toronto & montreal…

…or, “A Study in Walking Many Kilometers from Restaurant to Restaurant.”

I have been noticeably absent from the blogosphere these past few weeks, seemingly having left this poor old thing by the way side in abandonment. But this is not so, dear readers, for instead, I have been frolicking up north, traipsing about mid-70 degree weather with not a care in the world save how little time I had to spend in the company of good meals and good family.

So now, to make up for my absence, I will give you an extremely extensive, food-filled account of my adventures in Canada. Read at your own discretion.

I’ve been to Canada before, though my previous forays into the country only ever extended as far as a minivan with the parentals in Oakville, pawing at the outskirts of Toronto. My aunt and uncle live in town, and all three of their children – cousins much older and wiser than myself – were there this time around (which, actually, is an astounding feat).

This summer saw a trip made to the same house, but under much different circumstances: most notably, the absence of the parentals. Yusra, Mus and I made the trek this year (in the same minivan, of course, though now with an iPod jack so I don’t have to spend a good 3 hours of my time sitting in the passenger seat with the laptop overheating my lap, running through a pack of blank CDs to keep the merriment going as we drive 80mph on the interstate – true story). We were in Oakville for five days, alternating between exploring the town and Toronto, before making the 6-hour drive east to Montreal. A short week abroad, but a welcome change amidst a monotonous Virginia summer.

My first and last observation of the trip occurred, not surprisingly, during the drive up and back. And that is the following: if you live anywhere south of upstate New York, don’t drive to Canada. For the love of all that is Holy, take a plane. Or a train. Or any moving vehicle that allows you the ability to at least stand up. To be fair, it doesn’t seem that bad during the drive up, but that’s also because you have the beginning-of-a-new-adventure high running through your veins and everything is bathed in an uncharacteristically garish light of excitement and optimism. For Chrissake, even the terrible, overpriced days-old deli sandwiches wilting sadly on shelves at nondescript, rest-stop convenience stores seem halfway edible (if you can smile your way through an entire sandwich, you know you’re living in a lie). So, really, I could and did brave the 13-hour drive with a mind full of anticipation for an amazing trip (which, let it be known amidst this rant, it absolutely was).

But the drive home is something else entirely. Like living through a steady loop of really dry credits after a movie that started off splendidly before devolving into a mess of Lord of the Flies-esque mindlessness, sad deli sandwiches tasting just like sad deli sandwiches, desperately awaiting “the end” to flash on screen before being met with the crushing disappointment that you’ve only just entered New Jersey for what seems like the hundredth time (let it also be known that I have nothing deeply personal against the state, merely its fucking turnpike). But, you know, after 16-hours and a near-permanent loss of cognitive lucidity, we made it home.

(I honestly thought I would just wither away right there on the highway, but in any case. Rant over. Plane next time, check. Moving on to Canada itself.)

So, five days in Ontario, living in Oakville and making frequent trips into Toronto. They were really wonderful, spent catching up with family that I rarely have the pleasure of seeing and experiencing a well-thought-out and exciting itinerary drawn up by Sn (which makes me now want to personally apologize to anyone who has ever made the effort to come see me since I am quite the opposite on the spectrum of ‘planning exciting things for guests to do’).

It was also a house filled with varying dietary needs, since Sn and Sf are both vegan, Sm is vegetarian, Mus is lactose-intolerant, and I have a certain aversion to gluten. Still, my aunt and cousins were graciously accommodating (something else I fail at entirely), and we were met with five days of deliciously homemade brunches: poached pears, french toast, and vegan fruit smoothies courtesy of Sn, and strawberry-topped hazelnut pancakes courtesy of Sf, all the while among plates of omelets and cookies baked by my aunt and a seemingly endless supply of chai from my uncle. Lunches and dinners were typically taken out of the house, sometimes downtown and sometimes in Toronto. We explored everything from a la carte-style sushi buffets to bibibmap to burgers and fries. In between, we strolled through breezy streets lined with shops and cafes, mostly, to be quite honest, with the intention of arriving at our next meal’s destination by foot.

