MONTREAL - "To me, Montreal is eating, drinking, and shopping," summed up a Canadian friend before my first trip to the island city, where French is the official language but food is (unofficially) the language of love.
Priorities ordered for me, I set my top objective for my weekend stay: to get to Montreal's hotter-than-ever restaurant Garde Manger to sample the lobster poutine, a variation on the artery-clogging Quebec staple consisting of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. An episode of Iron Chef America, in which Garde Manger chef Chuck Hughes defeated Bobby Flay, had just aired in Canada; Hughes had rallied after the show's cohost, a Toronto native, admonished him for a defeatist attitude.
"He told me I was being way too Canadian," Hughes told the Montreal Gazette.
Calling a week in advance to secure a table bordered on laughable. Still, during check-in at the downtown Hôtel Le Crystal, I asked the cheerful and thoroughly bilingual staff whether Garde Manger served lunch (no) and whether they could get us a table that night or next (no again).
"They're fully booked," the concierge said.
But she directed us to a common Day 1 destination - the neighborhood of Old Montreal - and a spot there for a late lunch, Modavie. From our hotel, we walked for a half-hour down Rue Sainte-Catherine. It was bustling with familiar chain stores such as Forever 21 but also the curiosity that is Simons, a Quebec City-based emporium that somehow sells both $19 tunics and $975 Herve Leger bandage dresses.
A turn down Boulevard Saint-Laurent led through Chinatown, which along with restaurants offered diversions such as the Sexotheque video parlor. We had been told twice, by a business traveler and a Montrealer, that the city is famous in certain circles for its strip clubs. (We would have to take their word for it.)
Modavie's bar brought a bite of calamari. Later, Modavie's stage upstairs would be filled by jazz artists - music being a fourth attraction to add to my friend's list. Indie rock band Arcade Fire, which in February won a Grammy for album of the year, calls Montreal home. The Mile End district is a hotbed for indie bands. Summer brings the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Piknic Electronik, a techno-music party Sundays at Parc Jean-Drapeau.
It quickly became apparent why my Canadian friend had recommended Hotel St. Paul at the gateway of Old Montreal. Room rates were higher than Le Crystal's, which we had chosen for its indoor pool. But Old Montreal lured us again and again with its narrow stone streets and luminous facades, behind which were all manner of art galleries, bars, restaurants, intimate hotels, and unique boutiques. Two fashion standouts: Reborn and Espace Pepin. The unfavorable exchange rate discouraged a shopping spree.
Gastronomic highlights included a smoked-trout sandwich for lunch at the bustling bakery Olive et Gourmando, where Jake Gyllenhaal refueled during filming of Source Code last year. Dinner at the sexy Le Local lightened the cholesterol load via Arctic char and a beet salad with truffle oil, goat cheese, and panko-breaded egg (though we couldn't pass up duck foie gras with blood-pudding sausage).
You can steep yourself in Montreal's fur-trading origins in a single stop at Château Ramezay, the 18th-century mansion of French governors. Celine Dion fans can behold the church where she wed, Notre-Dame Basilica, which has light shows almost nightly.
A wife risks overtaxing her spouse's patience at the Images Boreales Galerie d'Art Inuit, where serpentine sculptures of dancing polar bears represent Inuits' hopes for the afterlife. To be reincarnated as the beast at the top of the Arctic food chain would be a danceable moment indeed.
There are many in Montreal. At tiny Garde Manger in Old Montreal, I planted myself in the dark-as-midnight entry early Friday evening, watching the first seating of diners enjoy Hughes' sprawling seafood platters and their own scheduling prowess. Instilling little hope for the second seating, the general manager charitably brought a glass of wine.
Before I could admit that my husband was the wiser in opting out of this gamble, in walked a frequent customer who was meeting a fellow foodie. With characteristic Montreal conviviality, they switched to English and made room for me at the end of the bar. Soon enough, I was downing oysters and lobster poutine and being educated on the late-night downtown institution that is Schwartz's deli. Its smoked meats have lured Angelina Jolie and the Rolling Stones and inspired a book and musical.
On Garde Manger's soundtrack, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams somehow jibed with the White Stripes. The volume rose as the night progressed, and a table of men behind us stood suddenly and broke into dance. Then they sat back down to eat and drink some more.
In and Around Montreal
Parc du Mont-Royal
Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, also architect of New York's Central Park, this retreat is on the city's highest point. But remarkably, the chalet at the top can be reached in 20 minutes starting from Rue Peel downtown. Ascending via trails and wooden steps, early-morning runners managed a "bonjour" between breaths, pausing to take in the skyline, the silence, and the bridge over the St. Lawrence River before starting back down. At the foot of Mount Royal every Sunday from May to September, hippie crowds descend on the George-Étienne Cartier monument for an unofficial festival of tam-tam drummers, dancers, jugglers, and craft vendors. (lemontroyal.qc.ca, 514-843-8240)
A Metro train ride northeast toward Olympic Park (Montreal was the site of the 1976 Summer Games) was well worth the trip, even without a child in tow. The Biodome's habitats include an Amazon rain forest with capybaras (the world's largest and perhaps cutest rodent) and golden lion tamarins; Arctic and Antarctic zones with puffins and penguins; a Laurentian maple forest with otters, beavers, and porcupines; and Gulf of St. Lawrence waters stocked with starfish, urchins, anemones, and sea cucumbers. Discounted package admission is available for the Biodome, the expansive Botanical Garden, Insectarium, and the nearby environmental wonder, the Biosphere. (biodome.qc.ca, 514-868-3000)
Au Pied de Cochon
The restaurant of Food Network Canada's The Wild Chef, Martin Picard, is a porcine paradise that was packed even at 11 p.m. The restaurant's namesake dish is a stuffed pig's foot the size of Vince Vaughn's head, with seared foie gras lazing atop it ($45). (restaurantaupiedde
Things to see
Bixi bike rental stations let you take a spin through the city on the miles of bike lanes and paths (montreal.bixi.com). Hop a tourist bus for the three-hour trip northeast to Quebec City, billed as the only walled city in North America. (quebecregion.com)
Montreal Jazz Festival
June 25-July 4
Light shows almost nightly
Galerie d'Art Inuit
www.imagesboreales.com (starting this month)
Places to eat
Hôtel Le Crystal
Olive et Gourmando
Place to stay
Hotel St. Paul
- Wendy DonahueEndText