Chilly, yes. One might even describe the weather in Montreal as frigid. This is an unfortunate and indisputable fact about La Belle Ville. However, what Montreal lacks in meteorological charms, it makes up for with architectural beauty, excellent accessibility, and a vibrant cultural scene. In all honesty, my trip to Montreal left me craving more, in spite of the frosty winds and sporadic rainfall that plagued my October visit.
St. Viateur’s Bagels:
As usual, my first area of concern upon arrival was the food. I had heard people lament over the inability of other cities to reproduce the chewy perfection of Montreal bagels, so that was first on the list. Everyone I had talked to and all the books that I had read pointed to St. Viateur’s as the top choice of locals and visitors alike, so I hiked across town to the Mile End neighborhood in search of the famed shop. It was a no-nonsense operation with nary a table or chair in sight. There was no huge menu enumerating complex bagel sandwich combinations. These guys were purists at heart. All you could get were about 6 different varieties of soft and chewy dough and they had a fridge full of fixings that you could take home and add yourself.
The cavernous oven in the back of the shop constantly churned out row after row of fresh bagels, which means that the bagels are always hot and fresh when you buy them. My assessment of the bagels is as follows: The texture is wonderful, aided by the fact that they just popped out of the oven. No complaints there. However, the flavor itself was, to me and my travel buddy at least, lacking in salt. Later it was explained that this is because they make their bagels from sweet dough instead of the savory kind, but to me, bagels aren’t a sweet confection, but rather a savory snack or meal. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed.
The second must-eat of Montreal is the smoked meat. Smoked meat is similar to pastrami, but it is cut in thicker slices (kind of like the width of the pastrami at Katz’s in New York), and it has a variable amount of fat (I usually opt for lean to medium, but traditionalists would take nothing less than full-fat). It is also brined using slightly different spices. As per a zillion recommendations from all sorts of sources, I went to the king of Montreal delis: Schwartz’s.
Again, this was a place that was serious about its food. All energy went toward the meat rather than the restaurant decor which probably dated back a few decades. The service was super fast, with an order-to-table time of approximately 1.5 minutes. The taste of the smoked meat was pretty similar to that of pastrami, but it seemed more tender and less chewy than its New York counterpart. Like pastrami, I ate it on rye bread with some mustard, and it seemed to almost melt when I bit into it. Schwartz’s definitely lived up to its reputation.
La Bulle au Carré:
Many people appreciate Montréal for its European atmosphere, due largely to the prominent French influence throughout the province of Quebec. And what’s more French than a crêpe? This was the final food item on my Montreal checklist. Crêpes are easy enough to find throughout the city, which can be both a blessing and a curse. The wonderful thing about the prevalence of crêperies is that if you have a real craving, there’s a good chance of being able to end your suffering rather quickly. However, because they are available in such plenitude, the quality can sometimes be lacking.
I was fortunate enough, though, to have found an excellent spot called La Bulle au Carré. They had some great selections for both savory (galettes) and sweet (crêpes) options. My friend and I each chose a galette and then we split a crêpe for dessert. The proportion of filling to dough for each of our plates was just right. The galettes oozed with cheese and egg, but it wasn’t too overwhelming. And our dessert, the caramelized apple crêpe, was buttery, salty, and sweet all at once. Perfection.
Of course, there are other reasons to visit Montreal, too. My favorite non-food related place was the Parc du Mont Royal. The park, designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead (the same person who planned Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, as well as numerous other public parks across the continent), is incredibly picturesque. I was fortunate enough to have visited in the autumn when the thousands of trees were bursting with color, and the soft dirt pathways were completely covered by the falling leaves. The air felt different there, fresh and crisp. And after walking through the city streets all day, it was refreshing to hike up the hill to the various vista points around the top and look out across the city.
Finally, there’s the architecture. Great examples of different architectural styles can be found all over the city, from the Old Town, to the campus of McGill University, to the hodgepodge of styles found on Rue St. Catherine and the charming houses in the Plateau neighborhood. Simply wandering through the streets of this eclectic city affords ample pleasure and surprises.
So if you visit Montreal, it’s ok to have high expectations. They will be met.