FEATURE

My Montreal Is Better Than Yours*

Once again, bloggers are having their way with Budget Travel: A.J. Kinik and Michelle Marek--who write a wonderful blog, "...an endless banquet"--show us all where to eat, shop, and play in the city that they obsess over better than anyone else.

By , Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007, 12:00 AM

A pizza oven at Bottega (Frances Juriansz)

*Actually, it should really be "Our Montreal"

The two of us met in Montreal in 1999. Neither of us was born or raised in the city--we moved here at the tail end of the '90s as part of the Great Migration that brought dozens, perhaps even hundreds, from British Columbia to Montreal's thriving Mile End neighborhood. But we both took to our surroundings quickly. We bonded over a number of things (the usual: books, films, cats, etc.), and chief among them was a shared love of food and of Montreal as the perfect terrain for this passion.

It's been getting its due again in recent years, largely because of the splash made by a new wave of chefs and restaurateurs, but Montreal has long been a great "eating city"--not just a city with a lot of restaurants, but one that likes to eat and eat well, a city of gourmands. People here appreciate good food, they're willing to spend money on it, they love to cook and talk about food, and they take the time to enjoy it. They're our kind of people.

By 2004, things had gotten serious. We were cooking and entertaining more, systematically exploring the city's restaurants, collecting cookbooks, and reading copious amounts of food literature. Our obsession was clearly spiraling out of control. Michelle had even taken the telltale step of quitting her job as a subtitle editor for films and enrolling in pastry school.

We did the only sensible thing. One dreary day, we headed down to a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, and over a good bowl of pho, we came up with a name--"...an endless banquet," a phrase meant to convey a sense of the ideal life--and started a food blog (endlessbanquet.blogspot.com) based largely on our relationship with Montreal.

For years, we'd prided ourselves on the tours we'd give friends when they passed through, and part of the appeal of creating "...an endless banquet" was that we'd be able to broadcast our dream version of Montreal. Consider this a condensed, lushly illustrated, two-dimensional version of our beloved city.

Eat
Even an endless banquet has to start somewhere. That somewhere for us was Chinatown, the neighborhood that marks the beginning of the long stretch of Boulevard St-Laurent affectionately known as The Main. You see, The Main--which connects two rivers and divides the city into east and west (and supposedly French and English)--has been something of a corridor used by wave after wave of immigrants as they settled into the city and called it their own; it continues to be one of the city's principal cultural and entertainment hubs. For many of us, it's the wellspring of the city.

Montreal's compact Chinatown isn't Vancouver's or Toronto's. In some ways, it's more of a Little Saigon than a Chinatown, but it remains a hotspot for Asian-food aficionados. Two years ago, at Pho Bac 97, we planned the creation of our blog over steaming bowls of pho number seven, which has the most delicious beef broth we've tasted.

Above Sherbrooke Street, the terrain levels off as you enter the aptly named Plateau Mont-Royal district. Here, you'll find the remnants of the Jewish and Eastern European elements that defined The Main for most of the 20th century. For generations, the most essential, most mythologized eatery on The Main has been Schwartz's, a temple to the city's single most important gift to the world of cuisine: smoked meat. Our preferred combo is a regular smoked-meat sandwich, fries, a half-sour pickle, and a Cott black-cherry soda.

On Duluth, just off St-Laurent, sits Reservoir, a smart, contemporary brasserie with microbrewed ales and lagers. The innovative kitchen turns out excellent bar snacks and light meals, including the city's best brunch.

"The closer to church, the closer to God," or so we recall hearing. Well, there's no place that's closer to Santa Cruz, Montreal's central Portuguese church, than Rotisserie Portugalia; in a city thick with skilled Portuguese grills, this hole-in-the-wall is our chosen one. Call ahead and order your chicken "extra spicy," then pick up a basket of fries from teeny-weeny Patati Patata down the block, and you've got the makings for a perfect picnic in Jeanne-Mance Park.

