My girlfriend and I just got back from Montreal. We're both non-vegan vegetarian from NYC so our observations are probably skewed by whatever perspective those traits bring. We covered a lot of ground on our three day trip. Here's our take on the places we visited:
Our first day, we had dinner at AMELIO's, a very inexpensive Italian restaurant located near McGill University. It more than lived up to its repuation for cheap, good eats. We were served piping hot veggie lasagna and manicotti. Both were prepared al dente with thick, savory red sauces, fresh ricotta, herbs, and mozzarella. Both dishes included nice side salads topped with a slightly sweet dijonaise dressing and fresh-from-the-oven, if somewhat ordinary bread. We noticed that many folks around us were enjoying the other house specialty, pizza, which also looked very good. It's comfortable enough, if somewhat crowded...not exactly a big winner in the ambiance dept, but at under $20 for two, this was clearly the bargain dinner of our trip.
The next morning, we headed up to the Mile End neighborhood to the famous ST-VIATEUR BAGEL (aka "La Maison du Bagel") to find out what all the fuss was about. Could the Montreal bagel give its NYC counterpart a run for its money? The answer is an unequivocal "oui!", though as others have previously pointed out we're really comparing apples and oranges. The Montreal bagel is both smaller and has a bigger hole than its NY cousin. The St-Viateur bagel is made from a high-quality dough with a somewhat nutty, smoky flavor vaguely reminiscent of a very good fresh pretzel. The (deservedly) most popular bagel here is the sesame, which is overflowing with 'em. A bargain at 40 cents each. We also really enjoyed the flax-seed version and I assure you that we are *not* the kind of vegetarians who favor health over flavor! While you're there, try the homemade matzoh, also a real treat.
From St.-Viateur, we hopped on the St. Laurent bus up to the magnificent JEAN TALON MARKET, which was awash with gorgeous produce, fresh flowers, friendly vendors and bargain-hunting locals. We gorged ourselves on fresh fruit and bought some double-cream brie at the HAMEL FROMAGERIE which we slathered on bread we got earlier. The brie was delicious, though we felt a little ashamed at not being more adventurous.
After reading this Montreal Mirror review, http://www.montrealmirror.com/ARCHIVE..., we had to check out SPIRITE RESTAURANT. Based on the review, we expected something cool, fun, and somewhat eccentric. That expectation was met, but what we hadn't anticipated was that we would be served the most sophisticated and delicious meal we ever ate in our entire lives. I've dined at what many (myself included) consider NYC's finest vegetarian establishments including Angelika's, Hangawi, Madras Woodlands (before they closed) and so forth. This meal made every one of those restaurants seem utterly juvenile by comparison. I am not exagerrating. I have never had such sublime food! DO NOT MISS THIS PLACE! I need not add to what the Mirror reviewer said except to correct one thing which we found out had changed, which is their BYO policy. Apparently, they have a liquor license now.
The next morning our dining experience slipped from the sublime to the mundane. After all the hype about BEAUTY'S Sunday brunch we were expecting something really wonderful. Instead, we felt like we had been mugged. Yes, Hymie, the proprietor of Beauty's, seemed like a great guy who took genuine pleasure in greeting diners and all that, but what's the big deal about the food? Maybe it's the nova or the meat dishes? We certainly didn't get it.
I ordered the Super Beauty II, which was scrambled eggs, homefries and pancakes. Beauty's was kind enough to substitute tomato for the normally included bacon and ham (even though the menu said no substitutions). My girlfriend ordered a mushroom-onion omelete and latkes. Okay, let's see...the eggs were just plain eggs; the pancakes, very crappy bisquick-type flavorless pre-fab mix; the homefries, plain slightly greasy potatoes with no onions or peppers or anything; the tomatoes, hot-house pale pink and devoid of character; the pancake syrup was corn syrup with maple flavoring. If you want real maple syrup on your dry, bland Beauty pancakes, they have the chutzpah to ask for an additional $2.50. What's up with that?! My g.f.'s omelette and latkes were decent, but nothing special and twice the price you'd pay at any NYC East Village neighborhood diner. The fresh squeezed OJ was good, but no bargain at $3.00/glass. The side sesame bagels were nice and probably came from St. Viateur or Fairmont. The coffee was decent Americana-style. Our bill came to over CAN$36 for an entirely mediocre neighborhood diner breakfast for two. At $41 with tip, we felt mugged. This place is big on self-promotion, what with their own slick posters, t-shirts, bags, etc. The lines were long as we had heard. If this is Montreal's "best Sunday brunch" as one laminated review said, I think that's a little scary.
Two things we can recommend nearby Beauty's: 1. Mont Royal Park. It doesn't take long to trek through the lovely woods up to the top of Mont Royal where you'll get a magnificent view of much of the city and 2. great thrifting along Ave. du Mont Royal.
Later that afternoon we shared a very nice cinnamon-sucre crepe at a neighborhood creperie on St. Viateur nearby La Maison du Bagel (which we *had* to go back to) and delicious Fair Trade coffee at CAFE ESPERANZA. We drank a lot of coffee/cappuccino/cafe au lait during our trip and it was usually excellent. We avoided the SECOND CUP mega-chain which like Starbucks in the US, seem to be on nearly every street corner and is currently being boycotted by CafeJustice, a Canadien organization which is pushing them to carry Fair Trade coffee.
Our last dinner of the trip was at CHUCHAI, a vegetarian Thai restaurant on St. Denis in Plateu Mont Royal. The food knocked our socks off! ChuChai is connected with an adjacent restaurant called Chuch which is white tablecloth with a wine menu. ChuChai is much more informal, though still charming. It's BYO. You can choose items either from Chuch next door or from a wide variety of fresh counter items. We chose the latter and ate a scrumptious meal that included dishes and sides made of seitan, taro, rice, soy, sweet potatoes fresh veggies and so forth. Each dish was bursting with flavor and much superior to any of the tired green mango salad/coconut milk pool/lemongrass clone vegetarian selections we find at what are supposed to be NYC's better Thai restaurants. Between the counter items and the Chuch menu, the selection is enormous and every item we had made us want to clean our plates. A real winner!
A note on vegetarian places we visited but didn't eat. We stopped in and looked at two buffet-style restaurants: LE COMMENSAL and the Krsna-run GOVINDA JAYA JAYA. Our impression of both were that the selections were ample, especially at Commensal's, but much of the food looked like it had sat around in the metal serving trays way too long. Based on appearance we couldn't work up the enthusiasm to try either. That may or may not be fair.