Monday, July 25, 2016
After a week satisfying my Francophilia, exploring Québec City and environs with Steve, my sister Clarissa and her husband Jason, it was time to meet Québec province’s largest city, Montréal. After dropping Clarissa and Jason off at nearby Hotel Widor for one more night before they headed back to NY, Steve and I steered the rental car through a driving rain to Montréal.
After dropping off our luggage at Hôtel St Paul, located on the oldest street in Montréal, rue St-Paul, we ditched the car for good and walked back to Old Montréal. We overshot our destination and ended up at Boulevard St-Laurent and Chinatown. We were to find ourselves often on this border street, which divides the city into east and west, and historically, divided the working class French in the east from the English in the west. Locally, it is still known as the Main, and over the decades, has been where waves of immigrants often landed first in Montréal. Chinatown is still found toward its base at the St-Lawrence riverfront, with other groups clustering in enclaves along its length, including Jews, Italians in Little Italy, and more recently, Portuguese in Little Portugal.
Dumplings lured us into a hole-in-the-wall joint with a cute chubby dumpling for a logo, as surely as a tractor beam. Steve found good reviews of it on line. We only figured out afterwards that we were a block off; the favorable reviews we had just perused before entering were for another joint a block over called Oh Dumpling. We were actually inside just plain old Dumpling. Actually, it was delicious. Steve’s first bite of dumpling did result in an unfortunate squirt of broth directly onto his clean shirt. Of course, this only happens when you no longer have access to laundry facilities.
After exploring the Marché Bonsecours, where we procured yet another pair of umbrellas, having left our latest set (acquired I think in Japan) safely tucked away at home lest they GET WET, we made a long trek up Boulevard St-Laurent, working up an appetite in the process. We found a very long line outside Schwartz’s. After a young man walked by and loudly proclaimed to the waiting queue, “The meat is just as good across the street!”, we wavered and bailed in favor of Main Deli across the street. Inside, it seemed a place where solitary young men go to eat prodigious quantities of meat. I did have the smoked meat, aka corned beef, sandwich, and the meat was delicious. The borscht was flavorful, but more like a beet broth than the thicker versions with which I’m more familiar. But we were left wondering…the bread was untoasted, was that usual? There was still a line outside Schwartz’s when we left, filled with new faces, but still going strong.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
In Québec City (QC), we had loved our food tour of the St-Roch neighborhood so much, we signed up for their sister company’s tour of Old Montréal, hoping the tour would unlock the quartier’s secrets the way it had in QC. But first, we had to fortify ourselves in advance of its 11 am start. Around the corner from the hotel, we found a lot to like at Olive + Gourmando; namely, coffee and a fantastic apricot tart (truly “tartelicious”) and a paradigm-shifting rhubarb, strawberry and crystallized ginger muffin.
We should have known that we would not starve on the tour. Just down the street from our hotel was our first stop, Brit and Chips, for panko and flour-encrusted cod, served with double fried frites, a warm and caloric start. From there, it was just down the street to an attractive Portuguese bakery café, Cantinho de Lisboa, that we had noticed earlier in the morning, across the street from our new favorite bakery. We had a small potato soup with kale and a chickpea and salted cod salad.
My favorite stop was the next one, Crew Labs Collective & Café, set in a gorgeous, soaring space, a repurposed historic bank. There, we had a healthy riff on the BLT, made with nine grain bread, with speck for bacon, a thick slab of ripe tomato, and shaved celery instead of lettuce, drizzled with aoli.
On the tour, our guide mentioned the nearby Hôtel Nelligan had THE best rooftop terrace. Thinking views, we went later, armed with tripods. It was a happening scene, packed with revelers, including a girl in a color block dress, the back of her legs criss-crossed from the molded plastic chairs.
As the evening lights came up, we worked our way shooting along the waterfront.
Heading into a depanneur (in which we had been surprised by ice cream earlier on the food tour) for beer, cider and snacks, we stumbled on an amazing art project.
Called Cité Mémoir, it is a multi-site collaboration by Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon and Michel Marc Bouchard, incorporating video, music, and dance, to illustrate episodes and themes from the history of Montréal onto the textured brick walls of Old Montréal.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
The entry of Olive and Gourmando, our new favorite breakfast stop, was filled with people waiting for tables when we arrived, so we opted for takeout pastries and coffee on the benches out front. While sharing a delicious croissant au beurre, une tartelette aux abricots, et une chanson aux pommes, a tow truck came by, carting a car with multiple parking tickets ruffling audibly in the wind under the windshield wiper. From there, it is just a few blocks to Place Royale, the waterfront site of the city’s founding. Our destination was Pointe à Callières Musée, Montréal’s history and archaeology museum.
