Montreal’s own recipe
St Viateur Bagel, of the "temples" of Montreal bagel proprietors. (Olivier Cirendini/LPI)
Montreal’s vibrant and innovative food scene, inspired by the influx of immigrants over the years, offers visitors unique eating opportunities, like wood-fire baked bagels introduced by Jews from Eastern Europe and a distinctly French Canadian junk food called poutine.
“For me, the best places to feel the beat of the multiculturalism of Montreal are the fresh markets,” said Ronald Poiré, a guide who specializes in walking food tours for VDM Global and Tourisme Montréal. The city has four main markets, including the popular, Jean-Talon Public Market in Little Italy. Montreal’s culinary offerings are constantly evolving, of course, but some have stood the test of time.
Merely mention poutine to Montrealers, and the inflection in their voices changes to adoration and awe for this ultimate Quebecois comfort food. The combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy is eaten day or night and is served everywhere — from fast food joints like McDonald’s, Burger King (and local equivalents like La Belle Province or Valentine) to high-end establishments. The exact origins of poutine are unknown, though it is generally thought to be unique to Quebec, entering the dining scene in the late 1950s. One popular outpost is La Banquise, open 24 hours a day, every day, where more than two dozen varieties of the dish are served. Matt LeGroulx, a musician and amateur historian who gives off-the-cuff food and urban history tours that include Montreal’s lesser known eating establishments, has his own favourite: Paul Patates (760 Rue Charlevoix; 514-937-2751). “Their poutine is amazing,” he said, focusing less on exotic toppings and more on “the holy trinity” of ingredients. They also serve a great Spruce Beer, he said.
The blog Poutine Pundit reviews and ranks Montreal’s poutine restaurants, some of which serve high-end versions of the familiar comfort food. At the newly opened Poutineville, “the owners have let their imagination run wild”, and guests can design their own. Garde-Manger makes a lobster-based one which helped Chef Chuck Hughes win an Iron Chef battle recently. At Restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, fries are cooked in duck fat and guests can order regular poutine or with foie gras chunks and sauce. “The first time I tried it I almost cried because it was so beautiful,” LeGroulx said.
Schwartz’s Deli, established in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, is considered by many to be the the best spot for smoked meat, a Montreal tradition. Frank Silva, the general manager makes the meat just as the deli did in 1928, hand rubbed with herbs and spices, marinated, smoked steamed and hand sliced. “Nowadays, people take shortcuts,” Silva said, but “we still do it the old-fashioned way”. The meat is typically served in sandwiches on rye bread, similar to corned beef and pastrami in the United States, but the spices and processing are quite different, Silva said. The Montreal variety is so revered it has inspired books, documentaries and the recent Schwartz’s: The Musical, about to begin its second run at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal from 20 July to 7 August. To try other places that serve good smoked meat, but without the lines, LeGroulx recommends the Main Deli (3864 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montréal; 514-843-8126 () )and the Snowdon Deli.
For something a little different, try seal meat. “It’s really healthy, with lots of iron,” and very lean, said Ginette Painchaud, chef and owner of Les Îles en Ville, which opened three years ago and is one of several places in Montreal that serves seal meat. Chef Painchaud said many recipes were influenced by her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking that she grew up eating on the Magdalen Islands, in far eastern Quebec.
The menu, -- which specializes in all kinds of seafood --- offers things like dried and smoked seal on a stick, seal sausage, seal steak served in a cranberry and brandy sauce and seal burger with Pied-de-Vent cheese from the Magdalen Islands. If you go on a Saturday night, there is a good chance you will hear the chef singing along as her family plays live Acadian music.