For less than ten U.S. dollars-that's right, US$10--you can eat well in French Canada at delightful sit-down restaurants, enjoying two courses and more
To live like a royal. To shop without care, to wander in and out of museums and theaters at will, to dine in chichi restaurants without breaking a sweat-or a 20-dollar bill. That fantasy (or something like it) is broadly available today in Canada.
Yes, Canada, where the average American becomes fabulously wealthy just by stepping across the border.
I do exaggerate, but only slightly. With the Canadian dollar continuing to limp along at $1.53 to the U.S. dollar, American tourists increase their worth by more than 50 percent the minute they step into Maple Leaf Land. Restaurants in the province of Quebec are so affordable that for the first time in the history of this series of "Little Wonder" articles, we're lowering the price we're willing to accept for a meal from $12 to $10. At every one of the following eateries, it's possible to get a handsome repast (entr?e and either appetizer or dessert, but sometimes both) for under that US$10 limit, based on the above exchange rate.
And what you get is often exquisite (and certainly unique to this part of the world). Quebecois cuisine, with its roots in French cooking, has become increasingly eclectic of late. As more and more ethnic groups come to Montreal (and to a lesser extent Quebec City), local chefs are expanding their palettes, incorporating the spices and techniques of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Add to that Canada's traditional fondness for game meats and home-tapped maple syrup, and you have one of the most interesting food scenes in North America, a cuisine at once homespun and hearty yet tremendously sophisticated. I've compiled a list of some of the best eats in both cities and translated their prices into U.S. dollars. Bon appetit!
Montreal Au Bistro Gourmet 2 4007 rue Sain t-Denis, 514/844-0555. Metro: Sherbrooke. This comely newcomer, less than a year old, is taking Montreal's premier shopping street by storm with an entr?e (from a choice of eight) and either soup or salad for just CAD$14.95 (US$9.80). With its creamy white walls, elegant yellow banquettes, towering vases of fresh cut flowers, and crisp linens, this manicured eatery would be just as much at home on Paris's Left Bank as it is on this cosmopolitan stretch of Saint-Denis. Even the chef, Gabriel Ohana, is imported from France, and he brings a Gallic theatricality to every plate that emerges from his kitchen. Mr. Ohana is of the taller-is-better school of cooking, creating elaborate sculptures of food as perfectly balanced as a yoga master. The fare goes beyond mere theatrics, however. The calf's liver in balsamic vinegar is heaven as an organ meat; silky and tart, it hovers inches above the plate on a stack of chanterelle mushrooms and potatoes. The sole comes out swimming-in a lo vely white-wine sauce, that is-enlivened by crisp diced vegetables. The humble salad could be designed by Dior, the plate streaked with inky, sweet balsamic vinegar, the greens drizzled with a sinful mayonnaise dressing. And in the realm of food imitating life, the lamb shank stands straight up on its haunch, the meat so tender you simply flake it off the bone with a fork to dip it in the delicate rosemary sauce swirled at its base. It's accompanied by two mini "silos" of sweet roasted onion, zucchini, and potato. The real "chez" McCoy, and our top choice in Montreal.
Restaurant le Bourlingueur 363 rue Saint-Fran?ois-Xavier, 514/845-3646. Metro: Place d'Armes. All items are served table d'h(tm)te, meaning every meal includes soup, salad, dessert, and coffee. From CAD$9.95 (US$6.50). Pheasant. Wild Boar. Lobster. No, you haven't accidentally switched to an article in Travel + Leisure. These exotic (and in the United States, pricey) treats are often on the specials list at this V ieux-Montreal charmer, never for more than CAD$18 (US$11.80), including starter and dessert. Choose from the regular menu and you'll drop even fewer loonies: A savory plate of sausage and sauerkraut, ^ l'Alsace (called the "Express" meal) comes in at just CAD$9.95 (US$6.50); scrumptious roast pork with roasted apples is a mere CAD$12.55 (US$8.20); poached salmon ^ la cr?me CAD$14.55 (US$9.50). The preparations for these dishes are straightforward and tr?s French-heavy on the cream sauces, light on the grease. And your surroundings are just as nice as those in any of the snootier eateries in this tourist-trapping neighborhood. True, the floors are linoleum (could that be the reason for the low prices?), but other than that, the restaurant retains the ambience of the area with rough-hewn stone walls, pretty stenciled ceilings, and arrangements of dried flowers on each table.