Toronto itself I would best describe as gastronomically progressive, and yes, I am aware of how pretentious that sounds. But it’s true – a Mecca of foreign restaurants and quick eats, but also startlingly adaptable to almost any diet at any given time and a healthy focus on clean eating. The PATH, or city’s underground tunnel network (which I really just think all major cities should have, because really, it’s like having two cities in one, one of which is a permanent shield against the frigid chill of winter and scorching heat of summer, so why on earth had I been having to walk around in near-100 degree weather all fracking July?!), is brimming with restaurants, cafes, and bars, many of which cater to vegetarian, vegan, raw, and gluten-free lifestyles. For one of our lunches, Sf took us to a burger joint she frequented on her lunch breaks when she still worked in the city’s financial district (Hero Certified Burgers), and I was pleasantly surprised to be given the option of swapping the white bun with a gluten-free one. Other cafe menus distinguished between vegan and non-vegan items, often with accompanying calorie counts for the more health-conscious eaters (read: 90% of Toronto).

So what did that mean for me? I ate absolutely everything with abandon. It was glorious. 

We eventually became intimately acquainted with the city by foot, having spent a few days walking extensively through southern downtown along the water (as well as a short ferry ride to the Toronto Islands [which do, in fact, exist, and are actually quite charming]) and into the Distillery District (where a large portion of Cinderellaman was filmed, after having cleared out all the quirky stores and cafes that typically line the cobblestone streets). Had I not been with three cousins and my younger sister, I’m quite positive I could have spent hours getting lost in the St. Lawrence Market, an absolutely gorgeous, two-story indoor farmer’s market (an industrial version of Eden is what they were going for, I think). As per happy coincidence, we were even able to chat with one of the head chefs at George Brown College‘s Culinary Program, who gave us a quick tour of the student-run restaurant kitchen (as well as a handshake with the well-wish of seeing me again in a year or two as a student rather than a tourist, but I’ll not let my hopes get too, too high). A night spent at The Second City for an improv comedy show and another spent watching a Shakespeare performance in High Park made for a wonderfully well-rounded glimpse of Toronto.

I absolutely would have loved to stay for another week or so, particularly since five days is hardly enough to make up for a 3-year gap between seeing one’s own family, but we were on a somewhat tight schedule. (Of course, I now plan on visiting much sooner than 3 years from now for a much longer period of time, so at least there’s that.)

So, five short days after our arrival, we (Mus, Yusra, and I) packed up the car and headed off for Montreal. I’d never been to Quebec before and was yearning for some European-esque bit of travel while we were still in the country, so our primary reason for visiting the city was my selfishness. But, you know, the other two ended up having a good time as well, so I can only feel so guilty for dragging them with me.

We only actually had one full day in the city, which was a bit of a shame, but not too tragic because we inadvertently ended up eating at some of the best restaurants downtown. Any more time in Montreal, and I’m pretty sure I would have fallen into an irreversible food coma.

We stayed downtown, about two streets from the McGill campus and a few kilometers from old Montreal. We didn’t do much actual shopping for things other than food, but 15% sales tax and undesire for memorabilia stamped with “I Heart Canada” all over the front will do that to a person (not that I don’t love Canada, but I find it unnecessary to display my love for it in so many words on my physical body).

So instead, I hoarded all my cash for food.

The morning was spent exploring old Montreal’s historic, cobblestone streets and a brunch at Le Marché de la Villette. It is, I would have to say, one of the most charming restaurants I’ve visited ever. Crepe avec fruits (sweetened with maple syrup, of course) and chocolat chaud, which is “fruit crepes and hot chocolate” to all you non-French-speakers (let it be known that I speak absolutely no French, but after 24 hours in the city I like to consider myself an honorary quebecoise). Someone next to us ordered the grandest-looking cheese tray I had ever seen and I spent quite a lot of time willing myself not to go over and make myself intimately comfortable with it. I also assume the bistro was going for a rustic, French feel with its sturdy wooden tables, low-hanging charcuterie, and a soundtrack of acoustic, accordian-inspired instrumentals. It was pretty charming, to be quite honest.

