We need to talk about food...
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
People like to talk about Montreal as a "food city". And it is, in that there's a lot of food. But does that mean it's a good food city? Well, that's a bit less clear. As expected, there are generally many differences between Canada and the US. And there are apparently many differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada. But when it comes to the food, one thing we didn't expect is how vastly different the food here would be. And we don't mean unusual cuisines, but the actual flavor of foods. Especially the foods we ate regularly in the US.
From what we've learned so far, there really isn't any cuisine that's uniquely Canadian (no, Kraft Dinner doesn't count). Any Canadian dish that you've heard of (poutine, smoked meat, etc.) is likely Quebecois in origin, and it seems to be the only province that has spawned any of its own dishes.
Since both of us are lovers of all things culinary, we've done a lot of eating since we got here. And we've made a lot of observations in the last few months. Some positive, some negative. And some downright weird. We've mentioned food plenty of times during this blog, but today, we're going to dig in to what we've learned about Quebec dining. Here's a top 10 list, in no particular order:
Disclaimer: we wrote this post together, so if you see me refer to myself in the 3rd person, it's not a mistake. I'm not losing my mind.
1. Breakfast. Yes, Quebecers mainly eat the same things for breakfast that we do, but with some truly strange additions. For example, breakfast egg sandwiches have lunch toppings. If you order a breakfast sandwich here (even at a fast food place), it will come standard with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. That applies to ALL styles of breakfast sandwiches, even bagels and wraps. In general, the country seems to be obsessed with mayo, and there's nothing they won't put it on. Even grilled cheese sandwiches or salads. And if a sandwich already has mayo on it, they ask for more. It's a good thing they have socialized medicine, because everyone's cholesterol must be off the charts. We tend to use mayo sparingly, so this seems completely crazy to us. They also love putting butter on everything-- even things that really shouldn't have butter on them (peanut butter sandwiches!!). But back to the toppings. Lettuce, tomato, and mayo on egg sandwiches is wrong. It just is. We'll never understand it.
On the positive side of breakfast, the pastry game is strong in Montreal. We've found that most patisseries and coffee shops sell excellent pastries (often called viennoiseries here), and it's hard to find truly bad ones. Croissants, pain au chocolat, danoises - they're all good. Especially at the many local places that make them fresh daily. And unlike most food items in Quebec, they're priced much lower than you'd expect. Even less than they'd be in the States. If you like good coffee and pastries and want to find them on almost every corner, Montreal is the place for you. Since we often partake of free pastries from Marny's job, we've reached a point where we're almost tired of them. Almost.
And we've had some great brunches. Brunch is a big thing here, and people are willing to line up outside in freezing temps for the good places. We had an excellent brunch a couple weekends ago at a place called Arthur's that we'd rank as one of the best meals we've had here.
2. Smoked Meat. Yes, it's tasty, but smoked meat is literally just beef pastrami. Quebecers seem to think it was invented here, but they are wrong, and they refuse to call it pastrami. It's "smoked meat." You can find the same thing at any decent Jewish deli in the States. Relax, Montrealers.
3. Bagels. If you follow international food at all, you've probably heard of "Montreal-style" bagels. Again, Montrealers seem to think that bagels were invented here, and theirs are the best. We might make some enemies with this statement, but in our opinion, Montreal bagels aren't as good as New York style. They don't have as much flavor, they're too crispy, and the hole in the center is too big. The criticism about the hole may sounds silly until you try to make a sandwich on it and realize a large part of your filling has no bagel on it. Marny goes to so far as to say, "They're not bagels, and if you went into a bagel shop in the US and they gave you a Montreal bagel, you'd say 'what the hell is this?'" She's Jewish, so she knows what she's talking about. Some of the bagel purveyors offer some tasty flavor options (rosemary and salt is a fave), but overall, we miss the New York style. We stand by this belief.
4. Fine dining. Like any other big city, Montreal has its share of nice restaurants. You even hear about a lot of them in US food publications. However, the fine dining scene here seems to be, with a few exceptions, all the same restaurant. Here's the setup: prix-fixe tasting menus with tiny portions and smears on oversize plates, and each course is 3 or 4 bites of food. We've generally grown tired of this style of fine dining for many reasons, but in Montreal, that's the norm. Don't get us wrong - we've had plenty of great meals at places like that. We've even had some great meals like that here - my birthday meal at Candide was excellent. But sometimes, we just want to eat a nice meal with regular size portions where each dish doesn't require a tableside explanation of the bite of food we're about to experience. And that's been difficult to find here.
