Visitors often comment on Montreal’s neighbourhoods. Each one has a different feel. Some parts of town feel European, others like they could be anywhere. Montreal neighbourhoods are always changing. Areas popular with immigrants transition as groups establish themselves. Blocks that used to be run down slowly morph into cool and hip.
Two recent restaurant meals tell the story better than I can.
H4C, a restaurant in that very zip code is in the heart of Little Burgundy, an area long known as poor, tough, and undesirable. It is now seen as an up and coming, if not even maybe “here and now” young neighbourhood, minutes away from downtown, close to the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. The Joe Beef gang began the restaurant gentrification several years ago, and now the wave is continuing west, with solid names like Tuck Shop, Rustique Pie Kitchen, Satay Brothers and thankfully, H4C.
The restaurant’s website told me I would be in for something special. How many restaurants have an “Architecture” tab on their site? The space is beautiful. An old post office was converted into a perfect dining room. It is open, but not too open. Airy without being cold or severe. Lighting is perfect, which is rare. Service is knowledgeable and reservedly friendly, which seemed to suit the space. Diners can peek into the super-equipped kitchen, while noise and cooking smells are kept out of the dining room itself. Now, onto the food!
Every plate was beautiful. Every morsel was delicious. While menu descriptions sounded simple, execution proved the level of detail was anything but.
One of the deserts we devoured won the Montreal Gazette’s dish of the year (click link for the complete article and a video). “Apple, cheddar, buckwheat, oatmeal, maple” was a triumph.
Lesley Chesterman, a critic not afraid to call it like she sees it wrote:
“This unique dessert at H4C was just beyond the beyond. The mix included an apple sorbet, an apple brunoise, apple jelly, muesli and a large quenelle of buckwheat ice cream. The way that gorgeous ice cream played off the muesli was brilliant, but the inspired addition of a slice of cheddar cheese in the middle of it all took this dish to another level. It was not only the dish of the night, but one of the best desserts I’ve ever sampled: the perfect example of technique meets innovation meets deliciousness. Bravo!”
A few weeks later we finally made it to Impasto in Little Italy. Stefano Faita, a local foodie celebrity, and Michel Forgione, a well respected local chef opened this corner restaurant last summer. Did I mention it is based on “local”? The restaurant is across the street from Stefano’s family’s “hardware” store (specializing in kitchen ware and hunting equipment!) and Stefano’s cooking school. It is a few blocks from the all-important Jean-Talon market. Décor is simple, and perfect, in a much different way. The exterior blends in seamlessly with the block. No “look at me” here! The interior says “Italia”, from the terrazzo floor to the sleek walnut paneled walls to the marble tabletops. The vibe matches the style of cooking. It is friendly, comfortable and Italian. While I understand this restaurant is all about the pastas, I have to say they were fine, but not the standouts of our meal. The charcuterie was exceptional, and (some of you readers may shudder), the porchetta was the best I have ever even IMAGINED eating. The fact that desserts were delicious actually came as a surprise – I am usually disappointed at Italian restaurants in Montreal. The tiramisu was not too sweet or too airy, and the chocolate-hazelnut cake was so good I am still craving another piece.
Reflecting on this blog and thinking how lucky I am to live in a city this diverse and foodie-friendly, I popped into Cheskie’s bakery on Bernard Street. That was the clincher, and I found myself chuckling. There was an orthodox Jewish man buying bread and some cookies. A young religious girl was buying an assortment of pastries, including the requisite sponge cake. Next, a hipster French-Canadian girl ordered chocolate croissants. Two very large Black guys were next. In French, they ordered sandwiches. One of the guys knew no meat was served. He was about to order a tuna sandwich when he spotted something and asked what it was. When told it was lox spread, his face lit up, and he said “one of those, and one for my friend”. I knew I was in Montreal, and left the bakery with the best babka in town and a smile.