon 11am-6pm; Tue & Wed 10am-6pm;
Thur & Fri 9am-9pm; Sat 9am-5pm; Sun 10am-3pm
Credit cards: V, Interac; Alcohol: beer
Wheelchair access: yes
Soup & sandwich: $5; pierogi plate $5.50
Chopin is an NDG Polish deli with terrific small meals and
homemade pierogi elegantly available on the side. This is a small Polish
deli with a pedigree. There are half a dozen small tables immaculately
presented with fresh nappery, real dishes, and silverware for light meals
or tea. Everything is made to order and it's all served with panache.
Soups are in the hearty Polish style--try zurek or pickle soup for true
Polish flavours. Sandwiches made to order with the wonderful deli meats
include Black Forest ham, smoked or rolled bacon, Debrezina sausage, smoked
pork loin, Kaszanka (blood and buckwheat sausage), and Krakowska. The
pierogi are outstanding, a generous portion served with fried onions and
sour cream. Many varieties are available: cabbage and mushroom, cheese,
blueberry, and meat. Desserts are a real treat: cheesecake, apple cake,
Polish donuts, rum balls, cheese Danish, and some incredible seasonal
specialties like fruit crumbles.
Eva and Czeslaw Szypura own Chopin. They make most of the meat products themselves and Eva makes the sweets. In addition to great food, you will find many Polish delicacies on the shelves, as well as Polish videos and newspapers. There's a patio for good weather and they are friendly and helpful. It's all so well put together that it's hard to believe it's a deli as well as a resto, and the food is so good you'll want to try it all!
Tao374 Victoria Ave., Westmount
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-10pm; Sat & Sun noon-10pm
Credit cards: V, MC, Interac; Alcohol: all
Wheelchair access: no
Average table d'hote: $13.95
Tao serves wonderful Chinese food in a lovely Westmount
The menu is varied but the kitchen shines with Cantonese. The table d'hote has 12 selections that include appetizers, main dish, rice, and dessert. The General Tao chicken is a particular pleasure and very popular. Other good bets include hot and sour soup with shiitake mushrooms, mu-shu chicken with hoisin sauce, scallops with ginger and garlic, orange ginger beef, eggplant with red chilli bean paste, and vegetarian tofu pot. They have Peking duck with mandarin pancakes if you want a special indulgence. Grilled salmon with black bean sauce is also terrific. Don't miss the King Tao chicken or the squid in salt and pepper. In fact, the only problem is too many good things! Portions are generous and presentation is aesthetically pleasing, with carved vegetables decorating the plates. Food is cooked fresh to order, and spiciness can be adjusted to taste. They serve Szechuan and Thai too, but go for the Cantonese. Complimentary almond cookies and honey-roasted almonds make a fine ending.
Tony Yung opened Tao in 1999. He grew up in the restaur-ant business; his family owns the Nanpic in Chinatown. He does some of the cooking, with three other chefs. Tony is very hands-on and it really makes a difference. He attends to all the little details that make dining a pleasure. Tao is nicely decorated and elegant, with white tablecloths and cloth napkins, but they still manage to keep the prices reasonable. This is a good kitchen and they are very accommodating so don't be shy. At Tao the food is great, prices are very reasonable, and it's charming too!
Keur Fatou66 St. Viateur W. (at St-Urbain)
Bus: 55 (St-Laurent)
Hours: Mon-Wed 12pm-8:30pm; Thur-Sat 12pm-10pm;
Credit cards: cash only; Alcohol: no
Wheelchair access: entrance yes; restroom no
Average main course: $10
Keur Fatou serves Senegalese/West African specialties and they sometimes feature storytelling and live music too!
Like much West African cooking, the food here relies heavily on peanuts (the main crop in Senegal), and on starches such as plantain, yams, manioc, rice, and couscous. No pork is served. Simple homey ingredients are expertly handled by knowledgeable and caring hands to create classic Senegalese dishes. There are three choices available daily. Chicken mafe is a beautiful melange of chicken and root vegetables simmered in peanut sauce and served with rice and plantain. Thieboudiene (baked fish) is perfectly spiced and moist, and chicken yassa is a delightful mix of lemon, garlic, onions, and chillies in a rich sauce served over rice. Poisson kaldo is a blend of fresh and smoked fish in onion sauce served with rice and plantain. Homemade hot sauce is available on the side and is added to your taste--if you wish, it will take you all the way to incendiary! Fresh fruit or yogurt are ideal desserts, and homemade ginger juice with a bit of a kick is special.
