This year the largest city in the French-Canadian province of Quebec celebrates its 375th anniversary. Since its founding, successive waves of immigrants have brought their culinary traditions to Montréal, adapting them to suit local tastes and ingredients. The result is a history written in rich, diverse and distinctive flavours. I visited in late March when a final kick of winter had blanketed the city in snow. Temperatures were well below zero, but the air was crisp, the sun bright, and the streets scrupulously shovelled.
The best way to start any day is a visit to Tim Horton’s, Canada’s ubiquitous donut chain, with a box of assorted Timbits (golf ball-sized donuts) and a coffee costing mere pocket change. Beauty’s luncheonette, which opened in 1942, was one of the first Montréal eateries to offer a breakfast service. After 75 years its founder Hymie Sckolnick still welcomes patrons from his seat by the door.
For those with a more refined palate, Le Richmond’s sugar shack-inspired brunch is a happy marriage of rustic Quebecois and French haute cuisines. Following the example of the indigenous population, French settlers began producing maple syrup in the 17th century. Sugar shacks were the cabins where tree sap was boiled down to make syrup, and many operated as informal dining establishments, offering hearty maple-soaked fare such as baked beans, bacon, ham, and pancakes. Situated in Griffintown, a rapidly gentrifying former industrial area, Le Richmond’s brunch à l'érable spectacularly reinterprets the sugar shack tradition as an avalanche of gourmet delights, all suffused with maple syrup. It was dizzying, not only because of the gargantuan portions, maple-laced cocktails and inevitable sugar rush, but for its fearless inventiveness. One course included an utterly beguiling mille-feuille, with layers of maple syrup cream, black pudding mousse, and a foie gras emulsion, that sinfully straddled the savoury-sweet divide. An onsite petting zoo, with llamas, sheep, and adorable baby goats, makes the experience all the more surreal.
Not content with gifting the world Leonard Cohen and William Shatner, Montréal’s Jewish community also left an indelible mark on the city’s food. Smoked meat and mustard on rye is one of the world’s great sandwiches, but eaten with a pickle and washed down with black cherry soda, it is transcendent. Smoked meat – Montréal’s pinker, greasier, gamier take on pastrami – is served at delis across the city. Two of the best are Lester’s, where amiable proprietor Billy Berenholc slices it paper-thin and piles it high, and Schwartz’s where the cuts are thicker, but so delicately cooked that they crumble on the tongue.
Montréal’s characteristically sweet, wood-fired bagels are widely available, but are best hot from the oven from St-Viateur or Fairmount. Wilensky’s Light Lunch doesn’t serve smoked meat or bagels, it isn’t even kosher, but it does have the infamous “Special”; a kaiser roll crammed with beef salami, bologna and cheese, pressed flat on the grill. Mustard, according to a prominent sign, is mandatory. Its sodas are hand-mixed, and an orange-vanilla egg cream is out of this world. Karnatzels – slender, salty, garlicky smoked and dried beef sausages – and half-sour pickled cucumber spears round out a simple but sensational lunch.
A great way to experience the wide variety of foods on offer is to join one of Local Montréal’s Mile End food tours. Guide Darren Shore leads a leisurely, three-hour walk through this traditional immigrant (but increasingly bohemian) neighbourhood, pointing out places of historical interest, and arranging samples from eateries along the way. Stops are eclectic, including a bagel shop, a chocolatier, a charcuterie, a boulangerie, and (reflecting the area’s newfound artsiness), vegan falafel from La Panthère Verte. A particular highlight was Frank Gattuso's Drogheria Fine; one of those places that does one thing to perfection. Frank’s Salsa Della Nonna, made to an old family recipe, is an unctuous sauce of tomatoes, basil and olive oil, that clings to his pillowy gnocchi. Topped with parmesan, it is exquisite Italian comfort food.
Dozens of “Vive 375” events are taking place to mark the city’s anniversary. One of the most spectacular is Aura, a light and sound video projection show that brings to life the beautiful Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal, in the town’s historic centre. The apotheosis of the late-night planetarium Pink Floyd laser show, it combines cutting edge technology with Gothic revival architecture, to deliver an artistic experience that borders on the religious.
After catching the show, an appropriate dinner venue might be Les Soeurs Grises, an artisanal brewery and smokehouse built on the site of a former convent. But Travis Champion’s L’Original is the epitome of what a neighbourhood gastro-pub should be. Five minute’s-walk from the cathedral, along the picturesque cobbles of the old town, the interior is like a log cabin, the drinks shelf behind the bar is a canoe, and dotted about are a variety of moose-themed knick-knacks; a cocoon of cosy Canadiana. Travis pulls pints and shucks oysters, the food is excellent, and the camaraderie is instant.
The effective national dish of Quebec, this mélange of skin-on French fries, topped with rubbery cheese curds and gravy might seem like a crime against gastronomy, but it’s a taste that once acquired becomes a minor obsession.
This part of town is also packed with sites tied to the Cité Mémoire app; short films about local history are projected on to the walls of buildings, while viewers can listen to them on their smartphones. Afterwards, try to find The Coldroom, a speakeasy-style bar with a fantastic cocktail menu. It’s hidden behind a nondescript door, down a flight of stairs, inside a meat-locker. If you need a snack on the way back to your hotel, you could grab a steamed hotdog from the Montreal Pool Room, established in 1912, and open until 4am. Montréal’s Chinatown also has restaurants that are open well into early morning, selling heaped platters of reasonably priced food. But not all of it is Chinese. Quebec’s pro-Francophone immigration policy has led to an abundance of restaurants specialising in dishes from the former French colony of Vietnam. Soupe Tonkinoise – or rather, phở – is very popular, and Restaurant My Canh makes the best in Chinatown.
Of course, no gastro-tour of Montréal would be complete without poutine. The effective national dish of Quebec, this mélange of skin-on French fries, topped with rubbery cheese curds and gravy might seem like a crime against gastronomy, but it’s a taste that once acquired becomes a minor obsession. Many places sell it, but one of the vendors with longest standing is La Banquise. It’s situated on Rue Rachel, one of the best foodie destinations in town, just across the road from the magnificent Portuguese rotisserie chicken joint, Ma Poule Mouillée. La Banquise has been serving poutine since the 70s, and now offers more than two-dozen varieties. It’s an essential taste of Montréal, and a great hangover food. Eating your way around Montréal is an absolute pleasure. Mangez!