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.
First-time visitors to Montreal may be surprised that Montreal bagels, the smallish, chewy and slightly sweet doughnut-shaped bread, are considered by many to be vastly superior to their puffy, moist and salty New York cousins, a passionate rivalry that leads to trash talk on both sides of the border.
This light and crusty breakfast staple was introduced by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in Montreal before and after World War II. “The main difference is we don’t use technology,” said Vince Morena, owner of St Viateur Bagel. His bakery and the Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery are the "temples" in current day Montreal. Both establishments hand-roll the dough, boil it in honey water and bake it in wood-burning ovens. Among Montrealers, there is even heated debate as to which produces the best bagel. “There’s not much of a difference to be honest,” Morena said. “There is a small variation in the recipes, but both use the same process.” Regardless of where you shop, “the true Montreal bagel experience is to eat one right out of the oven,” he said. “So come hungry.” Both are open 24 hours a day, every day, year round.
This Quebecois version of shepherd’s pie is made with layers of ground beef, mashed potatoes and a can of creamed corn in the middle. It started out as a working class food but today everybody eats it. Urban myth holds that it was first made by Chinese cooks during the building of the railroad, but Poiré said it has never been proven. The dish “is almost too rustic” to find in restaurants, LeGroulx said. “It’s even below hot dogs.” But once a year, in early autumn, Au Pied de Cochon makes a sophisticated version: potato purée with roasted garlic and cheese curds on top, creamed corn in the middle and braised pork and buffalo at the bottom, cooked in a wood oven.
-- which specializes in all kinds of seafood ---