We explored a bit of  Mont-Royal after brunch – a hill that sits inside the city (and after which Montreal was named) – taking in the industrial landscape of downtown from a few meters up. It was very pretty, and a nice change from urban streets to find oneself in the middle of green parks and nature trails. After an extensive 15-minute hike up one of the relatively flat trails, I felt worn out and hungry. So we did what any Mont-Royal hiker would do in the situation: we went out for poutine.

So poutine is basically just this: french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. It looks just about how you would imagine it, and eating it gives you the same satisfaction you would get from eating a disgustingly delicious, greasy burger from a hole-in-the-wall joint of a really gritty city. So it’s good, but also, you hate yourself a little bit for doing it. We went to a place called Resto la Banquise,absolutely bustling with young people and a perfectly garishly-colored interior, to indulge in the traditional, French-Canadian dish (it was on my bucket list of one-day Montreal necessities). La Banquise boasts 25 different types of poutine, and some of the best in the city. You’d think it would be hard to fathom 25 different way to dress up fries with gravy and cheese curds, but this is not so. It is actually very easy and intimately connected with varying degrees of self-loathing. I got an original poutine, and actually found myself really enjoying it. I only managed about half of it, to be honest, because it was so rich, but it was absolutely worthwhile. My tip is this: indulge in poutine at least once if you’re in Quebec. It’s quite an experience, and pretty reminiscent of sports bars on game nights: tons of deep-fried, non-vegetarian goodness accompanied by an extensive beer list.

…after lunch, I told Mus and Yusra that we would have to go somewhere fancy for dinner.

I don’t remember much of what happened between poutine and dinner, because I was met with one of the worst migraines of my life and spent a few hours trying to sleep it off at the hotel. It was utterly random and probably my body’s way of telling me to stop filling it with glutinous items since, quite clearly, the excruciating stomachaches were not enough to deter my efforts from seeking out more gluten-filled, carb-y foods.

Naturally, this trend continued at the bread basket before dinner at Restaurant Holder. Definitely one of the most indulgent meals of my life, but quite honestly, one of the best. The fare was much more upscale than I typically eat, but what is a trip abroad without a bit of extravagance, eh? So I decided to go all out: duck confit on a bed of arugula and roasted potatoes topped with truffle salt. I swear to god, I can still taste the truffle salt on the tip of my tongue and the thought that I may never have a more perfectly prepared duck leg in my life makes me want to cry. I will make the trek back to Montreal for this meal alone. That is a promise.

In any case, after dinner we decided to go a bit more casual with dessert. I’ve told you before how I am an 80-year-old grandmother trapped in a 20-year-old’s body, so rather than spending my only free night in Montreal exploring its renowned night scene, I spent it (until 11pm, mind you) with a plate of crepes and mug of coffee. We went to Croissanterie Figaro for the meal, this wonderfully charming dessert cafe that, very charitably, stays open until 1am. Our server mistook me for a French-speaker and proceeded to carry on a completely one-sided conversation with me in French, during which I nodded in what I assumed were the right places and smiled stupidly. He finally got the hint when he asked if we would be sitting à l’intérieur ou à l’extérieur, and I stammered ‘inside is fine,’ hoping that was an appropriate response to what he seemed to be asking. Needless to say, the conversation carried on in fluent English after that.

But, you know, I got to say ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’ in my terrible accent as we headed out, so I was pleased.

So, all in all, Canada was lovely. I’m a big fan of Toronto, not only for the gastronomy but also the open cleanliness of the streets and the pleasantness of its people, and close proximity to amazing family. Montreal was charmingly French, though at some point I do hope to return to explore the botanical gardens, museums, and shopping districts (and also more duck confit), so I would advise you to plan for more than just one day in the city.

Now, having woken up in the States for the first time in 7 days, all I want is a plate of crepes, a cafe latte, and a conversation in broken French. But, you know, maybe that’s something to try making for myself one of these days. (I mean, I’ve mastered the “broken French” part to a T as it is.)

In other news, fall term (my last fall term as an undergraduate student, at that, so really, terrifying) begins early next week, so updates may be even more slow-going than usual. But until then, au revoir, dear readers, and have a cafe latte on me.

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2 thoughts on “toronto & montreal…

  1. You are amazing – I live in Niagara Falls and have been to many of the places you just described. But through your eyes there is a greater appreciation. Again – your photography skills are outstanding.

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