La Femme Faim; the Hungry Girl in Montreal, Part Trois
My last full day in Montreal began with a hot, frothy café au lait by a sunny window at Café Sardine.
The place was comfortably distressed, bordering on campy, with quirky touches that would have seemed shopworn elsewhere; two aproned cooks wearing newsboy hats and suspenders worked out of a tiny back kitchen, and fresh doughnuts were for sale by the register, stacked in a shiny red enamel toolbox.
For the solid portion of my morning meal, I retraced my steps from the previous day, ending at Au Kouign-Amann.
I resisted the temptation, however, to repeat my orgiastic inhalation of their signature pastry, choosing instead to see if the bakery’s culinary aptitude extended to their croissants.
It did. Fresh, flaky, and perfect with a chocolat chaud.
Sufficiently full of hot beverages and buttery pastries, I biked the 6 kilometers to Marché Atwater. Luckily, it was mostly downhill, meaning my newly acquired bulk worked with, not against, me. (Thank you, laws of physics.)
The smaller of the city’s two markets, it was less impressive than Marché Jean-Talon from a couple of days before, but was nonetheless a bounty of visual stimuli…
It blows my mind that nature can be so voluptuous and gaudy—almost obscenely so.
And feature designs that are so seemingly illogical…
…this, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.
Ditto this. Although why is everything phallic shaped…
For lunch, I had my sights set on a Korean place in the downtown area. When I think of Montreal, Asian food is certainly not what comes to mind, but Kazu had received such stellar reviews that I decided it was worth a shot. Plus, perhaps it was the embittering experience of being shut out of Guchi’s midnight ramen in Boston too many times, but I was just excited at the prospect of eating really good ramen without having to jump through hoops, join a secret society, or sign away my first born to the imperious culinary powers that be.
They open at noon, and I’d been warned that there’d be a line, so, even though it was a Monday, I did my first walk-by at exactly 11:50. No action yet, but after one circuitous and rather stalker-esque stroll around the block, I took my place in the incipient line.
The address, in English and Japanese.
The tiny interior.
One by one, we were seated elbow-to-elbow at the bar, like sardines being stacked into a can.
My view was of the grill, and the giant tower of mai fun noodles, waiting to top tuna bowls.
The daily menu, with post-its stuck on the edges to announce the specials…
…while the permament items garnered their very own sheet of construction paper and a spot on the “menu wall.”
Watching the salad station at work.
A simple little Junmai sake to tipple.
A dainty, sweet-tart potato salad to begin.
Scooping rice for the 48-hour pork bowl.
Next, tofu with kimchi sauce.
Ice-cold silken tofu enrobed in a spicy sauce, topped with crunchy lettuce and black sesame seeds. The clean, sweet taste and custardy texture of the tofu were the perfect backdrop for the complex heat and unmistakably fermented tang of the sauce.
But I was still waiting to wrap my lips around a spoonful of that ramen…
…I watched as broth was ladled and garnishes were applied to bowl after bowl. She broiled slices of pork belly one order at a time, boiled noodles in a little conical sieve before transferring each serving to its giant porcelain vessel.
Blame my history of being jilted by ramen-slingers, but with every serving that went out I sat up a little straighter, opened my eyes a little wider, and willed the waitress to come my way with a steaming bowl.
Finally, my silent prayers were answered, and future anxiety dreams of ramen rejection were circumvented.
One inhalation, and I knew this was good shit. After giving myself a full-on umami facial, I raised my spoon and dug in. The noodles were perfectly al dente—tender, but sturdy. Pickled radish, pleasantly gelatinous seaweed, scallions, snow peas, black and white sesame seeds, and toasted nori were gently heated by the steaming liquid.
Buried beneath the surface were rich slices of pork belly and the most unctuous, creamy-yolked egg I’ve ever eaten. And the broth….ohhhh, the broth. It was so flavorful, so incredible savory and well seasoned, yet not salty in the least. A restrained sprinkling of white pepper—an ingredient I usually abhor—and the dish was complete. As I slurped in a rhapsodic, broth-induced haze, the heat from the grill not three feet in front of me, and the sake I sipped from my little bamboo cup, warmed me inside and out.
I took my leave, belly full, and when I realized that it had poured rain for the exact 45 minutes I had been in Kazu, I felt even more caressed by the benevolent ramen gods.
I biked back up to the plateau, and stopped in at La Maison du Macaron, where they sell but one thing…
…give up? Macarons, bein sûr. I chose a couple flavors, and found an idyllic park to sit and enjoy them.
Raspberry-thyme and salted caramel.
The raspberry-thyme was a bit too herbaceous—not enough raspberry and too much thyme.
The salted caramel, however, was a winner; airy and crisp on the outside, with a luscious, sweet filling cut by flaky sea salt.
After popping back to the hotel to preen, I remounted Bixi and took to the road. Work was letting out as I biked to my destination, and as I joined the cycling masses, I got completely swept up in the energy of the crowd; perhaps it was a bit of the herd mentality, but I felt like I was part of something, and I liked it.
