Every country has a comfort food. Something that engenders a sense of yearning and keeps the home fires burning. Visitors recognise those dishes as something that creates an identity, defines a culture. Tourists to the UK undoubtedly seek out fish and chips or a Sunday roast. Go to France and you’ll have steak-frites at least once, and you won’t leave Belgium without eating moules. In the USA you’ll crave a burger. In South Africa it’s bobotie. You get the idea.
The Québécois swear by poutine. The name doesn’t really mean anything (it literally translates as ‘mess’), but French Canadians are so proud of their (unofficial) national dish it sits on nearly every restaurant’s menu, often given a culinary twist. It’s eaten religiously every June 24th (Saint Jean-Baptiste Day), and if you’re ever out on the town in Montreal, it will undoubtedly be deployed to soak up the night’s excesses as a hangover prevention.
It is, essentially, chips and gravy. With cheese curds scattered on top. As curious, if elemental, as this sounds it does nothing near justice to Montreal’s food scene, but it seems to sum up what makes Canada’s playground. The city exists in a sort of pair of parallel worlds; it looks North American but feels diffidently European, not to mention it being a French colony for 150 years, they’re diehards about that lineage; French is the principal language and once you step over any of the bridges that straddle the St Lawrence river into Quebec country, you won’t hear an American accent.
In character, Montreal is to Toronto what Melbourne is to Sydney. As Toronto increasingly became the country’s financial capital, so Montreal began to assert itself in the arts, with much of its huge cultural scene even government funded. That bohemian heritage isn’t simply a subculture either; it’s indicative of the city’s progressive nature. The ‘Gay Village’ that emerged in the ’70s, for example, is no longer a moniker but a registered district, and on the tourist map, with its rainbow-coloured baubles straddling the roads for some six city blocks.
Montreal is free-spirited, avant-garde, stubborn, insouciant, experimental and, above all, fun. And on that rich cultural canvas has developed an inexhaustive and inventive culinary landscape, much of it drawing on influences of its broad colonial past. So abundant, in fact, that every attempt to seek out poutine was thwarted as there was, simply, too much else on offer.
If you’re planning a visit, here are a handful of must-eats…
Être avec Toi (EAT) at the W
Set in Victoria Square in the city centre, EAT sets a standard for what to expect from a visit to Montreal. This is fine dining in a street art environment. Graffiti is daubed across the lobby as you enter, and the art on the walls literally evolves before your eyes as artists can take canvases off the wall and create in situ. There’s art from the kitchen, too, with some hugely exciting dishes, from the traditional pate en croute to one of the finest ways I’ve ever eaten tomatoes; plucked as the season ends, served with tomato foam and fried tomato skins. Little wonder chef’s 4-chocolate dessert was selected for the prestigious Montreal-a-table. To ask for poutine would have been an affront. www.wmontrealhotelc.com
Montreal’s fashionable ‘plateau’, from the city’s central Mount Royal (geddit?), is home to this Pan-African restaurant, named after a National Park in the Congo, and born of the mother-daughter owners’ multi-cultural roots. Selected to represent the city as part of its 375th anniversary, it serves Sub-Saharan food with a contemporary Montreal twist. Yes, poutine is on the menu, but here chips are replaced with plantain and curds with smoked cheese. The goat curry with cassava bread is a must, not to mention the divine plantain donuts with peanut butter filling. www.levirungarestaurant.ca
Bar George, Mount Stephen Hotel
No visit to Montreal is complete without a cocktail or two at this exquisite former residence of Scottish-born George Stephen, first President of the Montreal Bank. In a tribute to its roots, it serves British classics, such as scotch eggs, in an ornately carved wood-paneled 19th c. stately home environment, and presided over by the garrulous and charismatic Mauritian chef, Kevin Ramasawmy. If you’ve the budget, spend a night or two in the astounding $12,000-a-night penthouse. www.lemountstephen.com
Capital Tacos, Quartier Chinois
Nothing says Montreal multiculturalism than eating tacos in Chinatown to a reggae soundtrack. The signature El Grito, with smoked pork, pineapple salsa, cactus, fried hibiscus flower and spicy jalapeño sauce won’t disappoint. It’s very busy with locals, sharing tables and filling within minutes from midday, and where all dishes come served on plastic Chinese crockery presumably bought for 25c a pop at the supermarket next door.
Junior, Griffin Town
In this quaint residential canal-side district lives Junior, a no-frills Philippino eaterie which feels something akin to dining in a Manila family home. Best just to order a range of things and share; particularly the fried pork and tofu rolls dipped in Pinakurat (fermented coconut nectar), sweet coconut chicken, and a sizzling sisig of spicy, sour, creamy pork offal. The latter sounds revolting but tastes fabulous. Washed down with a Montreal local Trou de Diable craft beer or two, it’s an easy, unfussy fuel stop after a day’s sightseeing.
Atwater Market, Little Burgundy
In a city that features ‘herb boxes’ on sidewalks from which you can pick with impunity, it’s no surprise that Montreal has made markets an art form. Every fresh produce stall here looks like it was set up for a photo shoot, and central to Atwater is a mall of fantastic delis and street food stalls. Marmite S’il Feu serves fare from Reunion Island and the rougai sausages with rice, lentils and pickled cucumber is a moreish masterpiece. Get there early on weekends as they cordon off a space for the impending queue. Curiously, one thing that was absent – understandably, given the range of what’s on offer – was, yep, poutine.
It’s not just poutine that Montreal is known for; its strong Jewish heritage around Saint-Laurent has made smoked meat and bagels a city institution. The former is typified by the queue outside Schwartz’s, but just down the road is Main, the sandwiches are just as good and there’s no queue. As for bagels, just as the city is divided among Francophones and Anglophones, so too are there divided loyalties between St-Viateur and Fairmount. Whatever your allegiances there’s a particular texture, bite and consistency to Montreal’s bagels that make them so, well, Montrealean. And, once tasted, any bought in New York will never compare.
Quite possibly the most astounding meal I’ve ever eaten took place at LOV, and largely because it was so unexpected. For as a committed carnivore what makes this stand out is that it’s entirely vegan/vegetarian. It’s a harmonious blend of inventiveness, diversity and home comforts, presented in a light, airy space Cath Kidston would be proud of. Pesto gnocchi, mac cheese (yep, vegan), and even burgers, you’d never know you were dining so botanically if you weren’t told. And, yes, it served poutine. The gravy may have been made with miso and the curds are vegan, but I’m told it’s just like the real thing. www.lov.com
And so, the journey arrives at its conclusion still with the city’s famous dish eluding me. Until we came to Tousignant, where a big takeaway bowl of it was served up. This is the real deal, my host told me, Tousignant’s poutine is what poutine should be. This joint may specialize in fast food, but it’s all homemade, even the buns for the hot dogs. There’s something delightfully retro about it, even down to the own-brand soda bottles. If only more fast food outlets could do the same, we’d tuck in guilt-free. www.cheztousignant.com
And the poutine? Well, there’s only one thing to say about it, really. It tastes of Montreal.
2017 marks Montreal’s 375th anniversary. For more information about events, promotions and activities to mark this occasion, visit www.375mtl.com.
Staying in Montreal, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth is a city landmark and has recently been given a proud facelift with a stunning $140m renovation. Its central location offers the perfect vantage point to explore the city. For more information, visit www.fairmont.com.