Day 339: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 6: Where I Ate; ‘Volume’

Highlights Edition

I could actually fill a full week’s worth of posts with every meal I ate in Canada, but I’ve decided to do a highlights edition on the more memorable dishes at the restaurants I’ve visited. I hope that these posts make you want to plan a visit to Montreal and Quebec too.

Schwartz’s Delicatessen

Alright my New Yorkers, listen up. North of the border, the smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s Deli are giving pastrami a run for its money. The sandwiches are packed. When I first got there I thought I’d have to get two because I was really hungry (shocker, I know). But one sandwich and an order of fries had me crawling out of there. Smoked meat is actually super tender beef brisket seasoned and smoked overnight to create a juicy, succulent, wonderfully meaty flavor. It differs from pastrami in that it has none of the peppery bark that pastrami characteristically has. The sandwiches are modestly dressed with some mustard on white bread but that meat is just…out of this world. I would highly recommend, if you can handle it, to ask specifically for the fatty cuts. It’s a really beefy flavor so be prepared. Otherwise a regular sandwich has a nice balance of fat and lean. I’m not gonna lie, I’m a smoked meat convert. Unfortunately there’s no place to get them around here, so I remain a pastrami eater by circumstance.

St. Viateur Bagels

St. Viateur vs Fairmount is perhaps the most dividing argument between all Montrealers. Both of the famous noteworthy bakeries are within a block of each other and you can find eateries all over the city proudly displaying signs of which bakery’s bagels they feature. I’ve had both in different places, but I took a pilgrimage to St. Viateur because after much deliberation, I am fully in St. Viateur’s camp. But I will speak to both of their strengths. If you like to toast your bagels, you’re going to prefer Fairmount. They bake their bagels a little bit longer, so they are browner, firmer, and have a crunchier crust. It crackles into crumbly goodness as you bite down into it and the bagel has a more pronounced aroma. I don’t like to toast my bagels. I like them soft, fluffy, and even a little bit chewy. St. Viateur visibly, noticeably, almost under-bakes them, so that the bagels are paler and much softer. There is still a slight crust, but you can really focus on the soft, fluffy, chewy interior of a St. Viateur bagel. The bagel itself has a great flavor, not at all bland, and the signature sesame bagel is incredible when you grab one fresh out of their oven. Be forewarned, St. Viateur’s original location is more of a bagel factory than an eatery. You can buy individual bagels, packs of cream cheese, spreads, and smoked salmon too no problem, but there are no seats, no tables, and they can’t slice it for you. You want to make yourself a fancy bagel, take it home. But if you want to grab a seat on a city bench right outside the store, break off bits of bagel and dip it into some cream cheese, and watch the people go in and out, then enjoy.

Patati Patata

Patati Patata Poutine

No trip to Montreal is complete without trying poutine, the quintessentially Quebecoise late night snack. My vote for best poutine in Montreal is Patati Patata. A tiny, unassuming hole in the wall diner that serves non-stop crowds of locals and poutine devotees. This place is salvation after a long night of drinking as you stumble down the quiet Montreal streets. I had the bacon poutine. Fluffy, warm, thick cut french fries are covered in a brown gravy with a bit of saltiness to help season the entire dish. Generous chunks of sizable cheese curds warm and slightly melt from the gravy but not to the point of turning into a gooey, gloppy mess (the cardinal sin of poutine). Mine benefited from an extra dose of salty crispy goodness from chopped bacon. If there’s anything worth eating to death, poutine is definitely one of them.

Le Buffet De L’Antiquaire

My first night in Quebec I went to this restaurant for a taste of authentic, old-school, traditional Quebec dishes. Quebec is a city of beautiful tiny restaurants and outdoor dining. The restaurant has an extensive menu with plenty of offerings. I had a hard time picking, and honestly of the places I’d been during my trip, Buffet de l’Antiquaire is one of the restaurants I wouldn’t mind repeating, as I really felt there were so many items worth trying and discovering. Going with the recommendation of my waitress, I ordered the meat pie. Real traditional Quebec comfort food. Simple, hearty, and oh so filling. Layers of puff pastry filled with sliced potatoes, ground beef, chicken, and pork filled with juicy gravy. The pickled beets and buttered stewed vegetables were surprisingly good. I even ate my peas. I hate peas. I don’t hate theirs though. This would have kept a lumberjack full and warm in the cold Quebec winters no doubt.

