East-coast musings

So this is my first time in Montreal. In fact, this is the first time I’ve been father east than Regina, and I can’t wait to come back. Here is a roughly chronological account of my time here and some of the things I saw and noticed.

It turns out Quebec is pretty awesome. Or at least Montreal is, and Quebec city seems pretty interesting as well. I arrived in Montreal (which is apparently an island. The more you know etc) at about 7am on a Sunday, collected my bags, and was able to take a bus downtown (~35 minute trip, $10 cost) that dropped me about 10 minutes walk from my hotel. I could have transferred to another line to take me directly there, but chose to walk. After dropping off my bags and getting some advice on where to get some food, I set out on a walkabout. I saw most of Old Montreal and the Old Port, checked out the architecture, old churches, and other such things. It’s really interesting seeing just how much old architecture there still is, and still in use – many of the buildings are older than the cities on the west coast.

I guess this is a good time to talk about some of the fantastic food I had.

Le Cartet is the first restaurant I visited when I arrived in town, and went there on the recommendation of the clerk at the front desk of the Hotel. The food was a bit expensive – breakfast came to about $25 after tip, though this included eggs, home-made sausage, bacon, ham, hashbrowns, gluten-free toast, coffee, and orange juice. Excellent quality, and the gluten-free bread was absolutely amazing. I found out that the bread was made at a local bakery called Mi & Stu, and immediately made plans to go there and beg borrow or steal their bread recipe. By the time I sat down about 15 minutes after they opened, the restaurant was approximately 90% full, and I would guess that they seated around 70-80 people.

On one of the first days that I could not eat the lunch they provided us (a common occurrence – go go celiac power!), I discovered a place called Brit & Chips near McGill, a few blocks from where we were taking our course. They served a gluten-free fish and chips – hake in a gluten-free orange crush batter which I suspect was rice-flour based, and some surprisingly decent fries.

La Banquise is probably the most famous poutine restaurant in Montreal, and possibly Quebec as a whole. Frequently mentioned in foodie circles, and well deserving of the reputation – Bourdain has said that if you go to no other restaurant in Montreal, you HAVE to go to La Banquise. I had the Asterix, which is a standard poutine with smoked meat on it. The gluten free gravy was also vegan, and thus also fairly lacking in body and in good flavour, which was fairly disappointing, but I understand the business case behind not having two different gravies for vegans and celiacs. I would definitely make mine from beef/chicken stock rather than veg stock. The fries were pretty much the perfect size, about a happy medium between shoestring and thick cut style. The curds were a nice mix of tiny to small and medium to large chunks, which allowed for some to melt into delicious cheezy goo, and for some to give that distinctive poutine squeak. As was a common theme for most of the good restaurants I went to, there was a fair lineup when we arrived, and by the time we left it had actually grown to stretch past the next two businesses on the street. La Banquise is also open 24 hours, and still has a line up at pretty much any time day or night.

Arepas are a Venezuelan/Latin American food that I discovered while here in Montreal at a restaurant called Bocadillo. It is essentially a palm-sized corn flatbread that is about an inch thick, which is then sliced open, forming a pocket. One then fills it with meat, cheese, sauce, vegetables, and other goodness. One other thing that goes really well with arepas is fried Yuca (aka Cassava or Manioc), which when deep-fried is like a creamer and slightly more flavourful version of a potato. The flavour is somewhat like a cross between a potato and a yam, mild but really interesting. I wish the gravy they had was gluten-free, as I think it would have made a really tasty poutine.

Romados is a small Portuguese chicken shack the same general area as La Banquise and Schwartz’s. The only have a couple of things on the menu, but they also generally have a lineup out the door, and everything they do is excellent. Their main staple is smoked/roasted chicken. You can order a 1/4, 1/2 or whole chicken, at a really reasonable price. The fries are also excellent, and you can also get a salad to go with it. Simple food, done really well seems to be the theme of all of the best restaurants I found on my trip. Apparently Romados burned down a few years ago, and there was a huge outpour of support from the community, and the restaurant was quickly re-built. Apparently there have been many offers to franchise the restaurant, but the owners don’t want to allow control to pass to anyone outside the family, and possibly allow quality to slip. Definitely worth checking out if you can.

