Montreal Highlights

photo: serving up the duck at La Salle à Manger

As world athletes gather to compete in Vancouver this month, an international gathering of a different ilk takes place across the country, in Montreal. Though news of the 11th annual Montreal High Lights festival has not succeeded in seeping through our Olympic fever, this celebration is important in its own way, for it serves to boost Montrealers’ mid-winter morale (well, to be generous, let’s say they’re two-thirds of the way through winter).

The ‘Festival Montréal en Lumière’ definitely aims to distract people from their weather woes. The website boasts that “it’s always warm on the festival site”, and for ten days, festival-goers can attend shows as part of the “Caliente!” series, “dedicated to hot’n’spicy rhythms.” This year’s festival, running from February 18th to 28th, is featuring a celebration of Portuguese wines and cuisine as thirty-nine guest chefs and vintners are hosted by local restaurants. In addition, six guest chefs from New Orleans, the festival’s featured city, will be in attendance.

In honour of the 11th annual Montreal High Lights Festival, I thought I would revisit some of the culinary highlights from the last trip I took to my native island. It was a flying visit that I snuck in early last December, but in that short time, I managed to fit in something old and something new. My first stop was Quincaillerie Dante, an institution in Montreal’s Little Italy since 1956, made somewhat more famous when it was featured in Gourmet’s March 1996 issue, devoted entirely to Montreal.

I had never actually stepped inside this eclectic hardware store before, but it was just as Gourmet had described it: to my right, a man examining a rifle at the gun counter, to my left, a display showcasing resident celebrity chef Stefano Faita’s newest cookbook Entre cuisine et bambini (a follow up to his first success, Entre cuisine et quincaillerie). Stefano is the son of Elena Faita, who is part owner of the shop, and founder of the popular Italian cooking school Mezza Luna, an annex to the hardware store. I wandered away from the guns, towards the gorgeous kitchenware selection, admiring the authentic pannetone papers available in various sizes. The shop was all a-bustle with pre-holiday display preparations so after a good browse and a few well-chosen purchases, I made my way back out to the snowy street.

The next culinary highlight was a bit of a surprise to me. For my father’s birthday, I had planned to take him out for a bistro lunch, thinking either L’Entrecôte Saint-Jean or L’Express would fit the bill nicely. However, Montreal had just been hit with its first snowfall of the season, and my father seemed reluctant to take on downtown snowdrift parking during the lunch rush. “How about roast beef at Magnan’s instead?” he suggested. Another Montreal institution I had heard much about but had never tried myself, I agreed, and we leisurely parked in the nicely plowed lot beside the tavern. Parking ourselves in our seats proved more of an obstacle, given how tightly packed the dining room was. Magnan’s Tavern has been the go-to spot for a reliable roast beef dinner since 1932. Situated on a busy corner in the old industrial sector that flanks the Lachine canal, little has changed in the seventy-five plus years they have been operating, except for the flat screen televisions mounted on the walls, and the fact that women are now welcome (though still vastly outnumbered, at least during the lunch hour I was there for). The menu has expanded as well, however regulars still order by the number – Number 1 being the 6 oz. portion (15.95$), climbing up to the number 5 (the 20 oz. portion, for 37.50$).

I opted for number 1, and with my first bite, understood the longstanding appeal this place holds. The roast beef au jus was perfectly saignant (rare), as I had ordered it. The well-marinated beef was tender and flavourful, the mash complimented it beautifully, and the veggies were a lovely tender-crisp, not overdone as I had feared might be the case. The building itself feels full of Montreal history, but not the one you get a little higher up the hill. The industries that line St. Patrick may have changed, but this is where the hardworking class has flocked to for good food, and Magnan still delivers. In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so surprised. The food Montreal has made famous; smoked meat, bagels, poutine, none of these can be described as gourmet, at least not in their original incarnations. For a very long time, Montreal has excelled at getting the classics done right.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a whole lot of exciting innovation taking place there as well. To experience something new, I had recruited three good friends to join me in trying out La Salle à Manger, rated as one of the top ten restaurants to open in 2009 by En Route last November. Hearing that this was the new project of Samuel Pinard, the chef from Reservoir, one of my old haunts, I knew it would be a memorable evening. After a happy reunion and Champagne toasts we hopped in a cab and went over the mountain, climbed over the snow bank and huddled into the bright new restaurant. David Bowie was playing over the speakers as we settled into our chairs, admiring the recycled bowling lane-topped tables and metro tiled walls. Our hosts were young, hip and deeply passionate about the food and wine we were carefully choosing.

Our attention was directed to the ardoise (blackboard) on the wall, and it was explained that each special was a serving for two, brought on a platter and then served at the table. We paired off and chose both the jeune canard embeurée au lard fumé avec purée de carottes et salade bettraves and the royale de lapin, papardelles aux chanterelles et emulsion au foie gras. But first, a few oysters – different varieties from New Brunswick, enjoyed with a 2007 Aligoté La Bête. It was the kind of meal you don’t want to end, and we certainly managed to stretch it out. The young duck I shared was the best I have ever tasted, every bite a balance of textures and flavours. Friends who usually pass on pasta helped themselves to seconds of the papardelle. Forks were enthusiastically pushed across the table, so everyone could get a taste of everything, and not miss out on any part of the experience. Someone muttered a superlative along the lines of “this is perfection”, and the server just nodded knowingly.

Unfortunately, my notes taper off somewhere before we get to the cheese plate. It’s a shame, because there were a few new Quebec cheeses I would have liked to hunt down again, but there was much wine drinking and conversation to catch up on, and we were in the right place to do it. By the time we got into a cab to take us back over the mountain almost five hours later, we’d vowed to make it a tradition – a new restaurant for each reunion. Luckily, in Montreal, festival or no festival, there is no shortage of choices.

If you go:

Quincaillerie Dante

6851 rue St Dominique

(514) 271-2057


2602 rue St Patrick

(514) 935-9647

La Salle à Manger

1032 av Mont Royal Est

(514) 522-0777

Written By:

Rebecca Baugniet is a freelance food writer and editor living on Canada’s West Coast with her husband and their four children. The author of three published cookbooks, Rebecca has also written for EAT Magazine and for Montréal ...

Comments are closed.