MONTREAL -- For a certain kind of traveler, no visit to a new city is complete without a bellyful of local culinary delights.
And though the Internet has made it easier to zero in on regional specialties, it also has amplified local food rivalries that can make it harder for travelers to know just where, for example, to find the best poutine in Montreal. Ideally, we could try all the top contenders and decide for ourselves, but schedules, pocketbooks and top pants buttons get in our way.
We braved those challenges during a recent trip to Montreal in an effort to guide future travelers to the best local food specialties the French Canadian city has to offer. These include poutine, smoked meat, Portuguese chicken, Montreal-style bagels, deep-fried foie gras, and, in season, farmers markets.
So here goes our quick, clean, decidedly subjective Montreal food smackdown (all prices are Canadian, but the exchange rate is virtually the same):
• What they are: A bit like New York versions but cooked in a wood-fired oven, Montreal bagels are boiled in honeyed water and made with egg and an unsalted dough. They also sport a bigger hole, smaller size and a less shiny exterior.
• The contenders: St-Viateur Bagel (263 Ave. St-Viateur West) and Fairmount Bagel (74 Ave. Fairmount West).
Armed with recommendations from locals, we hoofed it up to the Mile End neighborhood from our Chinatown hotel one morning to settle the bagel question. But when we finally got our teeth into a couple of 80-cent sesame seed bagels at Fairmount, we were disappointed. While pleasingly fresh and warm, the bagels were light and sweet in a way that didn’t appeal.
The 70-cent bagels at St-Viateur were hot and nicely dense — we watched them being pulled from the wood-fire ovens — but tasted pretty much just like their sweet-ish, nonchewy rivals at Fairmount. We decided that maybe this style of bagel wasn’t our cup of soup.
• The verdict: Between the two bagels, we like St-Viateur a little more, though the place we finally learned to love the Viateur sesame bagels was at a little place called Cafe Neve (more later), which sandwiches lox, lettuce, tomato, onion and cream cheese into the bagel, allowing the savory fillings to counter the sweetness.
• What it is: Brined, spiced beef brisket that’s hot-smoked and steamed, yielding something similar but much more delicious than corned beef or pastrami. Eastern European Jews brought it to Montreal nearly a century ago.
• The contenders: Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen (3895 Blvd. St-Laurent) and The Main (3864 Blvd. St-Laurent).
When we took our first bite from a stack of warm smoked meat, smeared with yellow mustard and sandwiched between slices of ultrafresh seedless rye ($6.10) at The Main one morning, we couldn’t believe our taste buds. Think of the most flavorful, tender corned beef sandwich you’ve ever eaten and increase the enjoyment by 10 times and you have an inkling of what you’re in for. Oh, and throw in the best matzo ball soup ever. And chase it with a cold draft beer.
Could 80-year-old Schwartz’s top this experience? It seemed unlikely given the high bar, but the line outside the door (something The Main lacks, thankfully) promised otherwise. Turns out their smoked meat sandwich ($6.30, cash only) is almost exactly as good as The Main’s, especially when you request the fatty meat.
• The verdict: We love both, but one of us thinks Main is a tiny bit better and the other says it’s Schwartz’s. But it’s like deciding between sublime and sublimer. If there is even a one-person difference in the wait at either one, we’d suggest going to the other. They’re that close.
• What it is: A melange of hot fries topped with cold cheese curds and warm gravy that was invented in Quebec about 50 years ago and has spread across the country, even to Canadian McDonald’s.
• The contenders: Patati Patata (4177 Blvd. St-Laurent) and La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel East).
Everyone in this city seems to have a favorite spot for poutine, but these two joints always seemed to rise toward the top of any list for the great fries and top-notch gravies. And though some places, including La Banquise, serve elaborate variations on the basic theme, we decided to go for the classic.
The tiny Patati featured a funky decor, a handful of counter seats and a couple of high tables that encouraged us to get our poutine ($4.50) to go. We opened the small clamshell foam box to find crunchy, browned, skin-on fries topped with thinnish but meaty gravy, lots of squeaky curds and a couple of kalamata olives.
Our order at the large, multiroomed, 24-hour La Banquise ($6.25) was much larger, featuring slightly sweet fries, as if some of their starch had turned to sugar, topped with elongated supersqueaky curds and a meaty thick gravy.
• The verdict: The fries are better at Patati, but the whole package is better at La Banquise.
• What it is: Marinated and rotisserie/grilled chicken with an optional chili rub and/or sauce. Though it’s served by Portuguese-Canadians, it’s actually called African chicken in Portugal.
• The contenders: Rotisserie Romados (115 Rue Rachel East) and Portugalia (34 Rue Rachel West).
Like the Peruvian or Colombian chicken wars that have emerged in other cities across North America, Montreal’s Portuguese chicken fight is characterized by stiff competition (with some areas hosting three chicken joints in as many blocks), hardwood coal grilling/rotisserie cooking and ultrasecretive spicing. Restaurants serve it plain or with spicy sauce, which can range from a reddish chili paste to a seriously potent rub of spices and red pepper flakes. After much asking around, we zeroed in on two places locals swear by. They range from the humble Portugalia counter to the fluorescent-lit Romados, which also serves as a bakery and deli.
