If you were to make a game of identifying cities based on their most popular ingredients, which one would get morel and porcini mushrooms, stacks of fresh, feathery mint and underused but delicious herbs like sorrel and lovage?
What city would serve them with affordable, natural wines, with crisp, supernally flavourful vegetables, with cold-water shrimp and urchin so fresh that they can't be more than a few hours out of the sea?
Vancouver, right? Or maybe San Francisco. But definitely not Montreal, which is best-known these days for its whole pigs' trotters stuffed with foie gras and its kill-me-now poutines. The city's maximalist, live-well-and-keel-over-at-60 culinary brand is easily one of Quebec's most influential cultural exports. Anthony Bourdain once cheerfully described his first-ever meal at Au Pied de Cochon, the home of that foie-stuffed trotter, as being so excessive that he passed out before he was done.
I've eaten at Joe Beef, otherwise known as that place that serves foie gras double-down sandwiches, and loved it, and more than a few times at Au Pied de Cochon. I've consumed my body weight in smoked meat from Schwartz's, the treasured Jewish deli on Boulevard Saint-Laurent that serves what is arguably the greatest sandwich on Earth, extra fatty please, with a Cott's cherry soda to go with. They are unique and terrific and unforgettably tasty; I highly recommend them.
Yet after an extended eating trip to the city earlier this month, I'm convinced that what Montreal does best – what makes it one of North America's greatest dining towns – are the restaurants that get far less love and attention internationally, the places where chic, in-the-know locals go.
They are the superb neighbourhood bistros, the cheap, convivial experimental kitchens and the modern, distinctly Montréalais rooms that specialize in what's sometimes called bistronomie: in light, fresh cooking that's grounded (with some exceptions) in the classics but alive with new ideas. Given that the city has one of the continent's best farmers' markets (Marché Jean-Talon) and provisioners (Societé-Orignal, among others), it's no surprise that these restaurants' menus are often market-driven too.
In Montreal? Absolutely. And many of them also serve pork and foie gras, in case you were worried, though generally not in portions that are likely to K.O. you in the middle of a meal.
Lawrence (5201 Boul. Saint-Laurent, 514-503-1070; lawrencerestaurant.com) opened a couple of years ago in a neighbourhood room that looks out on Mile End, a rewarding Bixi ride northwest of Montreal's downtown. The feel is unpretentious, cheery elegance, with worn wood floors and mismatched china plates balancing pop-modern design details.
Chef Marc Cohen's cooking is British by way of France and the Mediterranean, with classic Quebec ingredients, which is to say it's modern bistro cooking, tuned to Ici, as Radio-Canada might put it. Cohen does a verdant, jardin potager-style risotto with puréed lovage: green, peppery, creamy decadence with freshness where you'd expect to find heavy. His take on calamari was perhaps the best I've had; tender rings and tentacles with asparagus-like sea samphire and roast tomatoes, all tossed in garlicky aioli.
Cohen builds his superb rabbit terrine from mild meat and pistachios, and serves it with prunes refreshed in Calvados. The house agnolotti, dressed under morel mushrooms and asparagus and cheesy butteriness, were extraordinarily good. These are simple dishes, but done with a degree of love and expertise that a lesser kitchen just couldn't fake.
Cohen's take on pot-au-feu was a marvel of poise and texture, a meat feast without the gouts of fat or 4 a.m. sweats. It included silky veal tongue and tail braised to moist and wobbly, and a hunk of sausage that was fragrant with woodsmoke. There was sublime dark broth around them, the slap and warm blush of radish slices, and on top, a creamy mustard countermovement from Dijon.
We had apple and gin sorbet for dessert – simple, delicious, highly effective. It was the sort of place I can't wait to go back to.
Some chefs write a menu at the start of their careers and rarely change it; at Foodlab (1201 Boul. Saint-Laurent, 514-844-2033, sat.qc.ca/en/foodlab), an enormous, often party-like indoor-outdoor space, classically trained chefs Michelle Marek and Seth Gabrielse cook an entirely new cuisine each month. They've done Swedish smörgåsbord and Russian Easter, among many others. Last month, their wine and food menus were built around Greek dishes, and when I visited last week they had only just switched to a Jerusalem theme.
On their menu: grilled halloumi cheese with tomatoes and honey, superb beef shawarmas, excellent mezze, an octopus salad with impressively creamy labneh that came dusted with za'atar, the smoky, citrusy spice. It tasted as though they'd been cooking the food of Jerusalem all their lives.
A few blocks east down a grotty stretch of Saint-Laurent, Bouillon Bilk (1595 Boul. Saint-Laurent, 514-845-1595; bouillonbilk.com) quickly became a chefs' favourite after opening in the spring of 2011. Helmed by hyper-talented chef François Nadon, the modern little room, with its linen-napped tables, thoughtful wine list (the place sells vin jaune by the glass, as well as Irancy from northern Burgundy; terroiristes should run, not walk) and friendly, neighbourhood vibe, has staked out an inspiring synthesis of bistro and fine dining.
Nadon's plates are often breathtaking. His lobster bisque with fresh urchin and crispy, endorphin-priming chicken skin was a $6 special when I ate there, four sublime, pace-setting, land-sea slurps to put his guests on high alert. He dressed a primi-sized bowl of house linguini with thinly sliced veal tongue that was brined with fennel and coriander, much like Jewish deli meat, and with a drift of fresh horseradish and porcini mushrooms bathed in butter and melting stracchino cheese. For every darker element, Nadon balanced off a light one: sliced red grapes, spring peas and preserved lemons, for instance, with pan-roasted bass.
My favourite, though, was his northern Chinese-style duck dumpling, which turned up seared, in a shallow pool of broth, topped with pickled daikon strands and thin, deep burgundy-coloured slices of duck's heart. It was Montreal French with a Cantonese accent, intense pleasure and progressivism in a bowl.
L'Express (3927 Rue Saint-Denis, 514-845-5333; restaurantlexpress.ca), a 32-year-old institution in the fashionable Plateau neighbourhood, is a proper French bistro, run by a chef from Toulouse and a remarkably enlightened owner who still writes the menus with a fountain pen. It is packed from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. most days, with minor celebrities (isn't that the guy from the "Ici c'est Pepsi" commercials?), scruffy off-shift cooks, wine-loving businessmen, families and smartly dressed couples who are not averse to affectionate public displays.
The plats here come with enormous jars of bracing cornichons and pots – yes, pots – of mustard. L'Express's wine cellar is 11,000 bottles strong, and as in France, many of those bottles come up for sale only when they're ready, at prices meant to encourage fraternité and egalité. The chef does not glad hand with his guests.
And the cooking? It is French bistro cooking: superb calf's liver seared hard to medium rare, with good frites and house-made mayo; fish soup stirred with garlicky aioli and crumbly cheese toasts; asperges vinaigrette; pitch-perfect tarte au citron. It's sensational for its lack of sensationalism, exactly what an honest bistro is.
A friend of mine seemed charmed when I told him how much I loved it. L'Express is his go-to place. "The secret about L'Express is that the cooking's not great-great, it's just always really good," he said.
EAT, DRINK, SHOP: A FEW OTHER GREAT MONTREAL SPOTS
A friendly coffee and lunch spot with a focus on herring, sardines and other little fish. Also: great salads and grilled cheese, sans fish, if that's your speed. 9 Avenue Fairmount East, 514-802-8899, cafesardine.com.
Qui Lait Cru
A terrific fromager devoted to raw-milk cheese. Allow plenty of time to explore the rest of the market. 7070 Henri Julien Ave., in Marché Jean-Talon, 514-272-0300.
Micro Resto La Famille
With just eight indoor seats, this simple, hospitable modern bistro lives up to its "micro" billing. The food is good, the wines cheap, all-natural and well-chosen and the cannelé pastries are seriously exquisite. Go for lunch. 418 rue Gilford, 514-508-8700.
An early, out-of-the-way Montreal bistronomie star and one of my favourite restaurants of all time. Its ever-changing chalkboard menu, dream of a wine list (all available by the glass) and genuine neighbourhood feel will have you considering real estate. 96 Fleury Ouest, 514-504-7700, lesturbain.com.
A kosher bakery in one of the coolest parts of Mile End. Get the chocolate babkas. 359 rue Bernard Ouest, 514-271-2253.