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Chau Down: A Montreal Food Diary

Our food correspondent navigates around billion-dollar road repairs to sample wood-fired bagels, Vietnamese and Senegalese delicacies en Français, and more from a food city worlds apart from nearby Toronto

Alycea Tinoyan

Montreal is an environment actively conspiring against its constituents. Stand on any street in the city proper, and within your line of sight will be a speck of orange—a traffic cone, a maintenance sign, a construction worker in a high-visibility vest—somewhere in the distance. There is always work being done, everywhere, but none of it is close to finished. According to the Montreal Gazette, the city has spent more than 2.3 billion Canadian dollars on road repairs between 2002 and 2018, yet, as of 2016, the official road maintenance deficit was still estimated at CA$2.2 billion. Locals will quickly point to corruption: Construction work is delegated to third parties in an industry that is almost monopolized by the Italian mafia.

In April, the city announced that it would allot CA$378 million toward road repairs across 260 kilometers of land. Unfortunately, that money doesn’t seem to go very far in Montreal—in a 2017 survey among more than a dozen Canadian cities (including Toronto), it was noted that Montreal spent more than twice as much per 1 kilometer of road as the median city. Things aren’t getting better, and haven’t been for decades. Which, given how infrastructure works, means things are certainly getting worse.

Photos courtesy Danny Chau

The obstruction has become a part of the cultural conditioning: There were cars parked on the sidewalks, loading ramps of unattended trucks obstructing walkways, and major streets with entire corners uprooted, forcing detours and reroutes without warning. The ubiquity is honestly impressive, as is the expedience with which residents adjust accordingly. Once billed as the “Paris of the New World,” Montreal, at least from its veneer, still appears to be searching for its best self amid the potholes and roadblocks.

I glossed over this aspect of Montreal life the first time I was in the city, two years ago. Feeling fried after the 2016-17 NBA season, I went on a frenzied gluttony tour, saddling up to some of the biggest restaurants in the city. I endulged in Joe Beef’s spaghetti homard, ate the duck in a can at Au Pied de Cochon for a second dinner, sat alone at Le Vin Papillon and built a custom tasting menu with the bartenders, shared St-Viateur bagels with a cab driver, had late-night poutine at a diner, downed a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s while staring at a person in an Elmo costume across the street, and wondered why there isn’t a Romados on every corner of North America for a quick and easy Portuguese chicken lunch. But I felt too preoccupied with checking boxes off a list to get a real sense of the city—and this was me on vacation. Given that I’ve made Toronto my summer headquarters, I had a perfect opportunity, on a weekend visit via train, to get a better sense of Montreal, a city only 350 miles away, but oceans apart culturally.

Here’s what I ate:

Banh Xeo Minh

It was the menu at Banh Xeo Minh, a fixture in the La Petite-Patrie neighborhood for more than a decade, that first caught my attention: concise, visually oriented, with a strong focus on the cuisine of Central Vietnam. (Outside of a “cash only” sign, the restaurant was almost completely devoid of both French and English.) In a city where many Vietnamese restaurants cater to the largest swath of clientele by generalizing their offerings and serving pan-Asian fare, Banh Xeo Minh held a quiet audacity: There is no pho on the menu, and few familiar reference points for the uninitiated. Just a few doors down from Variétés San Gabriel, a corner store of holistic Catholic esoterica that shares the name of my hometown in California nearly 3,000 miles away, Banh Xeo Minh felt like a quick phone call home.

The banh xeo at Banh Xeo Minh

Behind the tiny storefront’s marigold dining room walls is an emporium of various rice and tapioca flour batters waiting to meet their fates. On both visits, I watched as elderly Vietnamese women crept slowly out of the store carrying half their body weight in catering-size orders of banh cuon—delicate sheets of steamed rice flour batter filled with a mixture of ground pork and mushroom. The restaurant’s namesake is far less portable, but a worthwhile experience: Banh xeo is a crispy rice flour and turmeric crepe—typically filled with pork belly, shrimp, and bean sprouts—eaten with a bounty of fresh herbs. The ones I have at home are densely crunchy, fortified by mung bean powder that is directly added to the batter; here, the banh xeo is nearly dosa-thin, with lacy, almost gravity-defying ridges.

