Jerel Says, ‘Don’t die wondering, man’; Traditional

Water Wizz

Don’t die wondering, man.

-Duncan, The Way Way Back

New England spans the six northernmost states on the US’s east coast: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and New York and Canada to the north and west, the region is probably best known for its beautiful fall foliage, bountiful and delicious seafood, harsh winters, and one of the most distinctive regional accents in the country.

Boston Accent

But new Batman aside, I’ve always wanted to explore New England. The southernmost part of New England, Connecticut, is only a brief one and a half to two hour drive from north Jersey. As an avid seafood lover, the variety and freshness of New England’s daily catches have always allured me. And as a cold weather fan, I’m practically built not only to handle, but to thoroughly enjoy, their biting winters.

I don’t know why, then, it took me until just these past two weeks, and for work reasons, that I finally took the time to head north and visit this beautiful, scenic, fascinating New England maplandscape of people, places, and provisions. There’s something timeless to New England. It has somehow managed to avoid being tainted all these years. Often times the moment a place is hailed for having an ‘untouched charm’ is the moment it dies. Floods of tourists, opportunistic businesses, and hordes of would-be travel writers and bloggers and vloggers and every other thing wanting to be the first to ‘discover’ the place or the first to declare it officially ‘passé’ ruin everything these places stand for by trying too hard to define it. So to protect the magic of New England, I’m not going to sit here and try to wax poetic and figure out some way to capture it like no one else has. The truth is New England is one of those places you need to discover on your own, and you have to realize and respect that even in its tiny little geographical area, there are enough differences and variations to keep one interested, curious, and conscious.

The Scenery, and Getting There

I’ve already let you all know how inspired I was by some of the most beautiful stretches of driving roads I’ve ever seen all nestled and tucked into thin ribbons spread across mountains in New England. Aside from the guaranteed headache of dealing with either the George Washington Bridge on I-95 or the Tappan Zee Bridge on I-87, driving to and through New England is pretty much smooth sailing. Word of warning, get your ass out of Connecticut as quickly as possible. Sweet people. But god damn if they aren’t the worst drivers in the country. Every single one of them either wants to kill or be killed on the road, and I don’t know which is worse. Pardon the Connecticutians for they know not how they drive.

Other than that though, if you’ve got the time, get off those major interstates and soulless highways to discover the real charm of New England without even having to get out of your car. The local roads are much more peaceful, more more scenic. My second week in New England in the area around Wareham, MA the manager I was working with was New England River.jpgnice enough to give me a quick tour of the area. When I told her I had never actually made the trek to New England before and so was ignorant of the charm of say, Cape Cod, after lunch she took me on a quick drive through the area. The effect was almost immediate, and you could feel it even from the passenger side window. New England is gorgeous. Landscape and architecture, it’s all just wonderful and timeless and charming. There are vast sprawling acres of unspoiled woods. Driving in the summer I felt like I was entering into an untouched magical forest, to be spit out into a land of fairies and sprites. The trees are allowed to grow tall and wide and lean over the road and create leafy canopies, with sunbeams peeking through random pockets. In fall I can only imagine how beautiful it must be to drive through bright flashes of red and orange, to walk among crinkled fallen leaves and listen to the crunch. In winter I envision these large plains blanketed in pure blinding white. I’ve no doubt in any season, New England must have been made for aimless wanderers and roving lovers. I’ve never been one for beaches or sunscapes. My heart doesn’t jump at the sight of tropic plants or white sand beaches. I don’t have much to say about concrete jungles or crashing waves. But give me dense forests, calm clear lakes and swiftly running river waters, wooded mountain peaks, and I can feel it all in my very bones.

What man has touched in New England though is still as pure, as historic, as connected to the region’s history and traditions. Even their cities feel like towns at best. Separating New England BridgeBoston and the Greater Boston area (New England’s largest metropolitan center) most of New England feels like a collection of villages. For the most part, what you think of when you think of New England are old colonial style houses, historic wood buildings, and Main Streets, the arteries of these towns, dotted with local mom and pop shops, bars, and restaurants. Unlike other areas, New Englanders are attached to their buildings. When new roads threaten to throttle business life or cities move to match populations, so do the buildings go with them. During my little cross-the-Cape tour my tour guide pointed out just how many buildings in the area were originally from other, smaller towns sometimes even miles away. Propped up, picked up, or floated along the river to live on in new areas. Even their bridges, like the one I have here meant for trains to cross the river, look like medieval castles, contributing to that fantasy-land aesthetic.

The People and the Food

Do you know when I can tell the food is going to be good? When I see the locals making it and eating it. Oh sure, I’m no stranger to the fine dining establishments. All bougie andNew England Clam Chowder hoity-toity and all that. But when my heart and soul are hungry, I want those local, hole in the wall, favored treasures. So when I am in an area where I can tell the people are involved with their food, I know I’m in a good place. New Englanders are passionate about the food they serve. They make no great presumptions, they just state what they know is true and real. Like they know that New England clam chowder is the best clam chowder. Rich and hearty and creamy with ridiculous amounts of sweet fresh clams in each spoonful. They know that clam chowder should be thick enough to stick to your spoon but not so thick as to stick to your gut. They know all that, but they also know that you could go to five different restaurants on the same stretch of road and each one’s chowder will taste completely different, yet all so wonderful.

