Montréal is a food city. Fresh baguette dipped in café au lait, flaky croissants with espresso, and buttery amandines with cappuccino are necessities of life. Local meats, homemade charcuterie, foie gras, morel mushrooms, wild blueberries, maple syrup and good French wine abound, with food experiences ranging from humble boulangeries to bistros to world-class fine dining.
Montréal may bask in its well-deserved reputation, but lesser known are its hole-in-the-wall Algerian shops, its top Italian grocers, its sticky-sweet Greek baklava that can temporarily stop the world from spinning—in general, its love of cultural diversity, as demonstrated by the Jean Talon, Little Italy, and Parc Extension neighbourhoods, far from the city’s Old Port.
To explore these neighbourhoods, start in tourist-free Parc Extension. The formerly Greek area west of Avenue du Parc near Rue Jean-Talon is now Montréal’s Little India. Pass the Pakistani kebab houses and pan-Indian BYOB’s on your way to the best-kept Greek secret in town: the baklava at Afroditi Bakery. Come lent, the place is full of sesame seed-topped, sinless grape-must jellies for fasting, but year-round the eye-popping displays house row after row of baklava with all levels of stickiness. The smorgasbord of options includes honey and butter-soaked phyllo pastry folded into triangles, rolled into cigars with pistachios and walnuts, and shredded into deep-fried strands.
Pastry à la mode? Yes, please, since Afroditi has a freezer display of its homemade ice creams sold by the litre. And don’t forget a giant jar of Greek honey to make melomakarona (honey-poached semolina cookies) at home the next time you find yourself craving them outside the Parc Ex neighbourhood. A sad thought, indeed.
756 Rue Saint Roch, Montréal
Tel. +1 514-274-5302, Website
Walk east through a no-man’s land of cars and underpasses to cross Avenue du Parc. Turn right at St-Laurent and you’ll enter the oasis of Little Italy. A few blocks down is Caffè Italia, the social hub of the neighbourhood. While the lattes don’t come with artistic crema hearts like other third-wave cafés in the city, they do come with a view of the old-school Italian lifestyle still very much present in Montreal. Italian men spend their afternoons around laminate tables or at the diner-style coffee bar. But for the rest of us, Caffè Italia isn’t a place to linger. You come in, order your shot of espresso at the bar, and leave. Since its opening in 1956, the café has only seen one renovation, which intentionally only updated the décor to “a prettier shade of ugly,” said the daughter of the café owners, Nadia Serri.
6840 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montréal
Tel. +1 514-495-0059
And why would you linger when Montréal’s largest market is nearby? At Jean-Talon Market you’ll find endless stalls of fresh fruits, vegetables, bison and elk skewers, cheeses, maple-smoked fish, charcuterie, wine, and, in summer, an enormous outdoor garden centre with aromatic basil, exotic Echinacea seedlings, and heirloom tomato plants.
To make a tasting tour of the market, start at La Boite aux Huitres, an open-air oyster bar where about dozen kinds of bivalves are shucked to order. The kiosk is conveniently located next to a counter of Quebec wines, specialty dessert wines and iced ciders.
Or buy a whole, freshly cooked Quebec lobster from Les Délices de la Mer and sit down with a pair of borrowed scissors at a picnic table nearby. Stow your bag safely under the table to avoid both the skilled pickpockets and a lobster mess. (Washrooms, which you’ll need to wash your hands post-lobster, are located behind Wawel Patisserie, home of the city’s best Polish donuts.)
For a petite sweet, sample the local maple syrup or blueberry honey at one of the many stands throughout the market. But for a true indulgence, order a traditional buckwheat crepe stuffed with sweet chestnut cream and topped with first-pressed extra-clear maple syrup from La Crêperie du Marché.
La Crêperie du Marché
7070 Avenue Henri Julien, Montréal
Tel. +1 514-238-0998, Website
Unpasteurized “raw” cheese is legal in Quebec, unlike in much of North America. Pasteurization destroys potentially dangerous bacteria found on cheeses, those murdered bacteria also create depth of flavour, like any fermented product. So in Quebec where flavour is paramount, raw milk cheeses are a birthright. At any of the four stellar cheesemongers within the market area, sample slices of raw milk wonders such as Louis d’Or, Tomme de Kamouraska raw sheep’s milk, and Le Bleu d’Élizabeth. While Qui Lait Cru?, located inside the market, boasts a wide raw milk selection, Fromagerie Hamel gets the people’s prize for best service.
If Italian Moscato grapes, summer-sweet white peaches or juicy white nectarines are in at Leopoldo’s on the south side of the market, buy a pound to pair with your raw milk purchase. Ask for a couple ripe ones (“mature”) and a couple for the next few days—just like a market in Italy.
182, Place du Marché-du-Nord, Montréal
Tel. +1 514-273-5456, Website
In summer the market expands to twice its normal size, but the businesses lining the exterior shouldn’t be neglected, including El Rey del Taco—the best homestyle Mexican in town. Served with freshly made corn tortillas and served with three house-made salsas, their plates of tacos el pastor go down easy with a glass of horchata.
El Rey del Taco
232 Rue Jean Talon Est, Montreal
Tel. +1 514-274-3336, Website
While Jean-Talon is known for its local products, from ten pound bags of carrots and beets to artisanal maple vinegars and cassis jellies at Les Délices du Marché, it’s also the place to hunt down the freshest Middle Eastern and North African dates in the city. At shoebox-sized L’Olivier, located next to El Rey del Taco on the market’s north side, squeeze through the aisles to the back fridge where a two by three-metre display is devoted to the fresh Algerian and Tunisian on-the-vine variety that oozes honey-sweet nectar, and the Iranian, air-sealed, smaller, juicier, and darker type that tastes like candy. The more expensive and better-known Medjools seem bland by comparison.