Lucky in Montreal – Impressions from a weekend trip
Do Montreal foodies realize how lucky they are?
As a born & bred Italian now living in the US, I have always had it hard when it came to food. In particular, I find my current city, Boston, a pretty difficult place to get good food, either in the markets or in the restaurants (definitely when it comes to Italian, but also most of other types).
So, this past weekend I took a trip to your beautiful city, Montreal. I heard many good things about food there, so I decided it was worth to take a trip north and see what the hubbub was all about. Turns out, what I heard was not true. In fact, things are SO MUCH BETTER than I was told.
Just the Jean Talon Market by itself was an UNREAL experience. Forget the great food stalls – unbelievable sausages at Balkani, oh-so-juicy-&-sweet corn on the cob, and melt-in-your-mouth creme brulee at a cafe' on the south side of the market, next to a boulangerie (sorry, can’t recall the name), which by itself would count as incredible food, on par with what one could find at Borough Market in London, my other favorite place before the JTM experience (now it’s the second fav).
But what can I say about the bounty of veggies and fruits? The quality of what we sampled was great: we tasted tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes for the first time in years - and the first time in North America. And the prices? $8 for a full case of tomatoes, close to that for red peppers, $10 for a full clay vase of rosemary? Who are we kidding? I am paying easily four times those prices in Boston, at least (one sprig of rosemary in a plastic container was $3 not too long ago). You are so lucky! I wish I’d know what such an incredible difference in the quality and quantity of produces? Any insight from the locals?
The restaurants we tried were good as well. On the first night, Laloux started on the wrong foot mostly due to language problems, but as soon as we got somebody who spoke good English things improved enormously. Everything was skillfully cooked and presented, and tasted really good, but the poached salmon appetizer I had was one of the top three appetizers I ever had in my life (and I am not a salmon fan). A 9 on a 10 (I never gave a 10 in my life).
On the second night, I liked L'Express but maybe due to my high expectations found it overrated. An cold appetizer of octopus & lentils was incredibly bland, and the pommes frites were just ok. I have to admit that the Pot au Feu was transcendent, but this could have been done to personal memories – it was the Sunday dinner in my family for years, and had almost never had it in the last two decades. As an example, a poor fellow foodie from North Cali sitting next to me at the counter was served her food but then left without cutlery for a few minutes until me & my wife felt bad for her and asked the bartender for it. When asked what she wanted, she also asked what was special (obviously, wanted some advice and being steered toward a few special choices, in her one time trying the restaurant), but the bartender told her that everything was special and pretty much left her out in the cold to fend for herself. Again, maybe they CAN do this because they are L’Express, but they SHOULD NOT be doing it.
I closed with lunch at Ferreira. Ah, what should I say? If I really push it, I could say only one bad thing about it: it did not have good Port by the glass. Everything else was mesmerizing. The grilled calamari with pimento were excellent: moist, tender, and with enough subtle kick & sweetness coming from the pimento sauce that was counteracting the slight charredness from the grill and the pungency of the extra virgin olive oil. The seafood rice was heavenly, smooth and with enough broth in it that one could use the clam shell as a ‘dvine’ spoon afterward for a long, ecstatic time. The Portoguese wine we had with it was a perfect match, crisp & light (and the only good wine we had - seems that good wine is really, really expensive to get in Montreal's restaurants; neither Laloux and L’express burgundies were above average, notwithstanding prices in the $50s and $60s). And the end … ah, the end! The waiter has somehow forgotten to bring me a second appetizer I had asked: off the menu, just simply grilled sardines served Portuguese style (olive oil & a bit of pimento sauce). So, I decided to have them as a ... dessert! Great choice! They were fresh, full of flavor, and for one I will always remember the crunchiness of the sea salt when I bit into them, reminiscent of its sweet cousin for texture, yet so different for taste. I know it may be hard to think of them as dessert, but they should seriously think about including them in the menu. After all, what can be better to cap off a meal for a real fish lover?
All in all, we loved it, and can't wait to go back. And next time it will be La Colombe, Atwater Market, Schwartz & Le Pied Au Cochon).
