Since it’s now mid-February, that means it is starting to become Mapling season throughout the Northeast and Quebec, and that also means it is time for the annual Au Pied de Cochon (PdC, for short)’s Cabane à Sucre harvest breakfast! It’s one of the Montreal-area’s toughest reservations (usually involving getting up at midnight on 1 December, cursing at the constantly-crashing website, and then waiting weeks for your callback on the wait list), but as you can read about in my previous writeup, it really is worth the trouble, since it’s one of the most amazing culinary experiences. When we last went in 2014, we had an amazing time. But there were two lessons we took from that experience: (1) to starve ourselves more beforehand, since it truly is a massively excessive amount of food, and (2) the experience you got as a party of two was just a fraction of the experience the larger, full tables got, since many of the items are best served up table-side (better to receive entire cakes than just slices, for example). So this time, when they opened up the waitlist in December, I immediately signed up for a table of 8 and got a combination of local and online friends to come up and join me. Thus, on 18 Feb 2017, we found ourselves again in the outskirts of St Benoit de Mirabel, QC in an enlarged sugar shack, waiting for items to arrive from the kitchen.
After a few years resisting, in recent years Montreal has finally started to embrace the food truck, offering up a permitting system for up to 50 trucks each season (running from Spring to Fall) at 38 designated locations around the city, as well as special events. As a result, the restaurateurs of Montreal have responded, and there’s now no shortage of food trucks, ranging from those run by established restaurants to those opened by new chefs. Last summer’s trip to the Mondiale de la Biere festival in Montreal (yeah, last June… I’m still behind in my writeups) allowed us to sample a good cross-section of some of the city’s food trucks. One of our clear favorites was P & A Garguantua, serving up grilled cheese.
As I mentioned several times, one of our annual traditions is to get together with friends, find a random city with decent walking routes and good food, and hike about 20 miles across the city, eating and drinking as we go. We call it a “Death March”. This year was our first “international” one, in Montreal, picked because it’s familiarity to us (we go to Montreal at least once a year), ease of travel, and the rather impressive array of restaurants, bars, and cocktail clubs available across the city. We also (not completely by accident) managed to book our trip to coincide with Mondial de la Biere, the Montreal beer festival. But like any of our Death Marches, about half of the eating and drinking happened on the days before and after the march. And thus, after settling into our hotel (the very eclectic, but affordable, Hotel Kutuma, complete with zebra-print sheets), we set out in search of a great breakfast, settling on the nearby plateau location of Universel Déjeuners et Grillades (one of two in the city, the other on Rue Peel down by McGill).
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.