We watched a multimedia extravaganza presentation on the history of Montreal, Signé Montréal, and after lunch, took in a beautiful temporary exhibition of equestrian ephemera from the collection of Emile Hèrmes, “Des chevaux et des hommes”, or “Of Men and Horses”. Across the river can be seen an architectural landmark by Moshe Safdee, whose Musée de la Civilisation we had admired in Québec City. He is an international architect whose career was launched when his design for a student project became Habitat 67.
Although I had reserved a table on the terrace of the museum’s restaurant, L’Arrivage, we decided it was too hot outside and decamped to the interior.
Later, we had a late afternoon snack, the healthy BLT, supplemented by the super green salad and cold gaspacho, at Crew Labs Collective and Café, in the wonderful former Royal Bank space. Even sodas become exotic away from home-I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen, much less sampled, a spruce soda (Henri épinette), but it was refreshing and delicious. Thus fortified for an evening shoot, we Ubered up to Parc du Mont-Royal, a large crown jewel of a park designed by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Our driver took us to Bélvèdere Camillien-Houde, a famous viewpoint, in which the entire city is laid out like a glittering array below. This was once the site of a funicular railway, up until 1920. We had a lot of cheerful international company, with everyone enjoying the views in the late afternoon sun, staying for the sunset and finally, the brightening of the city lights below.
Steve worked the crowd with a long lens, while I maneuvered my way to the railing to shoot panoramics of the city, which drops away dramatically below the large terrace. When we first arrived, I found a pair of raccoons down below the drop-off, evidently feeding and at home, as they disappeared periodically into hidden recesses in the wall.
We lucked out on our return. Just as we reached a large enough street to summon an Uber, we found ourselves at the bus stop. Just as I was saying that it would be another 30 minutes before the bus was due and that we should summon an Uber, the bus itself appeared. We rushed onto it. Approaching the driver, I fumbled for change, only to find that the receptacle was out of order, so no matter, it was free. We overshot our destination by one stop, but it was only a few blocks back to Boulevard St-Laurent. Along the way, we saw two strange sights. One was the horrific visage of Donald Trump in a costume shop, adjacent to a panoply of equally terror-inspiring faces.
At the corner, a pair of identically dressed twin girls, wide white headbands and all, on matching scooters darted across the street, led by their mother, who scooted by looking at her cell phone.
Our destination was an easy walk downhill on Boulevard St-Laurent. Darren, the guide in training we met on the Old Montréal food walk, said he thought Schwartz’s was worth the wait. My interest, of course, was purely scientific. Was our criticism of the untoasted bread at Main Deli fair? Was that the usual standard for smoked meat sandwiches in Canada?
By now, it was nearly 10 PM, and the line was now minimal. Actually, the wait was now for takeout. There actually was no wait to eat inside, but Steve insisted on takeout, for some strange reason.
We decided to share a sandwich, which we unwrapped within a block, on the very next street bench we encountered. It WAS worth the wait. Abundant, very thinly sliced savory brisket, with mustard, on untoasted bread, but adding up to a very tasty sandwich. No question, it was king and well deserving of its inclusion as one of the most iconic Montréal meals on lists from the Montréal Gazette to thrillist.com. Established in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, Schwatz’s is an institution by any standard. Just typing this makes me think about booking a return trip!
Thursday, July 28, 2016
Although we intended to check out the Metro en route to the Mile End food tour, led by Darren at 11:30 AM, we took the easy way out, namely Uber. We had a full group, at 16, including multiple Canadians, and Americans hailing places from Bellingham, Washington to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Mile End tour took us to several notable institutions. We started at Le Panthère Verte, reputed to be the best falafel joint in town. It is a small local chain and the falafel was indeed excellent. Steve proclaimed it better than our Paris favorite, L’as de Fallafel, but I am not sure I can dethrone it on just one sampling.
This food tour introduced us to one of the contenders for Montréal’s best bagel: St-Viateur. Although this was our first trip here, this was not my first Montréal bagel experience, thanks to my sister Clarissa. Some years back, on one of our periodic sister trips, we met in Paris. She routed herself through Montréal, intentionally scheduling a longish layover during the day to check out the city. She arrived in Paris with samples from both of Montréal’s competitors for the title of best bagel, St-Viateur and Fairmount. They are both in Mile End, just a few blocks from each other. Fairmount is the oldest, dating back to 1919, while St-Viateur opened in 1957. Their relationship is a little incestuous-Fairmount was established by a Russian immigrant named Isadore Shlafman, while St-Viateur was opened by an Eastern European immigrant named Myer Lewkowicz, who, as best I can gather, probably learned his trade at Fairmount’s predecessor.
They both hand-roll their bagels, bathe them in sweetened boiling water and bake them in a wood-fired oven. Montréal’s version differs considerably from New York, being smaller, denser and sweeter. They are delicious, especially piping hot, just out of the oven, which is possible any time, both being open 24 hours/day.
