How to Get Totally Banged Up in Montreal (In a Good Way, Obv)
Notes from an in-the-know out-of-towner, Boston chef Michael Serpa.
March 30, 2016
I try to get to Montreal at least once a year. The city, with its mix of beautiful French architecture and droopy 1980s Soviet Union bunkers, has the friendliest locals, and an insane concentration of really fucking good restaurants in random neighborhoods and subterranean basements. It's some of the best cooking in North America. Here’s how I do it. —Chef Michael Serpa
L'express, VIA Mixte Magazine
L’express. This should always be your first stop for lunch. This is the ultimate Montreal restaurant. Über French, classic, packed. The lunch crowd seems to all be regulars and the place will fill up quickly, so I try to get there by 11:30 and get a spot at the bar. Some of the bartenders have worked there since I was born, so they know what's up. Excellent, fairly-priced wine list, with a nice lineup of half bottles. Get some oysters (usually colville bays), steak tartare with frites, and something else super French (calves livers, terrine, etc.) Enjoy the vibe, drink your wine in their miniature wine glasses, eat your fries and love life. This should be a good base to get the day started.
VIA Le Bremner
Badass, Kind-Of French Places
Le Bremner. This super hip basement spot in Old Montreal is one of the best seafood spots I have been to in North America. Chef/Owner/TV Sexy Guy Chuck Hughes is the head honcho, but the man running the ship is Danny Smiles. Danny is super chill, talented, and an all around good dude. A recent meal here totally blew our table away; perfect little Canadian oysters, caviar and fish sticks, whole roasted fish, all washed down with copious amounts of Chablis. What really took it to the next level was the super friendly service and great ambiance. Just a really great spot where you want to hang out, laugh, drink, and crush seafood all night. I can’t wait to get back here.
Joe Beef. Joe Beef is the too-cool restaurant that everyone probably wants to hate on, but then they end up going and seeing the light. This place is fucking awesome, and one of the defining restaurants of Montreal. Super cozy, dim, jovial. Great wine program. Fun servers. Irish music. Large fur animals in the restrooms. Also some of the most delicious and over the top food you can get, but somehow still done with finesse and skill. David McMillan and Fred Morin are the “Joe Beef Guys” who you see in fancy print magazines and international travel shows, but you also see them here having a glass of wine or pastis with guests and making sure their shop is running smoothly. Impossible to eat here without leaving stuffed and drunk.
Au Pied de Cochon. One of the stars of the Montreal restaurant scene, Martin Picard is the wild man chef-owner of this shop, specializing in riffs on traditional food from Quebec. Lots of offal, maple, foie gras, and general deliciousness. I have only been here once because I am actually kind of scared to go back — how can you not order the venison kidneys and the boudin noir and the foie gras pancakes and the duck in a can and the foie gras stuffed pig trotter? Literally the best place I could think to find myself on a cold, snowy night in Montreal with a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape and a fine spread of animal flesh. Go here, but be warned, you may never be the same.
VIA Nora Gray
Nora Gray. Nora Gray is a little tiny Italian restaurant near the Bell Centre, run by Ryan Gray and Chef Emma Cardarelli. The space is reminiscent of a 70s basement, with a great wine program (which seems to be a trend in Montreal) and beautiful, clean food. I feel guilty because every visit to Nora Gray has been just for a quick snack and a bottle of wine. The menu always looks so good we end up getting a little more than planned, but a full dinner visit is warranted soon. It's nice to have some quality Italian food in a city that usually leans French.
Cafeteria Las Palmas. This super tiny Colombian spot in the Plateau more or less saved my life on a Montreal trip a few years back. After copious amounts of wine and foie gras the night before, I was on death’s door, with a five-plus hour drive back to Boston looming. We found this spot and after a few empanadas, chicharrones, and a huge tripe stew, I was back from the dead. Small mom and pop shop with owners who have lived in Montreal for over 20 years. Insanely cheap, and a perfect recovery meal.
VIA Le Vin Papillon
Loïc. We found Loïc after being sent there by the Le Bremner team. Out a ways past Joe Beef on Rue Notre Dame, this wine bar is dark and sleek. Great wines again (with some help from Ryan from Nora Gray) in a minimal space. Have only been for a few beverages, but food offerings look good as well. The bonus is the upstairs music spot Turbo Haüs: be all fancy drinking your naturally-produced old vine Chenin Blanc downstairs, then go upstairs, get loose and down shots of tequila at a rock show.
Le Vin Papillon. This little wine bar from the Joe Beef team is just a few doors down in Little Burgundy. Vin Papillon is headed up by Marc-Olivier Frappier, the head chef from Joe Beef, and the lovely Vanya Filipovic. Vanya has a stellar wine program focused on natural wines and you should just drink whatever the staff tells you to. The food is vegetable-focused small plates and is all damn tasty. Seven layer dip, thin shaved jambon cacio e pepe, celeriac with bagna cauda, and more. Open for lunch a few days a week as well, an exceptionally good spot to wash away a hangover with a few delicious and interesting bottles of wine.
On the ride up
Coffee Corner. Usually I ride up to Montreal super early in the morning, and this is my go-to spot to refuel and get some breakfast. A classic greasy spoon right of the highway that always gets the job done.
On the ride home
Waterworks. This is a beautiful spot located in Winooski, Vermont (right next to Burlington). Big space with awesome local beers, great food, and a nice place to get a Bloody Mary to clear up your Montreal-induced hangover.
The Farm House Tap and Grill. Nice spot in central Burlington where you can occasionally find some Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, and other cult beers that are hard to find outside of the Green State. Good burgers.