More than just incredible clam chowder, I can’t tell you how much lobster I’ve had these Lobster Fritterspast two weeks. I made it my goal to have lobster practically every day I was up north and by god if I didn’t damn near accomplish that goal every day. In the most unapologetic, kitschiest, most ridiculously over the top decorated seafood shack (I’m talking fishing nets on the wall and portholes for windows) I had some fantastic fried lobster fingers. Sweet plump chunks of lobster claw meat lightly battered in cornmeal dipped in melted butter. Crunchy on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. Fresh and fried. And everyone, get this. Practically every place in New England serves lobster rolls. INCLUDING MCDONALD’S. I first discovered this on my walk back to my hotel after already having a full, satisfying meal. But at $8.99 for a lobster roll, who could resist? Maybe a stronger person, but not me. So yes, on various occasions and in between hotels and store visits and meals I was having McDonald’s McDonalds Lobsterlobster rolls. I gotta tell you though, they were great. In fact, between the McDonald’s lobster rolls and the lobster rolls at Panera (I told you they all did it in New England), I have to say the McDonald’s one wins. The Panera lobster was bland and tough and the bread soggy and falling apart.  The McDonald’s lobster roll had the foresight to serve it on toasted thick baguette style bread that holds up to the lobster juices and mayo. Crisp romaine, generous amounts of large chunks of lobster, generous seasonings that didn’t overpower the rich sweetness of the lobster, and I think they did this on purpose, but the fact that there was a tiny bit of shell in my McDonald’s roll that I had to take out with my tongue kind of made it all feel…authentic? I can’t prove it, but if that was a marketing decision to convince customers of the authenticity, it worked. By the way, that Panera roll was $29!

Most of the best restaurants in the area have stories in and of themselves. When you’re entire existence relies on small town old world historic charm, it’s not surprising that the Top of the Hill Grillmost successful restaurants have been in business for generations. The wood creaks with stories. In Wareham I ate at a family restaurant that’s been open since 1948. Inside you can still sit on the old-fashioned diner stools and booths and admire the trademark red checkered linoleum floor of small town diners of the time. Around the back though is an entire addition that almost triples the size of the restaurant, with murals on the wall depicting fishermen and cranberry farmers (there are tons of cranberry bogs in the area). In Merrimack, NH I ate at the Lobster Boat, Top of the Hill Grill Viewopened in the 1980s. But perhaps the most interesting and fun place to eat for me was in Brattleboro, VT at the Top of the Hill Grill. It’s a tiny restaurant on the side of the road with open air seating overlooking woods and a lake. There are speakers playing music all night and the barbecue is simple, unassuming, but flavorful and plenty. There’s nothing like digging into some barbecue spareribs and brisket, sweet cornbread, licking barbecue sauce off your fingers as you look out into this gorgeous field.

The Setting

I’m not the only one to notice the strange magic that flows through New England. You Way Way Backfeel it when you see it in the scenery, smell it in the forest air, experience it when you walk through the towns. It’s more than just visit magic though. The charms of New England translate well to movie magic too. Some of my most favorite films have been set in different areas of New England, and I even got to visit some of those places! The Way Way Back is a coming of age story about a young boy whose family goes to Cape Cod for the summer holiday. Most of the movie takes place in water park where the boy ends up getting a job.  This is a real location. Water Wizz is touted as ‘Cape Cod’s largest and only water park’ and is located in East Wareham, MA, where I had lunch with one of the managers and did my Cape Cod tour. This is one of the best most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen about courage, love, and independence. Wes Anderson’s Romeo and Juliet-esque Moonrise Kingdom takes place on the island of New Penzance off the coast of New England. In Brattleboro, VT, where I stayed for a few nights, they shot the goth-punk cute girl samurai acid dream Sucker Punch. A Moonrise Kingdomgreat movie for pure style over any discernible substance. The Town and The Departed of course made Boston the gang capital of New England, and Jaws made everyone, not just New Englanders, afraid to jump into the water. Clearly, filmmakers, yearly flocks of tourists, and a dedicated local population are onto something.  In fact, I feel a New England movie marathon coming on. The list is endless and full of real gems. The magic of New England has not waned through the years, and honestly, I really do regret having waited so long to visit. Now I have a new area to explore and discover. In the fall I might want to take another drive up just for leisure, or in the winter I could take a cruise from New York through New England and into Canada to appreciate the winter scenery. The most important thing is, New England has always beckoned with its immeasurable charm, and if you’ve ever wondered if it was worth the trip, well I only have one thing to say.

Jerel says, ‘don’t die wondering, man’.

Jerel Says, ‘Go West, Young Man, Go West’; Grit

Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

-Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley was an American author and newspaper editor during the mid 1800s. Go WestGreeley greatly supported the idea of westward expansion and, after President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which gave settlers willing to move West large plots of public land provided they stayed for at least five years, encouraged Civil War veterans to take advantage of it. Like most Americans in the 19th century, Greeley believed in Manifest Destiny, that it was the mission and purpose of Americans to expand and settle across all of North America. He believed that Americans had the intrinsic qualities of fortitude, resolve, and grit necessary to thrive in the west, and that those willing could find fertile farmland to help ease the growing problems of poverty and unemployment troubling the big cities on the Eastern coast. He said other things about people from the East coast, but they can’t always be right, right?

I went West this week in search of destiny, too. Sort of. I actually went North. And then BrattleboroEast. Like, way way North and then a good bit of East. To Vermont, which isn’t exactly Oklahoma. But then from Vermont I traveled to New Hampshire! Which, admittedly, when you look at it from a geographical point of view, is also East. So for some unknown reason for quite a long time and long distance, I was going the wrong way. My friends can attest that my sense of geography has never been the strongest. But for once the sidetracking and the backtracking didn’t frustrate me. I wasn’t upset or angry. In fact, I have to say that those two hours I spent going West today were some of the best two hours of driving I’ve ever experienced. I spent a happy, awe-inspiring two hours on Vermont’s scenic, sprawling, beautiful Route 9 West.

