Let me tell you about the two 24-hour, international vacations I’ve taken in the past two weeks. Change your venue, change your mood, that’s my motto.
Two runs to Montreal to pick up/drop off our son at school at McGill University offered the perfect respite from the drama of the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. Contrary to common American opinion, Canada is its own country, not an extension of the northern border of the United States. Although in the advent of a Trump Presidency, I know I wish those borders were softer. Think Justin Trudeau. And weep.
Nowhere is the international flavor of Canada more pronounced than in Montreal, a little piece of Paris a five-hour drive away.
What do I notice immediately? The first real winter storms of the year are upon us, and the Quebecois have an incredible ability to deal with snowfall. Like it never happened. Boston, take note. Next, it’s the Christmas spirit. Lights, ribbons, trees, ornaments, music, special pastries galore. So festive, you might not even notice the thermometer reads -1°. Number three: people are not daunted, in the least, by the weather. They are outside enjoying winter, cross-country skiing, sledding, or shopping. I imagine the smiles on the faces under the Canadiens logo-ed balaclavas that cover their têtes. Sorry, Bruins fans.
My dual 24-hour stays include two meals, on our up and back, quick turnaround jaunts. When we have more time, we’re more adventurous, Montreal being the great food city it is. If we’re on an up-and-back, it's a cozy dinner and a robust breakfast.
Gema is cozy, even when the small outside “patio “ dining is available. An L-shaped bar is full of diners, not drinkers. A young, multi-cultural neighborhood crowd packs the lively room. Gema offers the usual Italian café fare, but done with panache: meatballs in a thick red sauce, a spiral of grilled pork sausage, speared with a skewer, set atop perfectly cooked broccoli rabe, calamari fritti. Presentation is great, and the flavors are deep and satisfying. A killer salad, Salade Marche Jean Talon, named after the local fresh food market, changes seasonally. Ours featured baby red oak leaf lettuce, roasted delicata squash cubes, brussel sprouts, and a feathering of yellow popcorn microgreens.
Pizza is the star of this menu. The perfect personal size, we order two to split. The 1887 is essentially a margherita pizza (tomato, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves), and the other, the porchetta pizza, is one of tonight’s specials, listed on the ubiquitous restaurant chalk board. It features ground porchetta, caramelized onions and Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of cheese. I tell the waiter, who knows us from past trips, that we’d like the crust “quemado,” Spanish for burned. Since he is originally from Colombia, and lives in Montreal, he is fluent in three languages, and instantly smiles.
Do I save room for dessert? You bet I do. You will, too. Homemade custard ice cream topped with amarene alone is worth a visit. The combination of what could be the creamiest, richest, and deeply flavorful sweet cream soft serve Mr. Softee never served you, is topped with Italian black cherries in their own syrup. It is the perfect foil for the hearty flavors that preceded it. It is a round trip to your childhood and your favorite gelato shop in Rome all served up in one small stainless-steel soda fountain coupe cup. The accompanying sweet little flat-sided ice cream spoon invites you to scoop, insert. invert, and lick with one quick swipe of your tongue. You’ll roll your eyes skywards, and give thanks for people who cook with tradition and passion.
A short twelve hours and some shut-eye later, we’re enjoying a glass of cappuccino in the Old Port, Montreal’s version of SOHO. We’re tucked into a small table in a room crammed full of them at Olive et Gourmando. At another venue, we might mind. Here, sunlight from the expansive windows, high tinned ceilings, warm chatter, alluring aromas and attentive service more than make up for the close quarters. In fact, we’re lucky to have a seat. Even in the sub zero temperatures, the line is out the door, as future patrons sip hot coffees seated atop wooden benches outside while they await their table.
They won’t have to wait on us. We know what we came for and order it tout suite. Cappucinos and espressos all around with our version of a breakfast appetizer, house-made pastries, while we wait for our entrees. For the boys, a small loaf masquerading as a banana-nut muffin arrives. It is more than enough for two. For me, light and airy brioche spiraled around shaved Valrhona chocolate. Conveniently, it arrives cut in two. I pack half to go, knowing I’ll enjoy it around the Vermont/New Hampshire border on the drive back to Boston.
For some, the coffee and pastry may be enough. But we’re traveling today, so we need to fuel up. I order the pain doré, a brunch item that changes weekly. Today, it is decadently filled with citrus sections, dolloped with labne, sprinkled with house-made mixed nut granola, and, in lieu of syrup, drizzled with a fragrant, floral local honey. It is as breathtaking as it sounds.
My son orders fresh fruit salad atop yogurt and chia seeds, I assume to begin the post-college-life detox on his way home; my husband craves the “egg on your face,” which, I have come to understand, refers to the mess one makes when trying to scarf it down whole.
I realize suddenly that I’ll be sad not to anticipate my next trip to Montreal, once our son graduates. But then I recall all the benefits of a 24-hour international get-away, and know that the trip will be it’s own reward.