“Let’s Freeze Our Asses Off!” – A Winter Weekend In Montréal

Few places feel more European in North America than Montréal. The largest city in Canada’s Quebec province, Montréal exudes a classy cosmopolitan vibe, rich with exquisite cuisine and culture. While the city’s winters may not be for the faint of heart, we decided to experience it nonetheless. With an extra day off from work, we hit the road, equipped with an obscene amount of luggage for a three day trip. “Winter clothes are bulky!”, or so my wife says.

We needed them. The best way to survive almost 0 degree Fahrenheit is with one layer after the next. When we told one Montréal bartender that we were on vacation from New York City, he responded, “So when you asked yourselves what you wanted to do this weekend, you answered: ‘Let’s freeze our asses off!'” Yes, I guess we did.

Day 1: Checking In

We checked into the Ritz-Carlton Montréal early Saturday morning around 3 AM. The drive from New York City was about seven hours, including stops for food and gas. Fortunately, the weather was mild, even though the cold (hovering around freezing) pierced our clothing as we traveled further north. When we arrived at the Ritz, it felt like they had waited all night just for us. We were greeted by the valet, who also doubled as the bellman at this late hour. He whisked us inside while maneuvering both of our large suitcases. A woman at the front desk greeted us and promptly checked us in. The bellman transformed to our host, guiding us up to our room on the ninth floor and giving us a quick tour of the room’s features. The hotel had undergone a $200M renovation in 2012, and with modern features like automated blinds, lighting, and temperature control, it felt like a luxurious contemporary version of a historic hotel. Most of the hotel’s original infrastructure dates back to 1912.

Day 2: Exploring

After a good night’s rest, we awoke craving coffee. Once you wander around this city, even for only a few hours, you realize that these Québécois love their coffeeshops. The trouble was finding the right one to try. We settled on Café Humble Lion, which was just up Sherbrooke Street from our hotel. Although “Café Starbucks” was tempting! At Humble Lion, most reviewers had raved about the maple latte, but we tried their cappuccinos, which didn’t disappoint.

We knew we wanted to explore the Mile End neighborhood and its many shops and boutiques, but Google Maps estimated a 45 minute walk from the coffeeshop. The mercury had dipped below freezing so the prospect of walking that distance was not inspiring. We Ubered instead. After a ten minute ride, we found ourselves in front of the locally famous St-Viateur Bagel.

My take? Overhyped. Almost every reviewer had compared (or attempted to compare) the bagels here to the New York City bagel scene. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I’m sorry Montréal. Don’t get me wrong, the bagel I ate was good, but it wasn’t warm or airy. It lacked pizazz. I’m sure if I took it home and warmed it up, it would have tasted better, but at this place with no seating, it was not the ideal environment to indulge in an average, cold bagel. I might give a different bagel shop a chance during another trip, but I have no desire to return to St-Viateur.

After finishing our bagels, we escaped the shop as it was overrun with tourists (about ten people entered just as we were leaving). The good thing about the shop is that it’s smack in the middle of Mile End, a neighborhood that exhibits industrial chic at its finest. We toured multiple boutiques, which resemble those one might find in Soho, each with their own charm and unique vibe. Two of my favorites were the menswear shops, Frank & Oak (pictured below) and Clark Mercantile. In the former, the shop expertly combined clothing with barbers and baristas. It created quite the scene, with cool people hanging out drinking coffee while others perused the racks or patronized the barbers who cut hair in the back corner of the store.

For other interesting shops in Mile End, walk along St. Laurent Boulevard, which has everything from home decor to boulangeries and pubs. One of the pubs we tried was Siboire. It drew us in immediately with its big, open space and deep beer selection. Try the beer samplers if you want to explore different flavors. I took a journey from light lagers to dark stouts, as shown here:

We could have spent the rest of the day walking around Mile End despite the cold, but an afternoon tea reservation beckoned us back to the Ritz.

Afternoon tea here is a hot ticket. The Palm Court setting, with its Dom Perignon bar situated in its center, is luxury at its finest. The service was attentive and thoughtful, and the pastries and sandwiches complimented the tea perfectly. I went with the Lapsang Souchong, a black tea from China that’s smoked over a pinewood fire. Our server warned me about its strength, and was clearly worried because she brought me an extra plate in case I wanted to remove the tea bag. To her amazement, I survived and enjoyed every second of its strong smoky flavor. The champagne and pastries helped!