Cafe du Monde

A quick glance at this Quebec restaurant’s website will tell you that they do things a bit differently. There is a palpable environment of fun, welcome, and whimsy in this beautiful restaurant right on the waterfront. It’s got an amazing view of the St. Lawrence river and a great bar selection. The duck confit was well done, the skin achieving a crisp texture and the meat succulent and moist.  I also had my first incredible, authentic, Gaspesian chowder. Gaspesie is a peninsula in Quebec known for its maritime traditions and cuisine. Gaspesian chowder is rich and creamy, like a New England clam chowder, with potatoes, bacon, clams, but also tender bits of salmon. The absolute standout though, is the absolutely ludicrous, sinfully delicious, insanely rich FOIE GRAS CREME BRULEE. Oh yes, I said it. That’s what they did. For an appetizer. A creme custard mixed with foie gras then cooked in a water bath and finished with that signature burnt sugar caramel. There’s something wrong and yet oh so right about a dish that sweet, rich, fatty, and savory.

The sheer volume of variety, diversity, and quality of restaurants in Montreal and Quebec is staggering. There are plenty of talented, genuine, sincere chefs making honest, authentic, and innovative dishes. The culinary scene in Montreal is exciting without being pretentious. It all feels so down to earth and homey. It is a gourmand’s paradise, or hell, depending on how you enter and if you can ever leave.

Day 339

Man: 306 Loneliness: 33

Day 329: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 4: Things to do in Quebec City; ‘Brassy’

As a point of clarification, both Montreal and Quebec City reside in the province of Quebec. Quebec City is the capital, though much like how New York City is so much the heart and flavor of New York it’s taken on its name, so has Quebec City really come to be known as Quebec. So in this post just assume ‘Quebec’ refers to ‘Quebec City’ and not ‘Quebec province’.

QuebecFunicularQuebec, not unlike these boots, was built for walking. It’s such a fascinating and dense city that it is almost impossible not to turn a corner and run into something either beautiful, historic, significant. or all three. With a little bit of interesting and quirky thrown in for seasoning. It’s not an easy walk at times though. There was very little space for Quebec to grow as a city, and so it just kept building higher and higher with steeper and narrower roads as the city progressed. At certain points the trek will either be a steep climb or a series of very many narrow and high steps. Not for those with knee or general mobility problems. To somewhat ease the strain, there are a few (like two or three) bus routes that circle the city and for $3 CAD one-way you can use the historic funicular that connects the Terrasse Dufferine and the Chateau Frontenac at the top of the hill to the Old Quebec section of the city at its base. This can get costly though and they only accept cash, so plan accordingly.

Because of this though, Quebec is a wonderful city of whim and spontaneity. I had very little in terms of a formal itinerary or agenda when I first came to Quebec and I thought QuebecMapleSoftServethat was because I figured there’d be very little to do. It ended up being the best thing for the trip because the truth of the matter is, there’s just so much to explore and there’s a great thrill in waking up and heading out for the day and just going where the wind takes you. I made a giant winding mess of the city with no real rhyme or reason but I was happy and excited and energized by the thrill of discovery. This is what Quebec, with its rebellious identity so different from the rest of Canada, gives to the traveler. Character, discovery, and exploration. My best recommendation when planning a trip here is a) bring very comfortable shoes b) wear layers to combat the cold  with the strain of urban hiking and c) just know the main landmarks and significant noteworthy destinations of Quebec, with no real plan or schedule, and give yourself enough time to create a wide radius of discovery around each of them.


Quebec’s Ramparts

Not forgetting Quebec’s important role not only as a significant port of trade but also as a river fortress for both the French and the British, there are many places around the city QuebecRampartwhere the ancient ramparts of Quebec’s warring days still remain. These are often some of the best places to get a view of Quebec as well as the St. Lawrence River. Models of old cannons and strategic hay and wood defense posts contribute to the historic aesthetic. There is something dramatic and beautiful about framing Quebec, the river, and the cities across the water in the same shot as these old ancient stone walls and the mighty cannons that rest on them. By the Louis Hebert Monument you can get great shots of the ramparts and cannons overlooking the river as well as defensive shooting windows that overlook the narrow streets as invaders were most likely trying to push their way up the hill. In Old Quebec there is also the last remaining cannon battery, one of many that used to defend the city against the British navy. It stands right by the river and offers a great place to enjoy an outdoor lunch, view and hear the river traffic and ferries, and again, remember the historical significance of this beautiful city. You can easily walk along some of the old walls to get an idea of how big old Quebec really was.

