why I love dining out in Montreal...some thoughts from an Ontarian Chowhound
Montreal restaurateurs seem to take more pride in presenting their food, and seem to genuinely want to know whether you enjoyed the meal. There also seems to be more attention paid to detail (plating, freshness of the ingredients, etc.), even at the economical to moderately priced restuaurants.
For whatever reason, my dining dollar seems to go further in Montreal. A $50 bistro meal in Montreal is often better than an $80 bistro meal in TO. The $25 prix fixe lunches offered by many downtown Montreal restaurants are a relative bargain to what I'd be served in Toronto, Kitchener/Waterloo or London, ON for $25.
There are also several innovative restaurants (such as La Montee de Lait, Europea, Lemeac, Laloux and La Porte), that offer fresh tasting, contemporary food I really enjoy, and for whatever reason, I haven't been able to find anything similar in Toronto.
Montreal servers, on the whole, seem to take their jobs seriously, and are almost always pleasant to deal with, in my experience. I can think of at least 3 experiences of extreme attitude in Toronto over the last 3 months, to the point where I will never return to those 3 restaurants where I had negative experiences, yet over maybe 4 dozen meals in Montreal over the last 2 years, I can only think of one server who has been somewhat condescending.
Here are some things that have stood out when I've visited Montreal:
1. duck- I always seem to be happy with the various ways in which duck shows up on my plate in Montreal. Most recently, I had a lovely duck confit risotto at Ariel, at lunch.
2. bread- The bread basket, especially at moderately-priced to upscale restaurants. On my most 2 most recent visits to Montreal, we enjoyed delicious breads at La Porte, La Coupole, Milos, Ariel and Europea, as well as very good quality baguette at Laloux and L'Express.
3. Grilled Octopus at Milos - this is the best grilled octopus I've found outside Greece and Portugal. Somewhat expensive at $26, but the portion is twice as large, and much, much tastier than what $17 will get me in Toronto.
4. The Tomato Salad (a Village Salad/Horiatiki) at Milos- the best Greek Village salad, and best fresh tomatoes I've had outside Greece. I ordered this yesterday. I'm not sure if those tomatoes are being imported from Greece, or grown in soil brought over from Greece, but they're the closest thing I've had to a Greek tomato on this side of the pond. It costs $25, but it's plenty for 2-3 people, and contains at least 3 or 4 of these amazing tomatoes.
5. The Kouign Amann at La Porte- equally as decadent as the version I've enjoyed in Brittany, and elevated by the little pot of salt caramel and buttermilk ice cream.
6. The Montreal Bagel- I always make time for at least one on any visit to Montreal. Love both St. V and Fairmont.
7. The lobster roll at APDC, served on brioche and topped with foie gras.*not sure if the lobster roll is being offered in this exactly way, this year. Might want to to ask how it's currently being prepared, before ordering. ;-)
La Porte Restaurant
3627 Boul Saint-Laurent, Montreal, QC H2X2V5, CA
3927 Rue Saint-Denis, Montreal, QC H2W2M4, CA
1227, rue de la Montagne, Montreal, QC H3G1Z2, CA
1325, Rene Levesque West, Montreal, QC H3G 0A4, CA
I thought this topic was interesting because I'm from Toronto and just came back from the Big Smoke this past weekend. (I was part of the Anglophone/immigrant exodus out of the city this long St-Jean Baptiste weekend--I say this tongue and cheek!) I still visit the city and its restaurants very often so I have a few thoughts to add to this post.
Since I've permanently moved to Montreal from Toronto two years ago, I have been very interested in the differences between the two cities, including its food culture. I would have to agree to agree on these points:
1. Bread is always superior in Montreal compared to Toronto. I was lucky that as a child I was fed a lot of home baked (non-bread machine) bread, but I was still used to the lump of baked wheat that Torontonians call bread. Montreal consistently has amazing bread and I would argue that this is in part due to Montrealers' inability to tolerate subpar bread. This is why every morning you see Montrealers getting their fresh baguettes in the morning. In Toronto, we would get that factory made sliced Weston bread, throw in the fridge, and eat it for a week.
