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Playing Tourist in Canada: Montreal and Ottawa
During an unseasonably warm and sunny fortnight, a friend and I journeyed to both cities. Montreal is an outstanding city for tourists, with so much to see and do. Ottawa, as the country's capitol, is less popular with tourists, though you can certainly spend an enjoyable few days there.
Ottawa has an extensive bus system that serves as mass transit. Driving can be confusing (there are many one-way streets and a lot of traffic; when we were there, there was also a good deal of construction), but it is possible, though parking can be tough to find. Walking and bicycling are great options but might be difficult in winter. Because business in Ottawa is so directly tied to the operation of the Canadian government, be aware that some establishments (certain office supply stores, restaurants geared toward lunch) may be closed on the weekends.
---The Albert at Bay Suite Hotel, www.albertatbay.com
My friend and I occupied a two-bedroom suite for a week here. There was plenty of space, and the two bathrooms were a nice plus. There was a full, if narrow, kitchen, with a full-size refrigerator-freezer, an oven, a four-burner cooktop, a microwave, a coffee maker, a dishwasher, an electric kettle, and enough plates/drinking glasses/cups/utensils for at least four people, though there were no sharp knives (we bought two cheap ones from a grocery store). Housekeeping did the dishes daily, which was nice, except that their way of doing the dishes involved jamming them into the dishwasher haphazardly and then running it through. These aren't my plates/glasses/utensils, but if you want items to survive repeated dishwashing, it's probably a good idea not to cram them so close together in the dishwasher, particularly if there isn't that much of a load. The bedrooms had just one small window each, and they were a bit dark. The hotel's location is somewhat removed from the typical tourist destinations, which is both an advantage in that it was probably quieter and a disadvantage in that you have to travel farther to get to those attractions. The hotel has an underground parking garage, a great convenience, though the spaces are narrow and the ceiling is somewhat low. There are two computers and a printer in the lobby, available to all guests, though the wifi in the room usually worked well. There is a laundry room, though it's very expensive; it cost just shy of eight dollars to do one load of laundry (wash and dry), and that's if you supply your own detergent. There's a convenience store right next door to this hotel, but it seemed dirty to me and I wouldn't buy anything there. The front desk staffers, while always polite, gave us bad information on more than one occasion. Overall, there are a lot of good points here, but if I visit Ottawa again I'd try a different hotel.
What to See and Do
---Byward Market, www.byward-market.com
The term “market” is somewhat misleading, as this is a roughly four block square area of everything from produce vendors to restaurants to hair salons. It's a fun place to stroll, even if you have no specific wants, and you'll often find street performers around. If you're in the mood for a coffee or a quick bite, stop in at Le Moulin de Provence (http://moulindeprovence.com). It's difficult to miss the only place in Ottawa that has Barack Obama cookies---no, really! Even if you're not an Obama fan, you can find breads, decent pastries, salads, sandwiches, and coffee here. Along Dalhousie Street, visit Cylie Artisans Chocolatiers (yes, that's the official name, according to www.facebook.com/CylieChocolat), with gifty, colorful, very French-style chocolates, some containing unusual filling combinations, and stop in at Cococo Chocolatiers (www.cococochocolatiers.com), just a short walk away. Be prepared to take a little time at Cococo, as there's a large selection. Fortunately, you can grab a latte and relax in the smallish lounge area while you try to make up your mind. The produce vendors in Byward offer beautiful fruits and vegetables; I walked over every morning and bought berries, because I could. Byward Market tends to be quieter and less crowded in the morning, but it's hopping in the evenings, when the bars and restaurants really come to life.
---The National Gallery of Canada, www.gallery.ca/en
Even if you think you don't like art museums, you ought to go to this one. For starters, there's a giant metal spider in the courtyard, which manages to be both an unmistakable landmark and not at all menacing. In addition, the architecture is stunning. Works here range from 12th century commemorative reliefs to modernist pieces to those created by Canada's indigenous peoples.
---Notre Dame Cathedral, www.notredameottawa.com
Spectacular! The magnificent architecture and art are well worth a visit. The cathedral is across the street from the National Gallery.
