Montreal’s Culinary Delights, Chilly Temperatures and Warm People

Of all the places I’ve wanted to go and have yet to visit, it is Paris. Lately we haven’t gone abroad, our last major trip was Japan a few years ago. Part of the reason is my intense work schedule, followed by my declining vacation time and Paul’s insistence that Paris is “so predictable.”

“Why go to Paris when we can go to the Galapagos Islands? Everyone has been to Paris!”

So with one half of this couple fully entrenched against a visit to Paris, I’ve held off until I could fashion up an argument of why we should go. When an opportunity to visit Montreal came up, I grabbed it. Who cares if it was in middle of a freezing cold snap in late November? And while it officially isn’t abroad, Montreal is easily Canada’s equivalent to Paris.

Montreal gate from Denver

This trip was courtesy of Tourisme Montreal for helping them with their inaugural restaurant week. It was a food-filled weekend and with Paul home with an injured thumb and a puppy to care for, I left California to explore Montreal without him.

Montreal map

Montreal is located in the province of Quebec and lies between the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. It’s the second largest city in Canada (after Toronto). It’s approximately 45 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border which it shares with New York. The closest U.S. city is Swanton.

During my visit I discovered that while it does have similiarities to French cities, Montreal it is uniquely different in cuisine, sights and people.

Marche Jean-Talon.JPG
Apple variety at Mache Jean-Talon
Cheeses at Que Lait Cru
Oyster selection
Maple cones

Even in the midst of winter, the farmer’s markets in Montreal thrive. Marche Jean-Talon, which was established in 1933, was filled with produce during my visit. Among some of the stuff available were apples (many varieties I’ve never seen before), goodies made with maple, meats, cheeses and ready-to-eat foods you can eat immediately. Foods or produce grown in Canada were marked with a maple leaf and products were imported outside of Canada had an airplane.

Fairmont Bagel
Fairmont Bagel making
Fairmont seasame bagel

While New York City is known for their bagels, Montreal has their own version that rivals the U.S. version. The Montreal-style bagels are from old Polish recipes that made their way across the ocean. To this day, well-known competing bagel places, Fairmont Bagel and St. Viateur Bagel, still hand-form the dough, boiling them in honey-sweetened water and bake them in wood-burning ovens. Fresh bagels are available night and day — an added plus for early risers especially in their frosty weather. It’s a pleasure biting into a warm bagel which doubles as a hand warmer. Many flavors are available but I recommend sticking with the traditional sesame.

Schwartz's Smoked Meats

Smoked meat plate

Smoked meats, specifically from Schwartz’s Deli, is a must visit for anyone visiting Montreal. This packed restaurant is a popular destination for their 10-day cured meats. The meats are available as lean, medium, medium-fat or fat, and are served on rye bread with mustard. It’s a hearty meal that puts pastrami to shame.

Alongside the Montreal favorites, the city also hosts a diverse culinary scene. With so much going on, it’s hard to accurately pinpoint a sole description of it. It’s traditional and modern, trendy and classic. Montreal has a thriving restaurant scene where selecting one must-visit restaurant is a Herculean effort. Imagine how much I had to cram into one weekend.

La Filet oysters

One memorable restaurant was Le Filet. They specialized in small plates. Our party of five tasted fresh oysters, snails and lobster in uniquely prepared dishes. It was a great start to the weekend; the maple square with its buttery crust still lingers on my palate. I actively sought out anything with maple for the remainder of my trip.

Tea and beignets at Lawrence

As much as I tried to find a beavertail to eat, the donut holes stuffed with lemon, vanilla and chocolate cream at Lawrence quelled my donut cravings with a cup of tea on a cold morning. I would have liked to try other things at the restaurant, but I was just too full to eat after having a morning full of Montreal mainstays.

Tea selection

Speaking of tea, I could not get enough of it during the cold weekend. We visited Le Maitre Chocolatier where each one of us had the opportunity to select 2 teas; a total of 10 teas to share between all of us. We had the shorter amended tea service but with the extraordinary pastry selection, I can only imagine how amazing the full service along with savory sandwiches would be. The entire place was cozy and a prime spot to warm up, linger and indulge in long conversations.

On Saturday evening after a busy day, we were left to our own devices. I explored the city on my own. The temperature dropped even more when the sun finally set but I was determined to explore Montreal’s Underground City, Old Montreal and eat poutine.

Montreal underground

I was warned that Montreal’s Underground City was really just a large mall but under the city. Hundreds of shops are connected by the tunnels which span several miles. It’s a nice place to stay warm but unless you prefer to spend the large portion of your time shopping chain stores like Old Navy, it’s best to stay above ground.