The only problem is that I am now more miserable than I was before here in Boston, both when I go to the stores and when I eat out. When I did not know any better I thought that food was a problem in all North America – now, I can’t deny the evidence anymore. In Montreal, you really have it all.
You've just listed off some of the reasons I LOVE this city!
A few of my (affordable) favourites are:
Bazaar Anise (Laurier and St. Urbain). Go for dinner, you won't regret it! Super friendly and delicious. Truly unique flavours.
Fairmount Bagels (Fairmount and St. Urbain). Yes I know some will argue for St. Viateur, but for my money Fairmount is the best.
Cafe Veritas in the old port (St. Laurent and Notre Dame). Check for Anthony (he works Saturday mornings right now) and treat yourself to a cappuccino made by the best barista in the city.
Caffe In Gamba (Parc and Fairmount). Espresso that's not to be missed, and super-friendly owner who goes out of his way to make sure you enjoy yourself. Try the cannolis.
Cheskie's Bakery (Parc and Bernard). Their chocolate babka is sheer heaven! And the ruggulahs... just TRY and resist.
If people stopped going to L'express, maybe they would get off their high horse and start treating people nicely! I went once and vowed never to go again. Every one I know who went there has been treated badly. It is not a joke, everyone!! They must be even more busy since Le continental burned down. I always wonder why people go there....
Ever visit Paris? Seriously, the service in Paris is l'Express multiplied by 10 (minimally). My husband is French, and I have learned from him that in order to gain a little respect, you have to show a little (ok, a LOT) of attitude. Having served as a bartender and server throughout my university years, I appreciate good service. Now, having spent a fair amount of time in France, I appreciate that there are cultural differences as to what is 'good' service. Ask most chefs in the city where they like to hang out after hours, and many will say l'Express. Once you accept that the service is what it is (and let it roll off your back), you might appreciate it a bit more---after all, where else can you get steak et frites at midnight?
Since I am tipping and being served - I don't think I have to accept that "service is what it is". I might be a little strange - but to me, the quality of the service will affect my overall impression of the meal. I expect good service (and it doesn't have to falling over to help me a la Queue de Cheval - I've had great service at Cote St. Luc BBQ). I am also not such a stickler for presentation. Yes, it needs to be presented adequatly - but the minute I cut a piece of something to try it, the look is gone and all that really matters is taste and texture.
I work hard for my money, and I when I choose to spend it in a restaurant I expect to get what I paid for - and part of that is good service.
PS: I have been to Paris, and in most places had better service than I have had at L'Express - lousy coffe mind you, but decent service.
Your L'Express experience does not surprise me. Had you been there 10 + years ago, the service was far more curt than they may be today. Actually, the staff are downright friendly, compared to how they used to be. In the mid-80's they would have been considered rude. This is a very busy restaurant, and despite the fact that they are more accommodating than ever, at times you will find that the bar man has little time to engage in being effective as a waiter, other than simply take orders. Typically there will be 2 behind the counter, but this may not have been the case on the night you visited.
I have eaten absolutely everything on the regular menu, many items I will eat again... A few were not my cup of tea. The Pot Au Feu is one of the items I am not crazy about. The Octopus and lentils are well executed, I find a drizzle of Olive oil really makes them shine... The frites are usually good, and fried at a high enough temperature to not be greasy, and the home made Mayo is very good.
The wine list at L'Express varies by the season, and some old favorites tend to leave the menu... If you are looking for a broader wine list, ask for "L'inventoire" and you will be presented with a dense 4 page list of inventory, listing all the wines that are not on the back of the regular menu. Don't get the impression that L'Inventoire is merely a list of their top end selections it actually lists many very affordable bottles as well. I usually find a nice Bandol, a Ste. Estephe, or decent bottles from Pays D'Oc here.
Aside from the price Ferreira, serves some very well executed Portuguese, definitely a good choice.
