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Magnificent Montreal

Both Canadian and Québécois, part anglophone and part francophone, with one foot in the past and the other firmly in the future, Montreal is a city that defies easy categorization.

By Adam Sachs

My friend Adam Gollner is on the phone, talking fast and describing the plan. Actually, it’s a series of plans. Or, more accurately: a jumble of narrative fragments, promising leads, and meandering enthusiasms that, taken together, will form the big mosaic picture of everything I need to know about Montreal.

Gollner is precisely the type of person you’d want piecing together such a mosaic. A funny writer, the author of a beautiful and odd book about food and obsession called The Fruit Hunters, he is a Montreal native and committed explorer of the near at hand. He is someone who is not averse to spending 20 minutes on the phone explaining the history and provenance of a particular Portuguese rotisserie chicken you need to try, plus the strategies for placing an advance order and staging a picnic—only to call back five minutes later with directions to an alternate Portuguese chicken shop that has superior french fries. In other words, he’s an ideal guide, not just because he has the lowdown on how the grill men at Rotisserie Portugalia actually learned their poultry skills in Angola during the war for independence, but because he is a tireless seeker of such stories. And because he knows that no matter how many details you collect, Montreal, like any great city, resists being fully known.

So our plan for the next day is to drive from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the coffee shops and markets of Little Italy to the outlying Middle Eastern quarters of Villeray and Ville St.-Laurent. Leaving behind the pretty but well-traveled areas of the old stone port and Vieux-Montréal, we’ll wander and see how the living city is stitched together. “When you realize you can never quite get a hold on this place, that there are always these hidden pockets that surprise you,” Gollner says, “then I think you’re getting at the magic of Montreal.” Plus, there’s asujuk sausage sandwich he thinks I need to try at a Lebanese grill joint on the outskirts of town.

For now he’s urging me to take a walk up “The Main,” or Boulevard St.-Laurent, the traditional dividing line of the city, separating Montreal’s east and west sides. Walk up through the remnants of the Jewish section, pastSchwartz’s, up past the slick bars and boutiques to where the cruddy curio shops meet the Portuguese bakeries around Rue Rachel. Rotisserie Portugalia is a block to the west. Romados, the place with the good french fries, is a couple blocks east. Walk the chicken over to the park in front of Mont-Royal for a picnic lunch in the sun.

There is one problem: snow. I’d flown out of New York under warm, clear skies and landed an hour later in a freak late-spring snowstorm. The picnic will have to wait.

I like to think of cities as conversations. First you hear the simple layered cacophony of so many people talking to (and at and over) one another. Then there are the wider dialogues—between its buildings and nature, between planning and chaos, between the urban fortress and the world outside its imaginary walls. A visitor listens in on the chatter, on the racket a city makes—the hum of its hive—and is engaged in this never-finished conversation about what this place is.

I take the unseasonable snow as an admonition from the city, a not-so-subtle reminder: It’s not all fun and games here. Je me souviens, goes the motto of Quebec, printed on all the license plates: I remember. And while nobody agrees on what precisely Quebecers are meant to be remembering, there is a shared awareness here, a respect for the collective memory of hardship in a cold, remote province at the northern edge of North America. Winters are long, dark, and brutal. In the warm months, Montrealers take to their parks and waterfront activities and outdoor amusements like Swedes worshipping the vernal equinox. And for the same reason: the break in the season brings life, sanity, exultant release.

Late on my first night in town, I peek out my window at the quietly chic (and aptly named) Le Petit Hôtel: a picture-postcard view of snow wetting the slanting stone streets of Vieux-Montréal. Right picture, wrong season. I run around the corner, up narrow Rue St.-François-Xavier and into a bistro called Garde Manger. Expecting an empty room, I pull back the velvet curtain on a packed house. There’s a fire going, tables of happy people eating steak frites, loud music, and one empty seat at the end of the bar. Two things the bartender says bolster my sense of being in the right place. One, they do half portions of the lobster poutine (their upgrade on that addictive Québécois absurdity, french fries with gravy and cheese curds, here topped with buttery chunks of lobster meat and a bisque-ish gravy), so I can in moderately good conscience order that and the bavette. Second, he says that this brief blizzard won’t faze the locals. “It’s been so nice recently,” he says, with a gentler French-Canadian take on the French shrug. “This makes us appreciate it more.” Whatever they’re talking about among themselves, the communal message of all these packed tables on a miserable wet Tuesday night is clear: we are unfazed. Above all, this is a city that takes its pleasures seriously. A little pre-summer snow is nothing, a reason to hunker down, light a fire, keep the dinner going late into the night.

