By Emily Paster
As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I spent a blissful few days sans kids in Montreal over Fourth of July weekend. He had never visited this historic, cosmopolitan city and I had only been there once, almost thirty years ago, on a trip with my family. We knew very little about Montreal before our trip but were intrigued by the city's reputation as taste of the Old World in North America. That reputation does not do the city justice, however. While Montreal definitely has old buildings, churches, and cobblestone streets aplenty — to say nothing of the all the French you will hear — it is also a vibrant, modern city with hip neighborhoods, innovative cuisine and a multicultural population that seems, at least at first glance, to get along well with one another. We came away with a very favorable impression of this old but not quaint city.
Home base for our trip was the Hotel Nelligan, a boutique hotel in the old part of the city. This hotel is one of the most popular in town, and for good reason. Although our room was one of the hotel's more basic accommodations, it was still stylish and comfortable. We loved the hotel's location right in the heart of Vieux Montréal because it allowed us to walk to many sights and it was close to the Place d'Armes subway stop for our more ambitious expeditions. But most important, the staff at the Hotel Nelligan was exceptionally friendly and helpful. We only ate at one of the hotel's three restaurants — we enjoyed a relaxing lunch at the attractive rooftop terrace after a morning of museum-going — but I gather the other restaurants are quite good.
Because we were headquartered in Vieux Montréal, as the old part of the city is known, for our stay, we got to know the neighborhood well. We loved strolling the cobblestones streets, admiring the 17th and 18th century buildings with their steeply pitched roofs — intended to discourage snow build-up. Among the must-see sights in Old Montreal are the Basilica of Notre Dame, an enormous 19th century church, which faces the Place d'Armes; Pointe-à-Callière, the city's extremely well-done archaeological museum; and the Place Jacques-Cartier, a sloped pedestrian plaza. But honestly, the best way to see Old Montreal is to embark on a walking tour of the quartier. Most good guidebooks have them.
After a day and a half in Vieux Montréal, my husband and I were ready to see less touristy, more "real" parts of the city. One of our favorite excursions, as I told you earlier, was our trip to the Marché Jean-Talon, which is in the northern part of the city, near Montreal's Little Italy. We also enjoyed strolling around a lively neighborhood called The Plateau, located a few subway stops south of Jean-Talon. We spent a pleasant afternoon window-shopping around the Plateau and trying to decide which part of Chicago it reminded us of. Wicker Park maybe? The Plateau is the kind of neighborhood that is inhabited by young professionals and even some young families. Busy boulevards of restaurants and boutiques give way to pretty residential side streets and green oases of urban parks. After strolling along St. Lawrence Boulevard, we turned down the pedestrians-only Rue Prince Arthur — the Haight-Ashbury of Montreal back in the day — and ended up in St. Louis Square. We paused for a minute in the shady park to admire the beautiful townhouses. This is plainly some of the most desirable real estate in the city.
On another morning, we forced ourselves to climb more than 100 stairs, many of them straight up, to reach the Chateau Mont-Royal. Located at the top of the mountain that gives the city its name, the Chateau is in the middle of the enormous Olmstead-designed urban wilderness that is the Parc Mont-Royal. It offers an iconic view of the Montreal and the St. Lawrence River from above. We then strolled back down the hill through the campus of McGill right into the heart of downtown, where we rewarded ourselves with lunch.
Speaking of lunch, one of the best things we did in Montreal was eat. We chose Montreal for our romantic getaway in part because of its reputation as a food town. We strove to hit all of the classic food experiences from bagels at Fairmount to smoked meat at Schwartz's to high-end Québécois cuisine. (I guessed we skipped poutine, but that was never on our list.) The bagels and smoked meat were definitely worth a trip. The Montreal-stye bagels are less chewy and sweeter than their New York counterparts. I ate my sesame bagel plain — something I would never want to do with a bagel here. As for Schwartz's, our waiter took us in hand upon learning it was our first time and simply presented us with the classic trio: smoked meat sandwiches, fries and pickles. It was all fantastic but I especially loved the garlicky pickle.
Of our three dinners in Montreal, one was slightly disappointing and two were outstanding. Our big blowout dinner was Saturday at Toqué. Chef Normand Laprise is widely regarded as one of the best in Canada and is credited with revolutionizing Québécois cuisine. I had heard from friends that Toqué does not live up to its reputation, but we were not disappointed. To the contrary, we thoroughly enjoyed our experience. The food was creative, beautifully presented and delicious. I had a skate wing appetizer in a paprika-scented fish broth that will haunt my dreams. The desserts were especially gorgeous and featured really unusual local ingredients like buckthorn and a sorbet made from angelica, a piney herb. And dinner at Toqué is really a whole experience: attentive service, a beautiful room and great people-watching. I especially enjoyed watching the people who ordered the seven-course tasting menu — not a realistic option for us, sadly, due to our combined allergies and picky eating.
The other dinner that we loved was in a much more casual setting, but was equally delicious. Perhaps our favorite meal of the trip was at a bistro in the hip Mile End neighborhood called La Salle à Manger. Dining here made us feel like locals — locals who know where to find amazing food. We overcame our surprise at finding three dishes on the menu featuring horse (!) and selected a variety of non-equine, global-inspired dishes that were full of flavor. My husband had a lamb tataki to start that he loved and a vegetable lasagna for his entree, which sounds a boring, but it was presented in a such a creative way. It came as a skillet full of whole, baby vegetables with layers of pasta and cheese beneath. It was really beautiful. (Sadly, I wasn't able to get great pictures.) As for me, I still don't know whether I preferred my pork belly steamed bun or the marrow served with clams and morels. (The morels on that dish were the second best thing I ate all weekend after the skate wing at Toqué.) The room at La Salle à Manger is stunning with reclaimed and an open kitchen. Toward the end of the meal, we fell into conversation with our server, Jean-Sebastian, about Chicago and I ended up emailing him later with some restaurant recommendations. It was fun to make that connection with a fellow food-lover. Walking back through the animated Mile End to the subway at the end of the night, we felt like we had left the tourist track behind and discovered a piece of the real Montreal.