Merrimack

After a good night’s rest, I was on the road bright and early, heading out at 7am this morning. I wouldn’t have to be at my first stop until 9am, so I had plenty of time as I set out. One thing you have to realize way up north here in Vermont and New Hampshire is that there isn’t much room for things. These were some of the earliest and first Rally.gifsettled areas of the colonial times, so many of the old roads still stand. What might have been fine for smaller horse drawn carriages has over time resulted in long stretches of single lane highways winding through forests and up and down mountains. In fact most of my driving this morning was almost exclusively on mountain roads, with varying stretches of either long gradual inclines and declines and sharp, steep climbs and drops. Just driving the roads themselves was fantastic.  It’s times like these I miss my old car. A six-cylinder sedan with squirrely front wheel drive would have been aggressive and reckless on these winding paths. Instead I had my Subaru Forester, a safe and responsible grippy four-wheel drive. Yeah, unfortunately, no matter how much I tried, I never felt unsafe or like I had to wrestle my car to grip the road. Too bad. These roads are also heavily unmonitored, as there’s no room for a cop car to hide, and since Interstates are so much more convenient and spacious, they’re practically empty. I was living out my rally car dreams, racing as fast as I could go. Route 9W is a beautiful and unpredictable road. You’re constantly winding left and right, never seeing more than two turns ahead of or behind you. At some points there are even hairpin turns. As you’re carving your way through the mountains of Vermont you are treated to high towering Winding Roadbridges, low roads running right by the  river, and literal cliffside paths keeping you no more than a few feet from the edge. As a road, Route 9 West is to me one of the absolute best to drive in America in terms of quality of pavement (even with the harsh weather and seasons of the Northeast, these rarely used roads don’t see much wear and tear from tires, heavy trucks, or salt), design (long, graceful, elegant curves, sharp banks, a variety of incline, and with bridges, cliffs, and rivers a great mix of driving elements), and overall pleasure to drive (no car traffic at all, no stop signs or lights, and with a speed limit of 50, it’s already pretty generous). For car enthusiasts, your so-called ‘gear heads’ or ‘petrol heads’, I would already recommend Vermont Route 9 West solely for the road itself.

But there’s so much more! Oh, is there just so much more. It had rained the night before, and there was still a slight mist in the air when I left this morning. The roads were stillFoggy Road.gif dry and not at all slick, but the entire forest, and it seemed like I was driving through an endless expanse of forest, had that glistening shining fresh mist quality. The woods seemed alive and as you went further and further up the mountain, a beautiful gray fog started to blanket certain spots. Just a few isolated areas where it felt like you were literally driving through clouds. The fog hung suspended, frozen in mid air, wisps of smoke so vivid they were like white fingers reaching out in the middle of the road. As it was cooler in the shade of the trees and with the rain still on the branches I drove with my windows down, enjoying the fresh mountain air and that smell of forest spring rain. Whereas I normally Mountain Pass.gifentertain myself on long drives with cheesy dance music and songs I sing *cough*screamandbutcher* to, on this drive I listened to the soft steady roll of my tires on damp road. I saw, either from above on bridges or right beside me at potentially hazardously low sections of highway, wide and mighty and expansive rivers twist and turn and grow and shrink until they were just streams and brooks and I could see the jagged rocks of the river bed. At certain scenic overlooks you could just view over the edge of the road more and more mountain peaks and endless forest. It was sight and smell and sound like you wouldn’t believe. Rolling blankets of mist and fog, sunshine peeking through pockets of trees, running waters, smooth pavement, the smell of rain on leaves. I was half expecting to drive right into the forest in Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro.

And here’s the most surprising part of this beautiful and thrilling road. Up in the mountains, lost in the mist and fog, surrounded by trees, you’re not alone. I mentioned before that there are a few gorgeous scenic overlooks. Well they’re all connected on what I have to believe are some fairly popular and well known hiking trails. With nary a Mountain Hike.gifsingle driver to be found, I must have encountered a good handful of hikers. Some were walking along the road, others were paused at the various overlooks, still it was nice to see other people enjoying this beautiful area, albeit they have their way and I prefer mine. I’ll admit at a few overlooks I was tempted to stop and take a moment to take it all in and snap a few photos. But I did have a final destination to get to. These would not be the meanderings of a drive for pleasure. (Which is very different from a drive of pleasure, mind you.) Still you felt a little connection with these people as you passed them, knowing that of everything in the world, you are at the very least similar in your appreciation of that moment, that setting, that experience. And I also happened to need gas, and stopped at a little gas station right on the edge of the road, still a good ways away from reconnecting to any major highways or interstates. You know those gas stations. Local, friendly, and this one in particular was run by the very lovely Davenport family. I got to spend some time speaking with one of the owners, a young woman actually. I was surprised when she came out to meet me as I was starting to pump my gas. I’m not used to full service stations outside of New Jersey and yet there she was, not only filling my car but wiping the windshield and checking the oil. I swear that forest really is magic, because she must have stepped out of the 1950s. She laughed at my confusion and said that a lot of people who stop by from way way way out of town are surprised to find a full service station. I was already out of the car and wanted to stretch my legs anyways, so we chatted for a bit. And then she looked at me and asked ‘are you from the Philippines by any chance?’

Well, yes, yes I am. Now how in the middle of Narnia did you figure that out.

Turns out, her grandfather was in the military, and was stationed in the Philippines in the 1910s. She grew up reading the letters her grandfather sent to her father about the beautiful islands and the extremely rural lands and natives. She believes her grandfather was stationed in Iloilo, which would make sense as it was an economic and military Old Stationcenter for the Spanish and the United States. She told me how fascinated she was by the descriptions and how she’d grown up always wanting to visit and see for herself the places her grandfather had been to and wrote to her father about. I told her to train herself by sitting in a tiny chair for twenty three hours. But that it would be totally worth it, and that she’d be spoiled for choice in terms of islands and exoticness. It was just a nice surprise to have that thread of a story to grasp at so far from well, anywhere really. But as I pulled out of the gas station it was fun to think here is a family run business that’s been there forever, run by third generation, dreaming about the Philippines and the history and legacy of a family. Route 9 West just kept giving and giving.

As most of you know, I have to travel a lot for my job. Most of it is usually by car. Sometimes I get lucky, and I get a break from ‘highway hypnosis’ with these ventures into smaller roads. Sometimes I get to see more than just barrier walls and metal signs. But never for as long as I had on this road, and never with such an impact. There’s something really beautiful and magical about Route 9 West in Vermont. It’s more than just a fun road to drive. Or a beautiful place to look at. If you’re like me, you’re going to quickly realize that there is more than just a journey to be had here. There are stories. And if you’re not like me and still want to go, I’ll drive you.