Shopping Streets/Rue Saint Paul/Rue de Petit Champlain

Many of Quebec’s narrow streets are dotted with shops, curios, curiosities, and galleries. QuebecCestSiBonIt was always a delight to just walk along them and admire the wide variety of antiques and boutique goods these unique shops had to offer. They have big window displays that really catch the eye and if you’ve got the budget for it, would make interesting souvenirs and gifts. Rue Saint Paul has a few fascinating antique and secondhand goods stores as well as some candy shops with a wide variety of modern and classic candies. There are also some art galleries with gorgeous portraits and landscapes in the windows showcasing some truly talented artists. Rue de Petit Champlain is not QuebecSculptureonly where you can catch the Funicular to get back up to the top of Quebec, it is also the main artery of the shopping and dining streets of Quebec.  There are plenty of restaurants with outdoor seating, souvenir shops with your standard touristy gifts like shirts, candies, knickknacks, and syrups, but there are also little candy and snack shops. One of my favorites was a maple sweets store with traditional maple ice candies (maple syrup poured onto ice and frozen like taffy), soft maple sugar candies, and maple soft serve. It was a particularly hot day that day so walking around people watching and exploring with a cool cake cone filled with that rich maple soft serve was just lovely. Some of the most interesting sit down restaurants are in this area, but if you just want a quick snack, I’d recommend the maple soft serve or a deep fried beaver tail with cinnamon sugar or Nutella and banana (think like an improved, flattened, wider zeppole with toppings; a real Quebecoise treat)!

Basilica Notre Dame du Quebec

Just like Montreal, Quebec has its own Notre Dame cathedral with the same large, ornate, QuebecStreetand impressive brassy doors.  Around the immediate area of the cathedral is the plaza, Place d’Armes, more bars and restaurants, and a few streets away the much more historic and seemingly untouched plazas of Old Quebec, with the stone paved walkways and narrow corridors. The cathedral here is much less visited than the one in Old Montreal so you won’t have a line to worry about to get inside and admire the architecture and beautiful stained-glass windows. It is also much smaller and so can be a smaller part of your day as you focus on walking around the heart of downtown Quebec and admiring the more modern selections, like an Irish pub and some surprising Asian restaurants.  The Basilica is just impressive enough to warrant a visit to see the ancient brass doors and beautiful craftsmanship of its architecture and windows, but just underwhelming enough to keep moving along.

Citadelle du Quebec/Plains of Abraham/Governor’s Promenade

If your feet haven’t fallen off yet and your shoes still have some life in them, definitely take the 600+ meters and 300+ steps of the Governor’s Promenade. This wooden walkway QuebecFairmountsuspended over the edge of the hill connects the Terrasse Dufferin to the Plains of Abraham, literally nailed into and sticking straight out of the walls of the ancient Citadelle du Quebec. I did not realize just how long and how high this path would go, but it rewards you with constantly beautiful views of the water and an intimate closeup at the weathered and mighty walls of the Citadelle that defended the city for so long. When you finally reach the summit, you are greeted with the vast lush green fields of the Plains of Abraham. This was once a bloody battlefield vital to the ongoing hostilities between the French, British, and First Nations Peoples. Now it is a beautiful large park with soft green grass that is perfect for a picnic lunch, afternoon stroll, or to sunbathe and catch up on reading and some relaxation. This is also the best way to get access to the Citadelle and  view the ancient ruins of the fortress, like old ammo caches, cannon batteries, and soldiers’ barracks.

Fairmont Chateau Frontenac/Terrasse Dufferin

Standing like some magical castle straight out of a childhood fairytale, the Chateau QuebecNightFairmountFrontenac is the most beautiful, largest, and most famous hotel in Quebec. (But remember, not the oldest!) No matter where you are in the city, at the base or near the top, the Chateau Frontenac remains visible and impressive like the North Star.  You can easily orient yourself anywhere in the city by finding where you are in relation to the hotel. The building is dotted with ramparts, towers, and huge spires. It is a beautifully impressive building of brick and stone that is a shining example of old Gothic architecture. At night, it is illuminated by spotlights that dot the walls and shines like a second moon. It’s a truly magnificent sight.  Nowadays it is almost impossible to get a hotel room, and honestly unless you splurge on a suite, most of the rooms are way too tiny anyways. (It was originally used as a boarding house for rail workers. Now it’s one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels in Canada. Go figure.)  It is much more impressive simply to look at from the outside, and if you can’t stay there, I’d still recommend you drink there. There is a wonderful bar with a full menu of craft cocktails and high-quality spirits as well as small bites inside the hotel with a great view of the boardwalk outside. The hotel also acts as a semi art gallery with some sculpture around the lobby and in the bars and restaurants. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade someone from wanting to spend an hour or two in there enjoying a few drinks.

