Gluten-Free Travel - Montreal, Quebec
My birthday loomed on the horizon like a pollen swollen bumblebee laboriously making its way back the hive, burdened with the weight of its load. I'm not a fan of birthdays. I think I pretty much stopped being a fan of birthdays when I hit 21 or thereabouts. I can't even say my 21st birthday was all that exciting since I had been imbibing for years before that.
Birthdays lately have become something I'd rather forget, so I've taken to leaving the country to celebrate my birthday. Last year I went to Barcelona and Amsterdam, which was an amazing trip. This year we had a few vacations already, so I kept it local and we took a road trip to Montréal, a city I hadn't been to since my party-intensive early 20s.
I had a hazy memory of Montréal, recalling above all that I rather enjoyed the city. It's like a European getaway you can drive to. The vibe is very chill, and very French. I know the city itself is at war between balancing the French and English subdivide, but I have to say, the French really do give the city a certain "je nais se quoi.”
I was rather lazy in my planning and language immersion this time around. I figured I'd have internet and could find places to eat on the fly. Eating gluten-free is a bit of a challenge in such a French-centric city as Montréal, but it's not impossible. I've compiled a list of places I ate at, and some additional places that I didn't get to try, but seemed worth a visit. Maybe when I'm back in Montréal I'll be able to try more.
I decided it would be fun to have some pre-birthday wine the night before we left and the tally by the end of the night was wine 1; misterbelly 0. Nursing a spectacular hangover on a 6 hour drive was not the way I wanted to start my vacation, but what can you do? I was lucky enough to find a stellar Mexican joint called La Mexicana Grocery Store to get some awesome chorizo tacos on the drive upstate and highly recommend stopping in for some authentic and delicious tacos if you're in the area.
After driving (with a hangover) for 6 hours, we arrived in Montréal pretty hungry, so the first order of business was to find dinner. At this moment, I was really wishing I had bothered to plan where to eat because I fumbled around on the internet before finally deciding to check out a suggestion from the fab Erin at Gluten-Free Fun to try Zero8.
First things first, Zero8 is a super cool concept and the restaurant is 100% gluten-free in addition to being free of the 8 most common allergens (Zero8...get it?), which despite them telling us this, we continued to ask for things that were not in the ok zone, ahem, like mayo (it has eggs).
That said, you can have a pretty good, albeit basic, meal at Zero8. You have veg, meat, fries and booze. Ah yes, let's not forget the booze. Zero8 has a 100% gluten-free bar. When our server told me that, my smile could not have been bigger and I was pretty freaking hungover by this point so you'd think I'd be avoiding liquor like the plague.
I ordered the typical French meal - steak frites and Mr. misterbelly ordered the roast beef. We got a chicken sandwich for the little one, who eats wheat like it's going out of style and would have none of it when she tasted the (what I thought was) passable bread. My steak was cooked perfectly and the fries were awesome. I tried some of their vegan mayo, but I didn't care for it at all. Stick with the Heinz ketchup packets they give you, they are way cooler than the ones we get in the states and of course Heinz ketchup is gluten-free.
Even being standard, the food was good and who can pass up a bar where everything has been selected carefully to account for food sensitivities? Oh, and a visit to the bathroom showed just how detail-oriented they are at Zero8. The hand soap in the bathroom is gluten and casein-free. How cool is that? Be warned though, the food here is not cheap for what it is and you could easily spend $100 on two people between food and drinks.
Wanting to get a head start on the next day, I started frantically researching places to eat and came up with a few selections for breakfast and dinner.
To get the day started we visited a small coffee shop called Pikolo, which looks unassuming from the exterior, but is super cute and cozy inside. The first thing I noticed was their baked goods case, which in most normal establishments would be completely off limits, but they had the most amazing looking gluten-free brownies in there. It was a bit too early in the morning for a brownie and I wasn't sure about the cross-contamination issue since they were sitting out in the open next to everything else, but still, pretty cool and progressive I think. The coffee itself was quite good, but one thing I noticed in general about most espresso places in Montréal was that the coffee was never quite strong enough. I make a far stronger brew at home with my trusty Bustelo.
For breakfast, everyone and their mother raves about Le Vieux Velo and their eggs benedict. Ordering anything else there is simply not worth it. They aren't gluten-free per se, but they accommodated me by putting my eggs benedict on a simple potato hash. Honestly I didn't even need the potato as the ham and egg were substantial enough and DELICIOUS. The hollandaise sauce was like a buttery dance of goodness on my tongue, with just the right amount of citrus to break up the richness. The whole thing was heavenly.
After eating my weight in hollandaise, I needed a siesta, but really wanted to check out Mi and Stu bakery, which is a 100% gluten-free bakery. Unfortunately, the exact moment I chose to go out, it started to downpour as though it were end of days.
That didn't deter me from gluten-free goodness though. I pulled out my extremely bright pink umbrella and ran from the car to their store, soaking my feet in the process, but it was worth it. A warm shop smelling of delightful baked goods welcomed me and I got to shopping right away.