Jerel says, ‘Go West, young man, go West’.

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 335: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 5: Where I Ate; ‘Crisp’

So my last post was just about my first night in Montreal, breaking into the new city with a taste tour of Japan at Kinka Izakaya. The next morning I had my Old Montreal food Liverpool Logotour which I mentioned in previous posts on what to see and do in the city. That night I met up with an old high school friend and her husband. I hadn’t seen them since I was in Toronto…so so many years ago for their wedding. It was great to see them again and catch up. Often times when you hear stories of old friends meeting up again after some time, they talk about how amazed they are at how different everyone looked. I was more amazed by how it looked like we had just seen each other last weekend, and how easily and readily the conversation and good times flowed as such too. I hate to admit that I am very, very bad at maintaining communication with people. Out of sight out of mind is more often the norm for me. I had messaged them a bit before my trip so we could arrange some time to meet and catch up, but other than that, I really hadn’t spoken to them since the wedding. But it felt great to see each other, and I knew, as always, we would be able to pick up right where we left off.

Liverpool President

But let me tell you about the food. The benefit of having had this trip planned in my head so far in advance is as soon as we had set a date, I already knew where we were eating and scrambled to make the reservation. I was actually in Punta Cana and, taking Liverpool Houseadvantage of the free calls to the US and Canada at the resort, made my reservation from there while I was on my work trip. I got us a highly sought after reservation at one of the best, craziest, gastronomically astronomical restaurants in the city, Liverpool House. You might recognize the dining room from the recent photo of (it hurts my heart to say this) former president Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ‘bro-date’. And let me tell you, if it’s good enough for me, you can bet it’s good enough for two of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Liverpool House is the sister restaurant to Joe Beef next door, both under the careful, watchful, and expert eye of co-owners Frédéric Morin and David McMillan. Joe Beef is still one of the most exclusive and hard to secure reservations in Montreal if not the entire country, and continues to elude me to this day. But to sit and dine at Liverpool House is more than just a consolation prize. It is an experience in and of itself; one nothing short of culinary excess and near perfection.

Much like Joe Beef, the menu at  Liverpool House changes regularly with seasonality and Liverpool Foie Grasinspiration. Giant blackboards dominate a majority of the restaurant’s walls listing specials, current cheese offerings, and a wine selection that would make a Frenchman drunk just reading it. The dining room is more ‘survivalist uncle’s living room’ than ‘fine dining mecca’. Wood-paneled walls, stuffed deer heads, and various eclectic pieces of nostalgic knickknacks. The tiny, two room restaurant is packed the night of our reservation and as we wait for our table to be cleared, we all start taking mental notes of the dishes that pass through from the kitchen to the dining room and what looks and smells the best. We start our meal with a sinfully large portionLiverpool Oysters of foie gras served with a Prosecco gelee and warm, fresh bread. The foie is rich, buttery, smooth, and incredibly fatty. When the cool foie meets the warm bread it truly becomes one of life’s greatest pleasures. Perhaps the controversial preparation of foie gras has us straying further and further from God’s light, but I’d rather be a sinner anyways. We also order a half dozen oysters from different parts of the Eastern Canadian coast to start. I am reminded that I Liverpool Crab Spaghettiam in French country when I see my cocktail sauce has been replaced with freshly grated horseradish and mignonette sauce but I am too busy slurping away and enjoying the salty sweet liqueur to mind. Our other started is a light and creamy pappardelle pasta tossed with snow crab meat and fresh garden peas.  The pasta is freshly made in house and has a wonderfully toothsome texture that soaks up the cream and crab sauce. There are large, sizable, generous chunks of seasoned snow crab mixed into the pasta that add an ocean saltiness to the rich cream.

We each order separate entrees with the firm understanding that we will be sharing all three amongst each other. My friend orders the lobster spaghetti which is an all-time Liverpool Lobsterfavorite and classic staple of both Joe Beef and Liverpool house. A generous portion of fresh spaghetti is tossed in a rich and creamy tomato based sauce that is super infused with the flavor of lobster and served with two whole cracked claws.  The tail meat is chopped and mixed into the dish. This is one of the most essential dishes of the restaurant and I highly recommend any newcomer first makes sure to order this for the table. Liverpool House is very particular to ensure that the seafood is always fresh, local, and meaty. It takes little to no effort to get into the pre-cracked claws and extract whole, juicy, tantalizing pieces of claw meat. Her husband orders the half roast chicken served on top of roasted vegetables and a cream of leek sauce. I had a portion of the breast, which I normally do not enjoy because it can become too dry, but this piece was Liverpool Chickensuperbly moist and tender, with a delicately crisp skin crackling with flavor. The chicken’s natural juices were still captured inside the meat and burst when you bit into it. Being the unrepentant carnivore, I wanted to try one of their specials, which was a horse filet wrapped in bacon served with radish, foie gras mousse (because why not have extra foie on everything), and a peppercorn sauce. This was my first experience with horse and I have to tell you, it would be a huge shame if people thought of horses as too domesticated to be considered a viable meat source. There are very many otherLiverpool Horse portions of the world who regularly eat horse meat and I can see why. It is tender, lean, has a wonderful flavor, and is incredibly juicy. The horse filet was treated just like a large steak would be, seared and done to just medium rare with fatty smokey bacon wrapped around to add extra flavor. Mixing the foie gras mousse with the vegetables on top made for an excellent accompaniment. Liverpool House’s wine selection is also top notch, Old World producers and our waiter recommended a wonderfully spicy merlot to pair with my filet.