2. Bagels, of course, are far superior in Montreal. They actually try to pass off these round-hole things in Kensington Market as "Montreal bagels." Stay away. (And yes, a few downtown Toronto locations of Metro carry St-Viateur bagels, though they usually are only the poppy seed or sesame seed variety.) I usually haul back about 3-5 dozen bagels from St-Viateur every time I go back to Toronto.
Speaking of horrible Montreal food knock-offs, Toronto has been having a love-in with poutine. I guess Toronto got tired of the burger wave? (Or at least the number of new burger joints popping up seems to have decreased in the past few months.) My sister actually had the audacity to try to drag my French boyfriend to eating Poutini's this weekend in Toronto. It might have been 2 am after a couple of drinks, but I know that the Quebecois would have trouble politely swallowing that Toronto fries and gravy concoction even if inebriated. Don't even get me started on Smoke's Poutinerie. (Yes, these are the names of real poutine shops in Toronto.)
One big point that I would disagree with:
Servers in Montreal are not always better than servers in Toronto. I had a long discussion on this topic with a friend who was originally from Vancouver, and she agrees that, even in comparison to her home city of Vancouver, restaurant service in Montreal is very irregular. If you go to a mid-priced restaurant in this city, it is not unusual to be ignored, have items forgotten (and they get rude about it), or pressured to leave after they've gone ahead and seated your table half an hour before closing time without giving any notice. This doesn't happen in Toronto to the same frequency as in Montreal at any restaurant of various price points, unless you go to some authentic ethnic restaurants where the service is the same as you would get in that country (I say this as a Canadian of a visible ethnic minority).
So in Montreal you can get really crappy service, especially if you go for cheap or mid-priced food, or you get excellent service from servers actually educated in their profession if you go to mid-to-high and high-priced establishments. I bartended and worked as a server in high-end restaurants during my undergraduate days in Ontario, but it was rare to find servers who went to anything beyond bartending school. Here in Montreal, I know many who work in the restaurant business and those running over the menu du jour at your table are people who trained as sommeliers in France and are accomplished home cooks. For them, they are often people who live and breathe the food and drink world, and not many are trying to break into the modelling/acting/music scene as is often the case in Toronto. (The servers/bartenders here in Montreal are actually just good looking without wanting to get filmed!)
Another few notes I would like to add:
1. I love that Montreal apportez votre vin establishments are plentiful (compared to Ontario) and do not charge corkage, as lagatta notes. BYOW was only introduced in Toronto about 5 years ago, and even those restaurants that permit BYOW are reluctant to advertise this as Toronto restaurants are used to the profit margin generated by alcohol (food sales in comparison carries a very low profit margin). Corkage fees in Toronto are usually about $20.
2. It's sad that Montreal does not allow for street food but I would argue that Toronto street meat isn't all that great anyways. And the city-sponsored food truck initiative was a disaster (I blame the city imposed restrictions). Hence, when I moved here, I was taken aback to the thought of eating hot dogs in restaurants--I get these for $2.50 on the street in Toronto! The amount of chatter regarding the new Toronto resto, WVRST, however, makes me think I might actually pay for hot dogs in a sit-down establishment in Toronto.
3. Toronto Chowhounders vs. Montreal Chowhounders: Very, very different. One point that should be noted is that, because Chowhound is an Anglophone website, the opinions of the Montreal francophone community is often silenced unless they are bilingual. So not only are you solely receiving the opinions of the Anglophone (or bilingual) Quebec community, the number of users to Chowhound is far less than that compared to Toronto Chowhound, even though the population of the two cities are highly comparable in size. Quebec Chowhound also does not feature of voices of those from ethnic communities in Quebec; we do not have a Montreal Charles Wu equivalent (an epic Toronto Chowhounder who often posts about Chinese restaurants). As we know, many immigrants to Montreal speak excellent French but poor English. In Toronto, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who speaks French! The fact that the ethnic make up of Montreal is different from that of Montreal also means that the posters reviewing certain ethnic cuisines may not have the same experience in the consumption of certain ethnic dishes compared to say, someone of Ethiopian origin posting about injera after having experienced injera being prepared and eaten in the household and in restaurants in North America and beyond. I've noticed that, very generally speaking, the Quebecois will often venture to two areas outside of Quebec--America and France--while in Toronto, many Torontonians travel to other parts of Canada regularly and to further locales (including the country of their parents) in addition to the States. Hence the food experience of Torontonians and Montrealers are very, very different.
