MONTREAL - New finds in one of North America’s oldest - and best - cities.
The other day I talked about some new spots in emerging parts of Montreal. But there are equally great places in the old city; some tried and true places and some new and emerging.
On the old front, you simply can’t beat a nice afternoon in Place d’Armes. Montreal has plenty of ordinary, modern architecture (probably it’s worse than Toronto, or just as bad) downtown. But this part of town is something else; majestic stone buildings (mostly) and the hugely impressive Notre Dame Cathedral surrounding the large statue of Montreal founder Maissoneuve.
They fixed up the Place a while back and it’s now a gleaming square with nice benches and exquisite views. I was there late in the afternoon last Friday and had glorious light for some photos.
Rue St. Paul remains the best street in Canada for my mind. Once you’re west of the crappy souvenir shops, you’ll find fun stores like Born-Neo, with shiny Buddhas and nice, inexpensive jewellery. You can even buy a wooden phallus to hang your necklaces around, should that be your thing.
The area has changed quite a bit since I was last there two years ago. I don’t remember the shop Olive et Gourmando, but it’s absolutely tremendous for breakfast.
They make great caffe lattes and wonderful brioche with apple. But the star of the show is the granola, a $9 work of art that features yogurt mixed with homemade granola and an encyclopedia of fresh fruit; dates, oranges, plump raspberries, melon slices and currants under a small hill of thinly sliced apples. Stunning isn’t a word I’ve used before to describe granola, but that’s what it is (see photo below left).
I also had part of a great cheesy scone with gruyere, chives and spiced paprika. Yum, yum, yum and I don’t usually like that sort of thing in the morning, being a kid raised on pancakes and sweets and Fruit Loops and all that good stuff.
Just down the road on Place Royale is Maison Christian Faure: a fab patisserie with flaky, buttery croissants and smooth caffe latte. There’s an exposed stone wall and a cool, historical mural with native Canadians, French settlers and famous Montreal buildings. Very fashionable.
Right next to that, with great views of the water and a summertime patio, is Communion. We had a great Sunday brunch featuring lox and bagels and (for me), a true English breakfast with all the fixings. The bacon was thick and delicious and it even came with a roasted tomato and blood pudding. They have a unisex bathroom with two private stalls. There are tiny metal beads to shield a man at the urinal but that’s it. (Oh, those crazy French-Canadians).
There are a couple new spots around the corner on Rue St. Paul. Philemon is a lively bar with cool lighting and, for some reason, stuffed dead birds on some of the fixtures. I don’t get the birds but they made a great drink with tequila, amara, lemon juice and sugar.
It’s a fun spot, but if you really want to impress your date take him or her to the bar at Le St. James Hotel on Rue St. Jacques. It’s an old bank vault with shimmering silver columns and a ceiling high enough for two giraffes stacked on top of each other. The balconies are beautiful, with iron-rail staircases and private areas to sit and watch the lights change from blue to purple to red and back again. I still say it might be the most beautiful room in Canada. And it’s a lovely hotel with nice rooms and a cozy library that makes you feel smart even if you just sit there and look at the books.
Close by is a very masculine/Quebec influenced restaurant called L’Orignal, which translates as “The Moose.” It’s a very game-inspired menu, with lots of venison and boar and elk. They also have Arctic char and a great chowder with chunky bits of bacon. I had a great rabbit with cavatelli pasta as my main. Dessert was a charred, melted marshmallow surround a chocolate terrine, like a brownie, with a graham wafer on the side. In other words, your basic deconstructed s’more. The décor looks like a nice basement, with terra cotta floors and wood panelling and a moose head on the wall. Oh, and a metal tin filled with candies on the doors to the washrooms; a first for me! The owners also run Le Gros Jambon on Rue St. Jacques.
Back on Rue St. Paul, next to Philemon, is a wonderful Italian restaurant called Mangia Foco. They have a series of small tables arranged up the side of a small staircase, so you eat as if you’re partly suspended in the air. They make very good pizza, but the unusual bit in my mind is that they have four types of Bufala mozzarella to choose from. You pick the one you want (ours had truffle bits) and then match it up with small bits of prosciutto or olives or sun-dried artichokes. They also make a great arugula salad with shaved parmiagian and a tasty honey-mustard vinaigrette.