The three of us, fully stuffed, satisfied, and satiated with an incredible variety of starters Liverpool Briocheand entrees, naturally came to the conclusion that we had eaten way too much already to order dessert… individually. Instead we decided to share a maple brioche bun stuffed with sweet cream ice cream and served with the fresh strawberries, just picked from the beginning of the season. This brioche bun with its fluffy interior and sweet sticky maple exterior, lightly caramelized and browned sugar crust, was everything I wanted a real French pastry to be. And those fresh Montreal strawberries, so tiny but so packed and bursting with sweet tartness, were some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had. Real quality produce that tasted of just pure fruit, grown with attention and care. My friend did tell me that, according to our childhood in Jersey, Montreal fruits were some of the best.

I knew way before we even got to the restaurant and started ordering to our heart’s content that I would be treating my friends that night. A combination of the joy of reunion, the excitement of a new career, the adrenaline of being in a new city, and the slight guilt of not having spoken to them in well over five years, made that decision for me a long time before. So I ninja’ed my way from the table under the pretense of using the restroom, covered the bill, popped my head into the kitchen to compliment the staff, and we headed out into the night. They were kind enough to drop me off at my hotel afterwards, we chatted for a bit more, and once it was starting to really get late they left and headed back home to a suburb just off the island. I meanwhile, had the night, and this beautiful city, to reflect and reminisce not just on what was one of the best meals I’d ever had in one of the best restaurants I have ever been to, but on the rare opportunity I was afforded to meet up with old and dear friends to catch up and chase away the time.

Day 335

Man: 302 Loneliness: 33

Day 332: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 4: Where I Ate; ‘Uniform’

Now comes the very very best part of this entire trip and really, the best highlights of them all. Montreal and Quebec have long been on the lists of go-to destinations for gourmands everywhere and for good reason. There is a very strong and established history and identity with traditional dishes, an exciting influx of new chefs with new ideas and new innovations, and a multiculturalism and diversity of cuisines and culinary adventurousness. Pair all of this with some of the best, freshest, and highest quality produce and meats, and you have a culinary hot spot. But you don’t have to take my word for it (though you really should). Here’s what my culinary (and lifestyle) idol, Anthony Bourdain, has to say about this city.

I had a light lunch on the train heading into Montreal my first day because I knew I was Kinka Izakayagoing to be feasting straight from the get-go. My first stop late night after checking into my hotel would be Kinka Izakaya, only a block away from my hotel. Coincidence? You should know me better by now. Their Montreal location is the newest of this Japanese bar food empire which started in Toronto and has since expanded to other parts of Canada, Tokyo, and with an anticipated addition in New York. I’ve been to the one in Toronto back when I was a poor and struggling college student, and now I was prepared to return with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on their menu. I started with a gallop. A pint of Sapporo to wash down marinated jellyfish, beef carpaccio, and seared salmon. Jellyfish is a popular dish in Asian restaurants, especially bars. The texture is firm but has a slight bouncy give to it, making it fun to eat. It is a bit bland, but takes on flavors incredibly well. In this instance it was marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sweet sake. It has that satisfying crunch that most people crave when drinking,Kinka First Round and a slightly sweet but deep flavor from the sesame. The beef carpaccio is Wagyu beef slightly seared and then served with ponzu sauce, a light wasabi mayo, fried garlic chips, and daikon radish with green onion garnish. The meat was wonderfully tender with a strong beef flavor, expected of what is essentially beef sashimi. Swirling it a bit to pick up the complex salty sweetness of the ponzu really elevated the taste and the fried garlic and mayo rounded it out well. The vegetables even picked up some of that marinade and meat juices so I had no problems eating even the daikon. The seared salmon was served in the same ponzu, mayo, garlic combination as the beef though of course it had a completely different reaction. The salmon was super fresh and firm, with a great color and texture. The light sear on the outside and the still cool and raw center was a great contrast of texture, flavor, and temperature.

After the first round of dishes I was ready to really get into a party mood, so I ordered a 1st Flightflight of sake, rice wine from Japan. Kinka actually makes a house sake that was one of my favorites of the night. Crisp dry finish and a slightly sweet polished taste. Sake is categorized by how much of the rice grain is polished before the fermentation process. The more it is polished, the clearer the sake, and the more pronounced the flavor. But just like anything else, this is a game of preferences. Just because a sake is super polished (usually2nd Flight to around 50% of the original grain) doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best tasting. It’s all down to what you prefer, and the only way to figure that out is to try as much as you can! Over the course of the night I had two sake flights that helped me figure out my favorites. Kinka‘s original sake is highly recommended, as well as the Yawari which is a bit sweeter.

I drank because I ate, but now I have to eat because I just drank! It’s a vicious, wonderful Kinka Spicy Salmon.jpgcycle. So what better way to chase my sake flight and second beer than with another beer and more dishes? First I ordered their negitoro which, translated is literally ‘green onion’ (negi) with ‘tuna’ (toro). This is a popular sushi dish in many Japanese sushi bars, and Kinka turns it into more casual bar fare by serving it like a dip or make your own taco. The negitoro is finely minced Albacore tuna that is mixed together with some spicy mayo and plenty of green onions. You spoon a little (or aKinka Short Ribs lot, it’s your party) onto the nori seaweed sheets, dip it into the soy sauce, and enjoy the bite size morsels that pack plenty of flavor. Just the right amount of heat is balanced with the green onion and there is nothing quite like the texture of roasted seaweed to bring out the best in fresh fish. I also had kalbi, which is admittedly a bit more Korean than Japanese, but who is going to complain about grilled marinated beef short ribs? The marinade is sweet and salty and the ribs are grilled with just the right amount of char and smoky flavor. The rib meat is chewy and firm (though for Asians this is a good thing, as we enjoy a bit of bite to our Kinka Baked Oystermeat) but still yields well enough and peels right off the bone. It was also in the second round that I had the absolute highlight, must have, cannot be missed dish of all the Kinka establishments. You. Must. Have. Their. KAKIMAYO. ‘Kaki’ meaning ‘oyster’ and mayo. This is the BEST. Oh man. My mouth waters just thinking of it. Giant behemoth sized oysters are shucked and prepared with tiny button mushrooms, spinach, garlic, Japanese mayo, and cheese and then baked in the oven until the cheese is bubbling and and the oyster liqueur begins to simmer. The oysters themselves firm and plump up with a super concentrated flavor and that gratin like effect of the cheese and mushrooms makes this dish savory, salty perfection. Do. Not. Share. If you want this, and you’ll want this, get your own.

