When you need a dose of Paris but don’t want to pay for it with Parisian prices, or jet lag, Montreal is the best alternative. There’s nothing subtle about the city’s dominant French vibe. When the stop signs read arrêt, and your cab driver sounds like Yves Montand, you know you’re in a Gallic universe. All that is bound to influence Montreal’s food scene, and it emphatically does. Classic brasseries like L’Express and Leméac have been a long-standing fixture on Montreal blocks, and Normand Laprise, who put the city on the global culinary map when he opened Toqué! in 1993, has always cooked with a French accent. And while Montreal’s growing diversity has spawned a rich range of global kitchens in recent years, the Gallic beat continues with a fresh wave of restaurants, fueled by a focus on local sourcing and updated twists. Where to get your current fix of everything from escargot to steak frites? Try some of the following where you will be greeted with a big bonjour.
Le Vin Papillon
Joe Beef opened in 2005, on a boho stretch of Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood, and drew crowds for its unabashedly rich take on French classics (think a foie gras sandwich topped by maple syrup, and why not? a slice of ham). Quickly spawning a mini-empire, the divey little restaurant was joined by sister kitchen Liverpool House and the newest iteration, Le Vin Papillon, which opened in 2013 and completed the Joe Beef trinity, all lined up on the same revitalized block.
If you’re going to opt for one of the three, Papillon offers the freshest bite. The no-reservation restaurant (lines form early) dishes up a determinedly quirky interior that favors familiar hipster fixtures—taxidermy, mounted flying fish, straw baskets hanging from ceiling beams, and a big blackboard scrawled with the evening’s menu. But unlike its siblings Papillon veers veg-centric and features more nuanced, exciting versions of Gallic cuisine. A regular standout is the kitchen’s carrot eclair—a long coil of sweet, brined carrots layered between choux pastry that makes for a combination entrée and dessert. If you’re hungry for something meatier, though, the kitchen comes through with a raw beef sandwich on a pillowy sesame seed bun, as well as a big mound of shaved ham smoked in anchovy butter. Just don’t get too settled. The Joe Beef universe is planning to expand later this winter, with Mon Lapin, a wine bar focused on seafood. This one though, slated to debut in the Little Italy, isn’t joining its siblings on an already very crowded block.
Matching Joe Beef for almost instant popularity when it opened in 2015, Montréal Plaza doesn’t go for divey. Everything is sleek and on point here, from the airy whitewashed dining room, punctuated by brown leather banquettes, to the servers decked out in blue oxford shirts. The effect is 21st century brasserie and the food follows suit. One of the many young Montreal chefs schooled by Normand Laprise, Charles-Antoine Crête dishes up a range of standout dished that blend Gallic and global flavors.
Start with his signature Caesar salad studded with fat chicken livers, or his chicken liver mousse rolled in fried buckwheat. Braised lamb is paired with fried brussel sprouts and lingonberries, and a plate of boudin blanc plays surprisingly well with sweet purple radishes. Just save room. An antidote to all those restaurants that consider dessert an afterthought, Montreal Plaza builds to a dramatic finish, with photogenic dishes like a pineapple mille-feuille.
Opening in the spring of 2017, Blumenthal was designed as a big nod to Montreal’s entertainment district where it resides. In fact, the restaurant’s profits go toward supporting Montreal’s open-air arts festivals, including the city’s celebrated Jazz Festival, and the brasserie’s floor to ceiling picture windows look out on al fresco performing spaces. There’s an organic flourish inside, where a big clusia tree sprouts and green vines hang from the ceiling, all hinting at the local sourcing that drives the kitchen’s reconfigured French classics.
Among the best: braised rabbit leg with mustard sauce and polenta; salmon tartare paired with bagel chips (a salute to Montreal’s thriving Jewish population); and a brasserie-perfect hanger steak, updated with a pat of miso butter, sitting next to a stack of golden fries. For dessert: a classic crème brûlée but this one sweetened by Quebecois candy cane mushrooms, which add a natural maple flavor.
Les Deux Singes was consistently rated one of Montreal’s top Mile End district restaurants, so when it closed last year there was a flood of foodie tears. Reprieve came quickly though. Reopened in October, with an enlarged, electric blue dining room and a new name—Île Flottante—the rebranded kitchen followed the original format.
Offering tasting menus of three, five or seven courses, wunderkind chef Sean Smith serves whatever is freshest that day. Among recurring favorites are his duck breast dressed with fig compote and hazelnuts, a leek ceviche, and an almond caramel financier. An added attraction if you’re still somehow hungry sits just up the Mile End block, where lines snake out of the St-Viateur Bagels, waiting for the freshly baked, uniquely sweet Montreal bagels that are a gift from the neighborhood’s thriving Jewish population.
A brisk walk from Mile End in the bougier Outremont neighborhood, Bloomfield opened within a month of Île Flottante but is a lot easier to miss. The intimate (read tiny) white-washed dining room is about the same size as the restaurant’s kitchen, and chef-owner Caroline Dumas often delivers her own plates to the nine tables, under a ceiling strung with fairy lights. Her dishes think big though. Octopus with lentils, yogurt, and pickled onions packs flavor, as does a chunky pea soup. It’s her socca though, discovered on a trip to Cannes with her producer husband, that turns the menu toward southern France. Dumas’ version of the chickpea pancake comes topped with chorizo and slices of very juicy figs. For dessert: a purely Quebecois comfort food plate of bread pudding laced with maple syrup.