Le Milsa is a Churrasco restaurant, which basically means you pay for a plate, and they bring you a big selection of sauces and sides, then have servers walk by with large amounts of meat on what appear to be swords. They carve the meat onto your plate, and you feast. It’s all you can eat, and they tend to keep offering you more even after you are done, which is awesome as it shows they’re not cheap with it. The meats are: grilled chicken thighs, turkey wrapped in bacon, pork sausages, roast pork, grilled lamb, filet Mignon, picanha, roast beef and ribsteak. All of which were excellent. The $29.99 cost also includes a bowl of ice cream and coffee or tea for dessert. The whole thing was excellent, even though some of the meats were a little on the dry side. I won’t fault them for that, as most were pretty much perfect, and I showed up on a reasonably slow day.

Schwartz’s Delicatessen is pretty much THE iconic place for smoked meat in Montreal, and generally has a significant line up during most of their open hours (this was a common theme with most of the really good places I went). Their prices are not incredibly outrageous, and the quality is pretty high for what you pay. The smoked meat has a really well-balanced spice mix, and comes in lean, medium, or fatty cuts. I had the medium, and was expecting it to be much fattier. They also do in-house pickles, which are surprisingly dense when compared to store-bought ones. The fries are excellent, and they sell a black-cherry soda that is ridiculously sweet but has a very nice flavour.

On St. Laurent near Schwartz’s there is an old, fairly run-down theater called Cinema L’Amour. When you walk by it in the street, you will see posters of semi-nude ladies taped to the sidewalk and outside of the building, and signs in the windows listing showtimes and weekly specials (VIP booths for a more private experience, Couples enter free on Monday/Tuesday, Trans people are free on Wednesday, etc). Yup, that’s right, it’s a theater that exclusively shows porn. I wonder how much the popcorn is. And if the buttery, salty hand is something that is desirable or not. One thing is for sure, I’ll never find out, as I made the mistake of thinking about how often the seating/etc area is cleaned, sanitized, and/or burned. Ew. Also in the same block is a headstone/monument business, with unfinished headstones littered around the front of the building. On either side are an ice cream shop (with excellent home-made ice cream) and a place selling souvenirs.

Finally rode on a subway – the Metro in Montreal is fairly clean, cheap, quick & efficient, and the bus system is the same. It’s really interesting zipping around underground between stations, being an hour or two’s walk away from your starting point in less than 15 minutes. In traffic the same distance would probably take two or three times as long. I never got around to riding a Bixi bike, as everything I needed was pretty much always more quickly and cheaply accessible by walking or the Metro. Bixi rentals are $7/24 hours with a maximum ride time of 1/2hr at a time before you have to replace the bike or pay extra. A single metro ticket is $3, or you can get 2 for $5.50.

Traffic and intersections in Montreal are just straight up weird. On the island of Montreal, it is illegal to turn right on a red light. Many lights do not have pedestrian walk signals, and you walk when the light is green. This means one can frequently be stuck halfway or less across the intersection when the light switches. The Montrealer way of dealing with this is to simply stare right at the people waiting at the intersection, not expecting that they won’t decide to go and turn you into another greasespot on the road, but just so you can look them in the eyes while they do it. However, at some intersections along major foot traffic areas, when lights have pedestrian signals, the traffic lights will all switch red for about 10 seconds between cycles, allowing the pedestrian lights to cycle and allow people to start walking before the traffic gets a turn. All in all, Montreal is very well-laid out for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and obviously a fair amount of thought was put into planning for non-vehicular traffic. Also, the Montreal police are in some sort of dispute with the city regarding their contract and pensions, so every cop I saw was wearing camo pants and red baseball caps – one notable female officer was in pink camo pants at a traffic stop.

Shisha in Montreal is incredibly cheap – under a quarter of the cost of shisha in BC, even after taxes. I got enough to last me more than a full year, and saved approximately $700 over buying it in BC. BC… Bring Cash.

One of the events we took advantage of was being able to go to Sanair track about an hour east of Montreal and drive some Supercars. I got to drive a Ferrari F430 and an R35 Nissan GTR for three laps each, and both were excellent cars. The F430 felt only a hair faster than my MR2 was, and didn’t inspire the same level of confidence that the GTR did. The GTR pulled like a freight train, and constantly felt like it wanted to go faster, even though I kept getting told by the co-pilot to slow down in the corners. Not that I listened. For $180 after tax it was definitely worth the money and time. Even without considering the price difference, I would definitely rather have the GTR.

