I made a tiny dream come true yesterday.
I had been talking about Quebec and, specifically, the restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, for years. I was heartbroken to have missed the quadricentennial anniversary of Quebec City, the first foreign city I ever visited that felt majestic and regal, and I longed to return.
I grew up a few hours south of the Canadian border, and my grandparents each hailed from outer Quebec City. The province has always held a charm and intrigue for me. My mother raised us singing Frere Jacques nursery rhymes and counting as high as we could in French. It has always seemed like a little bit of France right here at home, and I was dying to get there again. I roped in my oldest friend Ben to get in the car to go on a fast forward vacation with me. We had a ten-hour drive and twenty-four hours in Montreal to absorb the sights, eat some of their brilliant and frequently reviewed cuisine, and practice our school-kid French.
Having read everything that the Travel section of the New York Times has written about Montreal, I knew that I wanted too much from this one-day immersion. I pared down my ideal list of restaurants and sights to just two: a dinner reservation at the famous Au Pied and a boutique hotel in Vieux Montreal, the old town section. This area is the first place for an introduction to the city to occur: it has the famous Notre Dame Basilica, the Old Port, The Science Center, the Historical and Archaeological Museum, and the cobble-stoned streets and centuries old architecture. If you have one day to spend in any old city, the odds are that being based in the “Old Town” section would be recommended. I did just this, knowing that we would likely just meander and wander, snacking and snapping photos.
I booked us a room at Le Petit Hotel on Rue Saint Paul Ouest, a charming and modern boutique operation with exemplary customer service. Not only did they make our reservation for dinner, but told us the best places to visit, what to skip, and took care of our car so we wouldn’t have to bother with parking while in the city center. And I’ll try to just mention this once: the bed was a fluffy cloud of enveloping feathers- I at once succumbed to its embrace and coerced Ben into factoring in a nap to the itinerary. Yes, in a twenty-four hour trip, I made time for a nap.
We set off. Armed with empty bellies and little else, we found the restaurant Valliers, where we ate Atlantic cod BLTs with fresh local lettuces and hand cut fried potatoes with mayonnaise for dipping. I drank a Lillet, we sat in the sun. I dabbled in French but got nervous and confessed my limitations before they were met. I thought of buying French cigarettes, but didn’t. We walked and saw the Basilica, we opted not to spend the $5 for the entrance fee and instead rounded the corner toward the water. Cirque du Soleil is coming back to town soon—it was started in Montreal—to try out their newest show Totem on their favorite test audience. Their large yellow and blue tent was on a Quai jetting into the St. Lawrence River. We had come on a Tuesday, two days before the city was to be wholly overwhelmed by the Grande Prix, an event that the entire city pauses to celebrate. Walking along the Old Port parks, seeing the beautiful river, appreciating the art and cleanliness, we both easily declared that yes, we could live here.
I received an invitation, just as Ben and I were deciding if a second nap on the grass or a beer on a terrace was the right next step, to visit an old school friend at work. We hopped in a cab and headed to the Technoparc, movie studios just five minutes away. Our friend is a co-creator, co-writer and actor in a television show called Blue Mountain State, which shoots in Montreal each summer. It had been years since we’d seen one another, and would be surreal to see him in this capacity. He introduced us to everyone on set, gave us headphones and director’s chairs to sit in, and prepared for his scene (one that required him to be in just his underpants- he joked that the underpants were hung in his trailer as an official wardrobe for the scene). Ben and I looked at one another, astounded at where we suddenly were and who we were watching in this big production. We were so proud of our friend and his accomplishments and totally amazed at the turn our single day in town had taken.
We had another engagement though and had to run off. “Transportation” from the studio drove us home, a rather nice bonus I thought, and we readied for our much anticipated dinner. I have known about Au Pied for so many years, having spent dinners with friends in San Francisco dreaming of taking a gastronomic tour of Montreal together, and this dinner was going to be well played on my part. I wore a very cute but roomy dress, having learned my lesson with fitted clothing at the French Laundry; a serious eater should wear nothing but loose knits. I stand by this bit of advice wholeheartedly. Ben and I hailed a cab, directed him in French (our confidence growing in leaps and bounds), and were off to pig feet paradise.
The restaurant was bustling; full to the brim with diners and ducks in cans and the largest lobster I have ever seen. The open kitchen, brick oven and raw bar greet you with declarative priority: you are here because we both love food. It’s the agreement diners and chefs make. I am amazed that the space is so small, the front wall opens to the street, tables are squeezed in and the staff wears black t-shirts. It is decidedly laid back. I tell Ben that if and when I live here, if I don’t work at this restaurant I will eat at the bar with a frequency that may exhibit a lack of creativity. And I won’t make any excuses.
During many courses that included oysters, duck carpaccio, a chopped salad, fois gras poutine (a Quebecois specialty- it involves covering duck fat-fried potatoes with cheese, gravy and fois gras), ribs with the longest bones ever plated, and smoked sausages, we chatted with the couple next to us. Also on a culinary pilgrimage, we learned that I live in the same neighborhood as them in Boston and that he works at Island Creek Oyster Bar in the Kenmore Square neighborhood. Small world; I was just there last week. I could tell he was in the business by the way he attacked the Duck In A Can entrée with reverence and determination. He, in turn, was impressed that I could hold my own at a table of endless meats and fats. I’m no petit fleur, I told them.
We met up again with our friend to watch Dallas beat Miami in basketball at La Cage sports bar and then to have a cidre at Bar Philemon. We crashed into goose down enhanced and pork and duck fat induced comas back at the hotel. We awoke to find the sun shining again, the rooftops of old stone buildings visible outside the window. We recovered from our indulgences with a bit of the hair of the dog; breakfast of croissant, brioche, fruit, granola, yogurt, a tartine called “Egg On Your Face” with Sriracha chili sauce, and espresso. This café, called Olive + Gourmando, is not only beautifully decorated, it is delicious in every way. I took so many photos I was wary they may escort me out for piracy. Finally sated and out of time, Ben and I readied to leave. We were fully impressed at our gustatory abilities. We called for the car and made our way through the rolling green hills of Vermont and New Hampshire to make our way home.
We are already talking of our return trip and are getting advice from our friend Erik Desjarlais, of Restaurant Evangeline, the most delicious French restaurant in Portland Maine. I am absolutely smitten with having this little French outlet so close to home. Montreal, it was nice to meet you.
Visit Montreal: http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/
Eat at Au Pied de Cochon: http://www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca/
Eat at Olive + Gourmando: http://oliveetgourmando.com/
Stay at Le Petit Hotel: http://petithotelmontreal.com/about.html
Watch Blue Mountain State on Spike TV