Impulsive Traveler: Montreal in January means frostbite and warm bites

In January, Montreal's Jean-Talon market provides a warm respite from the cold.
In January, Montreal's Jean-Talon market provides a warm respite from the cold. (Joe Yonan)
By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Way back before December's snowpocalypse, my idea for a midwinter getaway to Montreal actually made some sense. In the three years since I moved to Washington from Boston, I've teased friends mercilessly about what passes for cold weather here, so why not prove my hardiness by bucking the snowbird trend and flying north for a chilling dose of Canada in January?

Then the mercury dropped all along the East Coast, and the impulse started to seem counterintuitive. On a half-dozen previous trips I'd taken to Montreal, mostly in the fall, the days were mild and the nights clear and crisp, making the city even more walkable than usual. This time, strolling would surely turn into trudging and shivering, not so different from what I'd been doing at home in the mid-Atlantic. The friend from Atlanta who was meeting me there was anxious: What sort of artful scarf-tying would make up for the fact that his warmest coat was really nothing more than a lined leather jacket?

I worked doggedly to secure our comfort in advance, booking a hotel suite with a wood-burning fireplace, finding a spa with a Middle Eastern-style hammam and making reservations at restaurants known for stick-to-your-ribs food. If worst came to worst, we could always duck into the vast underground city that, like the one in Toronto, connects shops, hotels, the subway and more.

When we walked out of the airport, my friend Bill looked appropriately stylish, while I resembled the Tin Man in my puffy silver down coat. And the air was a mid-40s slap in the face. It had been a week since I had checked the forecast, and either things had changed or I had made a Celsius-conversion mistake and had girded myself for frigidity unnecessarily. Bill smiled and I frowned -- and started to perspire.

By the time we had lunch and checked into our hotel, though, the temperature was falling and the forecast was calling for flurries, if not out-and-out snow. Time to start a fire. The St.-Sulpice Hotel had left us a plastic-covered, composite-wood "log" rather than anything straight from a tree, but at least it was a step up from the electric or gas options I had found elsewhere. Coziness ensued.

In the interest of journalistic research, I had booked two restaurants in one night. First up was Joe Beef, a bistro so trendy that before the night was out, Jimmy Fallon and a few buddies walked in and claimed their share of the 28 seats. It's a shoebox of a place in the Little Burgundy neighborhood, and amid the flea-market decor, an entire wall is dedicated to the blackboard menu and the wine list. We sat at the four-seat bar, next to a couple of regulars who live in the formerly down-and-out neighborhood and come in often to have apps and share a single entree. So modest, so Canadian and so different from us, the overindulgent Americans.

After a smoked-cheddar tart and fantastic octopus with hummus, we moved on to the "hunter's schnitzel sandwich," which by all means we should've split. On top of two chicken cutlets and a fried egg, the bun looked like a jaunty bowler hat, no match for the stack of protein it was trying to contain. Neither were we, especially since we also had to contend with a Chinese-inspired duck dish, followed by a pistachio financier for dessert.

One of the restaurants that seemed most appropriate to the warming theme was something we should have skipped. As fun as it was to think about après-ski-style dining on a turning-frigid weekend, La Raclette's namesake food, melted cheese on potatoes and cured meat, wasn't nearly as good as the raclette I've had at the private home of a Swiss family in Washington. Much better was our visit to La Banquise, where we had a midafternoon "snack," if you can call two mountains of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds a snack. At the 24-hour La Banquise, dozens of varieties of poutine, Quebec's most famous dish, appear on the menu, with names such as T-Rex, Dan Dan and Ole! Ole! We stuck with the classic and added the B.O.M. (bacon, onions and merguez). Newbies, take note: As satisfying as poutine can be when you're cold, hungry, hung over or getting there, it's definitely something that you should inhale. Eat before you think.

By Sunday, the temperature was in the teens without the wind chill, in the single digits with it, and Bill was starting to realize that my Tin Man look wasn't so laughable after all. We trudged to the Metro and then to the Jean-Talon market, which brims over with locals and tourists in the height of the season, when the outside walls are retracted and farmstands spill outside and practically surround the building. In January, the closed-up building has a welcome greenhouse feel. We waited in line at Creperie du Marché for a sweet-savory taste of Quebec: hot apples, ham and cheese in a buckwheat crepe, drizzled with fine maple syrup.

At Fromagerie Hamel outside the market, the clerk expertly sliced off tastes of raw-milk French cheeses, plus a couple of blues from Quebec, that became a midafternoon snack and breakfast the next morning. At Olives & Épices, a lively sliver of a store, I bought dried piri-piri chili peppers from Malawi, flaky Hawaiian black salt and "cumin noir" from Pakistan, and felt warmer by the minute.

After a little more walking around, through the Latin Quarter's Square St.-Louis and up and down Rue St.-Denis for window-shopping and picture-taking, Bill was getting a little cranky from the cold, but I figured it was nothing that a massage and some steam couldn't wring out of him. We hit Rainspa in the Hotel Place d'Armes, just a couple of blocks from our hotel, a little worried that the "hammam" inside was little more than a gimmick. But it was warm enough, and once I had an intense exfoliation and a sweaty, vigorous massage inside a private steam room, I was reminded in spirit -- if not in price -- of hammams I had been to in Istanbul. Unfortunately, Bill's conventional massage was just that.

Thankfully, our last dining experience would make any food lover forget a disappointing spa day. At Au Pied de Cochon, Martin Picard's justifiably bustling meat palace, we ordered such large quantities that the waiter interrupted to talk some sense into us, all in vain. Of course, he was right: Nobody really needs to eat beef tartare hand rolls, poutine with foie gras, blood sausage over potato puree, confit lamb leg -- and then a monstrous pork tenderloin, roasted on the bone, that could easily feed three or four. But we wanted at least a taste of it all, and we made a more-than-respectable (or should that be contemptible?) dent. And that was before dessert, which might have been the best thing we ate all weekend. Pouding chômeur, translated as "poor man's pudding," is essentially cake baked in a maple caramel; it's a traditional Quebecois dish, and one bite of the gooey, deep-tasting, bubbling stuff, and we knew why.

It was cold outside, but inside Au Pied de Cochon, as we blew on our steaming spoonfuls, it was getting positively balmy.

Details: Montreal

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