The moment our car rolled out of customs and onto U.S. soil, I turned on my phone and punched “craigslist” into the browser. Rifling through listings for summer sublets, I tucked our stay into a corner of memory where hindsight and foresight are blind spots. I imagined weeks in the French Canadian sun and nights in French Canadian bars, a Bixi ride across town bridging the two at a pace that is entirely of Montreal.
Montreal isn’t the most cosmopolitan, metropolitan, innovative, or young city on the continent. Life-for-lust urbanites may be tempted to describe it as a weekend romp. Collegiate-types might look at the city as a patch of Europe, Nicoderm slapped beneath the collarbone of a backpacker in withdrawal.
My only parting thought on the autoroute out of Montreal: “How can I live here?”
That’s what the city is to me: not just a place to live, but also a place I could live, where anyone might live. Before my two days in Montreal, I’d never felt so instinctively, immediately comfortable on unfamiliar turf. I’d never been so at ease in a pub packed to the windows. I’d never set aside space to think about McGill University. I’d never had such a munificent offering of fries, gravy, and cheese curds.
A mound of poutine with bacon, procured in the back booth of Le Sud Ouest‘s A.A. Restaurant, was our first hearty handshake with the city of Montreal. Each cheese curd came close to a squeak, the gravy held a dimension of sweetness and spice, each bacon bit was a neatly browned square, and the french-Canadian fries held onto a crunch in their edges until the plate was cleared. Admittedly, that didn’t take long for four grown men with a poutine crush – which is why we ordered two plates.
The scene at A.A. was the first of many warm welcomes to Montreal, a town where the institution of the diner hasn’t been networked by interstate highways or co-opted by conglomerates like Denny’s, Waffle House and I.H.O.P. According to our stop at the Double A, Montreal diners have greasy spoons and conspicuous owners, jesting conversations across the counter and hockey on the television. Walks along the diner-spotted thoroughfares of the city exposed to us a business overripe in its years. Oversized glass panes acted as windows into urban restaurant industry where the median age runs high and Mexicans don’t necessarily do all of the cooking.
Just as poutine at a Quebecois fast food dive could be part of my (read: my entire) late-night routine, Montreal-style bagels would join me at the breakfast table without a second thought. Baked in a wood oven and hardly bigger than a doughnut, these are not the training-wheel-sized gremlins that have overrun New York City. They are not, as Calvin Trillin describes their mutated New York cousins, extra-large hunks of “bagel-shaped bread.”
What they are is a delicious holdover from the old Jewish District, a revision of the ring-shaped Polish street bagel. The texture is more akin to a good bagel from New York, but with less filler – half of the bagel is a sustained crunch-and-chew with a hint of smoke. The other half is a light, hardly sweet interior that yields just enough surface area for a pat of butter, or a bit of schmear and nova.
At local institution St. Viateur Bagel, a sesame bagel plucked from the off-ramp of the day’s batches is as good as it gets. Our follow-up sample at Fairmount, St. Viateur’s nearby rival-or-identical-twin, was slightly less appetizing. That might have been entirely attributable to the fact that Fairmount’s own boisterous Jewish man hadn’t shown up that day to toss out pieces of wit like frisbees. St.-Viateur’s badchen notwithstanding, both bagels topped anything I’d tasted in New York for nearly a year.
Perhaps the most livable meal I shared with Montreal was a bundle of comestibles from the Jean-Talon Market – a venue for produce, baked goods, coffee, and all other manner of everyday food prepared with an upstanding dose of French respect for the palate. A mix of local goods, hothouse produce and imports lines the aisles of the covered outdoor chalet, one end cropped by butchers and provisioners, the other met by an enormous French Canadian boulangerie.
There isn’t too much to say about a good baguette and a good terrine; hopefully, one’s mouth will be too full to be bothered with stating the obvious. That said, Premiere Moisson’s textbook French baguette and an especially peppery terrine from Les Cochons Tout Ronds made for the type of breakfast that isn’t obvious enough where I live in Brooklyn.
Taken with a cup of strong coffee, a few fresh tomatoes and a hunk of creamy, briny Serbian feta, it’s the type of meal I’d feel perfectly happy sitting down to for, say, the rest of my life.
3700 Notre-Dame Ouest
Montréal, Quebec H4C 1P7
263 St-Viateur Ouest
Montréal, Quebec H2V 1Y1
7070 Avenue Henri Julien
Montreal, Quebec H2S 3S3