The sun is back the next day, snow an impossible memory, spring rejoined. On Rue Dante, in Little Italy, the young men are talking to the old men holding court at the little tables outside Caffe San Simeon. The young men stop for a moment, speak French, and keep on their way. Between one another, the older gentlemen speak Italian and sit smoking cigarettes, ignoring folded copies of Corriere Canadese. The women are elsewhere. We stop in for coffee to drink on a stoop with our natas, yellow custard-filled pastries we picked up at a nearby Portuguese bakery. Everyone pays with dollars decorated with the face of the queen.

Inside there are Italian soccer flags on the wall and Italian soccer on TV. A graying Italian is making sandwiches.

“What’s on those?” Gollner asks while we wait for our macchiatos to be fixed.

“Soppressata, mortadella.”

“What do you call it?”

“Soppressata, mortadella.”

“That a house special?”

The man looks up for the first time. One gray eyebrow shoots up, like the back of an agitated cat.

“It’s an original.”

We ask about the patron saint of the café.

“Who’s St. Simeon? I have no idea. But I’ll tell you what happened. We used to have a soccer team a lot of years ago. Called St. Simon. In 1979 we went to register the business and I guess the girl was French because she added the e.”

In Montreal, every conversation the city conducts with itself is bilingual, at the very least. This former seat of British power is now the second-biggest French-speaking city in the world, a two-tongued metropolis in a francophone province in an overwhelmingly anglophone country and continent. There is an odd sense of doubling everywhere—signs and menus in two languages, overheard conversations flowing fluidly from joual, as the Québécois French pronunciation is sometimes known, to English and back again, as you pass from block to block. East of Boulevard St.-Laurent, in the residential Plateau neighborhood, or down by the old port and Vieux-Montréal, you’re walking through a French movie with English subtitles. In western Anglo pockets, a wandering American forgets he’s speaking the language of the minority. When, days later, I finally make it to Romados, the Portuguese chicken place Gollner had suggested, the sweet lady cutting up the juicy, smoky chicken winks at her customers: “Obrigada,thank you, merci, bon voyage.…”

The easy ideas about Montreal are, like most easy ideas, somewhat right and mostly off base. The picture of Montreal as a kind of toy-size Paris on the St. Lawrence seems wrong, though I guess that Montreal is there if you go looking for it in the right neighborhoods, where all the restaurants have terrasses and all the boulangeries are staffed by nice girls flown in from Brittany.

But as we make our way from Little Italy to Jean Talon, the city’s largest farmers’ market, it becomes clear that the city’s true identity is more nuanced than it seems on paper or in its language laws. Near the market, a store called Disco Maghreb sits across from Italomelodie. A Korean jewelry shop shares block space with a Vietnamese grocery.

Gollner drives us way out north along Boulevard St.-Laurent, off the top end of the tourist map and far from where most of his friends from the hip Mile End neighborhood would ever find a reason to venture. The cliché has been that this is a city of the “two solitudes.” “The Lebanese Canadian writer Rawi Hage says this is wrong, that it’s really a ‘multitude of solitudes,’ ” Gollner says as we drive past an outpost of Adonis, a Middle Eastern-focused supermarket the size of a Walmart. “Someone asked him how you bridge these solitudes, and his answer was: ‘food.’ ”

You will recognize Abu Elias, a large Lebanese takeaway grill and grocery, not by the name painted on the window but by its always-crowded corner parking lot. The cars are triple-parked, their drivers inside waiting on orders ofkafta, shish taouk, or the mythical sujuk. Or they’re back in the car eating, transported by nostalgia, displaced or real, and hoping nobody appears to ask them to move. A Lebanese friend introduced Gollner to Abu Elias. “This is Beirut, exactly,” the friend had said, breathing in the smell of spices from the grill.

If this is Montreal’s Beirut, then I guess we are in the Paris of the Middle East of the Paris of North America. It gets complicated. But inside, all is friendly disorder. One of the guys working the counter notices us noticing the cervelle,or brains, at the sandwich bar. “You try!” he says, pointing at his skull. Then he points elsewhere and emphasizes the soaring effects a good pressed brain sandwich with pink pickled turnips can have in the virility department. I can’t make any claims for it in that way, but purely as a sandwich (garlicky, piquant, creamily brainy) it is a firmly uplifting thing.

