Thursday, June 21, 2012

Best Vacation Bites - Montreal

This June I took my good friends up on the chance to visit the beautiful city of Montreal. The guys were planning to attend the Montreal Grand Prix so my girlfriend and I were eager to hit the streets, pretend not to be tourists, and see what Montreal had to offer.

Now for those of you who haven't been to Montreal, it is usually referred to as the Paris of North America - largely for it's francophone population and Parisian influence. I would largely agree with that generalization, but emphasize that Montreal is definitely an AMERICAN city. Yes, everyone speaks Francais, but they also speak PERFECT English, drive around in Fords, and wear American Apparel. While parts of the city, like Old Montreal felt distinctly Parisian, student filled areas like Rue St. Denis near UQAM's campus felt distinctly more like Baltimore.
Our amazing home in Montreal!
Right off the bat, I realized that our plan to blend in as locals was shot to hell. Every morning we started strong, stepping out of our beautiful flat onto the bustling Rue Sherbrooke in our trendy-casual threads and bright colored Toms without hesitation. After careful planning, courteusy of the wi-fi connection in our rented rooms, we knew which way to go - NO LOOKING LOST FOR US! 

But, the minute we walked into a shop and responded to the first bonjour, the jig was up. No matter how hard we tried to say bohn-jur! or allo! like a local, we were pegged for English speaking tourists. Surprisingly, this wasn't such a bad thing. Unlike it snooty France (I've never been) the fact that we didn't speak French was not the end of the world and people didn't even assume we were from the U.S.! In one trendy shop a very cool girl asked, "So you are from Toronto, yeah?" - a question that we assumed meant 1) Toronto is a cool city and 2) We're cool too!

Each of my three full days in Montreal was wonderful. With no real obligations we spent the day doing the kinds of things that for me equal a dream holiday - wandering, shopping, people watching, sitting in parks, and of course eating. Like most cities worth visiting,  Montreal's cuisine not just about one signature style or flavor profile - it's about the wide variety of tastes brought over by its numerous immigrant communities. While founded by the French, and largely influenced by it's British/Canadian history, Montreal is home to large numbers of immigrants from all over Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

CHINATOWN (Photo courtesy of Dan Proudfoot)

One of the best places to see this wealth of cultural cuisine is Montreal's small Chinatown, equipped with authentic Chinese gates and all of the tchotchke shops and yummy restaurants your heart could desire. It also has a great location - walking distance for us and close to Old Montreal and the Place des Arts - home to regular festivals and concerts (and to the Francofolies Festival while we were there). While in Chinatown, we visited Restaurant Beijing, a street stand for Dragon Beard Candy, and Patisserie Harmonie for Chinese pastries to enjoy the next day (Pork Buns for breakfast - Yum!). 
While "Restaurant Beijing" was no different from the American style Chinese restaurants in DC, it was fun to see the specials posted in French as well as Chinese and English. In an attempt to be somewhat adventurous in our order (no poulet orange, si vous plait!) we learned that chow mein are crispy pan fried noodles and "Beijing style" means with a white sauce and chocked full of every kind of seafood imaginable. While maybe not what we expected, it was still good and ridiculously filling as always. As for the candy, if you every get the chance to have Dragonbeard candy - go for it! It has the texture of a super light shredded weight and an ridiculously sweet nutty flavor. Messy and delicious.

I think my two favorite food moments while in Montreal were surprisingly courteously of chain restaurants (gasp!). The moment we discovered Au Pain Dore, with its window full of fresh French pastries and bread, I knew we'd be back before I trip was through (I returned two more times). Among the variety of choices of chocolate and fruit filled confections, I wanted nothing but the simple and crunchy palmiers. Also known as "elephant ears", these treats are so crunchy, one can only image the amount of butter in them. I ate mine as slow as I could, and immediately yearned for more. My other favorite moment was standing in the street on Rue St. Denis, the four of us sharing a decadent BBQ pork Poutine from Frite Alors. Frite Alors is the kind of place I would kill for in DC - a simple burger and fries spot, but with poutine to die for. Who knew that cheese curd and gravy could make life so wonderful!
Poutine - mon dieu!
So I think it goes without saying that I really liked Montreal! It's a beautiful city, not too far away that feels like a vacation, but not culture shock invoking enough to scare the faint-of-heart. It has great food, cool people, and everyone's friendly and willing to help. I highly recommend it and I'm looking forward to my next trip! Here are a few other places I loved:

Photo from of
1. Jean Talon Market - the best place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Sample fruits, cheese, and charcuterie, stay for lunch and enjoy the people, smells and sunshine!

2. St-Viateur Bagels - a must for anyone visiting Montreal, this bagel shop sells what I think are now my all-time favorite bagels. They're thin so it's like having a scooped out bagel - all toasted-crunchy outside and less of the doughy filling. Get a sandwich and side salad and you have a meal you won't forget.

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3. Le Saint-Elisabeth - order a couple beers and enjoy the sights and sounds in the prettiest terrace/beer garden I've ever seen. You can even bring in your own food (poutine, duh!)

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