After my time bombing around the track in the supercars, I rented a car ($61 including the optional “bring it back in a box if you want, we won’t care” insurance and unlimited mileage – this rental would have been $250++ in BC) and drove out to Quebec city to check out the Quebec Bridge. The car they gave me was a Ford Fusion with the AWD Ecoboost 2.0L engine. Not a bad car, very comfortable, enough power when needed, though it was pretty hard on gas ($70 fill for going ~550km round trip). When I got to the bridge, I found a place to park and walked the bridge from one end to the other, which was just under 1km each way. It’s hard to get an idea of the scale of the bridge unless you have actually walked over it, pictures or driving over it just don’t really let it sink in how huge it is. And it’s hard to think that it was under construction 100 years ago, before computers or any of the fancy new technologies we have now. It’s quite the achievement, and is rightly considered one the great Canadian engineering feats. While I was in Quebec city I wandered around the Old Quebec area, which is much like old Montreal except all of the roads are still cobblestone and there are few if any modern buildings within the historical area. It was flooded with tourists when I was there, and felt a bit more commercial because of it – there also seemed to be a higher concentration of souvenir shops than in Old Montreal.

Tam Tams is a large outdoor “spontaneous” festival thing that happens at the base of Mont Royal park every Sunday, starting the first day that the snow melts off the grass, and ending when the snow starts falling again; I estimated that there were three to four thousand people there when I went. The crowd was extremely diverse, including a couple of drum circles, a large number of people slacklining, juggling, or hooping, potheads, rastas, goth/metalheads, LARPers, college kids, hippies, and everyone in between – there were even a group of Hare Krishnas near where I had settled down to people-watch, and they were chanting and singing without a break for about an hour. Open alcohol and marijuana use are not technically “legal” at Tam Tams, but there is basically no enforcement, and I saw many people sharing beers, bottles of wine, joints, or bongs. It’s quite the event. If one walks up to the top of Mont Royal from the event, you can see over most of the town of Montreal, and it’s a great way to get a good view of the city and how everything is laid out. Apparently at one time there was a Bixi station at the top of the hill, but it was removed when they realized that no one ever took a bike up to the top, but everyone would take the bikes at the top, ride down the hill, and drop them off at the base.

The Lean 6 Sigma course is a set of business optimization methods that are focused on removing wasted resources and minimizing defects in various processes. The resources (Lean) side is about making things more efficient, and the defects/variation (6 Sigma) side is more about making things as good as they can be. It was a fairly interesting course, though there wasn’t a huge amount of new information in it, just new ways of looking at things or using various tools etc.

As a part of the course, we got to do two Canada Post Tours at the Montreal Mail Processing Plant, which is the second largest MPP in Canada (after Toronto) and the only one in the province of Quebec. Which means that anything that is mailed anywhere in the entire province goes through Montreal, even if it is sent from somewhere rural and is only going across town. Economies of scale etc. The plant is really interesting, it’s huge and pretty amazing when you consider that at some stations they can process over 20,000 pieces of mail per person, per hour. Lots of conveyors and tracks and machines, some of which is up to 40 years old, and some of which was just installed in the past couple of years.

The thing that I found the most amazing about walking through the CP plant was the level of naked hatred I saw in the eyes of a some of the staff. We were being led around by a member of management, and while we had been told that the union and management had a very adversarial relationship, I didn’t realize just how bad it was. While the majority of people were either neutral or friendly in their attitudes towards us, some were extremely blatant about glaring daggers at us, simply because we weren’t regular worker drones. I somewhat understand how this level of animosity has been created, but all I can think about as an outside is just how counter-productive this is – the management needs the workers for the company to be in business, and the workers need the management/company to have jobs. Can’t we all just get along? /s

Something I found odd at the hotel we stayed at was the level of tidying that the housekeepers did. I am used to housekeepers replacing towels, making beds, replacing coffee supplies, and that’s about it. In Montreal however, they did all of that, and tidied and organized our shoes or anything else that was strewn about. Every time we came back from class the room was very neat and squared away. Odd.

Mi & Stu is a Gluten Free bakery here in Montreal that does amazing bread. I also bought some of their cookies and brownies, I’m sure they will be excellent as well. Unfortunately, they would not let me beg, borrow, steal, or buy their bread recipe. It’s pretty much the best gluten-free white bread I’ve ever had. I wish they would open a store on the west coast.

All in all, it was an excellent experience, and I can’t wait to do it again, and I am not looking forward to my credit card bills next month. Oh well, c’est la vie.