The new food icons

We’d never tell you to skip the bagel stop, but next time you head to Montreal, be sure to stock up on the next generation of must-haves. SHAWNA WAGMAN picks the top five

The Globe & Mail, March 25, 2006

The biggest conundrum when planning a trip to Montreal is how much room to leave in the suitcase for all the goodies you’re going to bring home. Can two dozen bagels and a pound of vacuum-packed smoked meat fit in a carry-on bag?

The list of edible essentials has grown in recent years. Philippe de Vienne, a long-time chef and modern-day spice merchant at the city’s famed Jean-Talon Market, has watched Montreal grow into what he calls a “food-driven city.”

“Montrealers are such hedonists,” he says. “We want the best of everything.”

So the next time you pack your bags for Montreal, save room for the next generation of food icons. Here’s your shopping list.

Cheese

In bistros, supermarkets, gourmet-food boutiques and dedicated fromageries , Montreal proudly sells and serves close to 300 local varieties of cheese — many of which are not available outside Quebec.

It was only 10 years ago that the federal government tried to outlaw the production and sale of raw-milk cheese, which created a swift and passionate uprising in the province. “They can take away our medicare, but they can’t take away our raw-milk cheese,” de Vienne says, recalling the short-lived battle. “Twenty years from now, I predict Quebec will be to North America what France and Italy are to Europe — the provider of fine agricultural products,” he says. “In fact, it’s already easier to get a decent plate of cheese in Montreal than in Paris.”

Indeed, an impressive cheese course is among the menu of small plates wooing regulars at La Montée de Lait. The small neighbourhood bistro allows its owner, Hugo Duchesne, a former assistant manager at Fromagerie Hamel, to showcase his passion for local dairy.

Your take-home shopping list should include Pied-de-Vent, Kénogami and Le Riopelle de l’Isle. Don’t miss:

Fromagerie Hamel: 220 Jean-Talon St. E., 514-272-1161.

La Montée de Lait: 371 Villeneuve St. E., 514-289-9921.

Yannick Fromagerie d’Exception: 1218 Bernard St. W., 514-279-9376.

Chocolate

A new breed of artisanal workshop-boutiques has raised the bar on flavour innovation. Standouts include the exotically infused dark chocolate squares from Chocolats Geneviève Grandbois (standouts include lemongrass and tobacco) and the hot chocolate spiked with cardamom and Espelette pepper from Au Festin de Babette.

The sophisticated take on chocolate is also extending into baked goods. Last year, Reeza Singh opened Cocoa Locale, a tiny, unpretentious bakeshop (a kind of anti- pâtisserie ) specializing in top-quality cookies and cakes, including an impossibly moist chocolate-chai cupcake adorned with a flower petal. Don’t miss:

Chocolats Geneviève Grandbois: 162 St. Viateur St. W., 514-394-1000.

Au Festin de Babette: 4085 Saint-Denis, 514-849-0214.

Cocoa Locale: 4807 Parc Avenue, 514-271-7162.

Salted butter caramel

Perhaps its roots lie in the cloyingly sweet confection, simply referred to as “caramel,” that Québécois children spread on their toast in the morning. Or maybe it’s a take on an old recipe from Brittany. Regardless, Montreal has fallen head over heels for this mélange of caramel and salt.

Customers line up outside tiny sweets boutique Les Chocolats de Chloé, clamouring for jars of homemade salted butter caramel, an addictive confection made even more alluring with the addition of vanilla bean. “Most people confess to eating it with a spoon,” owner Chloé Gervais-Fredette says. “But they tell me they love it on ice cream and pancakes, drizzled on yogurt and even on chicken wings.”

At bistro Le Chou, diners have been known to turn up just for the pot de crème , a Mason jar filled with layers of chocolate cream and caramel mousse divided by a crumbly sea salt and cocoa interlude. “It’s the most popular dessert by far,” Le Chou pastry chef Michelle Marek says. “We can’t take it off the menu. People would freak out.”

Don’t miss:

Le Chou: 1205 Van Horne Ave., 514-270-2468.

Les Chocolats de Chloé: 375 Roy St. E., 514-849-5550.

Sexy sandwiches

When Old Montreal was transformed from a kitschy ghost town into a thriving business centre, hungry hipsters and members of the creative class needed something inspiring to nosh on.

So it’s no surprise that four-year-old Cluny, a cafeteria and self-described “ArtBar” that specializes in artfully arranged overstuffed sandwiches filled with fresher than fresh ingredients, has gained a loyal following.

Fillings such as rare roast beef with horseradish and caramelized onions, and Italian sausage with roasted eggplant and peppers, struggle to stay tucked inside fresh-baked crusty baguettes and olive and onion breads from Pâtisserie Belge.

Its older brother, Titanic, an Old Montreal lunchtime institution, is still popular as well. “One client has ordered the same sandwich at Titanic every day for the past 15 years,” co-owner Rob Hack says. “We don’t even make that sandwich any more. We call it a ‘Howard’ and charge him the same price we did 15 years ago.”

Some equally dedicated sandwich fans might point you around the corner to Olive & Gourmando for a sexy Cuban or Cajun chicken sandwich with guacamole and mango.

Don’t miss:

Cluny: 257 Prince St., 514-866-1213.

Titanic: 445 St. Pierre, 514-849-0894.

Olive & Gourmando: 51 Saint-Paul St. W., 514-350-1083.

Nuevo Latino

Tamales and plantains for breakfast, arepas for lunch and empanadas filled with foie gras, pork shoulder and apple chutney for dinner: Thanks to the ever-growing numbers of Latino immigrants in Montreal, the city is quickly becoming Canada’s top destination for the flavours of Latin America.

Supermercado Andes Gloria, a popular Latin American grocery store and lunch counter, is the place to sample three geographically distinct varieties of tamales (pork- or chicken-stuffed corn-husk packages), a reflection of its Colombian, Salvadoran and Peruvian clientele.

Elsewhere, buzz is building around chef Mario Navarrete Jr., a native of Peru whose passion for New Latin cooking has thrust him into the spotlight. He’s part of a wave of young chef/owners applying European cooking techniques to the recipes and ingredients they grew up with. At his chic, little restaurant Raza, which made En Route magazine’s list of best new restaurants last year, fish ceviche is served with key limes and coriander foam.

“If you go up to Jean-Talon Market, you see many Latino markets like in South America,” he says. “You can find stores that specialize in just one country.”

Don’t miss:

Supermercado Andes Gloria: 4387 St. Laurent, 514-848-1078.

Raza: 114 Laurier Ave. W., 514-227-8712

Tortilleria Maya: 5274 St. Laurent Blvd., 514-495-0606.

Chevere: 4135 St. Denis St., 514-350-8523.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL