Once planned for demolition to make way for a highway along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, the Old Montreal neighborhood today plays host to the historic and the contemporary, and is fast becoming a haven for food and wine lovers. Wide-eyed tourists and locals alike are drawn to chic restaurants offering Champagne and oysters, haute cuisine versions of down-home dishes and private imports of select wines.
Old Montreal, which is about seven by 10 blocks and easily navigated by foot, charms with its 17th-and 18th-century buildings and cobblestone streets, then surprises with its upscale boutiques offering art, furniture and fashion. Several museums, numerous hotels (such as St-Paul Hotel and Hôtel Nelligan), and even a floating spa make for such a stimulating agenda that there is little need to leave the neighborhood.
Montreal’s local cuisine is a tourist magnet. Diners can find a full range of eateries offering seafood, steak and native dishes. Kitchen Galerie Poisson sports a modern décor and a hand-written menu that changes based on what’s in season. East and West Coast Canadian raw oysters, oyster beignets and a soup with crab, corn and bacon are especially good here. The restaurant’s wine list is unusually long and varied, but because of high government taxes on imported wines, markup can be steep. A bottle of Souverain 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $18 in U.S. retail stores, was listed at $65.
High wine prices are what make BYO restaurants a major attraction for diners. Steak Frites St-Paul, a Quebec-based chain with an outpost in Old Montreal, offers a pared-down menu with prime cuts of meat, all-you-can-eat French fries, green salad and a choice of several steak sauces. The BYO policy allows guests to bring in as many bottles as they like and receive complete wine service from the staff without corkage fees.
Don’t leave Old Montreal without trying one of the city’s signature dishes, poutine. This Canadian specialty is a dish of French fries sprinkled with cheese curds and doused with hot gravy, which melts the cheese. Montréal Poutine serves several versions from basic 100% vegetarian with soy-based gravy, to those with meat and vegetables. At hot ticket eatery Garde Manger, chef Chuck Hughes, also a television cooking show host, offers his version with lobster.
For a novel approach to lunch or dinner, how about MYO (make your own)? At Old Montreal’s Ateliers & Saveurs, an expert staff guides you through cooking, cocktail or wine classes in a pristine kitchen and bar. Students prepare and enjoy lunch with wine in an hour; dinner or wine with tapas classes are two and half hours.
For pre-dinner cocktails and wine, drop by Le Sarah B. Bar at the InterContinental Hotel, named for Sarah Bernhardt, queen of French theater. Here, on the edge of Old Montreal, Bernhardt’s favorite absinthe is served in the traditional fashion: A sugar cube on a slotted spoon is placed over a glass of absinthe. Iced water from a fountain melts the sugar cube and the water and sugar cloud the Absinthe, creating a diluted and drinkable version of the high-octane spirit. The bar also makes specialty cocktails with absinthe, including the refreshing Jacques Cartier Collins (absinthe, lime and soda).
Quebec’s alcohol trade is controlled by the government-run SAQ (Société des Alcools du Québec), which means not only high taxes on imports but a limited supply of wines. Establishments serious about wine, like the Botero Bar at LHotel Montreal, go the extra mile by privately importing select wines. Here, you can taste a carefully curated array of wines from Bordeaux to Sonoma while perusing a knockout contemporary art collection, including works by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns.