Whether they’re escaping frigid winter temperatures in a cozy brasserie or enjoying warmer terrasse weather in the summer, Montrealers love to eat out. La belle province’s most epicurean city has more restaurants per capita (almost 5,500 and counting) than any other foodie-friendly town in Canada, with dozens of new eateries opening every month.
It isn’t surprising then that the city also boasts a large community of food bloggers, cookbook authors and gourmands who closely follow the culinary scene. And while many of them would tell you that local ingredients, vegetable dishes and mixology continue to dominate Montreal’s restaurant culture right now, their take on how the city’s movers and shakers entertain at home reveals another, countervailing set of trends: the rise of intimate gatherings, of casual menus and of a new social staple: the weekend brunch party.
Montreal’s restaurant-centred brunch scene is legendary. From classic options such as bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon at Beautys or a baguette beurrée from l’Express to such au courant bites as Manitoba’s foraged mushrooms on toast and Salmigondis’s market-fresh-ham-and-curried-field-pea Benedict, midday get-togethers with friends and family are a regular ritual for McGill undergrads and the city’s fashion, design and marketing mavens alike. Now, though, the habit is coming home.
Carrie MacPherson, a social-media co-ordinator at Holt Renfrew and the founder of the women’s webzine Zurbaines, is known within the city’s online foodie community for hosting elegant brunches at her beautifully decorated apartment in Old Montreal. The occasions are a reflection of her personality: fashionable, unpretentious, ultra-welcoming.
“I love hosting brunch because I’m at my best in the mornings,” says MacPherson, who usually sets the stage for weekend gatherings with glasses of sparkling wine, fresh tulips and vintage-style tablecloths and plates in pale, pastel shades. “I am a bit of a girly girl and my place is very girly, so when I entertain I use Marie Antoinette champagne coupes, my mother’s German china and French table linens. My motto is: If it’s pretty, everything will taste better.”
MacPherson prefers to serve her guests a simple menu of French toast made using her own freshly baked bread, bacon and apple compote. The meals are much more focused on enjoying her company – mostly a mix of professional and amateur food-industry players – than spending too much time fluffing pillows and reducing sauces to impress them.
The casual dining movement sweeping through Montreal’s restaurant industry is likely to blame for the overall laid-back approach to eating in. In addition to breaking bread over brunch, potluck dinners and DIY affairs, such as make-your-own-pizza parties, have worked their way into many home entertainers’ repertoires. Meals are often prepared ahead of time and finished with the help of guests. Family-style platters of comfort-food favourites like coq au vin and beef bourguignon far outnumber individually plated portions of haute cuisine.
“It has taken me a long time to accept that I don’t need to serve perfect, trendy food just because I’m a food writer,” says Lynne Faubert, a prolific contributor to cookbooks on everything from cocoa to the favourite recipes of Quebecois vedettes. “I’ve accustomed friends to good no-fuss food and I usually put them to work cooking or chopping whatever’s not ready.”
Aside from involving invitees in the preparation of the meal, an intimate guest list is also key to this style of home entertaining, the couple behind the popular blog Foodie Date Night advise.
“If you need to get folding chairs from the basement, you’ve invited too many people,” say Aaron Polsky and Carolynne Meunier. “We only ever invite as many people as we have chairs around the table.”
And, as MacPherson notes, entertaining around a table in your own space means there’s no need to worry about having to eat quickly and clear out to make room for the next ravenous seating.
“I prefer brunches at home because you can take your time,” she says. “At a restaurant, you always feel the pressure of the next group wanting your table.”