Feasting on Montreal's Charms
A Return to the Pleasures, Guilty or Not, of a Bilingual City

By Erica Johnston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

I've been captivated by Montreal since my first trip there almost 20 years ago, drawn in by two things in particular: the bowls of hot chocolate offered at the city's many cafes -- hey, why settle for a measly cup? -- and the people who packed the streets in July and August, soaking in the two-month party they call summer. It seemed as busy as midtown Manhattan at rush hour, but these people were smiling.

So when my oldest and best friend and I realized that our 40th "anniversary" was approaching, I managed to talk her into a celebratory trip over a long weekend. To Montreal, of course.

When I arrived on a summer-like fall afternoon, a day before Kathy, I hit the streets. It had been eight years since my last visit. Had I exaggerated the city's charms?

From our hotel downtown, I walked a mile or so, past the edge of Chinatown and through the Latin Quarter to the Plateau, the neighborhood where my affection for the city first took root.

Ahhhh, the Plateau. Pretty much in the middle of the part of the city frequented by visitors, the neighborhood is all about strolling, sipping and shopping: chic marries shabby-chic, college professor meets slacker, with an impressive assortment of retro record stores, independent bookstores, artfully graffitied walls, more than a few "tatouage" parlors, and ethnic restaurants everywhere. (Anybody up for food from Reunion, the island off Africa?)

Along the leafy side streets, spiral staircases wind their way up the outsides of cozy rowhouses. Somehow, it seemed that if I knocked on a few doors, I'd find someone I knew. A few blocks away, Mount Royal, the modest mountain and majestic park on the neighborhood's western flank, rises over the city, offering a constant compass and an instant refuge to anyone who needs one.

In a bakery, a boy of about 4 offered me his friendliest "Allo!" I did my best to respond in kind: "Allo."

"Oh," he responded, no fool he. His smile never broke. "Hello!"

And that seems to sum up the language issue -- for tourists, anyway; it's far more complicated for residents -- in the place generally acknowledged to be the world's second-biggest French-speaking city. French? English? Whatever. We can work with you.

Four Kinds of Pork

A half-hour in the Plateau and I felt back in the groove. I wasn't dragging my friend up here for nothing, after all. The pungent smoke wafting out the doors of Portuguese rotisseries, the burnished yellows and oranges of the maples along the sidewalks, the tangle of overheard languages: My senses felt fully open. This, all of this, in its understated splendor, was what I wanted to show her. I was ready to lead the way on the Walking and Talking (and Eating) Tour.

But first, La Binerie.

In travel, and okay, in the rest of life as well, there is no doubt: I lead with my stomach. The rest of me merely struggles to keep up. So the next morning -- Kathy wouldn't arrive until later -- I headed back to the Plateau, this time on the subway, to La Binerie (The Beanery), a nearly 70-year-old, bare-bones eatery renowned for its Quebecois specialties.

I knew I must tend to this vital errand, stat, while I still could. For Kathy, as fate would have it, is a doctor.

Along with the requisite eggs and home fries, my plate was promptly piled with four kinds of pork: ham, Canadian bacon, sausage and the salt pork that the beans were cooked in. As Charlotte the spider wrote in her web of her friend Wilbur, this was "some pig."

La Binerie surely wasn't the reason Gourmet magazine devoted an entire issue in 2006 to Montreal's culinary prowess, but the dowdy lunch counter earned its mention. My repast, enough to make a long-haul trucker groan, was frighteningly tasty.

Just in time to save my health -- or to try -- Kathy flew in from Boston. Immediately, we started walking.

Nearly everyone who crossed our path was unrelentingly friendly. Even the illuminated "man" in the crossing signals has a spring in his step; check it out. Along Rue St. Denis, a beautifully dressed woman stepped out of an elegant bakery with an elaborately wrapped sandwich and handed it with a smile to a homeless stranger. By the time a Metro toll taker wished us a good life -- and seemed to mean it -- we weren't especially impressed.

We walked along the lovely Rue Laurier from east to west, from a low-key weekend street market to the decidedly upmarket blocks of fancy shops west of Rue St. Laurent. That street, also called "The Main," has historically served as the unofficial line separating the city's French culture from its English-speaking stronghold.

These days, it could be said that there is more to divide the city, culturally speaking, but that fewer things do. French speakers may have lost a war or two, official and otherwise. But they won the battle for their language, with more than half of the city's residents declaring French as their first language, though most speak English as well. After thousands of English speakers left the city at the height of the Quebecois separatist movement in the 1970s and '80s, the proportion of those who speak English as a first language has been estimated at about one in five.

Sights, Sounds, Tastes

Today's Montreal is often a wonderful jumble, with strong strands of distinct cultures living amongst one another. It's been called a salad bowl -- the concept of Canadian diversity as separate components complementing each other, as compared with the American ideal of the melting pot.

In few places is this more true than in Mile End, a historically Jewish enclave that was one of my favorite discoveries of the trip.

Mile End, the boyhood home of the late novelist Mordechai Richler (along with his famous protagonist, Duddy Kravitz), is gentrifying rapidly. But though the challenge of change in the neighborhood just north of the swanky part of Rue Laurier riles some, others revel in it.

To the outsider, the place offers a kaleidoscopic array: The Asian teenager with an Orthodox Jew's side locks ambles along Rue St. Viateur. At a street corner, black-clad Goth girls check out South American pan flutists. Butcher shops of seemingly every Eastern European persuasion line the streets.

Here's where you get your Montreal bagels, smaller, denser and sweeter than their American counterparts. Their supporters insist that these rounds, boiled in honeyed water before baking, are the real deal; the recipe allegedly was brought over by Romanian Jews in the early 1900s.

A couple of storefronts away, a 20-something guy at the Olympico Cafe, a hipster cafe known in a previous life as Open Da Nite, switched from a pitch-perfect "dese, dem, dose" Brooklynese to a flowing French without so much as taking a breath.

From there, we continued on a mile or so north, to the Little Italy neighborhood and -- more to the point -- the Jean-Talon Market, a huge, year-round public market for regionally grown meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Such spots often serve as my museums, telling me more about a place than most collections of art or artifacts ever could.

It was a Saturday, and the joint was jammed with more than 100 stalls and thousands of Montrealers, all pondering the same age-old question: What's for dinner?

Sure, the usual suspects were there: apples, potatoes, fall lettuces. But it was the shock of the new that captivated: cauliflower that looked downright hallucinogenic, with chartreuse or purple florettes and otherworldly mountain- and valley-like fissures. They looked like exotic coral.

Then there were the cerises de terre, ground cherries, which came clad in their own papery jackets -- only appropriate, it seemed, for the climes. But the sweet, yellow, cherry-size fruit isn't a cherry; it's a relative of the similarly dressed tomatillo.

Across the way, I sampled a single strawberry, not believing that the delicate fruits could prosper in Quebec, of all places, in late September, of all times. They do. It was easily the best strawberry I've ever had. The chilly weather only makes them sweeter, the grower boasted.

A Last Meal. Or Two.

On Sunday night, as our time wound down, we followed our trip to its logical conclusion: dinner at Au Pied de Cochon, a boisterous bistro that offers an unabashed homage to all creatures fat and fowl, a cuisine that is profoundly, jubilantly Quebecois. Chef Martin Picard, a darling of the back-to-the-land school of cooking, looks like a lumberjack, and kind of cooks like one, too. On the menu: "The Big Happy Pig's Chop," "the Pig's Foot" and steak that tends to be venison, when it's in season. And being true to his school, he's got poutine, of course.

But here's the difference: Picard's poutine -- that much maligned mess of french fries, gravy and cheese curds that is Quebec's guilty pleasure -- is topped with a hunk of foie gras. That's something along the lines of elevating, say, New Englanders' beloved Marshmallow Fluff.

Perhaps never before has a culinary crime been committed so gleefully. As chef and writer Anthony Bourdain has written, the haute poutine "breaks every known standard of decency and common practice. And I loved it." Picard plays with his food, and if (and only if) you're a devoted carnivore, you'll appreciate his heart and humor.

But if forced to choose, I'd say our favorite meal was at La Montee de Lait, a smallish refuge tucked into a quiet corner of the Plateau that offers a fixed-price parade of exquisite small plates. Of course, it's all about what you're in the mood for: Au Pied's culinary equivalent of a luxury suite at a Canadiens championship game, or La Montee de Lait's night at the symphony.

And then, sadly, the time came to put down our forks and back away slowly. The air had turned seasonably chilly, and we marveled at the Montrealers sitting at sidewalk cafes. For us, it was freezing, and unthinkable. But they were enjoying it while they could, knowing that everything -- even the temperature -- is relative. And the bowls of hot chocolate couldn't have hurt, either.

Erica Johnston last wrote for Travel about Prince Edward Island.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company