Old Montreal

Warming up by the lake

Montreal hosts an abundance of old cathedrals with many of them surrounded by modern, glass buildings. Rather than tearing down these historic buildings, many of them are repurposed to house shops, spas, etc. For awe-inspiring buildings, Old Montreal is the place to spend some quality time. This historical district is situated next to the Lawrence River and despite the cold evening, there were a lot of events on the lake. I came across ice skating and a dressy event where I witnessed several brave Montreal women wearing fancy dresses and their legs exposed to the freezing air. And there were show-stopping fireworks! Being by the water was sometimes even a bit much for me, but as luck would have it there were several fire pits along the water to stop and warm up and maybe roast some marshmallows.

Montreal poutine with smoked meat

And I did find poutine. At Montreal Poutine, I was able to defrost a bit and indulge in their speciality: poutine topped with smoked meats. It was easily a meal for two people and I hardly put a dent on it.

Maple ice sign

But the highlight for me the entire weekend was tire d’érable also known as maple taffy. Having been a Southern California girl for most of my life, eating warm maple syrup on snow was always a dream. As I headed back to the hotel, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a sign advertising tire d’érable. Even with the language barrier, I knew what it was.

Maple ice

Taste of maple ice

It wasn’t truly as I imagined: hot maple syrup ladled into clean snow as depicted in Little House in the Big Woods. (One of many books penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder.)This was a more antiseptic version. Warm maple syrup was poured on shaved ice, allowed to set for a while and rolled up on a stick. Although I only had a sample, it was an experience that kept me warm during the bone-chilling walk back to the hotel.

After being exposed to the cold for a long period of time, it was the defrosting that was painful. Skin that was partially frozen is now red and thawing. It’s no wonder most of the Montrealites I encountered wore downfilled jackets able that snapped down to their knees; many looked like walking sleeping bags. But the people there were the friendliest people I encountered. There were countless times I was lost and without a hesitation, I was pointed in the right direction along with a friendly chat. Even with the a majority of the people speaking French, they were equally fluent in English.

Foie Gras

Unusual macarons

Even with the brisk schedule and even brisker weather, it was hard to leave Montreal. There were still more bagels I wanted to try (St. Viateur Bagel’s are sold at the airport although not piping fresh), more places and food to experience and maybe even get the guts to take back some foie gras — even if it was only in macaron form. (My carry-on bag was bursting with food.) But knowing Montreal is only a half-a-day’s plane ride away and on the same continent is a reason to return soon. That should tide me over until Paris.

Check out my fellow travel companions and their experiences in Montreal: Mardi from Eat. Live. Travel. Write. and Lauren from Capital Cooking.

19 thoughts on “Montreal’s Culinary Delights, Chilly Temperatures and Warm People

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  1. This post along with all your wonderful pictures makes me want to visit Montreal! You mentioned Japan and have yet to see if you might have written about it, but what part of Japan did you visit?

    1. Thank you! I did go to Japan but it was so long ago that I wasn’t even blogging then!! I did do a flashback to the trip years later which can be read here. My then boyfriend, now husband visited Tokyo and Kyoto and had a great time — and lost weight with all the walking we did. But we also ate very well.

      1. Another great post! I was able to visit with my partner back in ’08 where we visited Tokyo and Kyoto as well. I fell in love with that country pretty much immediately. I cannot wait to go back. It was my inspiration for taking classes to learn Japanese years after we returned.

        I remember how the fast food seemed less greasy and had smaller servings. Did you all ever make it to the Tsukiji fish market? What a sight to behold.

        Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

      2. Thank you again for the kind comments. 🙂

        We did not go to Tsukiji fish market — I would have loved to. And yes, the food was much smaller and less greasy. There was so much to take it, it’s another place we need to revisit. Hope you had a chance to make it out there again and practice your Japanese.

  2. Montreal sounds delicious! I have a hard time convincing Travis to go to Paris, too. He wants to go to Belgium, but even then he doesn’t want to make a side trip to Paris – we’d be so close!

    1. My theory is that Paris represents romance and our guys can’t live up to the expectation. It’s just a theory but there might be something behind it. Belgium was fun when we went and I’m sure Travis would love the beer!

  3. Great post on Montreal. I wished we could have tried St. Viateur and Fairmont Bagels when we were there. What I would give to have another smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s!!!!!

  4. Montreal is really a great place. And the poutine is to die for. I usually go to a restaurant called La Banquise – they say it’s the best.
    And I can’t believe Paul’s argument! Sure many people have been to Paris but FOR A REASON! It is an absolutely magical place and everyone simply must go.

  5. I went to Montreal once when I was in college and I loved it! It’s such a unique and pleasant city. Back then I was but a poor college student so I didn’t get to explore it quite as much as I would have liked, but your post helped me to live vicariously through you to re experience it. Great post and photos!

    1. I hope you can go back to Montreal soon and visit! I wish I can go back to some of the other cities I visited and instead of seeking out only touristy spots to also check out the food scene.

  6. I went to Montreal one month last year in the summer, was fantastic quiet city lot of place to go, i love bagels and the St-Viateur Bagel on St-Viateur Steet was amazing best bagels in the world, i hope to come back one day.

    1. I would love to return to Montreal in the summer but I completely fell in love with it in the winter. Hopefully you can return soon and discover more food.

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