Canada has never traditionally been linked in my mind with romance. Maple syrup taffy and a kind of cheesy chips smothered in gravy called ‘poutine?’…. Yes. A frosty playground for lovers and the setting for a budding romance?…Not exactly.
And yet, on a winter’s day in 1964, two of Hollywood’s most legendary lovers, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, famously chose the Royal Suite of the Ritz Carlton Montreal to tie the knot.
Cynics may say that their choice of wedding venue had something to do with their recent divorces and the couple’s difficulty finding a minister elsewhere willing to conduct their high profile civil ceremony. These small quibbles aside, however, the fact remains that a love that Burton described as one “so furious that we burn each other out,” was legally anointed in the snow-blanketed Golden Square Mile of Canada’s second largest city.
It was with this romantic precedent in mind that we swung through the rotating doors of the wooden fronted facade of the Ritz in Sherbrooke Street; my sunglasses Taylor-esque and oversized, his gait just a tad more dissolute matinee idol. In turn we were led to our room by a butler whose response to a plea for restaurant recommendations was reassuringly French; “I don’t know,” he said with a dismissive shrug, “…there are so many places it is impossible for me to say.” So far, so glamorous. The hotel itself is all Thassos marble surfaces and cream silk furnishings and its ‘Palm Court’ and buzzy ‘Maison Boulud’ restaurant have pleasingly maintained their old school glamour despite the hotel’s recent two hundred million dollar refurbishment. We finally settled on the nearby ‘Foxy’ in Griffintown for dinner, a restaurant whose jaunty name belies its serious foodie credentials. Reminiscent of ‘Isobel’ on Dover Street in London, with its dark wood and copper interior, this new offering from locals Dan Solomon and Eric Girard has stolen the chef Leigh Roper away from another Montreal stalwart ‘Joe Beef.’ No wonder then that the winter coleslaw with pulled pork, celeriac purée and asian pear is seriously impressive, while the canard du village confit with rutabaga, fried leeks and bourbon sauce frisée makes it clear why this city has gained a reputation for world-class cuisine.
The following morning inches of snow had fallen and I was forced to abandon my Elizabeth Taylor fantasy as we donned sensible snow shoes to crunch across the freshly lain powder to Montreal’s Old Port area. It is on Rue Saint-Paul, Montreal’s oldest street, where the weight of Québec’s European influence takes full effect. Cobblestones straight out of the Marais in Paris are lined by cutesy artisanal shops and cafés. Discouraged by the hungry locals queuing outside ‘Olive et Gourmando’ for their famous chicken sandwich we wandered further down the road, eventually stumbling upon the even more delightful ‘Le Petit Dep.’ The mint green painted frontage of this old school ‘dépanneur’ served a fabulously flakey almond croissant and sticky fruit pastry cake which was enough to fortify the most reticent winter tourist. The area is worth a whole morning of exploration with the impressively Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica only two short blocks away. Coming in from the frosted street to marvel in silence at its vaulted, star-painted ceiling, complete with three octagonal skylights is a pleasure I’m glad not to have missed. With the snowstorm picking up pace our meander through Montreal’s picturesque Place Jacques Cartier was curtailed and we found a cozy nook nursing hot chocolates in the Hotel Nelligan, a dead ringer for Paris’s ‘Hôtel Costes.’ The hotel’s two popular restaurants, ‘Verses’ and ‘Mechant Boeuf Bar & Brasserie,’ I am told by locals, serve up strong drinks and provide the setting for long nights of rowdy dancing until last call.
Crashing from a self-induced sugar high we decided to abandon the idea of tobogganing in Montreal’s mountainous Mount Royal Park and scrapped a visit to the equally renowned Museum of Fine Arts in favour of a tactical nap before attempting another round of foodie indulgence. This time in the Little Burgundy district just south of Griffintown. This once blue-collar rough-around-the-edges district has been transformed by the cleanup of the Lachine Canal and the resulting rush of twenty and thirty something artists scrambling for inexpensive studio space. The area is now home to little galleries, hipster bars and some of the best restaurants in the city. Cue ‘Candide.’ This hipster staple in the former rectory of a heritage church is the brainchild of chef John Winter Russell and has a strict emphasis on local seasonal ingredients. Its excellent four course set menu is as pared down as the rustic decor, but the most striking thing about the place is how the diners are ridiculously good looking. Not to say they were unattractive in Old Montreal but suddenly everyone had horn-rimmed glasses, tousled hair and paint-flecked jeans. Couples looked deeper into each other’s eyes and gesticulations became decidedly more insouciant. After a few courses it was almost impossible not to say ‘bof’ with a shrug at the end of your sentences. I imagine the food changes daily but the highlight of the meal for me was the Louis d’Or cheese with quince and onions followed by a spoonful of honey from the restaurant’s own private beehive.
The next morning we decided to push further into hipster-ville, heading north this time into the ex-industrial areas of Mile End and Le Plateau Mont Royal. Distinctly Shoreditch in feel, the morning started with a hearty Moroccan eggs on toast and fresh orange juice in the pub-cum-café ‘Sparrow.’ A further snowy trudge down the areas’ large streets revealed ex-warehouses peppered with new bougie shops such as ‘Les Étoffes’ and ‘Clark Street Mercantile.’ You don’t have to have taste to shop here, or anywhere in Mile End it turns out, as everything is impeccably curated to deliver effortless cool. Linda Farrow eyewear sits next to Blue de Panama pullovers whilst a particularly Scandinavian edit of furnishings, such as Simon Legald form chairs and HAY nesting end tables, merely requires you to have a the perfect exposed brick penthouse complete with poured concrete flooring. With our weekend coming to a close there was just enough time for a serving of six small sesame-encrusted bagels from ‘Fairmount Bagel’ in Plateau Mont Royal. Thanks to their honey spiked boiling water pre-bake these Canadian bagels differ from their New York brethren in that they tend to be doughier and sweeter. Similar, in fact, to a weekend in Montreal. Which, all in all, necessitates a tad more substance to weather the sub-zero temperatures, but leaves you with a particularly honey drizzled aftertaste.