Mi quang from Banh Xeo Minh

Pho may not be on the menu, but the restaurant does not lack for noodle soups. Their version of mi quang, which might be the most high-variance Vietnamese noodle soup in terms of preparation, is a clear standout: Wide egg noodles (instead of the typical turmeric-stained wide rice noodles), are served in a shallow pool of deeply savory pork bone stock enriched with turmeric and fermented shrimp paste, topped with tender pieces of spare rib, shrimp, peanuts, and fresh herbs. It’s the funkiest rendition I’ve encountered. More straitlaced, but equally stellar is their mi vit tiem, a roast duck noodle soup with a complex stock flavored with Eastern medicinal roots, herbs, and dried fruits that draws heavily from Chinese technique. (Bun bo hue might be one of the more recognizable items on the menu, but it’s a lackluster version without enough lemongrass aromatics—the version at Sen Vang, in the diverse neighborhood of Côte-des-Neiges, is better.)

Classic Central Vietnamese fare like banh beo, banh bot loc, and banh nam (all more or less variations on a theme of rice and/or tapioca batter) make up a significant chunk of a streamlined menu, and I would’ve been negligent had I left without ordering at least one. I opted for the banh nam (a thin, rectangular rice-batter dumpling not much heftier than an ID card, topped with a savory mixture of ground pork and dried shrimp and steamed in a banana-leaf coffin)—a dish I’d never actually seen served at a restaurant. On its face, it’s not the most resonant dish—almost meltingly tender and capable of being folded over into a one-bite morsel to be dunked in a light nuoc cham, it disappears much quicker than it takes to prepare. But it’s often those small, unexpected bites of nostalgia that reanimate a sense of place most intensely; to have access to the old mundanities of a past life is an invigorating luxury. On a sleepy Sunday morning, I watched an old woman, adorned in elegant sky-blue Vietnamese regalia, walk out gingerly with her catered order, smiling.

Fairmount Bagel

When one of the city’s biggest institutions is a 24-hour wood-burning bagel shop, there’s no question about what’s for dessert: a half-dozen sesame bagels, with a mini-tub of cream cheese for dunking. Where a New York bagel is more often treated as an apparatus—a versatile, reliable landing spot for cream cheese, lox, onions, tomatoes, eggs, and the like—Montreal bagels are more self-contained, both the means and the end. It’s a less precious experience, but equally a source of fervent civic pride, as I quickly found out after expressing my ambivalence toward bagels in general.

Along with St-Viateur, Fairmount is the foundation of Montreal’s deep-rooted bagel legacy. Fairmount honored its centennial during my stay, complete with bounce houses and live music, all held during a brief Saturday storm. Fairmount is famous for never closing; it was only right that the celebration continue.

Fairmount’s 100-year anniversary comes during a time of change. Late last year, the city enacted a bylaw that prohibits wood burning in private homes (with strict exceptions), which presaged a larger crackdown on businesses. In July, a city spokesperson said that there would be rules in place to ensure businesses meet air-quality regulations, though details regarding enforcement (and what exactly businesses would have to do) remain murky. The realities of Fairmount’s perpetual production cycle have worn on residents in the surrounding area; smoke complaints have been the norm for years. Fairmount, for its part, has installed filters to keep its emissions below the legal limit, but like in many major North American cities, emissions regulations may force businesses to change production methods.

With that inevitably comes backlash from business owners and consumers; there is an artistry to tending to a wood fire and manipulating it to create something unique, and a desire to preserve something so intrinsic to the civic identity. There’s a prestige and honor that comes with mastering fire—it’s shared by pizzaiolos and pitmasters, too. It’s enough for some to outright lament the death of the Montreal bagel. But given the unique pace of bureaucracy in the city at large, Fairmount will probably be celebrating plenty more birthdays before any drastic changes are made.

