Thursday, April 12, 2012

Crossing the Border, Day 2

After the Duck in a Can extravaganza Friday night, none of us was very hungry Saturday morning, so we strolled over to Olive + Gourmando for a light breakfast. Just a few blocks from our hotel, Olive + Gourmando is a popular bakery-café offering a full breakfast and a homey lunch menu of soups, salads, panini, and specials such as Moroccan couscous with mint and cilantro yogurt sauce. We were just seeking their coffee and baked goods today, however, both of which are outstanding. Their pastry is light and flaky and not overly sweet: true French pastry that is difficult, if not impossible, to find in North America.

Croissants, palmiers, chocolate brioche, maple pecan brioche in honor of the season…it was difficult to choose. In a nod to the Franco-Anglo history of the city, scones and muffins are also on offer. The decision was just too hard, so I went with two small-sized goodies: a chocolate croissant, or chocolatine as they call it here, and a fig and spice scone. The chocolatine was buttery and airy with just the right amount of dark chocolate folded in the center. Almost equally delicious, the scone had a nice crumble and not too much spice and fig in competition. In the spirit of sugaring season, Chris chose the maple pecan brioche, and Pete and Katie both opted for a cheese croissant. Accompanied by mugs of café au lait, it was the perfect way to start our day. (Note: we tried to go back again the next morning only to find to our great disappointment that they’re closed on Sundays.)

After a bracing walk along the metallic St. Lawrence and back through the Old Town, we took the metro up to Marché Jean Talon, the largest food market in Montreal. Purportedly where most of the local chefs shop, Jean Talon is a vibrant community of vendors all vying for a shopper’s attention and dollars. The bulk of the vendors are indoors, in a cavernous hall lined with stalls of produce, flowers, sausages, cheeses, sushi—you name it; it can be found at Jean Talon. And samples galore to be had.

In addition to stalls, small shops line the interior, like the Polish baker selling babka and poppy seed cake, and an Arabic sweets vendor who sells Turkish Delight and delicate pastries dripping with honey and nuts. 

In warmer weather the market spills outside, and on this day a few hardy folks had set up their wares outdoors, but the bulk of the action was inside. Surrounding the market, in a large square block, are food shops of all kinds and ethnicities. One of my favorites, and a destination for me most of the time I visit Montreal, is Fromagerie Hamel. The pungent smell of cheese hits you as soon as you walk in the door of this family owned business that’s been in operation for fifty years. Although they also sell deli products and specialty food items, it’s the hundreds of different cheeses from Canada and around the world that are its big draw. Raw milk cheeses not sold in the US and rare French cheeses are the main reason I make the pilgrimage.

In the afternoon, to cleanse our palates, the four of us spent a few hours in the Museum of Fine Arts and made plans to meet up later for dinner. Chris and I decided to walk back through the city to our hotel instead of taking the metro. Walking—admiring the architecture, observing the locals, and soaking up the urban vibe—is one of our favorite things to do when we’re in a city. When we lived in Paris, we actually walked so much that I gave myself plantar fasciitis. Fortunately it has since healed, so we set off from the stately English neighborhood where the MFA is located, and passed through the busy commercial district, Chinatown, and the tawdry Red Light district before arriving back in the Old Town.

Along the way, we made a stop at Brutopia, a micro-brewpub on lively Crescent Street, for a refreshment. 

I’m not a big beer drinker, but Chris enjoys his craft brewed beer and I was happy to oblige. Customers filled the outdoor patio enjoying the sunshine, which was fine with us since the air was a little too brisk for our more southern blood. Much more knowledgeable than I am about the finer points of craft brews, Chris steered me toward the Cheval Blanc, a chewy wheat beer, and ordered a house IPA himself. We took a table by the small stage, where local bands play in the evenings. Might this have been where Arcade Fire got their start? We finished our beers and Chris gave the place a thumb’s up, filing it away for future reference.

Later that evening, we met up with Pete and Katie again for dinner. We had a reservation at Au Petit Extra, one of our longtime favorite restaurants in the city. What we love about this restaurant is its authentic atmosphere and classic French bistro fare. In business since 1985, it serves “cuisine classique et inventive,” with all of its offerings listed on an artful chalkboard menu. The food is not knock-your-socks-off outstanding, but we’re always happy when we leave and this time was no different. In a city where most people are bilingual, this is an emphatically French speaking place. Most of the staff here don’t speak English (or don’t admit to it), which only adds to its charms for me; the website also doesn’t provide an English translation, an indication of the historic struggles that the Québécois have undergone to preserve their language.

Since the Cahors was such a hit the previous night, we went with a bottle of that again. For starters I chose the brandade de morue et poirvron rôti, a dish I have a hard time resisting whenever I find it on a menu. Popular in southern France, brandade de morue is salt cod that is reconstituted and puréed with garlic, cream, and potatoes. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, I know, but it’s absolutely delicious: smooth and garlicky and imparting a deep cod flavor. Au Petit Extra served it in small portions wrapped in roasted red pepper, accompanied by micro greens and toasted baguette to spread the brandade on. 

Katie ordered the other appetizer I was tempted by: a salad with chèvre chaud, or warmed goat cheese. I fell in love with this the first time I had it thirty years ago and never tire of it. Thankfully Katie didn’t mind sharing. 

For our main course, three of us ordered the roasted lamb shoulder with white beans and lemon, a Mediterranean dish that was mildly citrusy and cooked to our varying tastes. Katie went with the steak frites after seeing it delivered to a man one table over. I wish I had taken photos of these, but I got caught up in the meal—a sure sign that it was a success—and forgot; likewise with the dessert. I can tell you that we shared sugar pie, a Canadian version of pecan pie, and a very dark chocolate cake. When the waiter set the cake on the table, he exclaimed in halting English for the benefit of all at the table: “Men love this dessert because your wife, she won’t sleep until Tuesday!” I can’t say that that was true, but it was an extraordinarily dark cake, and extraordinarily good.

Before we left the city the next day, Chris and I had one final stop to make: Schwartz’s Deli, legendary for their “world famous” smoked meat. Marinated for ten days in a secret blend of herbs and spices (I tasted coriander, clove, pepper), and then smoked daily, the beef is succulent and meltingly tender. 

We got a sandwich to go, the meat spilling out from between rye bread, and shared it as we pulled out of town.


  1. Wow, Kristin and I have been thinking we need to take a trip up to Montreal. This sounds amazing, thanks for all the ideas.

    1. You're very welcome. It's an easy drive up there from Bristol. I just wish the exchange rate were a little better!