We take our sujuk sandwiches and tamarind sodas to the car. Sujuk is a kind of dry sausage with many Middle Eastern variants. I’ve never been to Beirut, so I can’t say if this sujuk is faithful to the original. I can only say that at Abu Elias it is a deeply flavorful, oddly earthy, fantastically tasty, and somewhat confusing thing to eat. Confusing because it looks simple but then plainly isn’t: a grilled sausage, painted with garlicky aioli and wrapped in charred flat bread. But the taste just…keeps going. “Oh, my God,” Gollner shouts. I suggest that it’s like you stop chewing and the sujuk chews back at you. I know I’m not explaining it right. A light rain falls; cars arrive and want our parking space. We back out of the lot, still trying to chew and digest it all.

One of the striking things about Montreal is that it doesn’t look like anywhere else. There are borrowed elements—bits that feel French, commercial strips that seem taken from any medium-size North American city’s downtown, houses that wouldn’t stand out in Boston.

And there are architectural features unique to the landscape of the city, like the external staircases everywhere, protruding like exotic steel muttonchops from the faces of otherwise normal buildings. Mostly it is the jumble of it all that gives the place its singular feel, like pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit together but form a picture of something unexpected, lovely even: the elegant fieldstone buildings of the old city; the hulking industrial shells and silos along the water; the iconic Farine Five Roses neon sign, blinking on and off like a noir movie backdrop; the dainty pinks and greens and purples of the painted Victorian houses of the Plateau. It’s a college town, a dump, a city of art, placid parks, islands rigged for play and diversions, gray insular urban neighborhoods, and colorful suburbs. It is tiny by megacity standards but world-class in its weirdness, in its shifting, enduringly comfortable indigestibleness.

I switch hotels and swap one Montreal world for another. The taxi trip between Le Petit Hôtel and Casa Bianca, a boutique bed-and-breakfast housed in a white Renaissance Revival house on Avenue de l’Esplanade, lasts only a few minutes but covers much territory. Moving north from the port you follow the chronological expansion of the city, leaving behind the tightly clustered stone buildings of Vieux-Montréal for the shady blocks of the Plateau and the wide-open expanse of Frederick Law Olmsted’s park around Mont-Royal, the not-quite-a-mountain at the center of the city. Casa Bianca sits at the corner of a long row of park-facing apartment houses—ornate mini-mansions in alternating architectural styles that are connected to one another and set back from the street by little lawns. Across the street are tennis courts and fields for soccer and running, and beyond that the soaring angel statue, the miles of hiking paths through park forests.

I step out to watch the tennis players for a while in the early evening sun. At the edge of the park I pick up Avenue de Mont-Royal and take it east through the Plateau’s blocks and blocks of cafés, theaters, bookshops, and pretty tree-lined streets. At La Salle à Manger, a new bistro on Mont-Royal, I find a seat at the bar, near the charcuterie-hanging room and close enough to the kitchen to watch the action. A young dude in a baseball hat is arranging lobster and snow crab on pillowy slices of brioche. The place is humming, with white tiles and a tin-lined bar back; big doors open to the street. I order a glass of Brouilly. “Okay, I will get you drunk now!” says Alexandre, the barman, misspeaking but not wrong. “I mean I will get your drink.” Alexandre warns me the house charcuterie plate is a lot for a lone diner but supports my choice. Again, he’s not wrong. A full inventory of what was presented on this one wooden board—shredded jambon persillé; pork rillettes; headcheese with sweet carrots; a sweet, tart pickled tongue; an outstanding rabbit pâté in a jar—would take too long, plus the selection will have changed by the time you go. The thing is to go. It’s really good.

I am dwelling on the food, I know. Forgive me. This is a city that dwells on its food. That celebrates its feasting. That has feasting at the core of its original mission statement. A couple of days later, I’m at L’Express, the old, vaunted, and still quite elegant bistro on Rue St.-Denis, having a drink with David McMillan, a chef and restaurateur who, with his partners, runs Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and McKiernan Luncheonette Bar à Vins in the once mostly Italian neighborhood of Little Burgundy, to the west of downtown. McMillan and I are discussing the central importance of food to the culture of the city and province.

“We’ve been dining here for four hundred fucking years, bro,” McMillan says. “Samuel de Champlain, one of the first Europeans to winter here, brought five kinds of ham! The list exists. He came with Spanish hams, with olives, preserved pineapples, vanilla, saffron, a spice rack that would be unmatchable today. He had sweet wine from Portugal, Sicilian wines.”

