Montreal: We’re French and You’re Not


hen it comes to living and eating well, Montreal is Canada’s wonderland. In Toronto, uptight yuppies try to escape their corporate tedium by eating out at stiff, stuffy, high-end restaurants. And despite the quality of Vancouver’s Asian food, a brutal real estate bubble has buried the city’s passive-aggressive hippies under countless ugly glass-box condo towers. Then there’s the nation’s moribund capital, Ottawa, affectionately known as the “city that fun forgot.”

Montreal is hipper, cheaper, tastier, crazier, younger, and sexier. Plus, it’s French. The people of Quebec have a distinct culture that expresses itself in local raw-milk delicacies, maple-syrup concoctions, arcane game meats, and vegetables from another era. Just one trip to the Jean Talon market demonstrates how Montreal’s overwhelming bounty soars above the ho-hum offerings at Vancouver’s Granville Market or Toronto’s St. Lawrence market.

The province’s culinary heritage goes back to France but has also been marinating in the juices of the New World for hundreds of years, creating something utterly unique, delicious, and almost magical. The recent film Truffe, imagines black truffles proliferating in the city’s soil to such an extent that they’re served on poutines (a famously unhealthy, soul-nourishing regional specialty consisting of fries smothered in brown sauce and cheese curds). But there are actually real people in this city who do hunt and find truffles nearby—not to mention morels, matsutakes, and the Caesars mushrooms beloved by Roman emperors. If that wasn’t enough, there’s an Italian guy named Louis Mushrooms whose family imports the best porcinis.

Indeed, Montreal is full of whimsical characters named after their specialties, like the heroes of fables. A fourth-generation forager called François of the Woods owns the wild-food restaurant A la table des Jardins Sauvages. You can go fruit-picking at an orchard run by an apple afficionado named Jude Pomme (a play on words for "apple juice") or visit a snack shack run by Yvan Des Patates (a pun that means both “Ivan of the Potatoes” and “he sells potatoes”).

Then there are all the incredible French restaurants. Bistros like Lemeac and L’Express make this the most European city in North America. The continuing stream of new spots like Les Trois Petits Bouchons (with their pissaladieres, tartiflettes, and natural wines), Kitchen Galerie (two chefs and a buddy, who cook whatever they've found at the market that morning), and Bistro Bienville (the pot-au-feu you'd hope to find behind the pearly gates) are the reasons it will reign well into the future. The culinary prowess of Old Montreal, le Plateau, and the Mile End are well documented, but Montreal boasts countless neighborhoods, from Villeray to Verdun, that are full of hidden gems that have never been written about. Unlike Tornoto and Vancouver, Montreal stills feels undiscovered. Little Burgundy is on the map nowadays thanks to Joe Beef, but it’s worth heading up to Bordeaux for Middle Eastern, at places like Nuit de Beyrouth, where locals show up for dinner after midnight and stay until 6 A.M.

The city’s many strange, surreal places make dining here an almost mythical experience. There are restaurants with no name, others that spring up temporarily in backyards, pastry shops in forlorn alleyways, and a number of topless breakfast joints that promise “serveuses sexy” on their window. And don’t forget Wilensky’s—a 1930s deli where the décor and ghostly staff seem stuck in a Lynchian time warp.

Leave the macrobiotic, fat-free soy lattes to the rest of Canada—this town likes to feast. The butter-and-foie-gras dishes at Au Pied de Cochon get most of the fanfare, but if there’s one restaurant that epitomizes Montreal’s polyglot food culture, it’s Les Délices de I’île Maurice, where the Falstaffian owner, Sylvester, serves five-course meals for around $12. As you learn at the end of every meal, when Sylvester shares his philosophical views and homemade prune moonshine, eating is how Montrealers celebrate life, so vive la fête!

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