Our May visit to Montreal also had us knock another place off of the “we should try that!” list. In this case, it’s over in Chinatown. Way back in 2003, coming back from a Cirque du Soleil performance on the waterfront, we wandered by a little stall with a simple “Dragon Beard Candy” selling pretty much one item: Dragon Beard Candy. We weren’t really hungry at that point, but were really curious to find out what it was. And then over the next dozen or so visits to Montreal, either didn’t go through Chinatown, went when the stand wasn’t open, or just plain weren’t hungry (a stomach full of poutine and smoked meat has a way of doing that to you). But this trip, we finally had a convergence: we were on a long walk (doing a test run for our annual “Death March” 20 mile hike across a city), hungry, and Dragon Beard Candy was open.
Every once in a while you run into one of those places that you’ve passed by a gazillion times, every time vowing that next time you’ll actually go in and check it out? Well, in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, one such place is Rotisserie Coco Rico. We first noticed, not because of the food, but because Coco Rico has a long tradition of having elaborate graffiti-style wall murals. I no longer remember what the mural was like the first time I saw in in 2002 (on the way to Schwartz’s down the street), but by 2007 it involved a simple spraypainted chicken adorned with hearts. By 2010, it involved a group of singing chickens. And by 2013, that had been in turn replaced by an elaborate “Conquistador Chicken” mural. But that’s not what made us stop. No, lingering to look at the mural also immerses you in the intense aroma wafting out of the store, of multiple marinated chickens roasting away on their rotisseries. So on this visit in 2015… we finally had a chance to stop in and visit.
This summer had two trips up to Montreal, both associated with my annual Death March tradition (in which we find a city and hike across it, exploring the sights and eating the food). The drive from NH up to Montreal is always a bit amazing to me, since driving up I-89 it’s basically the rolling green mountains of Vermont, until you cross the border at Highgate Springs. I-89 becomes Provincial Highway 133, and the rolling green mountains of Vermont become…. Iowa. Well, at least a Quebecois version of it. The land becomes flat and open, with spacious farms lining farm fields. And, at least until the expansion of Provincial Highway 35 goes all the way to the border (expected sometime about a decade from now), it also means a transition from highway driving to fairly quiet country roads. Along the way, the route to Montreal meanders through several smaller farm towns, with a nice mix of English and French names (Saint-Sebastien, Saint-Armand, and Pike River). And most of these towns actually have some interesting little diner places, two of which have been on my hit list for a while. One of these is Restaurant Chez Pépé, right on the border between Pike River and Saint-Sebastien, which always has a healthy collection of cars outside (The other, Chez Ti Polo, over in Henryville, is no longer on the route since the Hwy 35 expansion, so I’ll have to catch it another time). So this time, we decided to stop and give them a try.
The end of February is when Winter starts to soften a bit, and up here in these Northern parts, that also means the gradual introduction of two additional events: the introduction of “mud season” (in which the local dirt roads become almost impassible due to the combination of melting snow, poor drainage, and frost heaving), and “maple season” (in which you drive down those same muddy roads visiting shacks emitting large amounts of steam, in which maple sap is being boiled down). It’s a fun time of year, and quite a few places make a pretty big to-do of it. Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, have sponsored Maple weekends when you can go touring around, but our friends over the border in Quebec take this a lot more seriously (primarily since Quebec produces far more maple syrup than anywhere else, even if some of it occasionally gets heisted), and several large sugaring operations in Quebec host elaborate “Cabane à Sucre” celebrations, usually with copious amounts of food featuring maple. But there’s one of these that outdoes all the others: Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon.
As I mentioned in the previous review, we spent the last full weekend in February up in Quebec visiting Montreal and the surrounding countryside for the Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon dinner. But the fact that the Cabane a Sucre starts off in the morning made this more or less a required overnight stay in Montreal, so we decided to visit a few of our favorite Montreal watering holes (Le Cheval Blanc and Dieu du Ciel), and then ducked over to a place I had found online that focused on small plates (since we knew that the next day was going to be a feed-fest): Le Chien Fumant (“The Smoking Dog”), a small bistro in the “Eastern” part (have I mentioned, Montreal directional conventions seem okay, until you look at a map and realize that “North” is really more of a “West-Northwest” sort of direction) of the Plateau neighborhood.