After this round I had another Sapporo and another sake flight, after which I was ready to wind down the night’s meal with juuust a few more dishes. Because it’s vacation, andKinka Kimchi Udon what do we have on vacation if not license to live in the excess of what we deny ourselves normally. I begin the end with some kimchi udon. A fusion dish of chewy, firm, broad Japanese udon noodles mixed with a combination of spicy cod roe and kimchi, Korean spicy pickled cabbage. After the super savoriness of the oysters, this spice, as well as the crunch of the cabbage, was most welcome. In Japanese restaurants, it is not taboo to slurp your noodles, though it isn’t exactly expected or a ‘compliment to the chef’ either, as some click bait travel articles might have you believe. It is simply the way of doing things. Kinka Kara AgeThe udon noodles are incredibly slick and smooth, and with the weight of the broad noodles and the length, they are particularly fun to slurp. In between noodles a bite of the spicy cod roe and kimchi will waken any dulled senses, and the green onion and nori strips serve as balanced accompaniment. No visit to a Japanese pub would be complete without some of the best fried foods to grace your cholesterol count. Japanese frying techniques have been elevated to art forms, from the world famous tempura, to the humble home style frying like ebi furai and kaki furai. First, karaage, fried chicken pieces served with a garlic mayo. You can see in the pic that these are not just some popcorn chicken to shake your fork at. These are giant pieces. Juicy thigh meat is cut up into sizable chunks and then fried with very little batter, so the skill of the person frying is important as there is no batter to shield the tender meat inside. Good karaage has a crispy exterior with a juicy tender interior. These pieces wereKinka Ebi Fry just like that. Some bits of skin perfectly fried crisp, juicy dark meat, and that Japanese mayo is like sweet golden nectar on EVERYTHING. If you have not ever known the joys of Japanese mayo, I feel for you. Kewpie Mayonnaise. Marvels of the modern world, get that delivered. The last dish I had was the ebi furai. A simpler, homier version of shrimp tempuraebi furai is battered deep fried shrimp with spicy mayo and served with fried shrimp crackers. I grew up with these crackers but for those who are not familiar, they are puffed up chips made with powdered shrimp that have a strong fishy taste. The ebi furai kept the shrimp inside juicy, tender, and plump and the fried breading had no excess oiliness or greasiness. A uniform texture with no overdone or underdone bits, perfect to be eaten tail and all. Oh yes, you have to eat the tail.

This was only my first night in the city, and honestly you would have thought I was in Tokyo. The entire environment and ambiance of Kinka Izakaya is incredible. You are greeted with the standard ‘Irasshaimase’ and a super attentive and cheerful staff. Orders are yelled out in Japanese and the open kitchen acknowledges in equally loud, forceful, and energetic cheers. Order a sake bomb and the staff lead you on a cheering ritual to drop shots of sake into a glass of beer. Great food, great staff, and an authentic and energetic environment really set the mood for a great trip. As I stumbled back to my hotel, full and happy, I knew this was going to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession and love with this city.

Day 332

Man: 299 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 325: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 3: Things to do in Montreal; ‘Detonate’

Honestly there really is so much to do and see in Montreal and Quebec that to try and do both cities in one post would be just too much of an undertaking. So today’s post is specifically just what I did and saw in Montreal.

Although Quebec City is the capital of the province, Montreal is very clearly the metropolitan center. Much like Quebec, Montreal was built and first founded on the banks of the St. Lawrence river, but as the years went by and the city began to rapidly grow into a major hub, the businesses and homes slowly began to work their way up the mountain to where most of Montreal’s downtown area is now. Old Montreal stands where the city was first founded, at sea level with the St. Lawrence. The city proper, with its downtown area, major shopping, and incredible dining, are further inland, and Mount Royal Park stands at the peak of the city, commanding an incredible view and vast, beautiful nature trails and grounds.

Getting around the city is very easy. It never feels as congested or busy as New York City, and a leisurely walk around most major areas won’t take as long as it would in New York. The city is a bit smaller but still has a convenient easy to navigate grid layout. Buses run regularly and charge a flat fare regardless of destination and the metro connects all the major areas of the city with plenty of different stops. What I did, and what I would highly recommend, is to get a multi-day pass. $18 CAD gives you unlimited rides on the bus and metro for three days. I only used a cab (Uber) once, and that was because I had  gotten caught in an unexpected shower on my way to a place I would have normally walked.

Old Montreal Walking Tour

There are plenty of walking tours of Old Montreal, but I highly recommend Local Montreal Tours. Our guide was a real local, having grown up in Toronto but living inOldMontrealBagel.jpg Montreal for the past ten years. He was very knowledgeable, friendly, and did I mention it was a food-centric walking tour? In the span of three hours you’ll cover 1 1/2 miles of  Old Montreal with 6 food stops, including a brewpub. I actually learned quite a lot, like how almost nothing in Old Montreal is actually old. Most of it has been redone to look old because the original buildings were replaced and moved further up on the city. The weather was great for our walking tour and we got to check out some incredible locations. We met at Crew Collective Cafe, which is a collaborative work space and cafe in the former headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. It was so cool to order your food at an old fashioned bank OldMontrealGuideteller’s booth and the building, having such an important history, was clearly built to impress with the marble floors and the giant brass doors with the ornate arches. The tour goes in a large loop, passing through Place d’Armes, the Basilica, the old port, and some of the few remaining original structures from Montreal’s inception. I enjoyed every food spot they picked, which they touted as being some of the most popular and authentic locations that local Montrealers went themselves. It was a wide variety of dishes too. We started with a twist on the traditional bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese, a vegan carrot cake (it was surprisingly better than it sounded, but it’s not gonna convert anyone anytime soon), an upscale version of a traditional Quebec convenience store for a corn and meat pie, a Portuguese deli for soup and salad, a brewpub for locally brewed beer and locally made cheese, and it ended with an incredibly delicious, rich, warm, and satisfying French bread pudding with maple syrup cream. All in all a great way to introduce yourself to the city’s history and quest for reinvention.