This also leads to the fact that the prominent ethnic communities in Montreal are different from that of Toronto. Hence, Montreal is not known for good Korean food. You pay an arm and a leg for mediocre bibimbap and you have to beg to get your kimchi side dish that they will give you for free in Toronto. In Toronto, French cuisine is OK but not great. I was at Le Select Bistro in Toronto this weekend and while you'll get decent bread and cheese for a Toronto restaurant, the main dishes are nothing compared to what you would get here in Montreal. (You will also find some Toronto French restaurants that do not serve foie gras--gasp!--so do not expect any bébé phoque as you would here in Montreal.)
I would also suggest that Montreal Chowhounders, even those Anglophone, carry the perspective of food that has been highly influenced by the Montreal/French culture, one that reflects the province's joie de vivre. This is why some American chefs won't touch Montreal with a ten-foot pole. This is why Scott Conant's Scarpetta is in Toronto and Momofuko's David Chang is putting in two (not one) of his first international outlets at the Toronto's Shangri-La, not in Montreal. The Montreal food scene is a different animal from Toronto and the rest of Canada. This is why Montreal restaurants quickly shutter their doors when they foray into Toronto (OK, OK, it's not that Moishe's and m:brgr are that highly regarded here by Montreal Chowhounders, but still).
Of course, Montreal is also a very difficult city for vegetarians and vegans, which again reflects the joie de vivre culture of the province in addition to the fact that the best cuisines in the city are that of French/Quebecois and those of former French colonies (solely due to the presence of these ethnic communities in the city). That being said, Aux Vivres is by far the best vegetarian/vegan restaurant that I have ever eaten at, across this country, continent, Europe, and parts of Asia.
So thank you, prima, for starting this topic. We'll remain civil here when discussing the differences between Toronto and Montreal, and not make this into something like that of a Toronto-Montreal hockey rivalry (which we all know is easily won by the Habs). ;) One last note: The meter maids here in Montreal circle just like the sharks in Toronto, so take note of the paid parking times when you dine out. And when taking the cab, try to take someone who speaks French with you if you don't (or know where you're going); the cab drivers are definitely more "creative" than those in Toronto, especially to those who don't speak French.
Don't worry, we've got plenty of creative taxis in TO, too. Even when you're giving them directions in plain Torontonian English, and have been a resident of TO since the early 90s.
I've had taxi drivers try to get creative on my at least 3 times in recent memory in TO, such as suggesting routes through congested zones.
I've only experienced 1 creative taxi driver in maybe 20 taxi rides in Mtl. Which means that Montreal has a better scheisster:honest taxi driver ratio than Paris, Nice, Madrid, Rome, Athens or Toronto for me, where the ratio seems closer to 1:8. Or maybe my French is better than I thought!
Re: service. Points well taken. I don't doubt service varies in Mtl. Maybe I've just been lucky, or have been choosing places with good servers.
looosia, just a few more thoughts. I realize your reply took a lot of thought, and I agree with much of what you say.
I'd like to clarify that I never stated Montreal servers are always better than servers in Toronto. What I stated was "Montreal servers, on the whole, seem to take their jobs seriously, and are almost always pleasant to deal with, in my experience." An opinion based on my recent experiences. That's all.
I suspect one reason American chefs won't touch Mtl with a 10 ft pole is the fact anglophone, francophone and allophone Montrealers can tell when the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Scarpetta has been a disaster in Toronto.
Charles' last name is Yu, not Wu. Ha!!! (If you read enough of Charles' posts, that's what Charles would say!)
