How do you write about travel when you’re not traveling? We’re sequestered. Our wings are clipped. It’s a fallow period. But here are memories of some favorite places while we wait to continue our travels (we hope) later in 2021. Let’s go!
It is July 1, Canada Day, and we’re basking in the grace and civility of this world-class city despite the surprising heatwave — it’s 95 degrees and climbing.
We walk the riverbank in Montreal’s Old Port stalking a cool river breeze and a whiff of the multifarious food trucks just getting started in the shimmering heat. Way too hot for poutine, we amble to patisserie Christian Faure for his legendary, mind-blowing croissants. Hubby wants to enroll in Faure’s pastry school. He is is quite serious.
As he earnestly contemplates becoming a baker, I fantasize about relocating. I look at Montreal the way a roosting bird eyes a vacant nest. This city had me at bonjour.
Biggest and Best
We’re here for five blissed-out days and nights of the the 11-day Montreal Jazz Festival whose all-star lineup includes Ry Cooder, Ani DiFranco, George Thorogood, Jethro Tull, and hundreds more, with 500 concerts at 13 venues and seven outdoor stages.
Soaring and Swinging
We join the sell-out crowd for jazz trumpeter Chris Botti whose take on When I Fall In Love is all heartache and longing. With a sound is as big as British Columbia and as luminous as the northern lights, he is flawless. The ovation soars three balconies. Have a listen to his version of Hallelujah, honoring Montreal’s own Leonard Cohen – exquisite.
We’re lucky enough to score tickets for world-class Montreal pianist Francois Bourassa and his amazing quartet – André Leroux, Guy Boisvert and Greg Ritchie. They energize old favorites and perform pieces from Bourassa’s current album, “Number 9.” Word on the street: c’est magnifique!
Boz Scaggs returns to the festival with his legendary hits. Smooth and soulful he croons “Lowdown” precisely as it was recorded in 1976, not a note out of place. He then delivers a clone of “Jojo.” Hey, wait a minute — I love you, Boz, but this feels like karaoke.
Outdoors and Free
Multiple outdoor venues feature concerts all afternoon and evening, and morning music for kids. We shimmy to the Royale Pickles klezmer-funk at Le Casino. We groove to Justin Saladino‘s deep blues at Scene Hyundai. We stroll to Scene TD for Elise LeGrow‘s sexy, soulful version of “Rescue Me” – she just gets better and better.
Standouts include Scene TD and Spanish Harlem Orchestra‘s Nuyorican salsa. At Place Heineken we groove to folk-bluegrass of the Wood Shredders. Dwane Dixon rocks Scene Hyundai with an impassioned homage to Gregg Allman with Whipping Post. Check out his trademark drumwork with the neck of his guitar and left foot – intrepid.
Take advantage of the late-night scene along Rue St. Catherine where bars and bistros are packed with fashion-forward hipsters. If this is your demographic and you drink like a pirate, the gritty St. Catherine scene is a must.
Dormez bien at the Hotel Faubourg, a comfortable, centrally located hotel just steps from the Place des Arts and minutes from Old Montreal. Faubourg features family-friendly suites with minimally equipped kitchens. The generous free breakfast makes up for it. Arrive early unless you relish family-friendly chaos with your toast and maple butter.
As temperatures soar, festival-goers of all ages chill in fountains, flooded pedestrian areas, and surprisingly effective mist machines. La chaleur wins a battle or two, but it does not win the war.
Gin Is In
We’re delighted to discover Hendrik’s Gin is a festival sponsor. Reveling in the herbaceous, restorative qualities of an outstanding botanical spirit helps us power through the heat. With thinly sliced English cucumber, the festival gin and tonic is truly a rescue remedy.
We elevate our gin preoccupation to a formal tasting. Cirka and Bishop & Bagg gins are herbaceous and clean. Local St-Laurent, crafted with seaweed from the St. Lawrence, is distilled in small batches. Le Midway introduces us to a game-changer from the Gaspé: Radoune, crafted with wild mushrooms and local juniper dried in sea salt. Mad-earthy.My advice: If you want to taste the juniper, go native, with just a hint of tonic. Watering possibilities include yummy Fentimans crafted with lemongrass and quinine bark.
Sip, Savor and Explore: Onsite
Bars and bistros provide respite from heat and blistering sun. Between musical magic, we sip, savor and explore Montreal’s world-class gustatory offerings, onsite and off, while enjoying a restorative hit of AC.
Onsite stalwart Cafe Nouveau Monde creates pizza with crème fraîche, caramelized onions, bacon and arugula. Beef carpaccio with mayonnaise (beware the Montreal obsession with mayo) and parmesan is cool and wonderful, as is Québecois mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic – savory, simple late-night fare.We meet friends at Blumenthal, a classic brasserie at the high end of onsite dining. Yummy kale César avec lardons et crevettes Nordiques sounds ooh-la-la in French, but hey, kale salad with bacon and fried shrimp is damn good in any language. Say “Oui!” to marinated olives and spiced nuts, admire the wine list, and never skip dessert.