The most hallowed stop on the Mordecai Richler tour of Montreal is Wilensky's Light Lunch in Mile End. The thing to order is the Wilensky Special, a hot, pressed-bologna, salami, and mustard sandwich on a bun. Have yours with Kraft cheese, a freshly made soda or egg cream, and a half-sour.

Our beloved Euro-Deli Batory is a Polish store and diner where we regularly get in touch with our Eastern European roots via the borschts and pierogies.

Little Italy starts just to the north of Mile End. The bright new star there is a world-class pizzeria, Bottega. Meanwhile, the Villeray district, north of Little Italy and Jean-Talon Market, is notable for its very good Lebanese eateries and bakeries. Chez Apo, our favorite, specializes in lahmajoun, Armenian-style flatbread topped with spiced beef and baked in a wood oven.

There are dozens of South Asian restaurants in Park Extension--our favorite is Malhi Sweets. The Punjabi menu includes an irresistible malai kofta, a superior channa samosa, and the city's finest pakoras.

The Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood, specializing in Caribbean cuisine, is another of Montreal's melting pots. Mr. Spicee, a Trinidadian takeout, makes outstanding patties and "doubles"--curry-loaded sandwiches, starting at $1.50, that are smothered in tamarind sauce and hot sauce.

When it comes to greasy-spoon breakfasts, we go to Cosmos in Notre-Dame-de-Grace for the counter-service-only charm and a lineup that includes two legends: the Mish Mash (scrambled eggs with bacon, salami, ham, and cheese) and the Creation (a BLT with fried egg and salami).

Our top three? Easy.

Restaurants specializing in small plates have been ascendant over the last couple of years in Montreal, as they have been elsewhere. The best is Tapeo, where the Spanish menu includes spicy clams with chorizo, bacon-wrapped pan-seared scallops with quince marmalade, and the most heavenly tortilla we've encountered.

The Plateau is known for its cozy neighborhood restaurants, and La Montée de Lait might be the quintessential one--it's also got the most imaginative prix fixe in town, a breathtaking selection of cheeses, and a surprisingly large wine list.

Chef Martin Picard's famous Au Pied de Cochon--with its deep-fried foie gras fritters, foie gras poutine, and pied de cochon topped with (what else?) foie gras--has been the sensation of Montreal's culinary renaissance. Picard's sugar-shack chic is no gimmick--it's an homage to the elemental combination of meat, fat, and fire, and it's a perfect snapshot of Montreal's particular joie de vivre.

Pho Bac
97 1016 blvd. St-Laurent, 514/393-8116, pho $5

Schwartz's
3895 blvd. St-Laurent, 514/842-4813, schwartzsdeli.com, sandwich $5

Reservoir
9 rue Duluth Est, 514/849-7779, brunch from $7

Rotisserie Portugalia
34 rue Rachel Ouest, 514/282-1519, BBQ chicken $10

Patati Patata
4177 blvd. St-Laurent, 514/844-0216, fries $2

Wilensky's Light Lunch
34 rue Fairmount Ouest, 514/271-0247, Wilensky Special $3

Euro-Deli Batory
115 rue St-Viateur Ouest, 514/948-2161, pierogies $4

Bottega
65 rue St-Zotique Est, 514/277-8104, bottega.ca, pizza $11

Chez Apo
420 rue Faillon, 514/270-1076, flatbread $4.50

Malhi Sweets
880 rue Jarry Ouest, 514/273-0407, malhisweets.ca, malai kofta $6

Mr. Spicee
6889A rue Victoria, 514/739-9714, sandwich $1.50

Cosmos
5843 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, 514/486-3814, Mish Mash $7

Tapeo
511 rue Villeray Est, 514/495-1999, restotapeo.com, clams $8

La Montée de Lait
371 rue Villeneuve Est, 514/289-9921, prix fixe $36

Au Pied de Cochon
536 rue Duluth Est, 514/281-1114, restaurantaupieddecochon.ca, fritters $3 each.