---Canada Aviation and Space Museum (www.aviation.technomuses.ca)
If you have an interest in flight, especially in aviation history, this is the place to visit in Canada. A lot of space is devoted to the origins of flight, as well as the importance (and peril) of flying during both World Wars. The museum often has exhibits of interest to kids, as well. One downside: the cafe has a very minimal selection; I couldn't even get a yogurt here.
---Sparks Street Mall, www.sparksstreetmall.com
A several-blocks-long outdoor pedestrian area, fronted on either side by shops, restaurants, and bars. The mall is the site of some of Ottawa's best-known festivals, including an International Chicken & Rib Cook-Off and a Busker Festival, both in summer. In addition, there are a couple of stores here of note. The Astrolabe Gallery (http://astrolabegallery.com) has a wide range of antique prints and maps. You can find everything from a 1900's botanical print to a page from a Book of Hours created around 1300 in this small shop. If you're a fool for old maps, as I am, this is a dangerous establishment! I also like The Snow Goose (www.snowgoose.ca), which features all manner of Canadian crafts.
---Fairmont Chateau Laurier, www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa/
Promise me that you'll go here, even if you just traipse through the lobby once or twice. This is a hotel with origins in the golden era of railway travel. It's just next door to Parliament, so it's often crowded with movers-and-shakers, and it's close to many of Ottawa's attractions. Fun to see even if you don't stay here or eat in the restaurants. While I was walking around, I saw a gentleman sitting in the lobby, wearing more medals and decorations on his suit than I have ever seen on any other living being.
Some of Ottawa's restaurants have excellent reputations. Due to circumstances beyond our control, my friend and I simply couldn't get to many of them. Having said that, there's nothing wrong with walking over to Byward Market, picking up some fruit, cheese, pate, and crackers, and bringing it back to your room. Of course, there are restaurants in Byward Market that do take-out, as well.
---Scone Witch, 388 Albert Street, 613-232-2173, no website.
A funny little house-turned-bakery/cafe. You'll always find people in here, even at off-hours for breakfast or lunch (they're not open for dinner). I was only here during off-hours, so I did not run into any of the crowds I'd read about. The scones, sweet or savory, are delicious; I even had a sandwich served on a scone once (sure, it's a bit messy, as scones are crumbly, but who cares?). The signs can be a bit confusing and it's initially difficult to figure out where to order. I had read about short-tempered waitstaff, but I experienced none of that, either. Expect to wait if you go during normal breakfast or lunch times.
---Vetta Osteria, http://vettaosteria.com
You walk into the bar area of this small restaurant, and the music will be loud. If you are seated in the adjacent restaurant section, you'll still hear the bar music, of course. On nice days, the front of the restaurant rolls up, rather like a garage door. That lets in fresh air and sun, but as Vetta is on busy Bank Street, it does nothing to diminish the noise. The restaurant area is a pretty place, with wooden benches and tables and a comfortable, casual feel, but the arrangement of the tables is a bit odd, in that there was a good deal of wasted space. I started with a Caesar salad, which was a big bowl of fresh greens interspersed with shreds of grana padano and what seemed to be fried prosciutto. The crunchy prosciutto was delicious, and it provided a fine foil to the greens along with the grana padano, but I was grateful to our waitress for suggesting I go with the small salad, because even that was more than I could finish. My companion selected the straciatella soup--spinach, eggs, and grana padano in chicken broth--which he enjoyed thoroughly. As a main course, I had the Gnocchi Pomodoro, a generous portion of potato gnocchi served in a tomato-basil sauce in a ridiculously large bowl. The dish was topped with more grana padano. The gnocchi were not the lightest I'd ever had, but they were well-prepared and I ate more than I should have. My friend opted for the Penne Osteria, with sausage, pepperoncini, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms. The sausage was more peppery than expected, but the dish was solidly good. A nice neighborhood place, though noisier than I'd prefer.