Sesame is the most popular flavor. New-fangled concoctions like an “everything” bagel are not on offer. The general consensus is that Fairmount’s is a little sweeter, but both are excellent. Being scientific, of course, we circled back after the food tour to try the competition (Fairmount), which was good…but we preferred St-Viateur.
As on our prior Old Montréal food tour, not all of our stops were culinary. One surprise was Théâtre Rialto, a restored theater complex, with splendid crowning glories of Tiffany ceilings.
After the tour, we found ourselves making a detour through Jeans Jeans Jeans at 5575 Casgrain, which Darren mentioned made custom fitted jeans. Actually, it did prove interesting, but not in the way I pictured. It is a large, warehouse-like structure, very bare-bones. In the entry is a huge, bilingual sign describing how they do not spend money on the furnishings and display cases and pass the savings onto their customers. It was indeed filled with jeans, to the rafters. The sales staff was enormously helpful, as it was so overwhelming, it was hard to know where to start. I did find a pair of jeans, and they were hemmed for me in the time it took to try on a few T-shirts. Steve also found T-shirts and a John Varvatos shirt. The tariff for everything was less than most “designer” jeans would cost.
In addition to multiple restaurant recommendations (including Schwartz’s), our friend Suzan, a Montréal native, had mentioned the floating Norwegian spa, Bota Bota. We had spied it on our ramblings up and down the waterfront, and it was just a few blocks from the hotel. Loving both boats and spas, this seemed like the perfect time for a much-needed facial. Even better would have been to have had a swimsuit and more time to sample the sauna and pools, or maybe have a meal or drinks there on the water, but that would have to wait for next time.
Friday, July 29, 2016
Somehow, we slept almost to the almost unheard of hour of noon! Prowling the narrow alleys and cobblestone streets of Old Montréal for hours after dark taking in more of Cité Memoir probably had something to do with it. The wait for a lunch table at Olive et Gourmando left just a wide open enough window for a quick dash down to Denis Gagnon (one of the few shops on rue St-Paul we hadn’t yet popped into). We had found rue St-Pau (RSP) an outstanding shopping street, with interesting boutiques from one end to the other. Steve had re-outfitted at Michel Brisson (384 RSP), while I found a white linen top at Espace Pepin (350 RSP) and a white summer dress (50% off) at Cahier d’Exercices (school notebook) at 369 RSP.
We finally made it down to Place d’armes to see the 1830 Gothic revival Basilica (Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal), catching part of an organ concert, including Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a medley from the Sound of Music.
We caught an Uber to Musée des Beaux-Arts, just long enough to see an excellent show of women photographers, Elles photographes. Once again, we didn’t allot enough time to fully take in what the museum had to offer. Moshe Safdie designed the white marble modern Jean-Noël Pavilion addition, opened in 1991. Years ago, at the MCASD’s bienniel art auction, we acquired a small photograph by Petah Coyne, so we were pleased to see one of her fastasmagoric suspended sculptural constructions. Spotted en route on a T shirt was this memorable trope: Bad decisions make good stories.
On the way home, after resisting the siren calls inside one of the local department stores (Holt Renfrew), we stumbled on a nice corner of Griffintown, evidently a work in progress.
Children played in a fountain, while their parents nursed beer, wine or the cranberry soda on offer. Bicyclists zipped along a nearby trail, even an occasional train whizzed by.
For our final dinner, we decided to go full circle, returning to Chinatown, to Oh Dumpling, whose reviews had lured us into just-plain-Dumpling on our arrival. Although not elegant in atmosphere (sterile), the dumplings were savory and delicieux, both the piping hot, lamb and coriander and pork, shrimp, and mushroom dumplings. Evidently, I also need lessons in how to finesse soup dumplings. I managed to have unseemly liquid squirts in three different directions. At least, none of them were directly onto my shirt. Since it was our last night and we were heading home with easy access to laundry, this was not as catastrophic as Steve’s unfortunate dumpling episode when we arrived, merely…undignified.
Afterwards, we made a final effort to complete Cité Mémoire. One site was particularly amazing, an Algonquin creation myth, The Beaver and the muskrat. In a narrow alley, projections depicted the earth being covered with water, with all of the animals confined to a raft.
One after another, they dove, trying to find sand to bring back. Finally, after the muskrat descended for a night and a day, it returned with three grains of sand clutched in its paws. With these, the great one multiplied them, first creating an island, which expanded to form the earth.
The projections accompanying this narration were astounding and reacted to spectators as they traversed the alley. Grass would become discolored under one’s feet and then bricked over with pavers in the wake of the astounded viewers.
It was a magical end to our too-long delayed introduction to the vibrant metropolis of Montréal. C’était un mélange merveilleux!