Vv Magazine’s editor-in-chief Nicki Laborie visits Montreal—and can’t help but compare it to Toronto.
Having been born in France and raised in Montreal, I have always loved the European charm that this French Canadian city holds. However, over the last few years many Montrealers have moved in hopes of making more money, and those still living there complain about the politics, the slow economy, and the state of the city. I decided that, instead of gallivanting through the islands—which is usually my choice vacation—I would go home to visit with family and friends. I hadn’t spent much time in Montreal in years and from what I’d read, I wasn’t expecting much. Here’s what I learned: don’t believe the (lack of) hype and open your eyes to the city’s charm because Montreal still has it—no matter what they say.
After enjoying a few days of downtime being pampered by my very French Mom, as well as a day of Nordic thermal therapies and massages in the mountains at Strøm Spa (a must if you’re in the area), it was time to head to downtown Montreal and see what all the fuss is about. I immediately notice construction, and lots of it. But the streets are packed, the people are jovial, and the overall vibe feels pretty cool—just as it always has.
We checked into Hotel Le Crystal and were immediately impressed by the hotel’s opulence and the extraordinarily friendly service. Check-in was seamless and our executive suite was not only big enough to host a cocktail party for 30 (which I actually considered), it also had two full bathrooms, a kitchen, living room, terrace and a great view of downtown Montreal. For anyone staying in the city and looking to be comfortable (or if you’re there on an extended stay), I can’t think of a better place. The busy hotel also has a pool and hot tub overlooking Mont-Royal, adding a definite vacation element. So, Montreal’s economy is—what again? Tourism certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering.
Over the course of the five days, my goal was to try as many of the latest and greatest restaurants the city has to offer. Much like Toronto, Montreal has a rather overpopulated restaurant scene with new eateries opening weekly.
On the first night, we tried Jatoba—a new modern Japanese small plate restaurant that has been the talk of the town since Kelly Ripa endorsed it on her show after this year’s Grand Prix. The food was truly fantastic, in particular the brussel sprout chips, which are dangerously addictive, and the king oyster mushroom miso “gratin”—a novel and delicious plate of utter beauty. The stunning garden patio and attentive service was also refreshing and reminded me that there are still people who make serving a career and not an interim job until they get their “real” job.
Back at Le Crystal, the hotel’s proprietary restaurant La Coupole comes with high praise. While I didn’t enjoy a full meal there, I did have a light lunch that was excellent. Later that day, we joined 40 people for a dear friend’s 40th extravaganza at Soubois, opened just one month ago. Given that Soubois is owned by the same people behind Les Enfants Terrible, my expectations were high, but I was also wary as a new restaurant always has growing pains. Let’s just say this was the best culinary and service experience I’ve had in ages.
The food was nothing less than spectacular as we tried over ten dishes served family-style. The creativity was beyond anything I’ve seen in Toronto and the flavours and freshness were on point. With 40 people, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in decades, the service could easily have been forgiven for being less than perfect, but fortunately they nailed that too. I can’t say enough great things about Soubois. It has my full endorsement and I cannot wait to go back.
With a slight headache from the previous night, I headed out for lunch the next day at Brasserie Bernard, the hottest eatery on Bernard Street in Outremont. Opened one year ago by a very good friend—and truth be told the woman who inspired me to go knee-deep into the restaurant business 20 years ago—this 150-seat brasserie is the epitome of a bustling local hot spot. Serving classics like tartares, mussels and duck confit, the food is comforting and delicious. And here I go again—the service! I couldn’t help but notice that as soon as my friend had a full bowl of empty mussel shells, a server would smoothly switch it out for a fresh bowl. I have never experienced this in Toronto.
Speaking of Toronto, later that day we were meeting friends at the Montreal restaurant all Torontonians seem to be talking about: Nora Gray. I was excited because, well, good food does that to me. The short of it is that I was disappointed. This is a typical Toronto restaurant planted in the hot new Montreal neighbourhood of Griffintown. The food was good, but far from wow and the vibe truly felt like a Dundas West 30-seat restaurant with a lot of hipster attitude and pretense. I will leave it at that.
On our final night we hit up Scarlet, another new hotspot in Old Montreal. The charming garden patio, similar to Jatoba’s, has that European flare that I crave so much. The Mediterranean décor complements a globally inspired menu that features dishes from Italy to France to Portugal. Deciding to stick with seafood, we indulged in the luscious fish and seafood Catapalana that ignited memories of eating seafood by the sea, and Argentinian shrimp with a sauce that required extra bread for dipping. It was the perfect last vacation supper.
The day we left, I felt sad. No, I wouldn’t move back, but it saddens me that this city with so much amazing culture, superstar restaurateurs, fabulous fashion (because clearly I had to shop), and eclectic vibrancy isn’t doing well politically or economically. I love Toronto, but I feel we could all learn from a city that is going through terrible economic problems and still manages to delight and look damn happy while doing it. What do they say? Mo’ money, mo’ problems?
Would be nice to see Toronto take a couple cues from its French counterpart.
What do you think of Montreal? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.