When we arrived hungry at Romados, the grilled chicken aroma was almost as enticing as the long line was off-putting. But within 15 minutes we were up there receiving our half a chicken, rice and salad, all covered in a pile of delicious fries ($7.99). We snagged a rare counter seat by the window and unearthed the sauce-dotted chicken from the potatoes and enjoyed. Juicy, flavorful and tinged with a smoky grilled flavor but not as life-changing as we’d heard.
The counter guys at Schwartz’s told us that the best Portuguese chicken in town came from a little joint around the corner called Portugalia, where they butterfly and grill the chicken and paint it with a fiery paste. We loved the char and incendiary spicing on this bird, even if it was a little less juicy than at Romados. You can eat it there at the blue-tiled counter or take it on the run in a foil bag as we did.
• The verdict: If you love fries and milder flavors, go to Romados, but if you go for a bolder bird, as we do, hit Portugalia.
What it is: Espresso drinks in particulaar that require the barista to pull a great espresso and top it with milk.
The contenders: Cafe Olimpico (124 St-Viateur West) and Cafe Neve (151 Rue Rachel East).
One morning while waiting for hot-meat places to open in the St-Laurent area, we wandered into the hipster, rustic Cafe Neve. We just wanted to kill some time but ended up enchanted by the buttery croissants, divine bagels with lox (using St-Viateur) and a latte in a bowl ($3.50) that was as beautiful as it was rich and delicious. Turns out they use coffee from Chicago’s famous Metropolis roaster and put a lot of care into brewing it just right and topping it with a flower design.
But could it hold up against the famed Joe at the 42-year-old Cafe Olimpico up in the Mile End area? We went to find out. The large, tin-ceilinged coffeehouse with an Italian soccer theme and a sprawling courtyard was crowded on a Sunday morning. But these coffee lovers seemed unfazed by the dozens-deep line. We were grateful for it — though it moved quickly — because it gave us a chance to rehearse our order for the no-nonsense, handlebar-mustachioed baristas who liked to keep things moving. Their product, however, doesn’t taste rushed at all. The macchiato (espresso with a little foam milk for $2.60) was fantastic, with rich, full-bodied flavor yet no bitter finish. Bravo.
The verdict: For a laid-back cafe vibe, big bowls of latte luxury and delicious savories, go to Cafe Neve. For boisterous atmosphere, lots of soccer and sports and wonderful Italian-style coffee, head to Olimpico.
DEEP-FRIED FOIE GRAS
• What it is: Fatty goose or duck liver breaded and deep fried in what has become a bit of a local trend.
• The contenders: Au Pied de Cochon (536 Ave. Duluth East) and Joe Beef (2491 Rue Notre Dame West).
Traditional pairings with foie gras tend to play its richness off of a starch or sweet accent, or both. But in foie gras-crazy Montreal, the chefs instead amp up the decadence with a dip in the fryer.
At the famed Au Pied de Cochon we sampled the foie gras cromesquis ($3.50) that came out like chubby, warm dice with a stubbly panko crumb exterior and a rich, liquidy mouthful of foie gras inside. It was a perfect start to a meal of stuffed pigs feet, blood sausage and duck-fat fries.
At the famed Joe Beef in the Little Burgundy area, we miraculously snagged an empty table one night and steeled ourselves for the infamous foie gras double down, modeled after the KFC sandwich. Hipsters jammed the place, chowing down on roasted bone marrow and lobster spaghetti. Our main objective, however, was to try the two deep-fried slabs of foie gras, drizzled in maple syrup and sandwiched around cheddar, mayonnaise, bacon and lettuce. We ordered the appetizer size ($17) and found that all the different elements overpowered the foie gras flavor to the point where the slabs might as well have been tofu.
• The verdict: Skip the over-the-top double down for the elegant, understated foie gras cromesquis.
• The contenders: Marche Jean-Talon (7070 Ave. Henri-Julien) vs. Marche Atwater (138 Ave. Atwater).
Foodies who want to shop for charcuterie, breads, pastries, cheese and fresh fruit will love Montreal’s public markets. Two favorites are on opposite ends, with Jean-Talon focused on open-air fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, while Atwater is more of an indoor experience featuring more butchers, bakers and cheesemongers. At one we bought a collection of fruit for hotel munching, and at the other we assembled charcuterie, fresh bread and wine for a fine lunch.
The verdict: During the summer, Jean-Talon would be our choice, with its rows of fresh produce tables bursting with fragrant strawberries, onions, radishes, tomatoes, greens, squash blossoms and more. We also loved the restaurants, bakeries, food stalls and charcuterie vendors that line the market.
For winter months — and those with a kitchen — a better bet might be Atwater, where you can visit several meat counters, cheesemongers, coffee roasters, bakers and other vendors to assemble an excellent meal, and then walk along the canal if it’s not too cold.
ONE MORE BITE
For those who come from cities without much Portuguese food, Montreal is a great place to load up on pork and clams, vinho verde, grilled sardines and chicken, of course. On a break from fare for the story, we stopped by the modest Chez Doval (150 Rue Marie-Anne East). We split pork and clams, served in meaty, clammy broth perfect for bread dipping, and a couple glasses of young wine for a light meal amid lots of fries and smoked meat. The restaurant also is known for grilled Portuguese chicken. Too bad we didn’t have room.