“It’s the place people should go to visit because it’s so vastly different; if you don’t get the beauty while you’re there, then there’s something wrong with you,” says Hugh Acheson about Montreal.
While Drake and OVO’s take-over of the music industry has given Toronto a newfound pop-culture shimmer, Top Chef judge Acheson—who was born in Ottawa, which borders Quebec—makes a strong case for the sheer individuality of Montreal (which, if you listen to him closely, is actually pronounced mun-treal). “It’s the epitome of a very European-style city in North America. It’s pedestrian-friendly with a mountain in the middle.”
It may be difficult to ascertain the heart-beat of Canadian food, says the chef, but it goes without saying that Montreal has carved its own niche, thanks to a bounty of local product—”it was farm-to-table before the term became utterly misused”—and its reputation for being home to perhaps the most sought after (and dangerous) restaurant in North America. “Montreal is not a culture of wimpy people,” he says.
For Acheson, the city’s distinctive roots are what make it stand out: “It’s influenced by North American Jewish culture, traditional Quebecois culture. Poutine and pork minced pies are markers to the outsiders, but there’s a lot of density in terms of food traditions—a huge cheese and dairy production, animal husbandry, and hunting.”
From navigating the fierce “Bagel Wars,” to experiencing the seduction of classic French bistros, Hugh Acheson breaks down the 10 commandments for eating and drinking in Montreal.
1. Don’t get involved in the Bagel Wars.
Acheson says: “There are two main bagel producers, Fairmount and St. Viateur. Both are exceptional, and they battle each other non-stop. But don’t take sides—just be Switzerland. To me you never get involved in a turf war if you have no reason. Just eat the bagels. We have an interesting bagel culture here, too. In fact, now the most popular bagels in NYC are Montreal-style, thanks to guys like Black Seed. They’re not your fluffy, oversized weird things that they New Yorkers call a bagel. They’re denser and tighter, naturally sour, and cooked in a wood burning oven. The process is wonderful to watch. Stop by when you’re a little bit drunk—they’re open late.”
2. Experience the pinnacle of deli culture at Schwartz’s.
Acheson says: “If you don’t go, you will be missing out on one of the most beautiful, albeit simple, food experiences of life—featuring medium-fatty smoked meat on rye with mustard. Schwartz’s serves the best smoked meat around, the rye is fresh, and they only take cash. It’s small and straightforward. You go to a NYC deli and there are 70 different sandwiches, but Schwartz’s is pretty focused. The waiters have been there for practically 200 years, and you could walk in there and think it’s 1964 or 2016—it’s timeless and so much fun. For me, when I walk into a deli, I want that iconic feel. Montreal probably has the strongest deli culture in North America. It’s bad ass. It’s become one of the real culinary backbones.” (Photo: Yelp/Carolina S.)
3. Order a Sazerac at Hotel Herman.
Acheson says: “The cocktails are totally on point at this beautiful St. Laurent restaurant. The center bar is stunning, the food—which is cranked out by a small kitchen—is modern and thoughtful, and the service is authentic Montreal, with no pomp or circumstance; there’s just a palpable love of what they do. I love a Sazerac, and it’s not a common thing outside of New Orleans. NOLA and Montreal are almost sister cities—they’re very much their own place, and totally identifiable. Both are rooted in French culture. Hotel Herman does things very seriously but without any pretense. It’s very high-level food. Last time I had a venison tartar with parsnip chips that gave it a beautiful crunch.”
4. Go buy a pencil and paper at Papeterie Nota Bene after picking up coffee from Pikolo.
Acheson says: “My favorite paper, pen, pencil, and knick-knack store is Papeterie Nota Bene. I like taking notes when traveling, and this place has become my note-taking supply house. It’s in the center of the city, just off Fairbrook. If you don’t begin to document how you travel, you’re missing the idea of being able to show others the beauty of what you’ve seen. Right next door is Pikolo coffee, a beautiful little spot that uses a lot of different roasters. Deux oiseaux d’une pierre (two birds, one stone). All of this is near McGill, so there’s Anglophone and Francophone culture. Coming here shows you the immediate worldliness of Montreal.” (Photo: Yelp/Marie HV)
5. Buy some cheese—because this is a town that reveres unpasteurized funk.
Acheson says: “If you really want to fall into the beautiful mosaic, European-leaning culture of Montreal, you go buy cheese. There are amazing small producers in the Gatineau mountain, an hour west of Montreal; to the east there are the Laurentian mountains. These two regions are the bastions of small producers, and their products begin to show up around the area. At Jean Talon, they’ll be showcasing a ton of stuff. I go for a raw goat’s-milk cheese with fresh bread.”
6. Beauty’s is beautiful.
Acheson says: “And it’s not in the eye of the beholder. This place rules. Go have breakfast and chat with the owner Hymie about their nearly 75 years in business. That is an astonishing feat in and of itself. And they have fantastic graphic design. Like amazing. Order the Beauty’s Special, with Nova lox, thinly sliced onion, cream cheese, and capers.” (Photo: Yelp/Dong X.)
7. Follow the Joe Beef guys to Le Vin Papillon.
Acheson says: “VP is the newest addition to the family of Joe Beef, and it is as stunning as its siblings. Fred [Morin] and David [McMillan] saw beauty and strength in one of their young amazing chefs, Marc Olivier Frappier, so they made him a partner. VP is essentially a cool wine bar with amazing food in the Joe Beef-style. If you ask chefs in North America what restaurants they really love for being real and authentic, the Joe Beef guys always enter the conversation. Their restaurants are never snooty, and they epitomize what Montreal is all about. It’s cool and they know their shit. At VP, you can order lobster and sea urchin from the Gaspé Peninsula. Montreal food is so good, but the only downside is that you want to eat so much of it that it becomes gluttonous.” (Photo: Yelp/JL)
8. Go order a bottle of Volnay at l’Express.
Acheson says: “And maybe temper it with a pot au feu to keep your bottle healthy. l’Express is a classic French bistro with guys in bowties serving classic French fare. It’s a big beautiful space, Parisian in style, with a phenomenal wine list. They do table-side service and the menu is handwritten. Come here if you want pig trotters, terrine, or foie gras—plus you can match it with a great Burgundy list. Volnay there is a special experience. It’s classic in so many ways, and I wish there was one in every city in North America.” (Photo: Yelp/Judy Y.)
9. Buy a six pack of maple syrup cans.
Acheson says: “The ubiquitous way of selling maple syrup here is in a can. It’s 500ml of great syrup. Most of the products are packaged the same way, with the same logo. To me the graphic design is so iconic. Grade B is the one that you’re looking for. Give them to your friends—it’s the Canadian thing to do.“ (Photo: Flickr/Lori Stalteri)
10. Stock up on pastries and coffee at Olives & Gourmando.
Acheson says: “It’s an Old Montreal place that’s busy as hell, and it can be a bit touristy, but it’s great for breakfast and lunch. Go for the chocolate brioche, the croissants, or madeleines. Anything in the pastry case will blow you away. It’s nice to grab a coffee and some snacks and go sit by the water. That’s my idea of a good time.” (Photo: Yelp/Megan P.)