Cirque du Soleil: Volta

Montreal is Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters, so I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to catch a show straight from the source before it headed out to the rest of the world. Volta is CirqueVoltatheir newest big top production and the stage is set on a port in Old Montreal with the St. Lawrence river and Montreal Biodome in the backdrop. You would know from past posts my love affair with Cirque du Soleil. Most recently I’ve seen their stadium production Turok and their other current big top production, the incredibly impressive over the top back to the roots KuriosVolta is…well, it’s an experience of identity. Like Turok and their Vegas production KaVolta is much more plot-driven than their usual productions. There is a pretty clear and defined story to follow which creates the framework and context for the acts. Because of that though, Volta is notably milder and tamer than say, Kurios. A few acts are definitely less than memorable, but the story, about creativity and expression and self-identity, is CirqueVoltaStagecompelling and inspiring and their second act performances, especially the BMX finale, is freaking ridiculous. It’s like they saved all the adrenaline and energy for this wild finale that honestly took my breath away and had me at the edge of my seat. I would also note that the music of Volta is one of the best I’ve heard. The instrumentals have a very heavy techno-rock energy as it was created in collaboration with French electronic band M83. Though Volta might not be under the big top when you visit, if you are in Montreal and have the time and luxury, I’d highly recommend catching a Cirque show.

Bota Bota Spa

One of the most important things I wanted to stress with this trip was the need to destress. I’d finally freed myself of the shackles of one unsatisfying job and before BotaBotaSign.jpgjumping into another, I thought I would give myself the chance of a longer fuse before feeling like I’d detonate. So I did some research on some spas in the area and decided to visit Bota Bota Spa in Old Montreal. Bota Bota is in fact, a boat…boat. A permanently docked former St. Lawrence ferry boat converted into a luxurious oasis of floating relaxation on the banks of Montreal. Never really had a full spa day experience before so not entirely sure what to expect but I booked a Monday afternoon ‘For the Sailor’ package of a Swedish massage and a men’s facial. The entire boat smells like orange incense and there is only the sound of relaxing, gentle, bossa nova covers of pop songs. Conversation is strongly discouraged so as not to disturb other guests, though if you are with someone else you can chat in one of the many heated outdoor whirlpools or in the separate pool area for socializing. Most though are perfectly content to snuggle into a warm fluffy robe with some herbal tea and a book. Between treatments you can do a water circuit, which is a real shock to the system in the best way possible. Spend fifteen to twenty minutes inside their sauna, sweating out toxins and opening the pores. When you’re completely drenched, immediately step outside and submerge yourself completely (meaning head under water also) into their chilling ice bath. You’re gonna feel your heart race, your skin will tighten and pores will start freaking out, and your breath is gonna get really shallow. But if you’re like me you’ll BotaBotaSpastart laughing at how freakingly painful and cold it is and you’ll feel your system start rushing the adrenaline and endorphins. Try to dip yourself a couple times and stay in for at least five minutes before running to the safe and warm embrace of one of those whirlpools. After the bubbles get you back to normal, dry off, find a nice sunny warm spot to relax, and read or rest as your heart goes back to normal and you reacclimate. I arrived early enough to do one circuit before my massage, and had time to do it twice more before my facial. The massage was super relaxing and at times, because I requested it, a bit painful as they really worked some high stress areas. The facial, which was really a first for me, was a learning experience. The scrubbing and the exfoliating and the weird stinging feeling of whatever the hell she put on to open up the pores, I mean my god, she was trying to convince me that normal human beings are supposed  to do this two to three times a WEEK. Who would have time to do anything else?! Bota Bota is an incredibly luxurious experience and the facilities are clean, comfortable, and super relaxing. If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle but still be close enough to view it from the whirlpool jets, definitely book a day here.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Here’s something great: at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, admission to their MontrealMuseumFineArtspermanent collections is always free. The day I went I had only about three hours to peruse, but even that was just barely enough to visit every one of the permanent exhibits. The Museum has an incredible collection of paintings, sculptures, and even some artifacts from Canadian settlers and First Nations peoples. I’ll be honest with you, the only time I ever became super hyperly aware of how alone I was, was when I was browsing the collections at the Museum. There was a deep and profound moroseness to walking among some of the greatest MuseumPortraitsexamples of art completely alone. But it was a beautiful and unique moroseness. The kind that just reminds you and affirms in you that desire to be with someone and why all of this is worth it. There’s this one particular section on the third floor, there’s a wall of classical portraits and landscapes and it’s wall to wall floor  to ceiling all mashed in together. And across from it are a few benches and I just sat there, staring, and there was this real visceral emotional response that caught right in my throat. I had to remind myself why I was doing all this, what I was looking for and working towards and hoping to find again. I can’t say you’re all going to have some weird mental emotional connection, but I can say, if there’s any place you can have it, it’s going to be here.

There’s still so much more to do in Montreal, this was just the sampler platter I gave myself in the four days I was there. I had three days in Quebec, and that’s up next.

Day 325

Man: 292 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

Day 306: The Man and the Lone Traveler; ‘Pursue’

Today is my last (physical) day in the office, and then two personal days to complete the week (and the paycheck, hahah). This was waiting for me when I got in this morning.

Last Day

I do love the people I work with. They’ve got a great dark sense of humor. This is the team I work parallel to; they do the real main support and me and the rest of my team, we’re just the front lines, the ones who go out to the stores, so we get all the glory. It’s a shame really, wish I could give them a bigger shout out for all they do. I like the people I work with. (For, well, that’s a different story.)

