Atwater Market: Farmers' Market in the City
Tuesday, the 14th was my birthday so we spent the day doing whatever I wanted, which of course involved a lot of food. We started by visiting Atwater Market, which is a farmers' market very much like St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. During the summer, there are lots of fresh produce stands with beautiful fruits and vegetables. They remind me of those really fancy and expensive grocery stores I saw in Tokyo where every piece is perfect so you don't need to choose; you just pick one. In the winter, the market stays open, but all the activity is indoors with the butchers, cheese shops, gourmet food stores, and bakeries.
La Fromagerie Atwater
There was an amazing cheese shop called La Fromagerie Atwater that had very advanced-looking cheeses and a smell that punched you in the face when you opened the door (always a good sign). In the open cooler was a macabre cheese called Valencay Cendre that is a goat cheese made of raw milk and covered in black ash. I read online that the ash is edible and is made from burning junipers, white pines, grape vines, or the remains of vegetables such as bell peppers and eggplants. I was dying to try it, but we had a long, unrefrigerated day ahead of us so I had to leave it there.
Boulangerie Première Moisson
At one end of the market was a gorgeous bakery called Boulangerie Première Moisson whose name basically means 'first harvest'. In addition to their delicious-looking and smelling fresh baked bread (some loaves were the diameter of a medium pizza!), they had display cases full of pastries and sandwiches. Since it was my birthday, I asked the lady in my best French for a slice of my favourite cake, strawberry shortcake (light sponge layered with whipped cream and strawberries). The French speaking went tolerably well, I think; I didn't have to resort to miming. I also got a slice of this tomato pizza that is everywhere in Montreal, but nowhere in Toronto. It's a soft crust with just a thick tomato sauce on top. Yummy. The cake was absolutely perfect too.
After lunch, we headed to nearby AMC Forum 22 to catch a movie. AMC Forum 22 is a huge cineplex that is housed in what used to be the Montreal Forum, which was the city's major arena and home to the Montreal Canadiens for 60 years. Rather than gutting the entire place and erasing all that history, they preserved Section 210 with a life-sized statue of a Canadiens fan sitting in one of the seats and built the rest of the cineplex around it.
In keeping with the food theme of the day/week/my life, we saw Ratatouille, the animated movie about a rat who longs to become a chef in Paris. It was a very cute movie with great food-related animation. My favourite character was the evil restaurant critic, Anton Ego, whose voice was performed Peter O'Toole. Food critics are always portrayed in film as celebrities who stride into restaurants, demand to be served the best, and take pleasure in bringing about the downfall of an establishment. In reality, working critics try to remain as incognito as possible to get a realistic picture of what an average diner will experience. In any case, Peter O'Toole was hilarious and the animated treatment of when he is transported back to his childhood by eating the rat's ratatouille is priceless.
Amir: Shish Taouk, it's nowhere else
After the movie we were a bit peckish, but dinner was a long way off so we squeezed in a visit to Amir for shish taouk. Amir is a very large chain of Lebanese fast food restaurants with a tonnes of locations in the city. I don't know why this is, but if you buy a shish taouk in Toronto or Ottawa or anywhere else, it's not the same as in Montreal. The Montreal version is a small pita stuffed with shaved, roasted chicken, lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce, and these pink pickles, which I think are radish. It's so so good and you can't find it anywhere else. When in Montreal, you have to have it.
Downtown West: Hey, that place is gone!
We walked all the way back to my sister's place along Sainte-Catherine/de Maisonneuve and looked in at a few familiar old places. Some were comfortingly still there like Le Paris restaurant, Sharx Pool Hall, Winston Churchill bar on Crescent Street, while others were distressingly gone. Le Faubourg used to be a bustling shopping centre with a fantastic bagel place (as good as Fairmount Bagel or St. Viateur Bagel), an enormous bakery, and a pristine fresh fruit and veg store. Now, it looks like they will be doing some serious renovation because everything on the first floor is gutted except the bagel place.
An even bigger surprise was that Ben's, the famous deli specializing in smoked meat, is gone. I read a bit about it and it turns out that they suspended operations in July 2006 due to an employee strike and by December they had decided to close the restaurant and sell the building. The restaurant had been in business since 1908 and at that Art Deco-styled location since 1950. Sad, isn't it?
Another disappointing closure is of the Spectrum de Montreal, a 1200-seat cabaret-style venue where I first saw Ani Difranco back in the day (1996) when I was a young, impressionable thing as well as just last year as part of the jazz festival. The sign said that it closed on August 5 after 25 years.
Some Things Never Change
While everything is closing and changing, Super Sexe, a downtown strip club with flamboyant signage, is still alive and well. Unlike other cities, the sex clubs in Montreal are right out in the open interleaved between coffee shops and Bell phone centres. Not that I ever went here, but it's nice to see a familar facade that has lasted after all this time. In the picture, note the configuration of the currency symbols on the currency exchange's sign just below. Clever monkeys.
Saint James United Church: Uncovered
Close to Sainte-Catherine and University, we passed by St. James United Church, which has kind of a cool story. The church (cathedral, really) was built in 1889, but due to financial difficulties the adminstration allowed a commercial building to be built in front of it which completely concealed it from the street. It stayed covered for 78 years from 1927 until 2005 when the blocking building was demolished and the beautiful church was uncovered. Isn't it amazing that it was hidden all this time?
Le Nil Bleu: Eithopian Birthday Dinner
In the evening, we went for dinner at the Blue Nile, which is yet another nostalgia place. Strangely, there was a sign saying no cameras allowed, so I don't have even one photo of the food or the facade. It has changed quite a bit since the last time we were there, which may be 7 years ago. In the interim, it's gone more upscale with a sleeker interior, higher prices, and an expanded wine menu. I can't say that it's an improvement. I miss the old place.
But, we'd been looking forward to this dinner for so long and even though it wasn't the best, it was still very good. We had a combination of dishes that included stews made from lentils, chicken, beef, and lamb. Everything is served on a large plate covered with injera, a sour, spongey flatbread that you also use as a utensil to eat the food (like eating Indian with naan bread). We ate absolutely every morsel and shared a bottle of ice cold South African white wine called Fleur du Cap. So much fun.
Champagne on the Terrace
I don't usually drink much, so after half a bottle of wine Darcy had to deal with a lot of incessant chatter and wobbly walking from me on the way back. Nevertheless, my sister had left a bottle of champagne in the fridge for us to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, which was just a few days before on August 9th, so we had to crack that open. We dragged her loveseat out on the terrace (massive terrace facing Rene-Levesque), sat back, and sipped our champagne feeling very happy and lucky indeed.