Elena

I couldn’t quite suss out the vibe at Elena upon walking through its doors. (For one, it was situated across the street from a glow-in-the-dark tattoo parlor.) There was a divider separating a dim-lit bar, featuring elegant, velvet barstools, and plenty of loitering patrons waiting for a table with a glass of natural wine, from the rest of the space. On the other side was a wide open dining area with blinds concealing the windows and colorful velvet lounge seats—it was all east-of-kitsch, in a space that felt, strangely, like an outsized office. But my unease curiously lifted once I got to my seat, from which I could see the wood-fired oven tucked in the back of the restaurant. Every office should have a wood-fired oven.

Elena is a pizza and natural wine bar from the owners of the popular Italian restaurant Nora Gray, descendants from the Joe Beef empire’s winding family tree. It is decidedly de rigueur, playing to the expectations of what a modern pizza restaurant should accommodate: The natural wine bottle selection is beautifully curated, and waiters may occasionally come by and offer a taste of wine not printed on the by-the-glass menu. Small plate dishes, like the near-homophonic tomato tonnato, are smart and playful; the spicy green beans, dressed in a sauce of Quebec sheep’s milk and red peppers, and studded with fried shallots, were an excellent take on green bean casserole. There is corn agnolotti and tagliatelle with ragu on the menu, as one would expect.

A slice of the Fiore! Fiore! at Elena

But it’s really about the pizza: Neapolitan style, with naturally leavened dough made with locally sourced wheat that’s given ample time to breathe without the aid of commercial yeasts, giving it a mild sourdough flavor. The highlight of the meal was the Fiore! Fiore!, a pizza topped with thinly sliced zucchini, zucchini blossoms, and briny Spanish boquerones; the zucchini maintained its integrity, offering a bit of a snap to its bite as a counterbalance to the pillowy crust. The restaurant’s name is a dedication to Elena Pantaleoni, a winemaker in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. The palate of Fiore! Fiore! felt particularly aligned with the sensibilities of the wine showcased at the restaurant: bright, a bit off-kilter, and tied specifically to a sense of place.

Larrys

The mackerel spaghetti at Larrys

Sometimes, the charms of a restaurant are painfully simple to explain. Larrys is an all-day restaurant, open 17 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. It’s a place for coffee, or for a classic breakfast of eggs and sausage from its butchery just up the street. It serves wine and cocktails, and casually heretical combinations like an IPA with an ounce of Campari in it. The vegetables take up a large portion of the food menu, and rightfully so: Preparations aren’t fussy—potatoes are fried, as they should be; turnips are quartered, and served with an acidic pesto of their own tops—but they are done with care. Their spaghetti, with mackerel and toasted breadcrumbs, is my ideal comfort food and has never left the menu. Everything at Larrys is in its right place, except for its ramp leading to the entrance, which is currently missing during construction.

Kem CoBa

Almond and raspberry soft serve swirl at Kem CoBa

My trip to Kem CoBa was both a convenient pitstop on the way to dinner in the Mile End area and a redemptive mission—it was on my to-do list in Montreal two years ago, but the storefront was closed for the season. Kem CoBa (which translates in Vietnamese to Third-born Aunt’s Ice Cream, a reference to how co-owner Ngoc Phan is addressed by her niece) serves many ice cream flavors common to Southeast Asia, like soursop, pandan, and the oft-maligned durian. But the lines that run out the door are usually for their soft serve.

At this point, the fascination with soft serve is less a food trend and more a mode of conduct. Trends fade, but it’s become impossible to deny soft serve’s perfect triangulation of texture, architecture, and baked-in nostalgia. It’s a scientific marvel: fat, sugar, (but mostly) air, held together at temperatures just below freezing, suspended in a sort of old-world church spire construction. There is a whole lot of meaning embedded in what is essentially a miniature rain cloud of fat; it’s a perfect creative vehicle for cooks of all backgrounds. At Kem CoBa, it comes in two complementary flavors, specifically designed to swirl, that change whenever Phan and her partner Vincent Beck feel like it (roughly every two weeks). Clouds had begun to form by the time we got our ice cream; there would be heavy rain in a few hours. The almond and raspberry swirl on the menu was a perfect farewell to summer.

