and check out Montreal’s best bistros.
A bistro classic – roasted marrow bones at L’ExpressWe love to visit Quebec a few times each year, including an annual trip to Montreal over a long holiday weekend in January or February. Montreal in winter, you ask? If your primary purpose is forty eight hours of bistro hopping, a winter weekend with very few tourists and discounted hotel rooms fits the bill just fine. Over the years we have compiled a list of favorite destinations. many of which were highlighted in a prior column from 2011. Over the past four years we have added a few more to the list.
Long weekends celebrating US Holidays – like Martin Luther King or Presidents Day – are perfect times to escape north of the border. Canada does not celebrate those holidays. there are plenty of rooms, and restaurant and club reservations are easier to come by. Our favorite place to stay is the Hotel St James, a top notch luxury hotel, but priced at a considerable discount to a comparable stay in New York, even before the currency discount. It is perfectly situated in Old Montreal, and there is enough to do within walking distance to spend the entire weekend right there (but then you would miss a few really good “taxi” destinations). Another nice choice with its own fan club, and in the same neighborhood, is the Hotel Nelligan. The crowd here is a little younger, and a lot noisier due to its popular bar, which is loads of fun until you are trying to get to sleep. The party spills out to the sidewalk, or at least it sounds that way at 2 AM.
We usually check in to our hotel around noontime and immediately head out to lunch at bistro #1. We’ll spend the day shopping and gallery hopping, have dinner in bistro selection #2, and then head out to one of the city’s great jazz haunts for drinks. Bistro choices #3 and #4 are saved for day two, with more gallery hopping in between. The retail shopping in Vieux (Old) Montreal has improved dramatically over the years. While the area still hosts its fair share of souvenir shops, more upscale galleries have appeared, offering hand made local leather goods, fine art, and local crafts. I enjoy looking for the Inuit art work and carvings, particularly the stone cairn craftwork called inukshuk.
As you might expect, Montreal has more than its fair share of great French bistros. There are no pretenders on our list of favorites, these are legitimate bistros with real bistro fare and wine lists to match – lots of moderately priced but well chosen selections from the less expensive regions in France – Beaujolais, Southern Rhone, and the Languedoc. Leave the grand cru Burgundies for someone’s expense account. What you find here are good village wines, along with flights of cru Beaujolais from Brouilly and Morgon, Fleurie and Cote de Brouilly, most for less than $50 – and the $50 is Canadian dollars, so expect a 15% discount (at this writing) when the credit card bill comes through. Match those wines with lots of bistro menu classics – escargot, cassoulet, roasted marrow bones, duck confit, and of course, foie gras, and you have all of the necessary ingredients for a bistro lovers weekend in paradise.
We started our most recent weekend with a fantastic lunch at Les Pyrenees, an Old Montreal standby specializing in Basque and Catalan cuisine (with a French accent). Where else will you find cassoulet, paella, baccala, and duck confit all on the same menu? Worth a visit.
The “hot ticket” in town is Joe Beef in Little Burgundy, a ten minute cab drive from Old Montreal. It is a wonderful place in a tiny little space which makes it even harder to score a reservation, even more so after Anthony Bourdain weighed in with his imprimatur. The owners also run a companion bistro next door called Liverpool House. The menu offerings are very similar, with Joe Beef perhaps leaning more towards seafood. Either destination should be included on your itinerary, and don’t be disappointed if you are “relegated” to dining at Liverpool House because Joe Beef is booked. Truth be told, I think we like Liverpool House better.
Montreal weekend must include a trip across town to the stores in Little Italy and the city’s major market, Marche Jean Talon, with scores of vendors selling everything from local Quebec cheeses and seafood from the Gaspe, to sticks of grilled saucisson, to slabs of foie gras. (In Quebec, foie gras is not only legal – it’s mandatory) If you do this side trip in the morning take advantage of the market’s proximity to the city’s two best bagel bakers – Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur in the Mile End District – and decide for yourself what all of the fuss is about.
The wood fired oven at St-Viateur Bagels
Montreal bagels are distinctly different from NYC bagels, starting with the fact they have holes, and are closer in texture to stadium soft pretzels than anything you will find in New York. Montreal residents are passionately divided and comically loyal to one or the other, rivaling the old pastrami wars of New York’s Carnegie versus Stage Deli. Our foursome had no problem deciding, unanimously favoring the bagels at St-Viateur. Neither bakery offers seating, but you can enjoy a St-Viateur bagel and a delicious cup of coffee at the nearby Cafe Olimpico on the corner of Waverly and St-Viateur.
Here is our list of favorite Montreal bistros:
Au Pied de Cochon 536 Duluth Est. (Phn) 514-281-1114
Montreal’s House of Pork. Try the Poutine Deluxe – Frites, cheese curds, brown gravy, topped with foie gras. I kid you not.
Petit Bistro 1550 Rue Fullum (Phn) 514-524-4442
An “off the beaten path” local neighborhood treasure. No tourists.
Laloux 250 Avenue des Pins (Phn) 514 287-9127
White linen and almost too nice to be called a bistro, but great bistro fare.
Les Pyranees 320 Rue St. Paul Oest (Phn) 514-842-5566
Wonderful mash up of Catalan and French classics. Nice wine list.
Chez Leveque 1030 Avenue Laurier (Phn) 514-279-7355
“Upscale” bistro and local favorite. The beef tartare is outstanding.
L’Express 3927 Rue St. Denis (Phn) 514-845-5333
Breakfast, lunch & dinner. Think Cafe Luxembourg, only better.
Joe Beef / Liverpool House 2491 Rue Notre dame Ouest (Phn) 514 935-6504
The buzz is all true – as good as it gets.
L’Original 470 St. Alexis (Phn) 514-303-0479
An Old Montreal basement hideaway with great food and a great bar.
Casa Galicia 2087 Rue St Denis (Phn) 514-843-6698
Another Rue St Denis (Restaurant Row) favorite, focusing on the seafood of Northern Spain,
Lemeac 1045 Avenue Laurier (Phn) 514-270-0999
On the top of our list of places to try on our next trip. Across Laurier from Chez Leveque.
The city, home of the summer Montreal Jazz Festival, has a few jazz clubs that are worth a visit after dinner. Maison du Jazz, once the home of the legendary bass player Charlie Biddle, is our favorite. Upstairs Jazz Bar is another good choice for live professional entertainment. You can usually check out the current line up on YouTube and see if anyone strikes your fancy. On our last visit we stopped in at Diese Onze Jazz Club on St Denis, where local talent takes the stage nightly for only an $8 cover.
If you do dine at any of these places,
please let our other readers know about your visit in the comments section.