After tea we relaxed and eventually ventured out to Le Plateau-Mont-Royal in advance of our late dinner reservation at the landmark Québécois restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon. Foie gras everywhere. Wow. We called a couple weeks prior for a reservation, but were only offered space in the bar given the restaurant’s insane popularity. Bourdain may have eaten at this Martin Picard establishment, but geez. To give you an idea of the demand, the next night we overheard another couple rushing to pay their bar tab so they could make their own reservation. All walk-ins were denied at the door during our meal despite the late hour.

If you do get a table, prepare for a rich feast. The food is heavy, and the menu features foie gras on almost everything. It’s fairly pricey, but not unreasonable. We tried the Duck Carpaccio, Foie Gras Poutine, a dish with venison tartar stuffed in seaweed with a quail egg (my favorite), and Foie Gras Nigiri. I wanted to try the famed Duck in a Can, but our waiter deterred me given the rest of our order.

The food was eclectic and delectable. There are so many items to try that I will need to return multiple times to tear through them all. In a city already loaded with rich food, Au Pied de Cochon takes it to new heights.

When our feast ended, we decided to take a break before having dessert. We needed to walk and breathe. Another restaurant on our list, L’Express, was nearby, so we headed in that direction. In hindsight, we probably should have returned to the hotel. The rum bun my wife ordered was uninspiring and underwhelming. It was loaded with real rum (at least) made from sugar cane (not molasses), but the bun itself was dry and tasteless. The bar area was beautiful, but the bartender grew increasingly impatient with our loud American voices. We didn’t stay long.

Day 3: Living Like the Québécois

In the spirit of continuing to eat our way through Montréal, we started our third day with brunch. We discovered Reubens after a quick Yelp search. It’s a deli and steakhouse near the Ritz along Saint-Catherine St. W, which teems with stores and an indoor shopping mall. Reubens didn’t disappoint. They have delicious cured and smoked meats that you must try. The restaurant serves everything from breakfast food to sandwiches and steaks, and reminds me of an old-school New York style diner. We walked along Saint-Catherine St. W after brunch, eventually making our way to Complexe Desjardins, which looked far more impressive in pictures than in person.

We rerouted to the majestic and regal Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal. It was tough standing in line given the single digit temperature outside, but the beautiful architecture and design of this historic church was worth the wait. Those colors!

Celine Dion was married here, so naturally, it was grand. The altar was one of the most elegant I have ever seen anywhere in the world. We sat in a pew for a few minutes and soaked it all in.

Inspired and awed, we left the church and walked down the quaint Saint-Paul St. W. Its cobblestoned streets reminded us of the history of Montréal, a city that was founded in 1642, making it one of the oldest cities in North America. The small shops, bars, and restaurants created a distinct neighborhood charm. I could only imagine how beautiful and perfect it must be during the summer months. Fortunately, the wind was light, so although it was freezing, the walk along Saint-Paul was manageable with breaks along the way at different stores (with heating!).

We decided to warm up in a different neighborhood further south, Little Burgundy. Our first stop was the Atwater Market, a local farmers market open every day until 5pm. We explored its offerings, purchasing some of the local fare, including chocolates, quince jams, and cured meats. Samples abounded, allowing us to snack along the way.

When happy hour arrived we indulged in the local neighborhood scene, first at the Drinkerie and then at Atwater Cocktail Club. The Drinkerie was almost empty at 4PM on this particular Sunday. Part of the restaurant was under construction, so the menu was limited, but the bartender served us prosciutto-style cured meats from the area and refreshing local beers. As time passed, more people surrounded us. We decided to try one more place before dinner, and my wife discovered what quickly became my favorite watering hole in Montréal, Atwater Cocktail Club.

This cocktail bar is discreetly located in the typical speakeasy fashion. The front door is behind an affiliated restaurant, Foiegwa, and next to some dumpsters. It is easy to miss. Once discovered, however, you enter a world of wonder. With mirrors on the ceilings, the small and compact space feels large. The wall behind the bar holds racks of beautiful liquor bottles, stretching all the way to the ceiling. The bartenders were warm and welcoming. We arrived shortly after it opened around 5PM, and it was good we did, for the place filled up quickly after. The small tables along the walls were inviting and cozy. It’s the type of place you could hang out in for hours on end.

The mixology skills of the bartenders rival those of the best cocktail bars anywhere. Each drink we tried was executed with precision, style, and flair. At one point I was drinking directly from a buddha’s belly. The cocktails were balanced, with none of them overly-sweet, and always refreshing.