Boris Bistro 465 rue McGill, 514/848-9575, www.borisbistro.com. Metro: Square-Victoria. A cool, industri ally chic eatery where the crowd is mixed, the music soothing, and the fab food affordable, starting at CAD$12.50 (US$8.20) per meal. Sitting on the border between classic Old Montreal and the bustling Cit? Multim?dia, Boris Bistro looks like one of those open white spaces that only models inhabit, such as in ads for tony vodkas. It draws an eclectic crowd-shoulder-to-shoulder suits and ties at lunch, camera-and-maple-syrup-toting tourists in the warmer months-who come for cooking that takes classic bistro and traditional Quebecois cuisines and subtly updates them. The tourti?re, the region's famed pork-and-beef pie, is done here with caribou and duck and sided by a scrumptious fruit coulis instead of the usual ketchup (CAD$14.25/US$9.30). The sausage plate (CAD$12.50/US$8.20) also uses delicately spiced caribou, accompanied by the crispest of fries. A veal blanquette (CAD$13.50/US$8.80) boasts a sauce less creamy than herbful, a delightful dill covering that tastes as green a s a freshly mowed lawn. The soup, too, trumpets its herbs, and if it's on the menu (which changes weekly), then the cream of red pepper (CAD$3/US$2) is not to be missed. There is one downside to Boris Bistro (which will be an upside for some): Because there is no barrier between the bar and the restaurant, by law children cannot be served. They can, however, eat on the linden-shaded outdoor terrace in the summer months.
Bieres & Compagnie 4350 rue Saint-Denis, 514/844-0394, www.bieresetcompagnie.com. Metro: Mont Royal. Also at 3547 Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Sexy, dark, and loud, the surprisingly tasty food at this "see-and-be-scene" starts at just CAD$13 (US$8.50) for a full meal. Belly-baring waitresses, a throbbing fusion-pop soundtrack, and a grand former bank setting all combine to make this Belgian-style eatery one of the city's most happening night spots. It just so happens that the food is darn good too, formulated on the twin constellations of beer and mussels. When yo u're not downing one of the 150 varieties of beer and ale on the menu here (many from local microbreweries), you're eating grub cooked in the stuff: savory wild boar and St. Amboise beer sausage for CAD$12 (US$7.85), chicken breast with a Dijon mustard and Belgian beer sauce for CAD$16 (US$10.50), even a spicy caribou chili cooked in Coup de grison beer for CAD$10 (US$6.50). Mussel dishes come in 30 varieties, from simple marini?re (wine broth; CAD$12/US$7.85) to Thai-style (CAD$15/US$9.80) and are all-you-can-eat on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. For a starter, try the terrific "marble" soup (CAD$3.50/US$2.30), a melding of tomato and potato purees.
Stash's Restauracja Polska 200 rue Saint-Paul Ouest, 514/845-6611. Metro: Place d'Armes. Borscht (of course) and a hearty main course from CAD$14.25 (US$9.30). Things are different north of the border. Thanksgiving is celebrated in October, "curling" is as likely to be a sport as a hairdo, and Polish restaurants aren't th e fluorescent diners we get in the United States, famous for slinging leaden latkes. Here at Stash's, at least, the eastern European cuisine is treated with respect, and the setting's as classy as they come. The large room takes its cue from the area-Old Montreal-so the ceiling shows its exposed wooden beams, and the walls are of ancient stone. Hanging from the ceiling are a number of fanciful posters for music and theater events as well as lampshades in colors taken from a gypsy caravan.