Lest you think I spent the entire time eating, I also found some fun shops, including Zone Orange on Rue Saint-Pierre, which sells tiny earrings with old-timey photos of Queen Elizabeth and Abraham Lincoln and nice, Montreal-inspired pillows. A great store.
There are a ton of beautiful galleries in Old Montreal. After touring Bonsecours Market we walked up Rue Bonsecours and wandered into the opening of a new exhibit at Galerie Michel-Ange, where they must’ve thought we were locals or buyers and served us a glass of wine, which we of course accepted before wandering about and admiring some very nice paintings with great use of colour.
We also checked out the cool multi-media space at Centre Phi, a marvellous spot on Rue Saint-Pierre where they do fashion exhibits and concerts and press conferences and other events in an old factory. It’s LEED certified and well worth a look. If you can get up on the roof for a view of old Montreal, even better!
Right now, but only for a while, they have an exhibit on Rad Hourani couture and a Hourani pop-up shop, too.
My weekend highlight, however, was the Beatles in Montreal exhibit at the Pointe-A-Calliere museum in Old Montreal. Located on the waterfront, just steps from Rue St. Paul, the museum is a great shrine to Montreal’s history, with ruins of old foundations and an ancient crypt in the lower level and nice displays on everything from native history to those ultra-cool Montreal duplexes and triplexes with their outside staircases and landings where folks can sit and chat on a summer’s day. I’ve always loved those.
But back to the Beatles exhibit, which runs until March of next year. There’s good stuff talking about Ringo’s first drum kit and the formation of the band, as well as cool album and single covers and John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce Phantom. They had vidoes I’ve never seen and photos I don’t recall, and I’m a big Beatles fan.
They also had a karaoke area with cutouts of the Beatles behind you, so you could be the “Fifth Beatle” and belt out a tune. There was hardly anyone around so I crooned (well, sort of) part of “Please Please Me” to an empty room, then turned around and reminded Paul to stay in tune on the bass.
Of course, there’s a ton of great stuff about their first appearance in Montreal, on Sept. 8, 1964. They landed at Dorval at 2:30 p.m. and there’s a giant sign that counts down the time of their landing with huge letters spelling out “ILS ARRIIIIIIIVENT!”
You’ll learn there were 300 cops on hand for the occasion and 120 RCMP officers. I hadn’t heard this, or had forgotten it, but there also were threats against Ringo as an English Jew, even though he’s not Jewish.
Ringo was nervous for the show (two of them, actually, one in the afternoon and another in the evening, both about 28 minutes). He apparently moved his cymbals about so as to potentially deflect an incoming shot and had a cop on hand for protection. “I guess so he could catch the bullet,” Ringo quipped later.
The exhibit said the afternoon show in Montreal didn’t sell out and that it was the only show on the Beatles North American tour that had tickets left over. Amazing.
You’ll find an entire room of Beatles memorabilia: Yellow Submarine rugs, cream pitchers with John Paul George and Ringo faces, lunch boxes, Beatle wigs, you name it. And there are some great newspaper headlines, such as one the day after the show that says “Youth worships at shrine of the Beatles.”
The display goes on to talk about the growth of the band and their ultimate break-up. There’s also, naturally, space dedicated to John and Yoko Ono’s bed in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969.
The thing I really loved was a great story the exhibit tells about the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on June 1, 1967. Apparently a Radio Canada worker knew the album was coming out in England and had an Air Canada flight attendant bring it to Montreal that day. He then played it on the loudspeaker at Expo ’67 at 4 p.m. And played it over and over until Expo closed for the night at 2 a.m. the next day.
I topped it all off with my first-ever (I know, I know) visit to Schwartz's for wonderful smoked meat, great fries and cole slaw and the best pickles on the planet. Marvellous!