Montreal had been off my radar since I lived there back in the ‘70s — at the time, I thought Europe was the only place to find culture and fine cuisine. Shame on me! Just three days in Canada’s “sin city” convinced me I don’t have to fly across the pond and spend oodles of euros for fantastic food and entertainment.
When I was invited on a whirlwind trip to Montreal, timed to coincide with its international jazz festival, I hesitated for a moment, not being a huge jazz fan. But when I heard the trip would also include a visit to a Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, an international fireworks competition and lots of opportunities to shop and eat my way around the city, I said “count me in!” As I soon discovered, Montreal is a mecca for foodies, fashionistas and fun seekers and it’s home to a plethora of festivals year-round.
After checking into the downtown Marriott (within walking distance to just about everything) and decompressing with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres, we decamped to the Quays of Old Port and were ushered into our seats for Totem, a Cirque du Soleil show. It was an amazing performance with jaw-dropping contortions — how the heck can they do that? Back in my room, I did a few yoga poses, gave up and fell into bed.
The next day, I dressed appropriately in loose-fitting clothing for our next foray. We met in the lobby with professional foodie and guide Ronald Poiré for a culinary and culture tour. It began at the Jean-Talon Market with a “Lumberjack Special” breakfast of Creton (a spicy Quebec pork pate), baguette and strong coffee.
“Jean Talon was a soldier who was responsible for industry and development here,” explained Ronald, “and the market was first an Irish Lacrosse field, then a bus terminal. In the early 1900s Italian mothers sold the produce of French Canadian farmers; they brought tomato seeds from Italy for the farmers to grow after the tobacco industry collapsed.” Now there are local products galore, evidenced by Quebec flags proudly displayed in row upon row of vegetables, cheeses and more.
“Quebec cuisine is market cuisine with a French influence,” said Poiré as we strolled through the market that’s way bigger than GranvilleIsland market. “This movement of traceability began in the late 1980s when chefs — who had left for, say France — returned to their home town and put Montreal on the international food map.”
Poiré led us across the street to le Marché des Saveurs, where I gawked at more than 8,000 products, including an incredible line of preserved wild foods by Gourmet Sauvage. That raised a dilemma: how much food could I stuff into one suitcase? I bought a jar of jellied cedar, pickled cattails, milkweed pod ketchup and, on Ronald’s advice, a few bottles of apple quintessence — its only ingredient is fresh apples, and it tastes like the essence of apple, perfect with pork. (I gave a bottle to Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuk, a local barbecue guru and cookbook author, who said it will win him the next Canadian barbecue championship.)
We toured around the Saint Laurent and Saint Denis neighbourhoods with Poiré explaining that some houses date from the early 1800s. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was a working-class area, and Ronald pointed out the many doors and staircases packed into one block to accommodate families with eight or 10 kids.
To counteract the meat and carb petit dejeuner and requisite bagel at Fairmount Bagel— just up the street from Wilensky’s, the diner immortalized in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — we lunched at the vegan and organic Crudessence. The room reflects the menu: light and clean. First-timers are advised to try the “Discovery Platter,” about 10 appetizer and salad samplings washed down with a healthy kale, parsley, fennel and apple smoothie that was surprisingly good.
Fortified, we headed to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for its featured exhibition, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier”. We decided in advance to spend an hour there, but I could have stayed the entire afternoon, even though I’m not a follower of fashion.
Dinner that night was at Ristorante Da Emma, which was once a woman’s prison and now serves up the best Italian Roman cuisine outside of Italy. Many celebs apparently agree, as evidenced by their photos gracing the entranceway. There’s Johnny Depp, Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, Angelina Jolie, all with Emma, 69 years young and still cooking every night.
I met Emma in the kitchen as she hauled a huge pan of eggplant parmesan and another of roast rosemary lamb out of the oven to help with our dinner choices. It was a tough decision, but I went for the grilled artichokes, a smidgeon of eggplant and Emma’s signature dish, a simple fettucine with porcini mushrooms. With our first bite, the table was hushed and gazes went heavenward.
Neither am I a fan of fireworks nor amusement parks, but we were bent over laughing after the hair-raising roller coaster ride and gobsmacked with the fireworks display (China showed its stuff along with music that included “Kung Fu Fighting”) at La Ronde. It was brilliant. And so civilized — you can grab a beer or glass of wine and stroll around the grounds or sit comfortably and gaze at the sparkling sky.
The next day I took another guided walking tour, which was much needed after Emma’s tiramisu. This time, it was in Old Montreal. We got on the subway at Bonaventure under the Marriott and got off at Place d’Armes near the Notre Dame Basilica (be sure to go inside—it’s known as one of Quebec’s “crown jewels”).
My brain was reeling with 350 years of architectural and archeological snippets from guide Ruby Roy; thankfully, we paused along Saint Laurent Street to view “The Three Gossips”, a whimsical bronze sculpture that you really have to look for. (see photo)
The tour ended at Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archeology and History, and a lovely lunch upstairs at Restaurant l’Arrivage. Go for the crepe de boudin noir (don’t ask what it is, you don’t want to know), with roasted apples, foie gras and parsnip puree — phew! Good thing we had a few hours to waddle over to Spa Scandinave and digest in its thermal bath waters.
Strolling down Sherbrooke Street to the jazz festival, we spied k.d. lang but had no time to be paparazzi — we had a dinner reservation at F Bar, a Portuguese brasserie right next to the main jazz fest stage. We dined on the freshest halibut, grilled calamari and excellent charcuterie. Thank god there weren’t weigh scales in my room!
As for the main reason we came, I’ll be back next year. It’s the largest jazz fest in the world with 2.5 million visitors over 10 days jam-packed with music, and what a buzz!
Montreal has given me a deeper understanding and liking for jazz, fashion and sheer fun. As for the food, next time I’ll bring a bigger suitcase and pack some more forgiving pants.
When to Go: Now!
The Just for Laughs Comedy Festival: July 16-31.
Cirque du Soleil’s Totem: until July 31
The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: until Oct 2
Montreal’s Italian Week Festival (food!): Aug 5-14
Montreal Fashion Week: Sept 6-9
Montreal Jazz Festival 2012: Jun 28 – Jul 7
Where to Stay: Marriott Château Champlain:www.montrealchateauchamplain.com
Cuisine and Culture Tour: www.vdmglobal.com 514-933-6674
For more information, visit Tourisme Montréal, www.tourisme-montreal.org