5. Chinese food. Like most Westernized people, we've both eaten a ton of Chinese food throughout our lives. And when we say Chinese food, we're referring to the Americanized Cantonese style that you find in every takeout joint and mall food court. General Tso's Chicken, Mongolian beef, Moo Shu, fried rice, all the classics. However, in Montreal, something is a bit...off with the Chinese. Yes, most offerings are labeled with the same names, but they do not taste like the versions we had in the States. And speaking as biased Americans, it's just not as good. Last night, we went to a place that was highly recommended, and the meal was overall... bad. General Tso's Chicken is Chris's favorite Cantonese dish of all time (and possibly his fave food of all time - don't judge). He's eaten a lot of it in his life. But this place's version tasted wrong-- not sweet, not spicy, just wrong. And they put diced tomato in the fried rice which we're fairly certain is illegal. What the hell?? Like we said, there are strange additions to everything here that don't make any sense at all.
6. Seasoning. Everything seems to be under-seasoned here. There's never enough salt in anything, and Canadians seem to be averse to spice. We've tried and failed several times to find a decent salsa with some heat, but they mostly taste like marinara sauce. The best one we finally found that was marked "tres piquante" was medium heat, at best. Hot peppers (especially the kind used in Latin cooking) are hard to find here, so spicy food tends to fall on the not-so-spicy side. But if you visit Montreal, get ready to liberally salt your fries.
7. Clamato. You've probably seen this product at your local store and said "ehh, not for me." Which is a totally fair response to a beverage made from seafood and tomato juice. But not here. It is beloved. According to the people at Clamato, the "Bloody Caesar" is the official cocktail of Canada, It's the same as a Bloody Mary, but with Clamato instead of plain tomato juice. It's on every cocktail menu. So while you're guaranteed to have a limited selection of almost every other item in most grocery stores, not Clamato. There's a whole aisle dedicated to the stuff, with flavor varieties you'd never imagine. Pickled bean Clamato? Lime Clamato? Yes, that and more. Want it in a can? A bottle? A drum? They've got it. Clamato has clearly spent a lot of cash on marketing in Canada. This is one Canadian tradition we don't really want to try, but since Chris likes Bloody Marys, he feels like he should. Maybe at our next brunch.
8. Booze. It's expensive, and it's only sold at government-run stores called SAQ. Or, "the sack," as people call it here. Their selection is fine, but nothing like the independent mega-stores in most US cities. We've been sticking to their "le petit prix" (meaning cheap) section for wine, and Chris has been buying most of his beer at the grocery store instead of the SAQ. Grocery store prices are better for beer, but only if you stick to brands made in Quebec. Anything made outside of Quebec is subject to additional taxes (this applies to everything), which drives up the price. Fortunately, he found some good Quebec breweries (Belle Gueule, Unibroue, Boreale) to keep his affordable beer needs met. With the exception of a small bottle of cheap tequila we bought for a recipe, we haven't bought any liquor here because it's offensively expensive. Even for crappy stuff. Although somehow drinks in bars seem reasonably priced, which is good. And the beer scene here is huge, with restaurants and bars focusing on local breweries.
9. Fast food. Basically the same as the States, with the exception of some unique menu items. Burger King has poutine (of course), and McDonald's has better pastries and coffee than their US counterparts. Some of the fast food chains here are beginning to offer plant-based meat substitutes (better known as the Impossible burger), and we're curious to see if the US chains follow. There are actually a lot of good fast casual options in Montreal, and not just burgers and sandwiches. There are a few excellent Lebanese chain restaurants (Boustan is a fave, and there's one close to our apt.) that offer fast counter service. Fast-casual Portuguese grilled chicken is also a big thing here, and it's delicious. And the mall food courts definitely offer a wider range of world cuisines (Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) than they do in the States, and they're much better than you'd expect from a mall. We recently had a truly excellent banh mi sandwich in a mall food court-- much better than the one we were told to get from the "authentic" Vietnamese shop.
10. Ice cream. There are lots of great creative ice cream shops here. But here's the rub: most of them are open only seasonally here. This was disappointing to learn. I know it seems like it makes sense-- who wants ice cream when it's frigid outside? Well, we do, but it's not going to happen. Although we did find a local chain called Chocolats Favoris that makes a great dipped soft serve cone (with about a dozen different flavor options to dip your cone into), and they're open year-round. We've been eagerly anticipating the re-opening of Kem Coba, one of our fave places, but they don't open again until May (even though it's 60 degrees right now). So, we wait.
So yeah, overall, Montreal is a... food city. There's so much diversity with the cuisine, and it's not hard to find examples of most anything you'd want (especially Clamato). But, we're still trying to find our footing with navigating the food scene here, and trying to understand why restaurateurs won't come up with different ideas. And honestly, we sometimes miss the way things tasted in the States. Even the Ritz crackers don't taste right.