MONTREAL — Romantic, flirtatious and decadent, this is a city of the heart and the stomach. Its French heritage stokes a joie de vivre that is Montreal's trademark. Having fun is a top priority here, especially during the brief summers and early fall, when the entire city parties. Hot jazz and African rhythms spill onto sweltering pavements. In July, one of the world's biggest comedy festivals allows us to yuk it up in French and English. (Next year's is July 10 to 20.)
Complementing a love of good living is an obsession with good eating. Located in Quebec, a province that is home to Canada's oldest and most passionate food culture, Montreal has long boasted that it has "the best table in North America." And small wonder. The city's food-savvy diners demand high quality, whether they're dunking a croissant into their cafe au lait on a sunny terrace, tucking into a smoked meat sandwich and cherry Coke at Schwartz's deli counter or dining at 2 a.m. on steak tartare at the Parisian-style bistro L'Express.
In the 14 years I've lived in Montreal, I've sampled many of its best restaurants, often with friends who come here from Toronto and Boston simply to eat. Montreal is more laid-back than many of North America's big cities, and its inhabitants are ardent about "slow food" culture. My friends especially love the four-hour French lunches, consumed with multiple bottles of wine, that seem to be the rule in the restaurants along Rue St. Denis in the Latin Quarter.
In the past, when food writers applauded Montreal's restaurants it was for classical French cuisine, possibly the best outside France. But the city has been in the dark ages when it comes to hip restaurant trends. While cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients is nothing new in Los Angeles or San Francisco, most chefs in Montreal and indeed in most of Canada, with a few exceptions, have been slow to embrace the move to organic and local produce.
Though belated in their discovery of the delights of market ingredients, local chefs are bringing to their tables a growing awareness of uniquely Canadian foods, which they are incorporating into their menus: caribou pate and musk ox (burgers, steaks, pot roast, sausages), fiddlehead ferns and milkweed pods, cattail hearts from rural Quebec, tarts or reductions with Saskatoon berries picked by Indians in Saskatchewan, cedar and balsam fir jellies, smoked duck and maple everything--candy, vinegar, wine.
Many of my favorite restaurants, and those listed here, focus on "Canadian cuisine," as it's called. Some are well known, such as Toque; others are neighborhood eateries like La Colombe, the kind you discover only when you live here.
Toque is set in the middle of the Latin Quarter's restaurant row on the oh-so-French Rue St. Denis. Recently expanded to include the space next door, the restaurant is broken up into intimate sections, each wall a different strong yet softly lighted color such as red or yellow, contrasting briskly with the waiters' funky lime green tunics.
The diners in this trendy temple to good eating range from businessmen to young foodies, but, as in all Montreal restaurants, dress is casual. On my last visit, I counted only two ties, and one of them was on a woman.
This is my favorite haute cuisine eatery in the city and a must for all newcomers to Montreal, a rule of mine that allows me to dine here at least a couple of times a year. The last time I visited, in June, I was served an amuse-bouche, an appetite whetter of a plump Malpeque oyster poached in strawberry vinegar that I'll never forget; an appetizer of Arctic char tartare in a circle beneath a thin layer of avocado, chives and ginger-tinged celeriac; and a main course of fork-tender venison prepared two ways--a grilled filet and a roasted haunch--accompanied by locally grown white asparagus and sauteed fresh morels and chanterelles.
Toque's chef, Normand Laprise, has been called Montreal's "most creative chef" and is widely regarded as the father of the hot "nouvelle Quebec" cuisine. Raised in rural Quebec, he grew up with fresh, seasonal, locally available food, and when he attended a Quebec City cooking school he was shocked by the use of frozen fish and meat, produce and other ingredients imported from France or the U.S.
Laprise decided to do something about it, and in the early 1990s he traveled through the province encouraging artisan growers to improve quality and get creative. The produce he sought was often available, but not in enough volume for a restaurant. It took him 10 years to establish a network of producers, but now Laprise has greenhouses that supply all the produce he needs year-round, including a salty sea spinach, black raspberries for vinaigrette, daylilies for their caper-like buds, and three varieties of strawberries in midwinter--often served with a pomme de glace, an apple cider from Montreal's South Shore that rivals traditional ice wine.