Brasserie T!’s wall of windows is an excellent vantage point for people-and-festival watching. Sea snails are delicious under a generous cap of melted cheese. Chef Sterling’s duck rillette is fresh, delicious, locally sourced. His liver paté is earthy and rich. Montreal bistros still serve a little pot of butter with sliced baguette. I hope they never stop.
Sip, Savor and Explore: Street Fare
Even if you never leave the Place des Arts, you will not go hungry – there are plenty of informal onsite options for the discriminating omnivore. Here we meet fellow Mainers at Charlie’s Shack selling divine fried fish baskets and lobster rolls.
Bienvenue et merci to Charlie for bringing the lobster-love to Montreal!
Don’t miss the spectacularly messy and delicious tacos at Maria Bonita. Keep your onsite food-truck options open with Porc du Québec; Neos Souvlakeri; Smoking BBQ; Mikado; Mandy’s Salads; Queues de Castor; Jura Espace Café; Terrasse Fromage; and Da Lillo. Plus lovely mango flowers on a stick, ice cream, and hotdogs for kids of all ages.
Onsite Bar Scene
Montrealers are enthusiastic and unapologetic drinkers. You will quickly find yourself in the groove. Don’t miss the “cinq à sept” happy hour tradition.
Sip and savor the distinguished wine selection from Bar Univins. At Porto Cabral, discover a range of ports, summer cocktails with port, and a surprising port sangria.
Club Jazz Casino de Montreal is a relaxed venue with endless music and sipping options. Catch a cool breeze at Belon Oyster and savor a few chilled, briny bivalves. Bonne bouffe et bonne ambiance!
Or relax at informal, late-afternoon concerts at Place Heineken. Enjoy a cold beer and snack from an adjacent bistro or food truck. We spend a lot of time in this convivial spot.
Offsite: La Nouvelle
This year’s offsite dining revelation is FoodLab Culinaire, Montreal’s creative newcomer on Rue St. Laurent. Look for its tall, glass facade with pulsing multi-color LED lights.We join locals and students on the breezy roof deck. Foodlab’s menu is creative and accessible. This is no laboratory – it’s simple farm-to-table food, beautifully prepared.
Foodlab’s signature Elder [gin] Fizz is our favorite. Artfully composed of local St-Laurent gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon and rosemary, it’s a fizzy, aromatic masterpiece.
Offsite: Trendy Food Tourism
This year we indulge in Spade & Palacio‘s Beyond the Market tour, starting at Los Planes Salvadoran restaurant in the Plateau. We dive into chef Gladys’ famous papusas topped with cortido, fermented cabbage slaw. The dish is beautiful, savory and unexpected.An excursion to the nearby bounty of Jean Talon Market is a must. Seasonal berries, delicious gelato, and a green market stroll. One can’t do Montreal without Jean Talon. It’s worth playing hooky from the festival for all of this gorgeous, dewy bounty.
Spade & Palacio guide, Tom, conducts an ash-coated cheese tasting at Tomme du Maréchal, passes a a charcuterie tray in a back alley, conducts a gelato licking and spice-sniffing challenge. His OTBT market tour is gritty and fun, spontaneous and delicious.
We end our the tour with a beer at Harricana; iced coffee at Dispatch on Rue Zotique; and picnic in Parc Little Italie from newcomer Dinette Triple Crown – a trendy and tasty end to a sunny summer afternoon – a great, offbeat tour – highly recommended.
Essayé et Vrai
Every trip to Montreal includes a last stop at venerable Schwartz’s for a meat-centric Bacchanal of smoked meat, mustard Hebraique, rye bread and a pickles: The Ultimate.
Stroll the up-and-coming Mile Ex neighborhood to uncover Montreal’s hidden gardens and alleyways. Here, residents create lovely green spaces, financed by the City of Montreal. The remarkable results are a verdant surprise — inspired and inspiring.
Montreal is urbanism at its thoughtful and creative best.
Check out the public pianos throughout the city. At Place Heineken, a hipster in a flowered shirt rocks John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” with a spontaneous and passionate performance. He receives an equally spontaneous ovation. The venez jouer pianos underscore the city’s public commitment to musical expression. It is somebody’s actual job to cover the pianos at night. Cool.
We don’t leave the Plateau without paying our respects to our two favorite murals – heroes Jackie Robinson and Leonard Cohen. These are among hundreds of murals commissioned throughout the city. The impressive, publicly funded Mural Project demonstrates Montreal’s deep and passionate commitment to the arts – indigenous, local, national and international.
Top: Jackie Robinson behind Schwartz’s; and Leonard Cohen behind Moishe’s
A bit of Cansplaining
I applaud our Canadian neighbors for their multiculturalism and dedication to social justice. I respect them for their attention to climate change, and revere their abiding commitment to the arts. I admire their gift for festivals and celebration. Kudos to the esteemed guardian of Canada’s progressive destiny, Justin Trudeau, who personifies the triumph of integrity over cynicism in these challenging times.
Au revoir to my favorite North American city. Thank you for another wondrous adventure. Civility is not dead – it is alive and well in Canada. •