A few weeks ago, two foodie guys from Chicago came into the store asking for restaurant recommendations. Pretty typical day at The Cookbook Store. As the conversation went on, it came up that they were going to Montreal, one of my favourite food cities and where I went to undergrad. Of course, I asked them where they were going to eat. They responded: Schwartz’s and bagels, obviously and necessarily, and dinner reservations at Joe Beef, Au Pied de Cochon, Liverpool House, and Garde Manger. Great restaurants, all four, but, I told them, that’s a lot of food and a lot of the same kind of food. No matter how good it is (and it’s very, very good), you’re going to want a bit of change. I said, keep two of these restaurants – they are fun, over the top, a touch trashy, and, most importantly, cooking at a very high level – and lighten it up a bit the other two nights. The hype that chefs Morin, Picard, and Hughes get is well warranted. They are among Canada’s finest. But the New Quebec cooking isn’t just gregarious, plentiful cooking, it’s more surprising and refined than that, you’ve just got to look a little beyond the Montreal food hype machine.
For example, the seafood tower at Au Pied de Cochon is a picture of abundance. Bivalves, crustaceans, and mollusks are so plentiful, that you’d almost be convinced that they had been grown on the multi-tiered tower. It’s a lot and it’s delicious. Great, eat it and, the next night, go fifteen minutes west, to Le Filet where seafood looks a little different. There Claude Pelletier takes pristine Magdalen Islands seafood in a more refined direction. Raw fluke with Japanese plum and a touch of fresh wasabi, oyster with soy and citrus jelly, or arctic char, seared rare, with a simple nage of spring vegetables. A bit of levity on your plate helps with the digestion. And yet, this is still decadent, hedonistic Montreal food at Le Filet. Don’t believe me? A half lobster with hollandaise and urchin would happily sit on Au Pied de Cochon’s table, as would octopus with a sauce of cherry tomatoes and bone marrow. The only difference is that the food here actually fits on the plate.
Similarly, you may want something totally different after of lobster spaghetti, rabbit porchetta, and a foie gras double down at Joe Beef (though, first, you will probably want a nap). Somewhere serving food a bit less rustic, a bit more modern, in a room with tremendous energy? And you want ingredients that are nearly as good (nearly, because no one gets ingredients as good as Joe Beef)? An easy answer: Les 400 Coups is the most exciting restaurant I’ve been to in Montreal since, well, Au Pied de Cochon first opened. Venison tartar is with anchovy, carrot, and mustard ice cream has become a signature, but a near perfect white beat soup with oysters, lemon, fennel, and bottarga steals the show. Venison with tonka bean sauce and celery root is quite good, but Gaspor farms pork belly and shoulder, cooked sous vide, stuck together, and then seared crisp is one of the best bites of the year. And that’s before we get to the scallops or slightly curried sauce that also share the plate with the pig.
Desserts deserve a paragraph of their own. Pastry chef Patrice Demers is a major talent cooking pastry at the three Michelin star level. I kid you not – they’re better than desserts I’ve had at Jean Georges, EMP, Ko, McCrady’s and WD-50. White chocolate pot de crème with litchi granitee, grapefruit and campari jelly is startlingly forward and perfectly balanced. And, if creamy sapote cheese cake with buckwheat is merely excellent, candy mushroom panna cotta (yes, mushroom) with pear sorbet is, possibly, the dessert of the year. As much as anyone in the city, Demers deserves ink.
What else might you do, a little off the standard itinerary? Skip your second Schwartz’s sandwich and walk over to Rotisserie Romados for near perfect Portuguese rotisserie chicken. Or grab lunch at Olive and Gourmando in the Old Port. It’s not just one of the city’s best bakeries, but the Cuban sandwich is the best sandwich in Montreal not featuring the words “smoked” and “meat” (unless it’s tomato season, when I would skip the Cuban and get the one with jamon Serrano, tomatoes, and pesto). Or grab a cocktail, one of the few good ones in the city, at Dominion Square Tavern. Or, a big secret, play at being Barney Panofsky and go to L’Express at around 11am on Saturday. It’s the only time you have the option of both the breakfast menu (fresh squeezed orange juice and an omelet, medium rare) and the full menu (for the half-century old dish of bone marrow, parsley, and sel gris and best steak tartar I’ve ever had).
The point of this is not to dissuade you from gluttony. Let’s be frank: Montreal is better at gluttony than almost any other city in the world. My plea is for a little more exploration. Let me illustrate with an analogy for those of you that have made it this far. When I was in undergraduate, we used to pity American college students, up for spring break who never learned there was a Montreal beyond the bars on St. Catherine’s and Crescent. And, I think, the real Montrealers used to pity us poor students, spending our Friday, Saturday (and all too often Wednesday and Thursday) nights on St. Laurent. I’m sure they would have told me, by all means, go out on St. Laurent, it’s as fun a street as Montreal has to offer, but please, come see what St. Denis and Mount Royale are all about, they’re different and no less great. So I tell those two well researched gentlemen from Chicago, by all means, eat your foie gras poutine and lobster spaghetti, but please give venison tartar and bone marrow octopus a chance!