I (we) entered a bike path that wound around and up through a park; near the top of the park, I parted ways with my posse of pedaling escorts, and headed towards towards Le Lab.
Le Lab is a bar that intrigued me. I could say it was for their deft hand in mixology or the swank atmosphere and I wouldn’t be lying, but the main attraction was the fire—if you check out their website, you’ll understand. So quite literally like a moth to a flame (albeit a theoretical one), I was lured to Le Lab.
Sadly, at 5:30 on a Monday evening, what I found fell slightly short of blazing flames licking the forearms of burly, exhibitionist barmen as they flipped bottles to within an inch of the ceiling. What I found was an empty bar, with two tenders dutifully prepping for the night. No matter—more barmen for me, burly or no.
After chatting up said barmen, who, upon closer inspection, I might more accurately describe as bar boys, I settled on a Negroni Truffle.
Dripping with trepidation at the prospect of a cocktail with “truffle” in the name, I was pleasantly surprised when I took my first sip of this Tanqueray, Campari, and Cabral Reserva Especial (tawny port) combination laced with two kinds of chocolate bitters. It was bracing, bittersweet, and well balanced, cocoa-dusted rim and all.
A few other folks straggled in while I was drinking, but for the most part, it was just lil’ ol’ me.
I perused the menu again, and as an homage to Bixi, decided my next drink had to be La Bicyclette: Citadelle gin, Dolin red vermouth, absinthe, and elderflower.
After imbibing, I climbed on the cocktail’s eponym, and rode (a bit wobbily, in all honesty) down to the Old Port.
This is the part of Montreal for which the city is known, and frequented by North American travelers hungry for the European “experience;” the intangible quality that turns a modern metropolis into a snarl of cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes to be discovered.
There’s an authenticity in the architecture, even where it’s clearly pastiche; a significance to every statue and stone.
Coming to this part of Montreal after inhabiting the world of skyscrapers and Starbucks less than a mile away seems to dissolve decades, inserting you into the anachronistic bubble that is the old town.
I wandered, not yet sure of my destination, but with a few options in mind.
I ended up at Bocata, a modern wine bar with a cozy, subterranean vibe.
As soon as I’d taken my seat at the bar, I knew I’d chosen well; the chalkboard wine menu listed obscure grapes and unknown regions, with options of half or full glasses from the Enomatic behind the bar. It was wine-geek paradise—I was amongst my people.
Romorantin from the Loire, Bobal from Spain, and as soon as the folks behind the bar detected my ardor for the arcane and my sincere appreciation for delicious wine, no matter the label or denomination, it only went uphill.
Oh, and there was food, too: Octopus with morcilla (blood sausage), confit fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, baby watercress, and tomato “molasses.”
Scallops and pork belly with poached quail eggs, carrot-miso puree, shallot confit sauce, and crisp, buttery toast.
A Grenache from Domaine Clos du Rouge Gorge in France; an incredibly elegant yet earthy 100 percent Sangiovese vino da tavola.
Veal with creamy Manchego polenta, apple, and tomato-olive “condiment.”
Perhaps my favorite wine of the night: an oxidized, biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine des Maisons Brûlées in Touraine. Awesome.
After closing down the restaurant, I apparently earned the respect of the staff (or else they figured they weren’t going to shake me at that point), and we headed back downtown to a few Irish bars, where a few friendly beers turned into a few too many shots of Jameson. To protect all parties involved, I’ll leave it at that, and with the sentiment that a picture’s worth a thousand words…
….this. And yes, that’s my cardigan.
Needless to say, the very last thing I wanted to do the next morning was make the 6 hour drive back to Boston. Clearly, copious amounts of caffeine and carbohydrates were in order.
There are two bagel places in Montreal that vie for supremacy amongst tourists and locals alike, and in the name of research, I turned my post-bender carb fest into a side-by-side taste test.
St. Viateur‘s bagels, while tasty, were slightly cottony and dry on the inside, with the smoky char flavor bordering on acrid, and a serious lack of salt.
Fairmount Bagel was, to my taste, the superior bagel. Chewy, crispy, with a slight charred aroma and a perfectly seasoned, slightly sweet flavor.
Sufficiently bolstered, I made the drive over the border and back home. Despite my rambunctious night, my former impression of Montreal as a party destination had been permanently supplanted by the a truer picture of the vibrant city I had experienced over the past few days. Cultured and grand yet unaffected and blithe, full of good food and wine, and, yes, plenty of nightlife should the mood strike. For a travel junkie such as myself, realizing the proximity of such a treasure is dangerous; with such a desirable destination half a day’s drive away, what’s to stop me from indulging again and again? Making a habit if it? I’m already jonesing to return, but, still riding high on the last trip, have managed to keep the cravings at bay. I guess that’s the difference between an enthusiast and an addict, and even if not, I can think if no better addiction.