From the very dawn of settlement, then, there has been a specific, pleasure-driven approach to this wild and vast territory.

“They were eating multicourse meals inside a fort a mile down the road from here,” McMillan says, tapping the zinc bar. “People are out hunting every animal they can, just to taste them. Champlain decreed l’Ordre du Bon Temps. He made a proclamation that, okay, we’re stuck here for the winter, so let’s just have fun. They’re doomed to the fort next to the water and they think they’re in China, but they are shooting everything and feasting and determined to enjoy it.”

McMillan is similarly determined, a swaggering, intelligent, combative, and extremely endearing and funny man. He is sort of the west-side Anglo complement to Martin Picard, the Québécois chef whose Restaurant au Pied de Cochon, on Duluth, is known for its hugely generous portions of foie gras poutine, duck-in-a-can, and seafood platters. McMillan and Picard—also bigger than life and instrumental in putting Québécois food on the food nerd’s map—represent the two biggest influences on Montreal’s current vogue for food that’s elemental, gutsy, and fun.

McMillan can get very excited about any of his many interests—white Burgundies, women, the scourge of bottle service, the preservation of Quebec’s language, trains (he and his partner, the chef Frédéric Morin, are so into trains that they’re basing a chapter of their forthcoming book on cooking on the Canadian railways, bringing back to life such otherwise forgotten recipes as “dining car calf’s liver”).

McMillan comes from Irish stock, but he is adamant that the province retain its French nature and language. We’re back in his car now, cruising around between neighborhoods he wants to show me.

“This is a French-speaking province,” McMillan says, fixing me with a sidelong look that says: this is important. “There is, how can I say it, une richesse culturelle for me. I’m not a separatist but I think this has to be preserved at any cost. I feel no kinship, none, with the rest of Canada whatsoever. I worked in Vancouver for a while, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around why nobody smoked, why the restaurants were full at 6 p.m., and why all anybody ever talked about was salmon. What that city needs is some different blood.”

He pulls over and we go into Wilensky’s Light Lunch, a vigilantly unmodernized, nearly 80-year-old Mile End landmark deli where the one special—the “Wilensky’s special,” beef bologna and salami on a smushed toasted roll, mustard mandatory—is served with one option (cheese). We drink cherry Cokes from a fountain and eat our specials on stools unchanged since the place was featured in hometown literary star Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and the later film version of the novel.

“If it weren’t for the French Canadians rising up once in a while and threatening to break from the rest of Canada, we probably would have been steamrolled in the eighties,” McMillan says approvingly. “We scared away a lot of money. If there hadn’t been this exodus of big business, which was the worst thing and the best thing that could possibly have happened to Montreal, we would have become Toronto.”

Uncertainty. Tension. The question of the survival of French as the dominant language. There is a kind of anxiety here, an always close-to-the-surface conversation about what the city is, where it’s going, and who it will become.

Part of this is the natural consequence of a place divided between two languages and cultures: a province that nearly separated from the rest of the country—then didn’t. And part, I think, is a kind of reverse-aspirational, romantic notion the city has of itself as gritty and real. Whatever the macroeconomics, it is universally agreed that Montreal’s own uneasiness, its volatile internal dialogue, has preserved it as an interesting, creative, affordable, sometimes grubby, much-loved oddity.

The sun is still out a few days later, streaming in the windows of Réservoir, a modern bistro where I’m having lunch with François Dufaux, an architectural historian.

He calls Montreal “an imperfect America and improbable Europe.” It is at the periphery of both, is not quite either, and, as a result, is totally other.

I’d heard several Quebecers refer to traveling to the provinces outside their borders as “going to Canada,” as if to a foreign country. “Technically, it’s the same country,” Dufaux says. “But emotionally, it’s another one.”

The divide between French and English neighborhoods dates to a time when the English were the dominant ruling class and built themselves housing in the west. The French were left to their own devices in the east. Nobody thought to make the neighborhoods connect. The streets literally didn’t run directly east to west, resulting in side-by-side isolation, a kind of de facto Checkpoint Charlie of obliviousness and mutual disregard.

And those external staircases?

“Oh, that’s a bloody Ph.D. thesis,” Dufaux says in a soft French accent slightly colored by his university years in London. The short answer is that it’s an accident of Scottish builders’ influence in the 19th-century development of the city. Whereas displaced Londoners were accustomed to row houses and leaseholds, the Scottish tradition was for year-to-year rentals built on top of one another. When the city imposed new setback laws to encourage green front lawns, the habit of building cheap staircases in back, to maximize interior space, moved street-side and mainstream.