Right outside the Chateau is the Terrasse Dufferin, a large wooden boardwalk that QuebecMapleGelatoconnects the hotel on one side to the Citadelle on the other. It’s now because a great way to capture wonderful views of the St. Lawrence River and grab some snacks and enjoy a walk. Quebecers also happen to really love their street performers, and it is inevitable while walking to not run into a few. Stop and enjoy and appreciate the sights and sounds of these performers. They are all vouches for and supported by the local government and people. While I was there I got to see a trumpeter, a full band, a singer, and a magician.


QuebecPerformer.jpgIf you use these various places around Quebec like beacons, and allow yourself to stray a little further from their light to explore the lesser known places, I guarantee you’ll have an incredible time. You’ll fall in love with the city much like I have, and there is a great chance that your wandering spirit might even take you to places I’d never been or seen or known of. It’s incredible just how much that tiny densely packed city can offer, but it is truly a marvel and such a gem. A combination of Canadian free spirit, European charm, history, and truly unique Quebecois magic.

 

 

Day 329

Man: 296 Loneliness: 33

Day 322: The Man and French Lessons, Part 1: Transportation; ‘Reprieve’

It has been too long overdue, friends, but I am finally back! Hahah. As most of you who have been following and reading this blog already know, I’ve spent the past week Snowpierceron an incredible trip to Montreal and Quebec. Further evidenced by the numerous photos and musings I’d been posting during my time there on my twitter (@manvsloneliness, please follow). I actually returned on Monday (absolutely rejuvenated and reenergized) but haven’t had a chance to share my adventures because well…I didn’t have a computer. I haven’t actually owned a computer since college. Hahah. Since then I’ve always had work-provided tech for personal use, and I was waiting for my new job to send me my laptop before I could finally start writing again (I’ve missed the sound and the fury of clicking and clacking keys).

But I’m back now baby and…better than ever? I mean, maybe. I definitely feel better. The wonders and freedoms and powers of travel. And with plenty to share. So I’m going to start a mini-series over the next few days highlighting the most memorable parts of my trip. Today I want to start with how any great trip starts. How to get there.

The Railcation of My Dreams

MurderontheOrientExpressThere is something immortally, eternally, and undeniably romantic about train travel. The gentle yet powerful ‘clack clack clack’ of the rails, the soothing almost imperceptible rocking of the train car, the seemingly endless panorama of scenery that speeds past your window with ceaseless variety. Romance, tragedy, murder, conspiracy, and comedy; all the great and wonderful and deep and dark emotions of life and humanity have been set on trains. The truth is, Newark runs daily non-stop flights to Montreal. I could have very well been in Canada within four hours. But let’s be honest here. Driving to the airport. Leaving the car in some uncovered shady parking lot. Or worse, stomaching an Uber ride. The TSA check-ins. Waiting in a stale lifeless airport waiting room trying to figure out a way to sleep on two chairs. Cramped seats, recycled air, limited food, and no room to walk.  Not the least also is the price to consider for all of this ‘convenience’. And if I flew United well…maybe I should bring some boxing gloves too. Hahah. No, for all intents and purposes, my first love will always be rail. And I was more than happy to entrust all my travel needs to AmTrak and VIARail once I was in Canada.

Adirondacks

Friday morning I left my home bright and early and took my express bus to Port Authority Bus terminal in Manhattan. From there it’s a quick five minute, two block walk to Penn Station to catch my AmTrak. Honestly, I was surprisingly pleased by how easy, StrangersOnATrainconvenient, and efficient the whole process was. There are two big screens constantly displaying arrival and departure information for trains within the hour and it refreshes, so if you arrive a bit early don’t fret if you don’t see your train info yet. If you’re still lost though, there are info courtesy desks stationed at various points with, get this, actually helpful and enthusiastic staff. I know, it’s crazy. Those taking trains across borders need to go to the ‘Canadian check in’ which is no more than a roaming desk where you present your ticket, passport, and have your luggage tagged. All in all, from getting off the bus to standing waiting in line to board my train, it took no more than fifteen minutes. A welcome reprieve from the two hour shuffle and kerfuffle at the airport.

