Reside as a word to describe where you live sounds forensic to me, like something you’d read in a police report. “The victim, a 59 year old female with two gold fillings, resides at 123 Dull Street, in Ottawa East. It rings of resignation and victim-hood.
Montréalers do not reside, baby, they live, Live, LIVE! Don’t bore me with that old joie de vivre bullshit. Montréalers are way past that borrowed colonial French cliché. They’re on a whole different planet of life.Take food for example. A couple of weeks ago we toured – lordy, how we love food tours – a section of the city known as “The Main”, Boulevard St. Laurent which historically divides Montréal into east and west, the west being the Anglophone enclave and the east the French world. As immigrants arrived they settled in neighbourhoods butting on St. Laurent and created flavourful places. And that’s where we trooped to sample what our guide, Louis, called Montréal comfort food. He said “If you came for the latest, greatest foodie trend, you’ve come on the wrong tour.”
To start, my girlfriends and I walked from our air b-n-b just two blocks from Chinatown and hoofed towards the Mount. Ie. Mont Royal from which Montréal takes its name. Don’t ask me what direction that was. North maybe? Directions are not my forte although I think they are. I insist with the fervour of a writhing saint that where we need to go is “This way.” And away we go in the wrong direction. Fortunately, I was with women who had iPhones with maps whereas my information came from an inadequate paper flyer picked up at a tourism kiosk.
As we walked, we passed cafés and delis and grocery stores full of people out doing their Saturday thing, packing babies front and back, walking dogs, sitting on benches at the side of the road eating snacks, yakking. I felt like I’d been dropped into a 1960’s neighbourhood where there were no malls or big box stores. Everything felt human sized and energetic.
Along the way, we found 21 Balancoires outside the Université du Québec à Montréal, a group of musical swings at a bus stop. Seriously. As you swing, music plays created by the tempo and height you propel yourself. All around you other people swing and make music too. You become part of a band. You swing and swing and swing! People who reside do not swing. People who LIVE swing. People who live created these swings.
On we pressed to our destination at the corner of Mont Royal and St. Urbain, the area known as “Mile End”. Our sampling took us first to Seraphin Boulangerie, a Portuguese bakery, where Louis proffered Pasteis de Nata – custard tarts. As a person with severe lactose intolerance issues, I took the smallest nibble to get a sense of what I was missing – creamy, sweet filling with a buttery pastry. My husband would have loved it. We strolled to a nearby park to finish this traditional treat and listen to Louis describe the history of the neighbourhoods and boroughs of Montréal.
Next up was Fairmount Bagels, one of two old-style Montreal bagel makers. New York bagels – meh. Montréal bagels – oh yeah. Feeling quite full we marched to Wilensky’s Light Lunch, a tiny business in operation since 1932 by the Wilensky Family. They make two Wilensky Specials: Fried beef baloney and beef salami on a round corn meal bun with a hint of mustard, or the same with cheese.
When ordering a Special,
you should know a thing or two.
It is always served with mustard;
it is never cut in two.
Don’t ask us why; just understand
that this is nothing new.
This is the way that it’s been done
since 1932. – Wilensky’s Light Lunch
I had a cherry cola right out of the soda fountain with my Special and which transported me to 1965 and the Woolworth’s counter of my childhood. Others tried the “Egg cream” – seltzer with milk and either chocolate or vanilla flavouring.
That was the comfort food tour, minus the cannoli at the Italian bakery across from the church where Montréal mafia get married. I can tell you no more. We were sworn to secrecy.
In contrast to this local tour, the night before we dined at Chasse Galerie, a restaurant in the hipster neighbourhood of “Le Plateau”. The chefs must laugh when they create their stuff. Case in point: the amuse-bouche, which strictly translated means “funny mouth”. In fact it’s a single, bite size nosh given free by the chef to let you know what you’re in for. (Did you know Montréal is the home to the Just for Laughs festival? Keep that in mind as I proceed.)
A small plate with a few waffle wafers arrayed on a bed of fir twigs and a teensy dollop of crème fraiche flavoured with lemon and weird crunchy yellow fish eggs that popped in your mouth was the amuse-bouche du jour. After this, artisanal breads sliced cracker thin arrived in a cement container reminiscent of a pansy planter along with a selection of three butters – regular, lemon, and hay flavoured. Yes, hay and it tasted exactly like hay. The laughs continued.
My appetizer was buffalo mozzarella mousse with smoked eels – better than it sounds – served in a bowl that looked like a fancy dog-watering dish, hand crafted, of course and sourced locally. The main course was Halibut in Parmesan Cream, a near gastrointestinal disaster but I managed to eat the fish, the size of which was about half a deck of cards, sans sauce.
Finally, dessert. This is where I think the chef must have been busting his gut when he devised mine. I asked our server what was the least cream based dessert on the menu. Carrots, he said. Not cake. Not pudding but sugared carrots with lemon cream dots topped with little green islands of sweet wafers (maybe hay?) and a spoon sized serving of oyster flavoured ice cream.
I cannot recall the name of this confection but ultimately I laughed. The whole meal was a laugh. Tasty, tiny, hilarious. No one who merely resides could create food 100% made for fun, to entertain and surprise. To amuse your mouth.
We left satisfied – not full – giggling at the goofiness of it all. And then we danced at a Cuban nightclub because in Montréal that’s what you do even if you’re 59.
Ah, Montréal. You’re a belle dame sans merci. Je t’adore.