If you're interested in this place, you can look it up online. It was recommended to us by a hotel staffer, who told us they served “really good Italian food”. That assessment is incorrect. Few things are more disconcerting to a foodie than arriving at a restaurant and seeing a large tour group already seated there. The food is mediocre at best, and service is odd, to say the least; our waiter would periodically appear to ask us if everything is OK, but he'd walk away before we could answer.
You can attempt to drive here, but I wouldn't suggest it. Instead, rely on the excellent metro system, which can get you close to most places you want to visit. A metro pass can be a very good deal if you'll be taking the metro frequently.
---Le Square Philips Hotel & Suites, www.squarephillips.com
My friend and I occupied a two bedroom suite here for one week (Room 720). There was a larger master bedroom with a television, and a smaller (but still decent-sized) second bedroom without one. The twelve foot high ceilings and huge windows were a good match for the enormous living room/dining area, which held a table that could seat six. There was one bathroom, with plenty of towels but, oddly, no fan. The kitchen area included a full-size refrigerator/freezer, a dishwasher, an oven, a four-burner cooktop, a microwave, a coffee maker, an electric kettle, and sufficient plates/cups/glasses/utensils for four. There's a small rooftop pool and a gym; you'll find a laundry room in the same area. The expanded continental breakfast, included in our room rate, had a choice of breads to toast, muffins, croissants, coffee, tea, a few cold cereals, instant oatmeal packets, and six different kinds of fresh fruit. The concierge staff couldn't seem to do enough for people. There's a business center (two computers and a printer) off the lobby, available to all guests, and the in-room wifi generally worked well. This hotel is well-placed; it's about five blocks to the nearest grocery store, three blocks to the closest pharmacy, within a few blocks of two metro stations (each on a different line), and across the street from a bank with an ATM. My friend and I were both woken up by early-morning garbage trucks a couple of times, but we were in a large city; otherwise, street noise and noise from other rooms was minimal. The dining area needs better lighting, but otherwise our stay bordered on flawless. A great base from which to explore the city. It's located just off a small public square that is not infrequently the site of manifestations (demonstrations); the weekend we were there, a Quebecois separatist group was demonstrating, and there was a march past the square the next day, though I never figured out the underlying cause.
What to See and Do
---Marche Jean-Talon, www.marchespublics-mtl.com/English/Jean-Talon
How do I tell you about Montreal's public markets? Jean-Talon is mostly about producers. There are rows upon rows of fruit and vegetable sellers from May until sometime in October. Try not to buy too much produce (good luck with that!), because you'll need to save room and money for the shops, including Chocolats Privileges, Qui Lait Cru? (an entire store of raw milk cheeses), a kiosk selling game-meat “hot dogs”, Le Fromagerie Hamel (I double dog dare you to leave there without buying anything), and a place selling macarons in unusual flavors. Just across a narrow road from Chocolats Privileges, there is a small shop crammed with products from Quebec producers, with everything from teas to preserves to cheeses to smoked fish. The “center” of the market has some tables and benches, with a crepe place and a juice bar, and entertainers often perform there in good weather; it's the only public market where I've ever heard a performer singing zarzuela. Bring at least one cooler and many shopping bags.
---Marche Atwater, www.marchespublics-mtl.com/English/Atwater
Another public market, but somewhat different. There is beautiful produce here, too, but go upstairs and you'll find a good deal of meat and poultry, in addition to some prepared or “heat and eat” foods. Also upstairs is a small kiosk selling chocolates from Genevieve Grandbois. They are expensive and available in limited flavors, but the Salt Caramel is brilliant. Also here is an even larger boutique of Chocolats Privileges (on the ground floor) with pastries, ice cream, etc. in addition to chocolates. Be sure to try the Gateau Opera (Opera Cake), the best of its type I tried in Canada. Not far away and still on the ground floor, look for Les Douceurs du Marche, offering mustards, olive oils, maple products, and much more, in addition to chocolates from Chocolaterie Heyez in a case up front.
---Old Montreal, www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca/eng/accueila.htm
Yeah, some of it's touristy. There are lovely cobblestone streets and kitschy souvenir shops and restaurants by the dozen and street performers. But if you know where to look, you can find interesting things. One of them is Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, at 400 Rue St.-Paul Est. This has been a place of worship for over three centuries, and it's well worth a visit. There's also Marche Bonsecours, www.marchebonsecours.qc.ca. This former vegetable market (among other things) is filled with upscale shops, and it's a pleasant place to look around for a while.
---Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, http://cathedrale-mrdm.blogspot.com/
A short walk from Le Square Phillips, this is a lovely neo-Italian Renaissance Catholic Cathedral. The website is in French only. Visitors are asked to remain outside during the celebration of the Eucharist.
---Christ Church Cathedral, www.montrealcathedral.ca
An even shorter walk from Le Square Phillips, this is an Anglican cathedral, another painstakingly constructed place of worship, and well worth a visit.
---Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, www.mbam.qc.ca/en/
It doesn't seem as though it's that large, until you get inside and discover that a tunnel connects you to a building across the street that's also part of the museum. You'll find many, many different areas to explore here, from medieval paintings to modern “art” (be sure to look for the piece that consists of three thousand small stuffed animals, arranged by color, attached to a large board hung on the wall). You'll never get through everything in one visit, so come back another day if time permits. African art, Asian art, Canadian art (including some great pieces by indigenous artists); it's all here. A must-see.
---McCord Museum, www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/
A wonderful, human-scale museum, with several different exhibits at any given time. The museum is devoted to subjects of interest to Canadians, and especially to residents of Montreal. There's a permanent exhibit detailing some of the history of the city; other exhibits change periodically. Put this one on your schedule.
---Stewart Museum, www.stewartmuseum.org
I'll be honest; I don't know how this museum survives, with no cafe and no gift shop and, from what I can determine, very little publicity. But I'm glad it has. It is located at the British military depot on St. Helen's Island, Parc Jean Drapeau, a good 15 to 20 minute walk from the nearest metro stop. I went because there was a special exhibition highlighting six centuries of cartography; my friend and I saw this advertised in a metro station, of all places. Other exhibits are devoted to North American and particularly Canadian history; the museum's collection spans some five hundred years. Don't miss the cannons out front!
The best restaurant meal we had in Montreal was at Restaurant Julien, which, to my dismay, closed the night we ate there; we were told there had been an insoluble rent dispute with their landlord. Our other restaurant meals in this city were mixed bags. As usual, however, I urge you to try places and formulate your own opinions.
---Au Pied de Cochon, www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca/index_e.html
This is a restaurant set up more like a bar. It's a long, narrow space, with an actual bar and bar stools set in the middle of one long side. The décor is minimalist and there's lots of wood, a look I like; a mirror along the opposite long wall makes the place look larger than it is. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any sound-absorbing material anywhere here, and I don't enjoy having to shout at my dining companion across a table that's only a couple of feet wide. When this place is crowded (and it's always crowded), you can't even hear yourself think. That might be more acceptable if the food had been stellar, but it wasn't. The bill of fare is undoubtedly creative; foie gras has its own section on the menu, and that menu ranges as far afield as Pig's Head For Two, Venison Tartare, and Pickled Tongue. But creativity isn't everything. We started with delicious warm bread and unsalted butter, a fine beginning. As an appetizer, I chose foie gras cromesquis, two small spheres of liquid foie gras that had been breaded and fried. No, I don't know how they do that. The first sphere was simply perfect, but the second had a small hole in it, and much of the foie gras had leaked out. My companion began with Poutine Temaki, which was a bit like a sushi roll, containing rice, fries, vegetables, and an onion-based sauce, and he pronounced that excellent. I also ordered fried zucchini blossoms, which I've had before and absolutely love...but not these, which were too heavily breaded and far too greasy. As a main course, I had a cured foie gras tart, a free-form pastry shell with mashed potatoes, a balsamic reduction, and slices of foie gras. It was a nice combination, but the pastry shell was burned on the bottom (no, it wasn't just the dark-colored balsamic reduction permeating the crust). My friend fared better with his Happy Pork Chop, an enormous portion with a mushroom-based sauce. As a dessert, we chose a Lemon Meringue Pie, which was an individual round tart about 4 inches in diameter. It was well-executed, particularly the creamy-textured meringue. Moving around in this restaurant can be difficult, between the energetic waitstaff and those looking to get into/out of their seats or the restrooms. I loved being able to look into the open kitchen, but it's just not enough to compensate for the multiple shortcomings here. Wildly popular; if you want to go, make reservations as far in advance as you can. Oh, and if you find out what the dessert item “Milkshake XXX” is, will you please let me know?