More French food called as dinner approached. This time we decided for something more traditional. We wanted classic French fare close to the Ritz and Sherbrooke Street. Although it was located in a hotel, La Société Montréal otherwise fit the bill. We enjoyed traditional French dishes like beef tartar and onion soup. For my main, I ordered the bouillabaisse, which arrived with a rich taste and aroma that brought out strong salty flavors in the seafood. I savored every bite. The restaurant itself has ornate stained glass windows and Parisian-style furniture. The service was quick and kind. The only disappointment was the creme brulee, which tasted more like raspberry yogurt than cream.

Bouillabaisse

Our second full action-packed day in Montréal wiped us clean of any remaining energy. We retired to our room to digest and revive for our last hurrah.

Day 4: Finishing in Style

We had a mission – fit in as much as possible before the 7-plus hour drive back to New York City. Our rental car agreement required us to return the car no later than 11PM. We headed out early, checking out of the hotel before leaving for the day. Our first stop was coffee, per usual. This time we tried a vegan coffeeshop, Leaves Cafe. I tried my first matcha latte ever. It tasted exactly like the green tea matcha ice cream that come with the soft skin and sugary coating. With a splash of almond milk, I was in heaven.

Then my wife dragged me to a Barbie Expo. Inside a mall in the middle of downtown, the Expo has over 1,000 barbies in various designer outfits, haute couture gowns, and elaborate settings (Times Square, a casino, etc.). I rolled my eyes at first when my wife suggested it, but it was actually quite interesting. The evident care required to decorate and design the Expo was impressive – the presentation was thoughtfully constructed and not a speck of dust was in sight. And the best part? It’s free! Many of our fellow visitors were under 5-years-old, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

We craved pastries following the Expo, having only had coffee to start the day, and eventually found a large selection in Gare Centrale of all places. It’s the main train station in the city. Unlike some stations in the United States, it is clean, well-organized, and full of delicious-looking food. The bakery we discovered here was Boulangerie Premiere Moisson. We ordered croissants with ham and turkey, combining breakfast and lunch in one meal. The croissants were crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside – perfectly balanced and delicious. Unfortunately our trip was cut short and we had to leave before seeing the observatory at Au Sommet Place Ville Marie because the fire alarms in the station started ringing. We had to evacuate, so the expansive observatory will have to wait for next time!

We walked around some more, trying to stay inside as much as possible to keep warm. We wanted to find a coffeeshop where we could simply sit and relax, but even on a Monday (when we thought everyone would be working), the shops were teeming with people. We even tried one coffeeshop that’s tucked away on the ground floor of a Club Monaco, Café Myriade. It continued the unique Montréal trend of blending retail shops with other services like coffee, pastries, delis, barbers, etc. Perhaps this is how we save brick and mortar establishments from online Goliaths?

With no success at finding somewhere warm to sit, we retreated to the Ritz and decided to treat ourselves to a pre-finale stop at Maison Boulud. We sat at the bar and basked in the elegance of the restaurant. The bartender treated us warmly, as if we had entered his home. He broke down the menu options with the knowledge of a professionally trained host. My wife was compelled to try it all and went with the lunch tasting menu that was a little over $40. She also selected a French wine from their extensive list. The wine bottles refrigerated behind clear doors surrounding the bar were obviously too inviting to refuse. Yours truly did not imbibe as I was the designated driver.

My sober state did not prevent me from indulging in a veal tortellini, however, which was served in a warm soupy broth. It was the perfect end to a trip filled with fantastic food. We sat there in pure bliss until it was time to finish our holiday at the casino.

One note on the casino – it’s terribly difficult to get to in an Uber or Lyft. If you do not drive yourself, you’re required to take a shuttle, so make sure your ride drops you off at the shuttle pick-up location, which is in a parking lot near the entrance (maybe a mile or so away). We drove since we were on our way out of town – the parking garage is free (they want to get people in!).

We were glad we went. The casino is a huge structure, spanning over 5 floors filled with slots, tables, restaurants, bars, and more. There are even self-service stations with complimentary soda, coffee, tea, and water. Las Vegas, take note. You can tell my wife had fun:

We’ll be back!

We may have frozen our asses off all weekend, but the wealth of culture and cuisine in Montréal more than made up for it. We will definitely be back, perhaps in the spring or summer, when the city comes alive for festival season. So if you live in the United States and have the urge to visit somewhere classy and culturally enriching, forget Europe. Head to Montréal. Even when you’re freezing your ass off, this city warms you with life.

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