So Friday I leave for Canada on my own, and aside from two nights where I will be meeting up with some old friends and a group walking food tour of Old Montreal, I will primarily be doing everything on my own. I’m very used to being a single traveler nowadays, though honestly I never thought I wanted to be one, or thought I would be. There are still so many trips I wish I could take with a special someone. I’ve done Vegas with friends, Vegas with family, but never Vegas with, you know, her. Or Aruba. I’m pretty sure that one I’ll specially reserve still though. No point going there by yourself.

The first couple times you do it, the first few nights there can sometimes be this tug of Solivagantwar between wanting to go out and just staying in your room where it’s safe and comfortable. The first few nights with this job when I was traveling to stores I’d just order insane amounts of Chinese delivery or pizza. Then I started slowly and gradually going out. First to chain restaurants, simple places where lone business travelers could find company by proxy in the shared chaos. And then to the more quiet, independent, noticeable places where a single diner could actually stick out.

There are definitely a few pros to traveling on your own. It gives you an unparalleled feeling of power and agency. There is nothing you’re doing that you don’t want to do. For the obsessive-compulsive planner (such as myself) it’s so much easier to have your entire trip planned out two, or even three weeks out, down to the day and time (which I have). For the free spirit, there’s no other accommodation or negotiation to answer the call of every whim. It also forces you to be more engaged and focused on your destination. When it is just you and a blank slate trip in a brand new city, you really have to create your own story. There is no safety blanket, no other who you can abdicate power and authority to. You are your own destiny’s author. So guess who’s fault it is if you have a terrible trip. I’ve put my ear closer to the ground than ever before and really had to find what it was I wanted to find, what I wanted to get out of every trip, every opportunity. I think it makes me a more responsible, aware, and excited traveler.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way trying to convince people solo travel is better than accompanied travel. I’m not even trying to compare the two. What I am trying to do is convince those people who have always been on the fence about taking that trip and whose only sole reason for not going is because they don’t have someone to go with, to go. No one has to be convinced more than once about going on a trip with people. Everyone speaks of the joy of traveling with company. But solo travel shouldn’t be something intimidating, or hell, only for seasoned travelers. Newbies, rookie travelers, and the uninitiated should find the comfort and confidence to do it too.

I think the biggest, and sometimes funniest, obstacle to traveling alone is the constant need to contextualize yourself to curious minds. The person checking you in will ask you if you need one key or two, expecting you to say your travel partner is just late arriving. Eating AloneAlmost every pre-booked excursion or activity you try to go on will default to two adults. You’ll never have to worry about reservations at restaurants, though I would please encourage you to avoid the comfort of sitting at the bar and actually own the experience of dining by yourself at a table. Your waiter will do a double-take and try to figure out if they need to pour water into the second glass in front of you. I used to like to mess with people when this happened. At resorts when I was traveling as an agent to do a site inspection or familiarization trip, I would weave sob stories of being an abandoned groom whose bride-to-be left him at the altar, but the honeymoon deposit was non-refundable. At restaurants I would eagerly sit upright and tell my waiter I was there for a blind date who would inevitably never show up. I think it’s interesting that for as much as people don’t want to travel alone, they don’t want to think others would either. Hahah.

I’m too excited and too eager to take this trip to have to sit by the wayside and wait for someone to go with. There are enough adventures out there for a solo traveler to pursue that can fill one’s life with stories and interest while you move ever closer to finding the person you’ll travel with for the rest of your life. You have to remember that this is the time that they are out there making stories and experiences to share with you as well. Don’t be the one to bring nothing to the table. For anyone who might be hesitant or unsure of solo travel, take it from someone who’s spent the past two years now doing it, it can open up a whole new world. Maybe in the future I’ll do a solo traveler guide, but really, all you need is the drive. So if I could sell you the emotions and the motivation, I would.

Day 306

Man: 273 Loneliness: 33

Day 294: The Man and the Amicable Split; ‘Knackered’

UPDATE ON THE WHOLE JOB THING.

Finally told my boss. Waited because a) still wanted to be able to go to Punta Cana and b) some office friends wanted to watch my boss’s reaction and see if she’d cry or lash out.

On the a) front, I’m still going. In fact, one of the first things she mentioned after I told her I was leaving was trying to make sure I would still be able to go. Yes that’s right, I’m leaving and she wanted me to go on this trip.

I mean…I made the presentation and no one else knows the material and also no one is available to travel but…let a guy feel special.

So that means next week is Punta Cana, the week after is my last (and I’ll take two personal days to end it even sooner), and the week after is Montreal and Quebec! Have to start planning that. Definitely doing it by rail. There is no form of transport more romantic. I actually have an old high school friend who lives in Montreal with her husband, and I haven’t seen them since the wedding like, three years ago, so this’ll be nice to see them again. And oh my god. The food. Montreal is doing some truly incredible things with its talented pool of young chefs.

So the conversation itself was very…strange. My manager took the sudden news of my departure surprisingly well. Actually…she sort of…counter-offered. But not really. She let me know that she applied for raises for the three of us in the department and that it might be accepted starting July, and the number was very promising (more than the offer from the other company). And she was surprisingly candid about not wanting to lose me and wishing I might consider based on the proposed pay. Leave it to Mother to talk some sense though. She wanted me to update her as soon as the conversation was done. I told her ‘counter offer is more than job offer, but it’s a proposed raise and for all three of us’. Her response was ‘oh so you’re not special. Nah, leave them’. I am full on leaning towards that, but just for the heck of it, I’ll give it the weekend to ponder and email my manager my decision.

It’s a strange feeling having almost both feet now already out the door. It’s nice to know it won’t swing shut on me at least and that there’s a nice slow gentle closing.

Now tonight I have to visit my martial arts school of the past three or so years and tell them I’m leaving them as well. I found a new school that actually focuses on one particular style, and it’s one I’ve always wanted to learn. I’ve felt absolutely knackered already with the stress of one departure but I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment. If I had a girlfriend maybe I’d break up with her today too. Oh god.

Tonight it’s video games and late night food with my brother to recover. And dreams of Punta Cana and Canada.

Day 294

Man: 261 Loneliness: 33