And of course the benefit of your terminal being in the heart of New York is that you can literally have whatever you want on the train. (There is a menu on the train but let’s be real. $8 for a hot dog? That’s just poor planning and you know what, they can charge whatever they want if you’re not on top of your travel game. Seriously.) In this case I actually made myself a lunch to have on the train. I was inspired by the ekiben (railway boxed meals) of Japan. So in a bunch of  tiny but still cute disposable containers I made myself a meal of potato salad, macaroni salad, some grilled eel and rice, tea egg, and a few fruits. (It’s a ten hour train ride. And I believe in many small meals.)

HudsonRiver.jpg

So I rode the Adirondack from Penn Station to Montreal, which I have to tell you, is oneof the most beautiful and scenic paths on AmTrak. In fact, if I plan on going back for a weekend (and I just might), I would want to do it in fall when AmTrak adds the luxurious and picturesque dome car for a full uninterrupted view from a viewing deck with a giant glass bubble to appreciate the changing colors of fall foliage. When you’re really into rail travel, you appreciate that ten hours to the destination is still part of the experience. You can look out the window and appreciate views of the Hudson Valley, New York’s wine country, and the Canadian countryside. Tuck into a good book. Snack at your seat or grab a booth in the dining car. The very least you can do is appreciate the opportunity to stretch your legs walking and feeling that raw exciting energy of the rails racing underneath your feet as you move between cars.

AmTrakSeat.jpgSeating is incredibly comfortable. You have plenty of leg room, and (for better or for worse) since the trains are often under capacity, there’s a good chance that like me, you’ll get both to yourself. The train cars run two sears across, an aisle, and then two more. Just be aware, there’s no arm rest in between, so if you are sitting next to someone, it’s great for couples and friends but strangers might be leaning a bit for a while. All the seats come with outlets, a reading light, and large windows. There is also a pull down footrest as well as a pull out leg rest. The seats themselves recline to about 140°. For about five hours of the journey I just slept rather restfully. This is like, domestic flight first class level amenities and comfort. It should be noted  that AmTrak does offer actual first class amenities as well as sleeper cars on longer trails but the Adirondack offers neither so I wasn’t able to test them.

CanadaFarm.jpg

Pulling into Montreal for the very first time and hearing the conductor announce ‘ladies and gentlemen, we will be pulling into our last station, Montreal, in ten minutes’ filled me with excitement. It was around 9pm and the sun was beginning to set, casting a dramatic deep red highlight over the Montreal skyline. I had just finished the first leg of my first major railcation in extreme comfort and convenience.

MontrealRising

My experience with VIARail, Canada’s major rail provider, was more or less the same. The trains are a bit older and oh my god, their AC is really REALLY weak, but overall justReturnCroissant.jpg as enjoyable. (Side note, forgot to mention that you might want to bring a light jacket just for the AmTrak because unlike their Canadian counterparts, AmTrak loves to blast the AC.) The best part about VIARail is that I took it in Montreal from Montreal Central Station. Which means I had access to Montreal bakeries. So on my train to Quebec, and my train back home, I had the company of some of the finest baked goods I have EVER had. And I mean EVER. I am not a croissant fan. I’ve always found them to be underwhelming. All of the croissants I’ve had just couldn’t deliver on that promise of light flaky crispy layers with rich butter in between and an incredible crust. But let me tell you as I took that first bite of a Montreal croissant and I felt my mouth crunching through layer after layer and that rich creamy buttery flavor filling my nose and mouth,  I was converted. In fact the saddest part of my trip home was biting into my last croissant.

Starting a morning rail trip with an iced coffee and some croissants is my idea of luxurious and smart travel. Honestly if you’ve never taken a rail trip, I highly recommend it. European rail seems to be even more steeped in that wonderful romantic nostalgia, and Japanese rail takes comfort and efficiency to a whole new level. Hell, I would want to ride the shinkansen if just to try all the unique regional rail boxed lunches that stations along the route have! For solo, couple, small group, and family travelers alike, I cannot recommend rail travel enough. There is just no better way to fall in love not just with the destination, but the journey as well.

QuebecCroissant

Tomorrow I will be talking about my accommodations. I stayed at the Hotel Espresso in Montreal for four days the first part of my trip, the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec the second, and I ended my trip with one night at the Le Square Phillips Hotel in Montreal. I’ll share the highs, the lows, and the stories behind each one and share my recommendations and tips when booking a hotel in Montreal or Quebec. Feels good to be back y’all.

Day 322

Man: 289 Loneliness: 33