Champagne, oysters, marrow bones, soup, white wine, foie gras, steak tartare, frites . . . My wife has taken to reciting Montreal as a poem. The temptation is to describe it as a gourmet's paean to this delightful city, though it's hard for it not to end up as a gourmand's dirge -- given the sort of grande bouffe that a short visit to Montreal swiftly becomes.
Montreal was home for me through high school and university, though I moved away long enough ago to now enjoy the city as a foreign place with plenty of fresh discoveries to be made. For instance, Le Petit Alep, the Syrian restaurant opposite the Jean-Talon market. Or Byblos, the tea room on Laurier East -- another Levantine hideaway, this time in the Plateau -- where, on a good day, you are likely to see novelist Gaétan Soucy engaged in impassioned conversation or writer Nadine Bismuth discussing a screenplay. My Algerian taxi driver, whose self-made CD mix included Afro-pop artist Khaled followed by Frank Sinatra, was a fair indication of the city's altered demographics, and yet Montreal's charm is that although there is always the possibility of some convivial new place, the restaurants that are among its great institutions have remained remarkably constant over the years.
The language laws are what have protected this city from an international economy that makes even the pubs of London, or Dublin, seem like imitations of our imitations of theirs. Blessed are the places where faces remain the same. Waiting on tables, here, is a career.
In Montreal, restaurants such as Toqué will rise and fall, but there is still only one Schwartz's. Le Mas des Oliviers is still the best French restaurant in the old anglophone downtown -- at lunchtime, especially -- and L'Express, the wonderful brasserie on St-Denis, north of Avenue des Pins, is not yet a chain.
Even the department stores here are unusual. Simons, the Quebec City retailer that is ensconced in the old Simpsons building on Ste-Catherine and Mansfield, is as necessary a stop for my wife and two girls wanting to shop for inexpensive and stylish, good quality gear, as a long wander over the mountain and through the East End is for me.
In truth, when I visit Montreal these days, I try my damndest not to pick up the telephone and make my customary reservation at L'Express, a restaurant that's so dependable and pleasing that it can make the decision to experiment during a short stay seem wanton.
Still, last time around, I resolved to try another place, and selected Joe Beef, a small restaurant opened by a young, go-their-own-way trio on Notre-Dame, near the Atwater market. Even in midsummer, this end of the venerable rue St-Henri tends to be quiet, a forgotten place that has until recently eluded the gentrification that inevitably seizes the more handsome, derelict spaces of cities. It used to be, predominantly, a block of good antiques shops. It's also home to Di Lallo Burgers -- known for the No. 6, a Montreal fast-food treat distinguished by its slice of hot pepper. Now, the family run burger joint's new neighbour is a carnivore's true paradise.
At Joe Beef, there's a bison's head mounted in the washroom -- a not-so-subtle testament to the owners' predilection for meat. The menu is written in chalk on a blackboard the length of the brick wall above the front room's small number of wooden tables, and the atmosphere is a cross between an archetypal French tavern and the Montreal store that it once was. At the short bar between the tables and the kitchen at the back, one of the owners typically holds court in chef's whites and, the couple of nights that I was there, served oysters that were salty and divine because they had been shipped in from France that very day.
There is more than meat here, of course, though that is what most people come for. The rib steak here is of a size that would suit Fred Flintstone, but is prepared in a fashion that would please Hergé's Obelix -- thick, on the bone, and sliced over a bed of boeuf bourguignon on a platter for two. I left satiated, certainly, though not altogether satisfied. Eating is expensive here, for Montreal especially, and I did think that it might have been more courteous, even professional, to have advised our table of four that four plates and starters could as easily feed eight. As it was, there was a student among us to take the choice steak away, and she finished it with her McGill friends at a nightclub in the wee hours even before making it home. You've got to love Montreal, and as I write this I cannot help but wonder if I've just been away too long.
The bill at Joe Beef was enough to send me back to what I knew though and so, the next evening, I made that call to L'Express. Even if your call is too late for a table, you can't do much better than drink at the long bar and be efficiently minded by Claude Masson, in my mind one of the best bartenders in the world. The restaurant has, in recent years, made one small concession to its success, and will now push an English menu your way if you look the part, but with none of the old Québécois hostility.
" C'est pas nécessaire," I say, " je le connais par coeur"-- that's not altogether true, though I do know the menu well. There are always a few specials that demand attention, handwritten on little square inches of paper along the spine of a menu that I once pinched so I could mount it on the wall of my English kitchen and not just think of home but boast about it. Perhaps this time around, I would have champagne, marrow bones, steak tartare -- just like the last time, in fact, but no matter.
Some things never change -- and shouldn't.
Le Petit Alep: 191 Jean-Talon St. E.; (514) 270-9361.
Byblos: 1499 Laurier Ave. E.; (514) 523-9396.
Schwartz's: 3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd.; (514) 842-4813.
Le Mas des Oliviers: 1216 Bishop St.; (514) 861-6733.
L'Express: 3927 St. Denis St.; (514) 845-5333.
Joe Beef: 2491 Notre-Dame St. W; (514) 935-6504.
Noah Richler's This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada is in bookstores now