Right, Charles' last name. My confusion makes me feel like I've really shed my Torontonian self since I now just live amongst the Fortins and Gaultiers, not the Yus and Wus.
I hope your experience with excellent servers continues here in Montreal and rubs us on the rest of us in the city.
Pity about Scarpetta. Scott Conan may need to write another love letter to Toronto via The Huff Po, though this time to explain himself.
Re: point 3, I think we might be surprised by how many of the "Anglophone" chowhounds here on the Montreal board are in fact ethnic, which makes this argument kind of garbled. Plus many of us are living and interacting in French on a daily basis and so are often summing up info we've gathered from Francophone sources as well. I say this as a bilingual Eurasian, btw.
I've been very grateful to get feedback on Taiwanese restaurants from Taiwanese (anglo?) Chowhounds here recently and good insight into Korean food from Chowhounds from Korean backgrounds, also here on the Montreal board. And the notion that the Quebecois travel only to France and America is just plain incorrect. Yikes. Plus off-topic!
I think you read my post with some confusion. I indicated that I am a visible ethnic minority in my post; my point was that the Montreal Chowhound board is different from that of the Ontario Chowhound board because, as I stated, Chowhound is an English website so those posting are going to be either Anglophone or bilingual (and not strictly Francophone), and in no way was I implying that Anglophones and "ethnic" Canadians were mutually exclusive. I am, in fact, an Anglophone (and almost trilingual) visible ethnic minority. I was merely pointing out that I think the Ontario Chowhound board is more ethnically diverse in its participants than the Quebec Chowhound board's participants because, for one, I would argue there are way more ethnic communities in Toronto in comparison to Quebec and second, because new immigrants in Toronto will most likely speak English and not French, allowing them to participate in the Chowhound board.
I was also saying it's too bad we can't get the voices of strictly Francophones on this board due to language limitations. You'll just have to get the two cents from Toronto-bred Korean Anglophones like me who will provide my opinion on this opinion board about the sad state of Korean restaurants in this city. Again, everything that I posted are strictly my opinions from my experiences--not sure why this needs to be emphasized when writing on an opinion board--such as regarding my Francophone friends who tend to travel to specific places only (perhaps it's the age demographic?) and my restaurant business friends who are very well educated in the food and wine business unlike Toronto servers and bartenders, something I never experienced when I worked in the restaurant business in Toronto.
Anyways, I'm always up for a good discussion so thanks, Prima, for posting this topic and thanks everyone for their opinions.
Prima, if you are picking up bagels in Mile End, do stop by at nearby Boulangerie Guillaume, on Fairmount just east of St-Laurent (between St-Laurent and St-Dominique). Excellent breads and viennoiseries, at good prices.
Another thing I'd point out for Ontario friends is the many byow restaurants - with no corkage fee.
Terrific summary! I also like the fact that many excellent restaurants are found in neighbourhoods where you can find nonmetered parking in front for weekends, after 6pm (eg bernard) or in back and side streets so you dont have to add in parking costs to dining out. The late night dining specials from 8pm, 9pm or 10pm are also good deals that have impressed visitors particularly at Milos, Ferreira, Lemeac
So that's the secret!
By the way, I'm also impressed by less expensive octopus in Mtl. The octopus and lentil salad on the lunch menu at L'Express was around $8, and octopus salad with almonds and cumin vinaigrette at Laloux was $14. Both the portions at L'Express and Laloux were more generous than I've experienced (or would expect) in TO at similarily priced restaurants.
3927 Rue Saint-Denis, Montreal, QC H2W2M4, CA
Yes, nice post. You've made some very good points. Re: #2 - My family from Toronto nearly always fills their car with bread and bagels when heading back home. Although I hear they carry Premiere Moissan bread at Dominion now and then in TO? Lots of good chef-driven market cuisine here. Interesting to know the prices are better here too.
And, correct me if I am wrong, but I find the Chowhounds in Montreal a bit more organized. They don't seem to be as selective over on the TO board and so I've had some odd meals when following some recommendations there.