---Restaurant et Traiteur Ermitage, http://restaurantermitage.com/?lang=en
A smallish place (about 40 seats), very popular on Saturday nights. Despite the white tablecloths, the atmosphere here is distinctly laid-back. The soundtrack throughout the meal was silly to the point of being annoying, but at least it wasn't too loud. A number of menu items do not have descriptions, but you can always ask what something is. The waitress here (there was only one the night we were there) was very kind; not only did she describe whatever we needed her to, but she also brought out small portions of some dishes we hadn't had before so we could taste them. My companion began his meal with cabbage piroshki, which he enjoyed. My attention was occupied by the potato piroshki, two oblongs with an unusually bready exterior for piroshki. The potato filling had a smack of pepper to it; the accompanying sour cream, made in-house, was the best part of the dish. My companion's beef stroganoff was nicely prepared and a fair portion of meat. The dish was served with potatoes. My salmon was not as successful. Topped with almonds and browned, it was stuffed with a mixture of tiny shrimp and a peppery-herby-mushroomy stuffing, all atop a pool of too much lemon cream sauce. Also on the plate were white rice, boiled potatoes, peeled red pepper, and a few lemon wedges. We split an order of sour cherry vareniki for dessert, six small boiled dumplings drizzled with a sour cherry sauce. They would have been wonderful, had they not tasted as though salted butter had been drizzled over them as well. Yes, there are more vodkas here than you usually find in a restaurant! Be warned that Ermitage is not near a metro station.
---L'Orchidee de Chine, www.orchideedechine.ca/
This is not the Chinese restaurant of your youth. It is both more upscale and more expensive than many other Chinese restaurants. The downstairs section appears more plush; the night we ate here, it was booked out. Consequently, we ate upstairs, in a yellow-walled room with red chairs and banquettes accented with dark wood and white tablecloths. This is one of very few restaurants I've seen that has a dumbwaiter arrangement to bring food upstairs from the kitchen. It's clever, but noisy. I began with the Crispy Duck in Chinese Pancake, two “pancakes” rolled around shredded duck, peeled cucumber strips, and scallion strips is a sweet-and-salty sauce (there was probably hoisin sauce in there, but there was at least one other component, as well). The dish was outstanding in flavor and texture, but unhappily only warm, not hot, when it reached us. My companion began with a won ton soup that I did not try, but he loved it. His main course was Crispy Duck with Five-Flavored Salt, a decent-sized portion of very crisp-skinned duck. The piece I tried was slightly dry, but he said he didn't experience that with the portion he ate. My entree was Sauteed Lamb with Scallions, which was enough for two people. Thin strips of lamb were in a pleasant sauce with scallions, but some of the lamb was chewy and tough, and again, the dish wasn't sufficiently hot when it was brought to the table. The main courses were accompanied by mixed veggies in a clever “nest” of what might have been fried jicama, though I'm not sure about that.
Other Chocolate in Montreal
---Cacao 70, http://cacao70.ca/newmenueng.jpg
A cross between a restaurant and a chocolate lounge. A pleasant place to go with a friend, perhaps for dessert. I wasn't especially taken with the chocolates here, but try them for yourself and see what you think.
---Suite 88, http://suite88.com/en/?lounge
A small but stylish chocolate lounge; in good weather, you'll always find people enjoying ice cream or chocolate desserts on the patio. Again, I didn't find the chocolates here to be anything special, but see what you think.
---Divine Chocolatier, http://www.divinechocolatier.com/DivineChocolatier.html
A short walk and a few steps below street level from the Museum of Fine Arts, you enter this small shop, which has some very nice chocolates, as well as macarons and other goodies.
Stephanie Zonis (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.