When it comes to produce and 'farmers markets' JT, like HayMarket has it's good and bad. The good being the farmers who actually rent stalls, the bad being the importers/retailers, who are there year round selling wax veggies bought from importers. Hang around the market long enough and you will know who they are. Also beware of the 'taste my fruit / tomato scam' I don't know how many of us have been taken with the old 'bait and switch' .... The next time you try that peach, ask yourself..'what say's that the peach in that plate is the same as the peach in that basket'? I think that when you get home and bite into that little fuzzy ball of paste, you will realize that you been had. Always ask the vendor if the fruit in the basket is the same as the fruit on the plate. Then ask them if they will take the fruit back if you buy it and try it there, and it is not he same... Then comes the excuses .. 'oh, the ones on the plate are 2 days riper' or something of the sort. The true farmers usually aren't the ones giving the samples. Regardless, there is one very big difference between the USA and Canada, the margins on fresh produce here is far lower than in the US. Even of you were to compare produce prices in the grocery stores, you will find that Montreal is typically 30-60 less expensive than I find in any US city.
Some other hidden gems at JT are the Chocolate Slush (sorry, last week was the last weekend of the summer and they stopped serving for this season), or the $1 hot Chocolate at the chocolatier on the south West corner; The big bunches of $2 Basil at the herb stall on the top of the center row; and the Pupusa's at the Carniceria Mundial, on the North West Corner.
Atwater market is a waste of time. Other than being a pretty market, there are no farmers left there. Yet, where this market shines is that the quality of their butcher shops inside, have moved upscale and have a better selection than they ever did, one of the more reliable being Belanger. Yet, if you look you will find a good selection including fresh Coq, home made hams, some nicely marinated butterflied lamb leg, and roasts. But I doubt that you will be stuffing your suitcase with a leg of lamb. The folks at the border seem to have an issue with this....
Schwartz's is a must, but go after lunch and avoid the tourist crunch. It seems to me, that Schwart's is on the list of most visitors to the city, but I question whether most visitors know why Schwart's? I am sure that most visitors do not know that their product is atypical of most Smoked Meat Served in Montreal. Yet, it is considered the best by many. Perhap's the ambiance, if one were to call it such, is part of the experience.
The Schwartz's product is a drier smoked meat than can be found most other places, resembling more of a roasted or baked brisket than their cured cousins at Lester's, or any of the commercial products sold at deli counters, or other restaurants. Another Smoked Meat worthy of eating is from Quebec Smoked Meat on Center Street in Verdun. This company is produces a good quality product that is not as dry as Schwartz's and not as wet as most of the mass produced commercial stuff. Yet, QSM is a major player in the Smoked Meat Market. They have only a deli counter, and no tables, their staff are highly disorganized, and they take forever to prepare a sandwich, but they make a sandwich that stands up to Schwartz's.
The last time I visited l'Express was for breakfast, and it was highly enjoyable. About half full, the room was much friendlier than I had ever seen it before, and spreading a newspaper over the table didn't phase my waiter one bit. I love the atmosphere at l'Express--and would suggest it to visitors for a late, late dinner, solely for the feel of the place, which for me is as close to a Paris bistro that I have found in Montreal (service and all). Having said that, I am generally disappointed in their food, so I stick to steak/frites and let my waiter choose the wine (one of the few restos where I find they aren't trying to sell me the most expensive bottle in the building).
Atwater market will be a total let down after having been to Jean Talon. It's more expensive, no tasting at the stalls (you can lunch at JTM just tasting tomatoes, cukes, all the fruist....). I have a favourite butcher there - but there is not much more I would recommend. I say skip Atwater and go back to JTM.
Thanks for the great report, Fabio. Am glad you made it to the market, especially while it's at it's peak. I think you nailed L'Express: the food is uneven; the only reasons to go there instead of better restaurants are the scene (decor, people, buzz) and the wine lists. Good wine isn't that hard to come by in restos, by the way. The city has a vibrant wine scene, with excellent sommeliers and "importers" and the public at large is relatively well informed, though you have to know where to look and be prepared to pay (standard markup is 100% retail). Post a wine query before your next visit and you'll get some pointers.