One of the more interesting things about the simple bagel is that quite a few major metropolitan areas have ended up creating their own region-specific rendition. While for many people the “New York Bagel” is the ne plus ultra bagel (with many arguments about which particular bakery one should be visiting), I’ve been to two other cities with their particular bagel traditions: London (in which the “beigel” is particularly less crusty, andin most cases, the star of the show is the salt beef it’s served with), and Montreal, which is well-known for their “Montreal Style Bagel”. (Unfortunately, most of the “bagels” that one finds in most of the country are of a fourth type, the “fake bagel”, or “circular bread” as I call it, steamed instead of boiled, and lacking the correct bagel texture. But that’s perhaps a topic for another time.) In most any discussion of Montreal-style bagels, there are two canonical bakeries always mentioned, Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. And, like asking someone in New Haven whether Sally’s or Pepe’s has better pizza, asking someone in Montreal which they prefer is likely to get you an answer involving particular strong opinions and often a religious-like devotion to one or the other (in fact, until recently, there was even an occasional mention to a third contender, Faubourg Bagel in the increasingly dilapidated Faubourg Ste-Catherine shopping center, but they closed recently). I actually like both, but our recent visit to Lawrence was right down the street from Fairmount Bagel, and a good chance to pop in an give this place a proper review.
Like most of my trips to Montreal, the general story ends up being one of modest excess: quite a few visits to multiple brewpubs, and often filling up on various Asian and Quebecois dinners that are flavorful, but not always the healthiest (such as the ever-present poutine). So on our third day in Montreal, we decided to tone down our dining a bit, and go check out a place near the hotel in the Latine Quarter: Yuan Vegetarien.
Our friends Rick and Sarah have a fairly regular routine going for their visits to Montreal: on a Saturday morning they drive up to Mile End, load up on bagels from Fairmount Bagel, buy some beer at the local beer store (Depanneur AS, who have a great selection of Quebecois beers), and queue up for brunch at Lawrence. It sounded like a rather good way to spend a Saturday morning, so this time when we were up there, we went with them. Lawrence, like L’Avenue, is one of the hot breakfast spots in Montreal, and, like it’s counterpart, it has a tendency to form long lines. Finishing our beer shopping (picking up some Dieu du Ciel for the road, along with some other Quebecois beer treats), 20 minutes prior to their 10am opening, there was already a short queue forming. But we were second in line, so only minutes after they opened, we were seated at a large central table in the dining room.
One of the things I like about Montreal is that it has a rather good assortment of brewpubs. Dieu du Ciel, Le Cheval Blanc, and Reservoir being amongst my favorites. The last of these also has a rather fine pub menu, including items such as steak tartare, fish and chips, and the like. But that’s not why I’m writing about them (indeed, I’ve not actually sampled their dinner menu, although it always looks phenomenal). I’m actually writing about their brownie.
For me, one of the great enjoyments I have with Asian cooking is when I can find a place with hand-pulled noodles. Unfortunately, these aren’t terribly common, especially in the hinterlands of Northern New England (indeed, I’m not sure we have any places that do this, although I’d be delighted to be proven wrong). A good bowl of hand-pulled noodles, especially in a rich, flavorful soup, is a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. Luckily, Montreal has more than a few noodle shops, and one of the newer ones in Chinatown, Nu-do, is another branch of the already well-regarded Nu-do of Eaton Center, and the related Yuki Ramen in Faubourg Ste-Catherine (is there anything decent but Yuki still left in the Faubourg, now that Faubourg Bagels has departed?). So when we were looking for an interesting dinner, we grabbed Rick, Sarah, and Nancy, and walked down to Chinatown. Nu-do is the exact sort of place. It’s been around a while, but they still haven’t invested in permanent signage; the restaurant is labeled with a simple reinforced nylon banner labeling the place as “Restaurant Nudo”, with the “Nudo” obscured by the unsecured corner of the banner. But don’t let the dubious signage discourage you: after heading down a short staircase, you find yourself in a fairly spacious dining room, with a glass wall looking into the noodle cooking station, with the noodle-puller hard at work pulling ribbons of noodle for each order as they come in.