Mouthwatering mussels and frites at Le Petit Moulinsart
Octopus Salad — the good dish from our bad meal at L'Express
A random kitchen. Ferme, of course
The forbidding door at Casa del Popolo
When I travel of my own free will, it's all about the food. Destinations are chosen for food potential. Pre-trip research revolves around restaurants and cafes. The budget is dedicated to maximizing the menu and paying homage to the hallowed halls of the local greenmarkets (with stops at bookstores along the way, of course) and food stalls.
I take a lunch avoid dependence on in-flight "meals" and fill my carry-on with treats. I return with a camera filled with visions of table settings, markets and street food.
Imagine, then, the horror of traveling to a place that's touted as one of the great food destinations... only to find it sealed up for the season.
Folks, meet Montréal in January. You should have heard me chuckle when I saw the new issue of Gourmet tucked in the magazine rack: "Montreal: North America's Most European City." (Note to haters: I'm not saying she aint all that, I fully believe we simply caught the dear lady in a bad humor.)
Let me tell you a little story. Back in late, late December, J. and I got a hankering to leave the country. You know the one. That "I haven't been out of the country since the Clinton years" feeling. All conventional destinations were booked solid, of course, yet we found a great rate to Montréal and booked in haste. (Yes, a vacation to Montréal in January. We obviously aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer.)
We arrived the day before New Year's Day and found that the French-speaking cabbie was jolly, our b&b was toasty-homey and the weather was brisk. We sated our bellies and eased our minds with cool Belgian beers and a brimming big bowl of mussels at Le Petit Moulinsart in the Old Town. We found Casa del Popolo, a coffee shop with low light and high character that offered warm welcome to this pair of chilly notebook scrawlers.
It was a promising beginning.
The day after we arrived, the temperature dropped. The city of Montréal closed up shop and went south for the New Year. I learned a new word: "Ferme." (Closed.)
Montréal drove home this word again and again as we marched through icy streets, past darkened boutiques, shuttered coffee shops, and rolled-up restaurants with mouthwatering menus posted behind glass. Ferme. Ferme. Ferme... "Gone to Martinique!" "Gone to Florida!" "Gone to Guadeloupe!" "See you in a few weeks, suckers!"
Any restaurant owner with love for their employees (and also, we assume, the food) let them flee for a long New Year's break.
Ah, who could blame them? There were shards of frozen water falling from the sky. The deep blue wind drove with a fierce determination to gaps or seams in our outerwear. Our eyes teared up, then froze.
We were, at first, sad, hungry and disappointed, but we continued to pile on the long underwear, pull up our boots and walk the streets. The days wore on. After our lingering hope finally froze and dropped off, the feast of ferme grew funnier and funnier until we become punch-drunk, affected French accents and giggled ourselves silly.
The highlights: a favorable exchange rate, an exceedingly clean metro system, Atwater Market, Le Va-et-Vient Bistrot Culturel, hot cider in the park, our chipper waiter at Bombay Palace, coffee at Toi, Moi et Cafe, Schwartz's pastrami, the bookstore across the street from Schwartz's, a charming New Year's Eve performance by a man known only as "The Beaver" at La Sala Rossa's performance space, and a fantastic array of beautiful and frightening bugs at the insectarium. Oh, and the beer. Also very good. We had a delicious flight of beer and cheese at L'Amère à Boire.
Yes... good beer and cheese were consistent pleasures, but I don't believe one lives happily for any length of time on only beer and cheese, beavers, books and bugs.
The lowlights: Um. The temperature. I won't bore you with the myriad miseries but to say that among the many phoned-in food performances were the bakery at Atwater Market, L'Express and La Sala Rosa's restaurant.
The take-away: Don't go to Montréal for New Year's. Duh. When you do go, eat the cheese and drink the beer. They're great at the cheese and beer.
The plate-scrapings: Who wants to hear about a vacation full of lovely lazy leisure anyway?