In honor of my fortieth birthday, Dave treated me to four nights in Montréal at the end of April 2008, at Le Place D’Armes Hotel & Suites, 55 rue St-Jacques Ouest. We first tasted Montréal at our hotel’s bar lounge, “Suite 701.” From 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. each night, they gave us guests a plate of cheeses and a glass of red or white wine. There were about five different cheeses, soft and hard, to eat. Dave and I sat on bar stools at a tall bar table, trying to assess the demographic of our fellow partakers. We drank the Argentinian syrah that they offered.

The waitresses were young. Little black dresses. Service was slow. But it was crowded. Mainly people indulging in the free handouts. I saw a few martinis, cosmos.

Dave and I graduated, soon enough, to an order of potato fries (with mayo) and a bowl of black and green olives. The portions were great and were perfect bar snacks. The olives were floating in their cure of mustard seeds and juniper berries. Very sexy olives. I drank a gin-chambord-peach juice cocktail (too sweet?). Dave drank a deep-amber Canadian beer.

At 9:15 we had reservations at “Joe Beef” at 2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest. The name of this small, crowded restaurant kept appearing in our Montréal research. It’s quite “of the moment.” A tiny box of a storefront with kitchen and bar in back. Nine tables. Each tiny two-top table had to be pulled from the wall to allow one diner to sit on the banquette.

Waitress spoke fine English. Other diners bellowed their French. The extensive menu and wine list were covering the chalkboard wall. French. We asked our waitress for some translations. I opened with a fried soft-shell crab, with salty flavors of black-bean paste, soy sauce. Very nice. Dave opened with a cool shrimp and avocado salad. Then, I misjudged for my entrée. “Carbonara” pasta noodles with morel mushrooms -- cheesy-eggy-creamy sauce that was way-too-heavy for me. I hate when I can barely eat any of my order like that.

The diners around us were eating steaks, fish, and lingering and lingering. Food did not seem to be the main distraction. Dave and I drank our “long” espressos, caught a cab outside, and escaped to our hotel.

The hotel’s breakfast was nice. Unlimited, decent coffee. Various breads. A toaster. Yogurts, fresh fruits, hard-boiled eggs. Dry cereals. Very fortifying.

Beautiful warm, sunny weather. Easy air to breathe. We strolled, window-shopped. We stopped at “St. Viateur” to taste the renowned “Montréal bagels,” whose appeal evaded us. Denser and smaller than NYC bagels, they lack the chewiness that we seem to like, and their flavor is too bland. Unsalted dough that needs a kick. I guess if you toasted them and dipped the pieces in a salty spread/dip, they’d be better.

We bought two chocolate bars at “Les Chocolats de Chloé,” 375 rue Roy Est. The shop was tiny, sparse, and too warm. The proprietor was friendly. “Chocolat au Lait et Fleur de Sel” was addictive, delectable milk chocolate with bits of sea salt in certain bites. Wow. We also got the “Noir 70%” bar.

L'Express octopus-lentil saladWe stopped for a lunch snack at “L’Express,” 3927 Saint Denis. Diner décor with a bar. We sat at the bar and had a great time. I drank two of the “rousse” (amber) tap beers; Dave had two of the “blondes.” The menu of the day was printed in about six languages. Many interesting choices. Good prices. The bartender took out a big jar of baby gherkins for us. Oh they were so fun.

I ordered the octopus-lentil salad, formed in a terrine and drizzled with a bit of olive oil. Dave had a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese). We ate every crumb.

At 6:15, we lied down in Rainspa (in our hotel) for one hour to have a Swedish massage. Dave and I lied on tables in the same room. We each had a lady masseuse (Dave admitted he would not let a man touch him). Lights were dim, music was like the Indian yoga sounds. My masseuse worked on me from the top of my head to my toes. My body was so pleased.

We dressed up for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant “Aix.” It wasn’t too crowded, but the bar above was packed with fans of Montréal Canadiens hockey, cheering, shouting at the large-screen transmission of the playoff game. “Go Habs,” as they say.

Dave and I were a bit miffed when our scotch and sodas took too long to come to our table. I ordered the grilled lobster, and was then told that there were no more left. Dave opened with the charcuterie plate (a common Montréal menu item), full of various duck-meat terrines, salamis, smoked duck breast, pickled vegetables. My appetizer was a selection of smoked/cured fish, smooth and nice.

Dave enjoyed black cod and I had rare duck breast encrusted in a nice, sweet “grape must.” For dessert, Dave ate a chocolate caramel tart and I had crème brulees. We drank glasses of wine. The waitress treated us to glasses of port with dessert. It coats the throat like liquid raisins.

FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 2008
Olive + Gourmando pastries Olive + Gourmando, at the intersection of Rue St. Paul Ouest and Rue St. Pierre, is a coffee bar with pastries and sandwiches at lunch time. Hipster dufus waitstaff, but nothing a Brooklynite can’t handle. The pastries looked and smelled great. Dave and I bought chausson aux pomages, brioche au chocolat et banana, croissant au amandes, and croissant au fromage. The apple pastry was just like biting into an apple pie, encrusted in crunchy sugar. The chocolate brioche was luscious with banana, the fresh pastry fell apart in layers. The almond croissant was crispy and caramelized and fresh. And the cheese croissant had a perfect outside layer of sesame seeds. We had no difficulty eating all these pastries in a single seating. They delivered me to an elevated consciousness. I was unashamed and stimulated.

We stumbled into the art studio of Charlotte Nicolin, at 333 Place d’Youville. Swedish artist for 25 years. Nature and marine life. We bought some copies. A big corner exhibit/retail space with a big production area in the back. Dave and I quickly assessed that a wonderful space such as this could only exist in a city where the retail rents were not so ridiculous (i.e., not in NYC).

Montréal is a village,” declared the French woman who was manning the shop. “Only two cities really matter,” she admitted to us, after we explained we were from New York. “Only Paris and New York. They have the spark. Montréal is just a village.”

We walked through the subdued “village” to the Notre-Dame Basilica, across from our hotel. Its building began in 1824 and is a magnificent, grandiose Catholic church, inspired in design by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Its organ was built in 1891 and includes 7,000 pipes. Dave took many photos.

At 9:00 p.m., we had dinner reservations at “Les Deux Singes de Montarvie,” at 176 Saint-Viateur Ouest. We both heard a buzz about this one, another small place with ten tables and bar seating around an open kichen. But unlike “Joe Beef,” this place wasn’t so “full of itself,” as Dave put it. Our waitress was very helpful, doing her best to translate the menu. She offered any of the wines off the lengthy chalkboard menu by the glass. She’d let us taste anything. She offered an amuse bouche of luxurious smoked salmon with toasty brioche crusts. I was dressed in a turtleneck and sweater and was stifled in the small, warm room. The front door was left open for a bit, which was such a relief.

The kitchen -- again, in full view -- was full of efficient, calm cooks. Service was exceptional, unstuffy. Water glasses were promptly filled.

I opened with a celery-ginger soup. Clean, fresh, easy. Dave had some lovely duck raviolis.

After a few translation oddities, I selected the “guinea-fowl terrine,” stuffed with macadamia nuts. The sauce was reduced to a flavorful essence. Dave had some racks of lamb. We each enjoyed the vegetable terrines and accompaniments.

We both enjoyed the raspberry sorbet for dessert, drizzled with some white chocolate ribbons. We were too damn hot to drink coffee. While enjoying our food, a small, police-escorted procession passed down the late-night street, carrying crucifixes and religious icons. Greek Easter? I don’t know…