I picked up a pack of whoopie pies, cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies and a brownie. I really wish I had brought back the larger sizes of everything because it was all delicious. My favorite treat was the chocolate chip cookies. They were soft and thin, with a lovely flavor of brown sugar. They reminded me of a much thinner version of the cookies at Risotteria in NYC, or a Tate's Bakeshop cookie when they have sat around for a day or two and get soft. I tried to save one of the cookies for the next day, but ended up devouring them all in one sitting.
I was craving something on the lighter side for dinner after my steak frites the night before, and found a cute sushi spot that everyone raved about on Yelp called Jun i. Apparently Montréal isn't really known for its sushi, but this one spot was supposed to the best. I didn't even stop to consider that it was Saturday night and we might need reservations, so we just showed up and were promptly turned away as they were "fully committed." C'est la vie. My backup was a Vietnamese place called Pho Lien, which is a bit out of the way, but was a lovely drive through all of the chic mansion-lined streets in the Outremont.
Pho Lien is exactly what you'd expect from any pho joint - small, crowded, noisy and unassuming. It was already packed when we got there, but we were seated pretty quickly. Two steaming bowls of pho came out of the kitchen shortly thereafter and were decimated almost as quickly. The pho broth itself was good, a little chicken tasting which was odd, and not enough of the rich spice flavor I like, but it was a solid bowl. Definitely on par with some of the places I've visited in NYC, but nothing mind blowing. Sriracha was plentiful, which is all I really need anyway.
We made the most of our last full day in Montréal. We got a bright and early start and started out with breakfast at Faberge, which is a local breakfast spot that is painfully hip, but welcoming. While not gluten-free, most of the selections on the menu were safe to eat and they even have gluten-free toast as an option for the side.
I opted for the huevos rancheros for whatever reason. I'm not deluding myself that Canadians can make good huevos rancheros, especially not French Canadians, but I wasn't looking for something authentic anyway. They were good for what they were; more of a fresh New American-take on huevos rancheros. I'd probably stick with an omelet next time, and opt for the mimosa pitcher, because one glass was not enough.
The rest of the day was spent at the Jardin Botanique, which is next to the 1987 Montréal Olympic stadium. If there is anything you must do when you visit Montréal, it’s to visit their botanical gardens. The grounds were stunning, and after 3 hours of walking around, we still had only scratched the surface.
The Chinese garden is fantastic, and I was floored by the gorgeous bonsai which ranged in age from 15 to 215!
For dinner, we wanted tapas, and while we really wanted to try Pintxo, it just wouldn't have been possible with a toddler in tow. Atma was on my list to try as well, but again, not really kid appropriate. We settled on Pica, Pica, which is a typical tapas place. I'm not sure if Sunday nights are not really when people go out to eat in Montréal, or if it was an indication of the place itself, but it was empty the whole time we were there from 6 - 8 PM.
The food was good, but nothing great. I would give it a pass and try somewhere else if I go back to Montréal.
Our final stop, before making the long drive home, was the best. Craving crepes, I found a place in the Jean Talon market that serves 100% buckwheat crepes called Creperie du Marche. I'm not normally a fan of buckwheat crepes because they can have a very strong, earthy flavor that overpowers the filling, but figured why not.
The Jean Talon marketplace is an outdoor market very much like the Boqueria in Barcelona, although not as grandiose. There are rows upon rows of farmer stands selling fresh fruit and produce of all varieties. We wandered around feasting our eyes on all of the fabulous looking food. If I lived in Montréal, I'd probably spend many days stocking up on goodies at the Jean Talon market.
Mixed in with all of the produce stands are hawker stands making all kinds of food. One woman was making cochinita pibil sandwiches. The pork smelled so incredibly intoxicating that my little one demanded some in a bowl and made short work of it, which is saying a lot since she's a picky toddler.
Our destination at the market was Creperie du Marche, which I couldn't wait to try. The menu had some amazing selections and it was hard to choose which crepe to have. I settled on a ham, cheese, apple and maple syrup buckwheat crepe and Mr. misterbelly had an heirloom tomato, cheese, egg and ham crepe.
My crepe was crispy, thin and barely tasted like buckwheat. The flavors of the salty ham and cheese mixed with the sweet syrup and apples, made for a happy mouth. I took a few bites of the other crepe and it was hard to choose my favorite. The tomato crepe was incredible, the brightness and freshness of the tomatoes really stood out and went so incredibly well with the cheese, ham and egg.
There was a lot of "Oh man this is soooo good" moments that I lost track. I was sad that I hadn't found the creperie earlier in the trip because I would have been there every day trying something new. It's a must visit for anyone, gluten-free or not.
A few of the other food stands in the market offered gluten-free treats including a Middle Eastern stand called Ryad which sold some jelly type treats among a few other gluten-free goodies.
We left the market full and ready for the long drive home. For being so close to home, Montréal itself feels like a world away. You can get lost in the French culture and enjoy some incredible sights and food. It's really up to you to make of it what you will. One thing I know is that crepes will be high on my priority list the next time I'm in town.
Here's a quick snapshot of some other restaurants I didn't get to try while in Montréal. I've also including a list of stores to find gluten-free snacks to keep at your hotel room.
Restaurants To Try (not listed in blog post above)
- Au Pied de Cochon
- Patsy Pie (GF products)
- Juliette & Chocolat
Places To Nab GF Goodies
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