Almost as colorful is the food, from hot-pink borscht (CAD$4/US$2.60) to pillow-soft pierogi (boiled meat or potato dumplings; CAD$10.25/US$6.70) with sides of grated red cabbage. One of my personal favorites is bigos (CAD$11/US$7.20), a hunter's stew of cabbage, mushrooms, and meat that is tangy and light. Or try the crisp, thin, remarkably grease-free placki (potato pancakes; CAD$9.25/US$6.05). You'll leave happy, without the stomach-clumping distress that can follow a Polish feast back in the ole USA. Oh, Canada!
Le Commensal 1204 avenue McGill College, 514/871-1480. Metro: McGill. Rib-sticking vegetarian fare sold by weight (CAD$1.63/US$1.10 per 100g). Also at 1720 rue Saint-Denis and other Montreal and Quebec City locations. From the outside, Le Commensal looks like any other vegetarian restaurant: abundant potted plants, bad local art for sale on the walls, crunchy patrons. But step up to the buffet and you'll find out why this small chain of restaurants keeps growing and is jam-packed from noon through closing. The usual veggie arsenal-tofu, kale, seitan, and the like-is all here, but it's well spiced, in fact so well disguised that you forget that what you're eating is terrifically healthy. Add to that a six-foot-long buffet just for cookies, cakes, and pies (CAD$1.74/US$1.15 per 100g), as well as beer and wine, and you've been transported to an alternate reality where good-for-you tastes good, too (what a concept!). Loading up your plate, grabbing a soup, and adding a dessert can easily come to less than CAD$9.95 (US$6.50).
Quebec City Aux Anciens Canadiens 34 rue Saint-Louis, 418/692-1627, www.auxancienscanadiens.qc.ca. When the sun is up, the price is down to just CAD$14.75 (US$9.65) for a table d'h(tm)te including appetizer, main course, dessert, and a glass of beer or wine. The best deal in town, surprisingly, is offered by one of Quebec's priciest establishments. Every day, from noon all the way until 5:45 p.m., Aux Anciens Canadiens offers a table d'h(tm)te for only US$9.65, which includes not only a wide variety of starters and entr?es but also beer or wine and your choice of desserts. That means early birds can get dinner for less than ten U.S. smackeroos in a city where an evening table d'h(tm)te can run as much as CAD$54 (US$35.35), with no libations It's quite a steal for this museum of a restaurant, housed in the building Francois Jacquet erected way back in 1675 (it's on the historical register). Waiters dressed in the garb of that era ply you with traditional Quebecois cuisine: pheasant legs floating on mapled pork and beans, pork meatballs in a sauce redolent of cinnamon and cloves, game-meat pies, pickled beets, and non-cloying maple syrup pie (it tastes like pecan). Once you finish eating, have a wander around the impressive displays of colonial flatware, glasses, and farm implements.
Buffet de L'Antiquaire 95 rue Saint-Paul, 418/692-2661. Quebec's antique-district wonder, offering up truly antique prices: soup and an enormous entr?e from (yowza!) CAD$5.95 (US$3.90). For even cheaper eats (we're talking really cheap), the place to go is Buffet de l'Antiquaire, a green-and-white diner-style restaurant with nary a buffet in sight. What you get instead is smiling sit-down service and tasty French Canadian comfort food (think game, not Spam). The prices are simply remarkable, especially considering that all entr?es automatically come with soup. A heaping plate of lasagna is just CAD$5.9 5 (US$3.90); a turkey platter doused with good gravy and three-count 'em, three-starches (mashed potatoes, pasta salad, and rice) is CAD$6.95 (US$4.55); and a sampler of Quebecois favorites including meat pie, baked beans, yummy homemade ketchup, pickled beets, and mixed vegetables is a piddling CAD$8.95 (US$5.90).
