I switch hotels and swap one Montreal world for another. The taxi trip between Le Petit Hôtel and Casa Bianca, a boutique bed-and-breakfast housed in a white Renaissance Revival house on Avenue de l’Esplanade, lasts only a few minutes but covers much territory. Moving north from the port you follow the chronological expansion of the city, leaving behind the tightly clustered stone buildings of Vieux-Montréal for the shady blocks of the Plateau and the wide-open expanse of Frederick Law Olmsted’s park around Mont-Royal, the not-quite-a-mountain at the center of the city. Casa Bianca sits at the corner of a long row of park-facing apartment houses—ornate mini-mansions in alternating architectural styles that are connected to one another and set back from the street by little lawns. Across the street are tennis courts and fields for soccer and running, and beyond that the soaring angel statue, the miles of hiking paths through park forests.
I step out to watch the tennis players for a while in the early evening sun. At the edge of the park I pick up Avenue de Mont-Royal and take it east through the Plateau’s blocks and blocks of cafés, theaters, bookshops, and pretty tree-lined streets. At La Salle à Manger, a new bistro on Mont-Royal, I find a seat at the bar, near the charcuterie-hanging room and close enough to the kitchen to watch the action. A young dude in a baseball hat is arranging lobster and snow crab on pillowy slices of brioche. The place is humming, with white tiles and a tin-lined bar back; big doors open to the street. I order a glass of Brouilly. “Okay, I will get you drunk now!” says Alexandre, the barman, misspeaking but not wrong. “I mean I will get your drink.” Alexandre warns me the house charcuterie plate is a lot for a lone diner but supports my choice. Again, he’s not wrong. A full inventory of what was presented on this one wooden board—shredded jambon persillé; pork rillettes; headcheese with sweet carrots; a sweet, tart pickled tongue; an outstanding rabbit pâté in a jar—would take too long, plus the selection will have changed by the time you go. The thing is to go. It’s really good.
I am dwelling on the food, I know. Forgive me. This is a city that dwells on its food. That celebrates its feasting. That has feasting at the core of its original mission statement. A couple of days later, I’m at L’Express, the old, vaunted, and still quite elegant bistro on Rue St.-Denis, having a drink with David McMillan, a chef and restaurateur who, with his partners, runs Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and McKiernan Luncheonette Bar à Vins in the once mostly Italian neighborhood of Little Burgundy, to the west of downtown. McMillan and I are discussing the central importance of food to the culture of the city and province.
“We’ve been dining here for four hundred fucking years, bro,” McMillan says. “Samuel de Champlain, one of the first Europeans to winter here, brought five kinds of ham! The list exists. He came with Spanish hams, with olives, preserved pineapples, vanilla, saffron, a spice rack that would be unmatchable today. He had sweet wine from Portugal, Sicilian wines.”
From the very dawn of settlement, then, there has been a specific, pleasure-driven approach to this wild and vast territory.
“They were eating multicourse meals inside a fort a mile down the road from here,” McMillan says, tapping the zinc bar. “People are out hunting every animal they can, just to taste them. Champlain decreed l’Ordre du Bon Temps. He made a proclamation that, okay, we’re stuck here for the winter, so let’s just have fun. They’re doomed to the fort next to the water and they think they’re in China, but they are shooting everything and feasting and determined to enjoy it.”
McMillan is similarly determined, a swaggering, intelligent, combative, and extremely endearing and funny man. He is sort of the west-side Anglo complement to Martin Picard, the Québécois chef whose Restaurant au Pied de Cochon, on Duluth, is known for its hugely generous portions of foie gras poutine, duck-in-a-can, and seafood platters. McMillan and Picard—also bigger than life and instrumental in putting Québécois food on the food nerd’s map—represent the two biggest influences on Montreal’s current vogue for food that’s elemental, gutsy, and fun.