I have a theory to try out on him, I tell Dufaux. I am sure it will be a deeply unpopular suggestion. My theory is this: That despite the very real and lingering political tensions between francophone and Anglo, despite a culture of political intrigue and complaint, despite the crushing winters and all the inherent imperfections, compromises, and contradictions of the city—despite it all, Montrealers are happy. Or actually: not despite but because of these things.

My idea is that this is what life in a complicated, beautiful city should be. We want to fight with one another but live in close proximity. We want challenges, but not too many. We want alliances and enemies and intrigue, but not at the expense of, say, good bistros with excellent French wines and an extensive, public, well-designed bike-rental system that works. More than anything, we want to feel a part of something worthy, somewhat threatened and singular.

“It’s true,” Dufaux agrees, hesitant to endorse unqualified joie de vivre, “that despite whatever people say, it is a pleasant city to live in.”

And as with any great city, it’s the lifestyle that is the true attraction. “One of the ironies of Montreal,” Dufaux says, “is that the official institutions targeting the visitor, the museums and all of these things, they’re just not that interesting. What is interesting is daily life.”

Miguel Syjuco is a dapper, young Montreal-based writer who grew up in the Philippines and has lived in New York. His first novel, Ilustrado, took the Man Asian Literary Prize and was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May. “Let me put it this way,” he says when I ask him to describe the allure of life here, for both transplant and visitor. “The last time I had friends visiting from New York, I brought them to have foie gras poutine and then to a Montreal Roller Derby later that night, a topless diner the following morning, a quick look at the old city and a walk through the park to watch the LARPers [live-action role players] joust, beat their drums, and do battle in a clearing by the woods. That to me was a great Montreal weekend.”

It’s the mix that keeps you off balance, interested. To experience it, just find the nearest Bixi. The aluminum-gray bikes are in little rental stations everywhere, part of the public bike system launched last year. One day I meet up with a young francophone journalist named Judith Lussier. She recently wrote a book devoted to the lowlydépanneur, the indigenous Québécois version of the corner convenience store. Deps, as they’re called, are a part of the city fabric you don’t really notice—until you do. The dep sells cigarettes and lotto tickets, wine and beer—and, crucially, delivers the latter during Habs hockey games.

“A dep can give you a taste of Quebec even if you don’t really speak the language,” Lussier says. “People in Quebec love so much their little dep, even if I say in the book the reason they are popular is that the Quebecers are lazy.”

Lussier mentioned a classic dep called Le Pick Up, which has a sandwich counter and had recently been turned into a popular hipster lunch hangout. So I find a Bixi stand near Casa Bianca and swipe my credit card for deposit; the front wheel clicks unlocked, and I’m free to zip up the side streets north of the park, along empty industrial blocks, past the corner of Rues Mozart and Marconi, and onto a street lined with auto shops and Italian bakeries, the air fragrant with fennel seed and motor oil.

Le Pick Up is as advertised: a corner grocery store that sells artisanal pulled-pork sandwiches and attracts an arty bilingual crowd, but still has its takeaway beer fridges, racks of candy, and the rest of the classic conveniences.

After lunch, my cycling route is circuitous, serendipitous, aimless in a good way. Down through Little Italy, past the church with its mural of Mussolini and the Pantalon Napoleon factory and a store selling ancient sewing machines with brand names like Brute and Blue Streak. The No. 18 bus crosses my path, its route sign flashing the wordsGo…Canadiens…Go.

I push along the Avenue Laurier, peeking into the windows of Les Touilleurs, the best-curated kitchenware store in the world, then turn down Rue St.-Denis, past L’Express and, as gravity takes me down the hill, I glide past the bar-lined Latin Quarter, its terraces packed with McGill students laughing in the sun. I mean to head back to the hotel but the city has a hold on me now. I sweep past the Cirque Éloize practice studios in the old Dalhousie train station and down through the tight stone alleys of the old city. I ride along the quays of the port, past the blue and yellow peaks where I plan to see Cirque du Soleil in a few nights, and east along the water where a bike path leads under a snaking highway and over the Canal Lachine.

Montreal by bike—the experience of swiftly shifting landscapes, cities giving onto other cities, ever more to explore. Eventually I stop, just to stop, because I’m tired. But there’s more to see, more paths to follow. I stop and walk a bit, wobbly from the ride and the sense I’d covered more ground than was possible in a brief afternoon exploration. But the city keeps on going, always going.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.