Photograph by Simon Roberts
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Crescent Street, one of the liveliest in Montreal, is known for its nightlife and restaurants.

Photograph by Simon Roberts

Beyond Poutine: Exploring Montreal’s Growing Cuisine

Let your appetite wander the globe by touring Montreal’s growing international restaurant scene.

Montreal is a food lover’s paradise. It’s home to a brasserie culture that hearkens to its French roots and a bevy of famous treats, from loaded poutine to local bagels. Its restaurant scene serves up plenty of the typical Québécois cuisine, but that’s not all the city has to offer. The area is home to thriving Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, African, and Jewish communities—and all have shaped the city’s culinary heritage and dining scene in delicious ways. A visit to Montreal is more than just a chance to try some of Canada’s fabulous culinary creations; it presents the opportunity to sample first-rate cuisine from around the world.

French

To skip out on Québécois cuisine altogether, however, would be a mistake. Head to the trendy Plateau district to the humbly named La Salle à Manger to find a classic Montreal meal. The surrounding neighborhood has gentrified in the decade or so since it opened its doors, but this buzzing bistro retains a distinctly bohemian vibe, revealed in details like the windowed meat locker in the back and the daily specials scrawled in chalk on the wall.

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Patrons eat a meal beneath a chalkboard menu at the hip La Salle à Manger.

In a strong French-Canadian accent, chef and owner Samuel Pinard describes his cuisine as familiar and comforting yet surprising and fresh. He scours the entire province for gastronomic treasures to supply his daily changing menu.

You might find a starter of earthy du Puy lentil galettes with pungent mackerel escabeche, almonds, and herb yogurt, offered as a first taste of fall. Long, slender, grilled Atlantic razor clams are served in a simple bowl with cucumber and tomatillo salsa and coriander, at once earthy, salty, and tangy. Pinard helped pioneer nose-to-tail cuisine in Montreal, so if he happens to order prime veal, expect him to offer seared liver with rhubarb jam, fried shallots, and spaetzle among the mains. For dessert, you might find a dulce de leche flan with citrus sauce and mint, or a pear tartlet with frangipane filling and vanilla ice cream.

Like the food, the wine and beer list here includes natural and sustainable options. Some come from across the globe, but plenty are sourced closer to home. The selection usually features a Québécois Chardonnay from the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal, and about a dozen different beers by the bottle from Dunham, a local Quebec brewery.

Italian

Montreal’s food scene owes as much to its immigrant culture as to its francophone roots. The city experienced waves of immigration from Europe following World War II and around the turn of the last century, and that heritage is thriving in districts like Little Italy. Since opening in the neighborhood in 2013, Impasto has quickly become a local staple. The restaurant is a collaboration between cookbook author and TV chef Stefano Faita and chef Michele Forgione.

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Guests indulge in a meal at Impasto, which serves gourmet versions of rustic Italian classics.

Over an aperitivo at one of the restaurant’s marble-top tables, Faita fondly reminisces about his own childhood in the neighborhood, cooking with his mother and working behind the counter at his uncle’s store. That shop, Dante’s, sat kitty-corner to the spot where Impasto now sits. He and his mother still make the family’s Christmas lasagna together every year. With its palazzo floors, a handsome wooden bar, and an open kitchen where diners can watch all the action, Impasto’s aesthetic is a far cry from those days, but the soul remains.

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A diner enjoys a glass of wine while looking out the window at Impasto, an Italian restaurant in Montreal.

While Italian food is nothing new in Montreal, Faita attributes the success of Impasto and his other restaurants to the fact that “[they’re] not so much creating new dishes as doing the classics the way they should have been made.”

Case in point: One of the menu hallmarks is gnocchi di ricotta with a simple sauce of tomato and basil. The dainty little potato parcels come drizzled in a light, tangy sauce and sprinkled with basil leaves and fresh parmesan. The dish is simple and easily recognizable, but the flavors and textures are light and appetizing. It’s impossible not to finish. Finish your meal off with one of Forgione’s signature desserts: a hazelnut semifreddo with chocolate sauce and ink-dark amarena cherries. “We aim to create a menu that’s rustic but elegant,” Faita says, “so you get a sense of the high quality, but you still want to clean your plate.”

Greek

Greek food in Montreal is both a surprise and a revelation. Though there are plenty of tavernas to choose from, opt for a higher-brow affair and make a reservation at Estiatorio Milos. When it opened back in December of 1979, the restaurant brought Greek fine dining to the city.

Try the lightly battered and fried paper-thin zucchini and eggplant served with tzatziki and saganaki, and definitely order the tomato salad. The dish’s vermilion tomatoes and shamrock green bell peppers and cucumbers are a welcome sight amid midwinter snowdrifts.

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Fresh fish lie ready to be cooked and served at Montreal's Estiatorio Milos.

Order the catch of the day baked whole in a sea salt crust. The fish comes out tender, mild, and perfectly seasoned. Turf-minded diners can opt for the broiled spring lamb rib chops served with simple oven-roasted potatoes and vegetables.

The signature dessert is a creative, creamy baklava ice cream with honey and slivers of phyllo. After a bite, one foodie at a nearby table declared, “When you have this, who needs a boyfriend?”

Middle Eastern

Montreal is also home to large Middle Eastern communities, including immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. In fact, one of the most exciting restaurants to enter Montreal’s food scene in recent years is a spot serving Syrian cuisine in a predominantly Hasidic Jewish neighborhood.

After a kitchen fire at its original Park Avenue location, Damas reopened in the Outremont neighborhood in 2015. It’s been packed ever since. The main dining room has carved wooden screens and mismatched overhead lamps that conjure up a bustling Damascus souk. The open kitchen at the back is framed by a bar where diners can observe the action.

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Damas, a Syrian restaurant in Montreal, serves an array of Middle Eastern mezes.

The tasting menu is a fantastic sampling of the eatery’s specialties. If you order à la carte, opt for the selection of cold mezes, which includes traditional hummus, smoky eggplant baba ghanoush, beet mutabbal spread, and red pepper mouhammara—a mouthwatering mix of nuts, chilies, and lemon juice. All are served with fluffy pita, fresh out of the oven.

The grilled dishes here are a must, including the Aleppo-style lamb shoulder kebab with grilled pita and creamy tarator sauce, and the showstopping whole grilled sea bass, which comes with grape leaves, tomato caper salsa, and herbs.

If you still have room for dessert, try the baklava ice cream—yes, again. This one is less delicate than Milos’s but just as delicious, with honeyed chunks of baklava speckling the tangy ice cream.

Traditional Québécois dishes are easy to find and well worth trying in Montreal; however, the city’s dining scene is as international and diverse as its growing population. Try the poutine, of course, but be sure to make time for the city’s developing global restaurant scene, where Quebec’s extraordinary seasonal produce is being put to good use by some of the city’s most talented chefs.