Jean-Talon Market

The color-paneled windows at the entrance of Jean-Talon Market might be the least vibrant thing in the entire open-air marketplace, easily one of the largest in North America. To walk the line is to drown in color: tiger-striped purple eggplants, vermillion end-of-season tomatoes, every pepper under the sun on both the color and Scoville spectrum, fresh onions that gleam like sunlight. A seasoned vet might steer you away from the vendors who may or may not be pretending to sell farm-fresh produce, whose seductive array of samples are simply cheap marketing for an inferior product. But taken as part of a full experience, it’s hard not to admire the sheer scale of the operation, and the numbers of people enjoying nature’s splendor.

One curiosity that caught my attention, however: There are an awful lot of Carolina Reaper plants for sale from numerous vendors, and that appears to have been the case since at least 2015. Is there really that much of a demand in Montreal for some of the hottest chilies on the planet? Or is it just a product of being in a market with such expansive options?

Diolo

Diolo is a Senegalese restaurant in La Petite-Patrie with a distinct neighborhood feel. On one end, a large party of hipsters; on the other, two young West Africans looking for a quiet meal. Regulars walk through the door and announce their arrival in French, and the staff responds in kind from across the room. If my complete lack of French language skills didn’t mark me as an outsider, the brief glimpse the waiter had of my California ID card did. There is often an element of surprise when engaging in immigrant cuisine, on both sides of the exchange. Patrons dive headlong into unknown pleasures, while those preparing the food ask questions in bemusement—how did you find out about us? It comes not from a threatening place, or a sense of encroachment, but from a place of curiosity and vulnerability. There is an unshakable weight to preparing a meal for a complete outsider—of being asked to represent something much larger than one dish, restaurant, or idea. Not much to do but to put faith in the product and smile.

But there are always through lines. I felt a certain resonance in experiencing the food of Vietnam and Senegal, two countries heavily warped by French colonization, not only in Quebec, the most visibly and proudly Francophilic of France’s former colonies, but specifically within 2 kilometers of one another in the same neighborhood of Montreal. The thieboudienne at Diolo, chef Edmond Benoit Sadio’s take on Senegal’s unofficial national dish, was my lens.

Takeout theiboudienne from Diolo

Thieboudienne is a process: slits are made in fish and a garlicky parsley mixture is stuffed inside and left to marinate the flesh from the inside; a stock of water, tomato paste, Scotch bonnet peppers, and various vegetables simmers with pieces of dried and fermented fish, adding a whole new world of complexity; the fish is either fried and braised in the liquid, or simmered until cooked; everything simmering in the broth is removed once done; the nectar that remains in the pot is used to cook and season broken rice, the preferred grain of Senegal that was introduced to them by the French, who were simply trying to unload their “inferior” allotments of Vietnamese rice that had been damaged in the milling process. Everything that emerges from the pot is dyed crimson; once fully assembled, it resembles a paella with deeper, richer hues.

Tying it all together is a tamarind sauce, made with some of the reserved broth. The streaks of tamarind in the thieboudienne was something of an inverted revelation: It was so startlingly familiar that I felt like I was eating something else entirely. Tamarind, a tart, tropical fruit pod indigenous to Africa, serves as a force multiplier when used in savory preparations. Where the acidity from citrus often adds an air of levity, the acidity from tamarind seems to keep the palate earthbound; it is a perfect complement to the umami-rich flavors of fermented fish and shrimp so prevalent in African and Asian cultures. It can be a difficult sensation to explicate. Still, there are Western analogs: tamarind and anchovy are two key ingredients in Worcestershire sauce, a similarly hard-to-explain condiment used precisely to add that unplaceable element in cooking. The use of broken rice may always point toward French influence in Senegal, but at its core, thieboudienne is an expression of flavor that was harnessed long, long before.

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