By Angela Corrado
I’ve always been a strong believer in finding beauty no matter where you are. If it’s not the architecture that screams astounding or the absence of a silky sanded beach that leaves you in dismay, then maybe the fellow residents exude an extreme happiness? A similar open mind should be kept when traveling. A place will only ever be as interesting as the people who visit it.
Fortunately, on a recent visit to the Canadian side of the Thousand Island region, I was able to escape the near onset of island fever thanks to a Montreal visit with an interesting group of fellow travelers. The city surroundings that greeted us on our nearly blindfolded, GPS-less journey to the French inhabited city were unexpected to say the least. The building scapes comprised of abandoned industries were not at all what we read about. I wanted to chalk it off to the gloomy weather or our round-about entry into the downtown scene but it appeared, in the scheme of things, that our carpool leader possessed stellar navigational skills. We were generally headed in the right direction.
It turned out the misleading curtain cast over Canada’s second largest city wasn’t unlike the red velvet cloth drawn at France’s Moulin Rouge. Once I got past the exterior, an intriguing show of art, music, sights and especially food was found. Could a ho-hum traveler pass through this city in translating frustration and not recognize its beauty? That’s quite possible but my particular visit was rejuvenated with the interesting folks along for the ride…and maybe a beaver tail or two.
While the city was considerably large, we focused our explorations in Old Montreal, a historic area located southeast of downtown which contained many attractions such as the Old Port of Montreal, Place Jacques-Cartier, Montreal City Hall, and the Bonsecours Market. Our stomachs arrived empty and in dire need of French influenced grub. We attempted to navigate the cobblestones but there was a strong pull toward the dining scene, most likely governed by everyone’s appetite.
We breezed past art galleries, gift shops and bistros eventually landing at Jardin Nelson, a historic restaurant in a building that dated back to 1804. More than suitable for a quick lunch, the bustling eatery possessed an eye catching facade restored in beautiful fashion. There was a subtle hint of historic ruins in the reconstructed wall of open-air windows that led to the street. It was done in a classic manner where one could hardly even imagine the place in shambles.
Murmurs of a language diverse crowd erupted from various dining courts and mixed in with the live jazz but our table of eight was relatively silent (at least from our usual noise level). We scanned the menu and made our selections. I agreed to split the Quatre Fromages Pizza, a gourmet pie consisting of the house Nelson sauce (alfredo like), cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan and goat cheese.
Before diving into a mound of dairy delights atop the thin crust, my pizza partner and I went scoop for scoop in a tiny crock of French Onion Soup. How could we not sample such cuisine in a place dominated by French culture? Sparing ourselves from humiliation, we dared not pronounce Soupe a l’oignon gratinee avec emmental suisse and got right to the point.
The bilingual waitress was friendly and fluent enough to upsell us on a nacho special with cranberry toppings. The tortilla chips and fruit combination played a sweet versus salty game as I expected them too, duking it out with my torn taste buds until they surrendered to a flavorful peace.
The French onion soup was awkwardly edible as usual, but above average in every other department. A few friends respectfully ordered crepes and I sampled my way through their leftovers of the Basilico and Diva selections. The Basilico was probably my favorite (although it lacked dairy products thanks to a lactose intolerant friend) made with a tomato batter, emince of chicken breast, and pesto. The Diva reminded me of chicken pot pie, minus the flaky crust, which is my least favorite part of the well known meal. I’ll have to make pot pie in a thin pancake from now on.
After paying our separate bills (Fun Fact: the French do not make a big stink about this at all and actually recommend it) we decided to grab espresso to beat back our approaching food comas. However, not one of us could focus on the caffeinated drink long enough to meet the group goal and we ended up wandering the streets for a good hour before devising a serious plan of attack.
We weaved in and out of boutiques, tiny art alleys and the narrow, but driveable streets. I sampled my very first Maple Lemonade, a tart and refreshing treat, and danced with the idea of forcing poutine, a traditional French-Canadian food that resembles American Gravy Cheese Fries, through my digestive system.
Before long, two friends broke off from the group to explore the city by rented bike, four of us sat down at Vallier Restaurant for al fresco drinks and another two wandered aimlessly nearby.
When six of us regrouped, we continued our tourist exhibition, playing off each other’s personalities and unique views of the city. There were intriguing elements at every turn. We spied modern apartment buildings that resembled the ancient housing structure of Pueblo Indians, live music and entertainers, but I especially noticed an abundant food scene. Although my comrades and I were not in search of a Man vs Food challenge, eating your way through just one block of Montreal would be difficult to say the least.
Through hours of walking, our only true destinations were bathrooms and restaurants and the latter was up to bat. We found a lively Hotel/Tavern near the Old Port and settled for inside dining. Taverne Gaspar’s boasted classy pub fare with a sleek interior design. It was a restaurant that didn’t feel too foreign after stepping inside, especially once the waiter informed me he had friends in Harleysville.
I was fond of their house lager, downed two pints with ease and once again picked at my friends’ remains to avoid waste. This dining strategy brought a taste of Traditional Pea Soup with Smoked Bacon, Grilled Spatchcock Cornish Hen, Onion Rings, Beef & Tuna Tartare, plus Mashed Potatoes to my attention.
Everything was exceptional but the onion rings stood out. They were they type that had you convinced the vegetable was picked out of the ground just that way, fried outer shell and all.
It was a combination of the satisfactory cuisine, drinks and maybe the easily separated bills that had us all in high spirits as we departed from Taverne Gaspar and began our two hour journey back. Montreal was in the rearview mirror and a quick recall of our day seemed blurry at the time, but I knew it was a city I’d miss in a few days.
If the chance arrives to return in the future, I most certainly would. There was too much to see in one day and far too much to taste for one belly.