Ndiouga is the owner, waiter, cook, dishwasher, and storyteller. His wife and friends help out when it's busy. Now and then, after clients are served, he will play a sabar (traditional Woloof drum) and tell stories. Occasionally school groups come by for storytelling, music and snacks--lucky them! They've been open since 2000 in this small space with beautiful Senegalese printed cotton tablecloths. It's comfortable and casual. At Keur Fatou you feel like you've stumbled into a neighbourhood place in Dakar, and it's a place where the food is home cooking good!
Ten of Montreal's Best Food Finds
by Barry Lazar
When it comes to food, Barry Lazar is Montreal's Lewis without the Clark. Our Champlain; our Lasalle. An intrepid adventurer of all things culinary. For decades he has introduced us to the foods and cultures of the world he has found in the neighbourhoods and strip malls of Montreal. If it is a spice, flavouring, or food we are not familiar with, he describes what it tastes like, how it is used or eaten and its origins. More importantly he tells us where to find it.
For a number of years Barry Lazar has written on food for the Montreal Gazette. His most recent column was called "Taste of the World." He is a regular contributor, as the "Flavourguy," for the popular montrealfood.com. When he is not writing about food or teaching public affairs journalism at Concordia University, Barry Lazar makes films with Garry Beitel.
The following is an excerpt from Barry Lazar's Taste of
Montreal published by Vehicule Press.
Ten of the Best
To start with, here is a highly personal list of ten great "tastes of Montreal" which make eating in this town an on-going feast.
Beans at La Binerie
This snack bar hasn't changed in decades. Traditional Que-becois staples such as tourtiere, gras-de-rotis (jellied pork roast drippings...mmm) and feves au lard fill the menu. The beans are baked for a long time, and sold by the pint or quart to take home. The breakfasts are hearty, cheap and filling. Great before a wintry walk down rue Saint-Denis.
Coffee (as in Tim Horton's) is what you use when you need something to wash down a doughnut. But for purists there is only Italian espresso--rich and delectable, with a layer of foam called crema. Bets are off for the best in the city but here are three standouts, all with their own discerning clientele: Olympico (aka Open da Night) in Mile End, Cafe Italia in the heart of Little Italy, and in the north end of town, Cafe Guildone, which is more popularly known as the Restaurant Without a Name or Restaurant Sans Nom.
Papas rellenas at La Peregrina
This Latino grocery store has a lunch counter wedged into the back and cooks a variety of South American goodies every day. Papas rellenas is one of their best: cook a potato, mash it and then form it into a ball. Stuff this with hard-boiled egg and ground meat and then deep fry it. This is a common snack in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where it may be stuffed with cheese. Reheats well in the microwave or toaster oven.
Take great smoked meat and stuff it into casings. Knocks an ordinary hotdog out of the ball park. Get these locally made beauties at Quebec Smoked Meat in Pointe St-Charles.
Licorice at Euro-Plus
This small, bustling West Island cafe has a superb selection of imported Dutch products. Licorice is a favourite treat in the Netherlands and the selection here is stunning.
Pizza at Roma in Little Italy
Buy it by the slab and take it home. A large variety of vegetarian toppings such as eggplant and zucchini make Boulangerie Roma a Little Italy favourite. Also great home-made gelati for dessert.
Sausage subs at Momesso
Fresh Italian sausage seared on the griddle, stuffed into a sub roll with lettuce and tomato. Add a drizzle of hot sauce. Heaven on a bun.
Chinese barbecue at Sun Sing Lung, in Chinatown
This is a small shop with a friendly, knowledgeable staff. There is usually a whole hog roasting in the back and another being carved in the front window.
Barry Fleischer's home-made spruce beer
This was once a common drink in corner stores. Now there is only one place that makes spruce beer and serves it fresh--Restaurant Emilie Bertrand on Notre-Dame Street. The recipe is secret. The taste is piney but much more subtle than the commercial bottled varieties. Goes great with an all-dressed steamie.
Quebec "ice wine"
It is similar to ice wine, but this is a vinophile's apple cider with a wonderful syrupy kick. Serve very chilled as an aperitif. Here is a world-class drink that is only just getting the attention it deserves. Similarly, Michel Jodoin's 82 proof Granny Smith-based "Pom de vie" is as worthy an end-of-the-meal digestif as a fine Italian grappa. The SAQ outlet in the Atwater Market has a large selection. Ice ciders are also sold in speciality shops such as Le Marche des saveurs du Quebec at the Jean-Talon Market.