Beginning today (and continuing into next week as well), The Food Section travels to Montreal for the third edition of Moveable Feast. Previously installments of this ongoing feature have taken this site to Florence, Italy, and Washington, DC, for a snapshot of local food culture beyond New York City. While these earlier feasts have been helmed by guest editors, this time I will personally captain the ship as The Food Section ventures north of the border for a taste of Montreal -- from the city's French-influenced restaurants to its bountiful public markets. (A special thanks to Martine of Banlieusardises and Suburblicious for her e-mails guiding us to some of Montreal's best gastronomical offerings).
But first, a few fleeting observations of Montreal, the city.
The first time I visited Montreal was last summer, when my wife and I went there to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We had such a wonderful time on that visit that we were determined to travel there again, and we returned for a brief vacation this past August.
Montreal feels at once very familiar and completely foreign. On the one had, the city is only seven hours away from New York. The same amount of driving time could take you from New York City to Cape Cod, but a trip to Montreal puts you in a completely new environment that is linguistically and culturally different than our own. I don’t think I’ll never get over the fact that you can make such a journey in a day’s drive. On the other hand, although there are moments in Montreal when you could mistake yourself for being in Europe, the city is distinctly North American. Take the cars, for example. As my wife likes to point out, the scale of the automobiles in Montreal is the same as what you would find in the United States -- you won’t find any Smart Cars bounding around and SUVs seem to be as popular there as they are here.
And, although French language is on display everywhere -- in shop and street signs, bookstores, and newspapers, nearly everyone we came into contact with was bilingual, slipping easily from French into English, often without any discernable accent.
While the close quarters of the tightly packed residential streets of Montreal's Plateau district will be familiar to any New Yorker, one key difference is the ubiquitousness of outdoor terraces. It seems as if Montrealers have a constitutional right to a few square feet of outdoor space, as small balconies pop out from the midriff of nearly every rowhouse. Also striking are the exterior wrought iron stairways (often forged with detailed decorative patterns) placed on the outside of the buildings to get second floor dwellers up to their apartments.
Montreal's built environment maintains a fascinating balance between a modern, if not futuristic, aesthetic and tradition. Portions of Montreal’s underground, a bustling subterranean network of shopping malls and arcades that spreads underneath the city, look like something out of a science fiction film, while above ground, just a few blocks away, is the beautifully preserved Vieux Montreal, where the narrow cobblestone streets and 18th and 19th century architecture could easily be mistaken for that of a European city.