Le Cafe de Clocher Penche 203 rue Saint-Joseph Est, 418/640-0597. Pay just CAD$9 (US$5.90) per meal and be one of the few tourists who's ever stepped into this charming local cafe. Le Cafe de Clocher Penche (named for the tilting steeple of the church across the street) is a favorite watering hole in the up-and-coming Basse-Ville area, a once working-class neighborhood that has in recent years been taken over by artists' lofts and bookshops. Only French is spoken here-in fact, even the prices on the menu are written out in French-but that's no reason to be intimidated. The waiters are a patient, friendly lot and while not used to tourists (it's about a ten-minute w alk downhill from the walled city), they certainly don't shun them. Those who make the trek will be amply rewarded. The restaurant is one of the most cheerful I've ever encountered, with walls of delft blue and poppy red. And the food is simply terrific, a melding of many different European and Arab cuisines. On my last visit, a group of friends feasted on butternut squash and gorgonzola risotto (CAD$9/US$5.90); turbot with spring vegetables and an emulsion of watercress (CAD$13/US$8.50); salmon with couscous in a sweet raisin sauce (CAD$12/US$7.85); and a dinner-size salad laden with duck, goat-cheese croutons, and shallots (CAD$11/US$7.20). I can't guarantee any of those will be on the menu when you visit-the chef changes the choices twice a day based on what's freshest at the market. Vegetable juice, pork p%t?, or soup is offered free with all entrees.
Bistro Le Chef 17 rue Sault-au-Matelot, 418/694-1111. Just two blocks from the Mus?e de la Civilisation, food from a maste r starting at just CAD$10.50 (US$6.90) for soup, entr?e, and coffee. "Le Chef" of Bistro le Chef is the tremendously successful Yvan Lebrun, mastermind of the renowned Initiale restaurant. Folks on expense accounts go there, but you can have just as fine a meal at this sleek bistro, Lebrun's very upscale "downscale" venture. You enter the long, thin, stone-wall room through the hotel next door and immediately take a seat on one of the modern taupe and green banquettes (under the somewhat self-conscious steel rods spelling out the names of various dishes). Then order from the innovative menu of daily specials; prices include soup and coffee. Veal liver covered with pureed sweet potatoes and cardamom (CAD$11.95/US$7.80) might do the trick, or go for the smoky boudin noir (blood) sausage astride a wafer-thin onion tart (CAD$11/US$7.20). The soups are a particular specialty here, creamy and flavorful; the fab carrot and onion velout? with coriander is a standout, or try the chunky vegetable gratin?e with basil.
Deli-Lightful New York deli food in French Canada? Well, yes and no. Montreal has had a long and passionate love affair with cuisine h?braique and as with everything else in this Frenchified city, they do it with a unique flair. The city's famed viande fum?e (smoked meat) looks like pastrami and has a smell as forceful as that Yankee favorite, but is more tender and finely marbled here. Especially if you sample it at Schwartz's (3895 boul. Saint-Laurent, 514/842-4813. Metro: Saint-Laurent), which serves a heckuva juicy sandwich (CAD$4.25/US$2.80), or one "small plate" (CAD$8.25/US$5.40) big enough for two. Everyone's favorite, Schwartz's has no decor to speak of, but the sandwiches are to die for. Open from 8 a.m. to well past midnight, seven nights a week, always packed. Bagels are popular too, and sweeter and thinner than those in the States, boiled in honey water and chewy. You have two choices for these: St-Viateur Bagel Shop (263 rue Sain t-Viateur Ouest, 514/276-8044. Metro: Place-des-Arts) and Fairmount Bagel Bakery (74 ave. Fairmount Ouest, 514/272-0667. Metro: Laurier). The latter has my vote (sweeter tasting, more variety), but some may tell you St-Viateur is the classic. "Montreal is the bagel capital of the world," a native told me. This native New Yawker hates to admit it, but she may be right!