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Three Days in Montreal

August 19, 2015

From where I live, Montreal should only be a 5 ½ -hour drive, excluding waiting in line at the border crossing, so I don’t know why I don’t think of going more often. Last Monday my family and I pointed the car north on I-91 for the mostly pretty drive through Massachusetts and Vermont to spend a few days exploring this very cosmopolitan city.

Montreal feels like a little bit of Europe close to home — very French, but virtually everyone slips easily from French to English and back again. French culinary influences are everywhere, often with a decidedly Canadian spin; but you can have your pick from a broad array of other ethnic cuisines as well.  We stayed at Le Saint Sulpice, an all-suite boutique hotel in Vieux (Old) Montreal, just a few blocks from the old port with its food carts, street performers and folks strolling along the quay ogling the serious yacht-age on display; and we spent what was left of our first afternoon exploring the neighborhood and getting our bearings. Since the three of us are avid foodies, “getting our bearings” generally refers to figuring out which restaurants we need to try. Often we’re planning where to have dinner while we’re having lunch.

We chose La Gargote, a cozy bistro facing Place d’Youville, for our first dinner. Unfortunately, the square is mostly closed for repairs, but they have a cute little dining terrace that would be lovely if you didn’t have to look upon cement mixers, traffic cones and yellow caution tape. In any case, rain threatened, so al fresco dining was out of the question. Of our meals, we judged my duck breast with figs and honey the best.

Just as the Weather Channel had predicted, Tuesday morning brought heavy rain, so we stuck close to home and made it a museum day, first visiting Musée Pointe-à-Callière, an archeological/historical museum tracing six centuries of life in the area. The museum is actually built on the site where the city (originally called Ville Marie) was first founded, at the convergence of the St. Lawrence and St. Pierre rivers.

Next door to our hotel was the Notre Dame Basilica, a gigantic Gothic Revival structure from the mid-1820s facing the Place d’Armes, which itself bustles with tourists mingled with workaday Montrealers. Entering the nave, the spectacle took my breath away: every surface either intricately carved in walnut or bathed in gold; exquisite stained glass; and statuary befitting any cathedral I’ve ever visited.

Notre Dame Basilica 1

Notre Dame Basilica 3      Notre Dame Basilica 2      Stained Glass

Our second dinner was at L’Orignale, a self-described farm-to-table restaurant situated in a basement space in Vieux Montreal. You could imagine ducking in here on a cold winter evening for a hearty dinner of game. We began with delectable oysters from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, smoked trout croquettes, and at Jermaine’s suggestion, bone marrow with toast. Despite the fact that it was August, we thoroughly enjoyed a luscious venison chop, cut off the bone, bathed in red wine sauce and accompanied by potatoes aligote (which loyal readers of this blog may remember from my account of eating them at the chestnut festival in France last fall). All of this was washed down with a lovely Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley in western Canada and followed by chocolate mousse with toffee sponge crumble.

IMG_3013           IMG_3014

On our stroll back from dinner, we remarked on the tower of Notre Dame, with its unique lighting scheme.

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With the rain pretty much gone (or so we thought), Wednesday’s goal was hiking up Parc Mont Royal in the heart of the city. But first, breakfast at what we understand to be the best bagel place in the city, St. Viateur. The bagels were worth the Metro ride to the neighborhood, especially the rosemary-sea salt variety.

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Mont-Royal, Montreal’s Central Park, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, and is surmounted by a huge metal cross dating from the 1600s. Everyone seemed to be out running, biking, strolling or walking their dogs, and we started climbing the long winding path to the lookout at the Chalet du Royal for a panoramic vista of the city. To get to the chalet, however, you have to climb about 5000 steps (actually, 50 flights, according to my Fitbit).

Atop Mont Royal

The reward for our walk in the park was Montreal’s justly famous poutine at La Banquise, which some call the best in the city. If the line at 2 in the afternoon is any indicator, everyone has heard of this place. IMG_3027                                          IMG_3028

Here’s Jermaine, waiting for his poutine. IMG_3029

Et voilà!  IMG_3031  One classic (fries with cheese curds and gravy) and the other with the addition of caramelized onions and bacon. A fat fest for sure, but with over 20,000 steps recorded on this day so far, we earned it!

Walking off the poutine, we strolled through Le Square St.-Louis, bordered by these lovely Victorian row houses.

Rowhouses 2      Rowhouses 1    Rowhouses 3

Back in our neighborhood, cocktails in the rooftop bar at the Hotel Nelligan around the corner provided a pre-dinner restorative. They don’t even look tired, do they?

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For our final dinner we chose Bocata, a few short blocks from the hotel, and found it to be the most charming of the lot. It was listed on Yelp for tapas, and they did indeed have some good ones: we tried fried smelts with aïoli, pan con tomate, and tuna tartare, as beautiful as it was delicious. IMG_3035   IMG_3039IMG_3037IMG_3040

Our main courses were exquisite: roasted black cod with clams and fingerling-leek fondue; veal chop with gnocchi and tomato confit; and black squid ink risotto.

Thursday morning we had one more place to try for breakfast, a little hole-in-the-wall called Thé Mon Café. Their specialty breakfast sandwich was exceptional: sliced hard-cooked eggs, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, bacon and house-made mayo on a croissant.

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For our last excursion we drove to the Olympic Park to visit the Jardin Botanique on the eastern edge of town. You can tell when you’re getting close when you spot the stadium jutting skyward, a white elephant from the 1976 Olympics (though to be fair, they do still use it as a venue for large concerts). We didn’t have time to see all the attractions of the park, including the Insectarium, the Biodome or the planetarium, so concentrated on parts of the botanical garden.

Olympic Stadium 3

The highlight for us was the Japanese Strolling Garden, a truly peaceful sanctuary, with its collection of bonsai.

Japanese Garden Waterfall 1    White Water Lily 1

Koi 3     Pond and Waterfall

Bonsai

And home we went….

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