Sans Viande: A Vegetarian Guide to Montreal
Going meatless in the city of lard.
To say that Montreal’s suddenly booming restaurant scene is meat heavy would be like saying that people in the French-Canadian metropolis like hockey. While it’s become de rigeur for boosters to proclaim Montreal the closest thing you can get to Europe in North America, the truth is that for all of its cosmopolitanism, this is a province where tradition and history loom large; not for nothing are people in Quebec still debating the implications of the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
For many, including chefs Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon and David McMillan and Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef, that can mean menus freighted with pork—Au Pied de Cochon’s pièce de résistance is an entire pig’s head mounted on a platter, John-the-Baptist-style, with a lobster tail stuck in its mouth and ice-cream scoops of foie gras encircling it. Even the over-discussed poutine, which is finally beginning to recede in trendiness south of the border, relies on a beef or chicken gravy for its full flavor.
But eating well in a city so devoted to eating well doesn’t have to mean compromise for vegetarians. While the usual suspects are present—Le Veggie Delight from Subway is always just a step away—you didn’t get your passport stamped just to eat like you do at home. Like another famously French city that derives its joie de vivre at least in part from its hostile weather, Montreal is a place that demands you to turn your dinner into an event. So, without further ado, here’s a quick guide to eating well as a vegetarian in Montreal.
Cheap and Simple Eats
Boustan — Located in the basement of an old townhouse just a few blocks from Concordia University, Boustan is an extremely popular Lebanese takeaway counter. The chicken shawarma draws the crowds, but you’re here for their falafel sandwich, which is stuffed with hot-pink turnips and vinegary shredded cabbage, then charred on the grill. It’s humble, but filling—doubly so when paired with potatoes slathered in tangy mayonnaise, which isn’t nearly as much of a turnoff as you’re probably imagining.
Chef Guru — This quiet Indian spot serves up cheap, delicious vegetarian meals on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, barely outside of the greasy perimeter of Schwartz’s smoked meat. While the veggie thali is still one of the best deals in town at $5, skip it in favor of the curry poutine. The fries—which like all good poutine fries are thick enough to carry the weight of the gravy and cheese curds and thin enough to stay crispy—come coated in a rich, tangy curry sauce which is then sprinkled with chopped cilantro.
La Banquise — Of course, if you’re gonna eat a curry poutine, you’d better try the real deal first. The origins of poutine are somewhat disputed, with several small Quebec towns laying claim to the invention of the dish, and it’s indisputable that the best place to get a poutine is at the kind of casse-croûte or small diner you only find on the side of the road on a remote highway. (The second best place is at local fast-food chain La Belle Province, but only if you’ve got enough liquor in your stomach to provide a nice, thick coating.) But La Banquise in the lower Plateau is still the go-to spot for late-night poutine. All of their varieties—and there are many, from the fairly common italienne to the meat-loving T. Rex—are available with a mushroom gravy on request, and as of September 2015, they had vegan cheese curds, too. This spot hops at 3 a.m. when the bars begin closing down, so either get there a little earlier or take your order to go and eat it at La Quincaillerie next door.
Saint-Viateur Bagels — You have heard, probably, that the Montreal bagel is singular—that New Yorkers, in an effort to deny its superiority to their own bagels, insist that it should be considered a different pastry entirely. And while newcomer O’Bagel is getting rave reviews, there are, for all intents and purposes, only two bagel shops in town: Fairmount and Saint-Viateur. Both are named for their eponymous streets in Mile End, both are open twenty-four hours, and both have been making the Montreal bagel since the Catholic Church ruled the city. Choosing one is absolutely essential and almost utterly arbitrary. That being said, Saint-Viateur is clearly better and anyone who sends you to Fairmount is probably the kind of person who would steal your wallet when you weren’t looking.
Dépanneur Le Pick-Up — In recent years, the gap of grid between Mile End and Parc Extension on the north-eastern side of Mont Royal has turned into something of a hotspot. Bernie Bankrupt of local electro-clash group Lesbians on Ecstasy transformed a bodega (called a dépanneur in Montreal) into a small grocery and gourmet lunch counter. The faux pulled pork sandwich comes drenched in a sticky, sweet barbecue sauce worthy of the name, and banana peppers and chipotle mayo round out the flavor. But what makes it worth the trip is the “pork” itself—tofu skins cooked down until their texture matches that of the real deal almost exactly. Though it’s beyond cliché to claim that a particular mock meat can fool even the heartiest carnivore, this is one of the most convincing (and satisfying) substitutions you’ll ever witness. Once you’re able to get back on your feet, saunter over to Dispatch Coffee a few blocks away.
Satay Brothers — Alex and Mat Winnicki grew up in St-Henri, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that also hosts the Atwater Market, where the two brothers operate a stall specializing in Singaporean street food. Their take on the cuisine reads as simple—steamed bao, satays, sandwiches—but its precise execution has earned them a standalone restaurant a few blocks over. Still, you’ll want to visit the Atwater location, where they’ll gladly pour a little rum in your lemonade. You’ll need it to fight the prickling burn of super chilis that fleck the pillow-soft bao and the sweetly marinated tofu. The satay and tofu sandwich comes on light, slightly charred bread, along with sharply pickled onions, while the crisp Gado Gado salad, served cold, offers a nice contrast. That said, stick with the handhelds so you can wander around the Market unimpeded.
Omma — Once you’ve exhausted the stock of imported African records at Phonopolis and fought off the urge to buy just about everything in Librairie Drawn + Quarterly, pop into Omma in Mile End. This tiny Korean restaurant is tucked into a corner just down the street from those two cultural beacons in what is becoming a very crowded stretch of Rue Bernard. Chef Mi Kyum Kim offers simple, traditional dishes inspired by her mother’s own cooking. And while that term is easy to throw around, there’s something comforting in the atmosphere Kim has created with Omma; the dining room is small without being precious, and a sliding window behind the bar opens drive-through style onto the outdoor terrasse. A small dish of sweet cabbage marinated in sesame oil and vinegar serves as an amuse-bouche, but the real star is Kim’s bibimbap. It comes sizzling in a clay bowl, its raw egg going opaque the moment the waiter stirs it in. The rice forms a crisp layer along the base of the pot, which, when the dish is mixed up, provides a satisfying change in texture, while a fresh kimchi leaves a welcome burn. Between the seaweed, the bean sprouts, the tofu, the chili sauce, and all that rice, you lose a bit in the way of flavor distinction but more than make up for it in comfort.
Pastaga — Chefs Martin Juneau and Louis-Philippe Breton have created a mini-empire that wraps around the corner of Saint-Laurent and Beaubien in Little Italy. In addition to small-plated gourmet spot Pastaga, Juneau and Breton also operate the dark wine bar Cul-Sec, the ice cream shop Monsieur Crémeux, and the gourmet grocery store Épicerie Le Petit Coin, where you can get Quebec-made kombucha. But Pastaga is the jewel in the crown, and while they’re happy to provide vegetarian options at dinner, they’re worth checking out for brunch, too. A recent trip yielded expertly cooked menemen, a Turkish dish of eggs and tomatoes reduced down to a thick paste. Sprigs of mint and parsley give it more depth, and it’s served with an outrageously rich (and thick) slice of milk bread.
Le Vin Papillon — Really, all of this has been prelude. Which is not a knock on any of the above restaurants. Every vegetarian meal you’ve had to this point has been prelude. Joe Beef’s McMillan, Morin, and Vanya Filipovic opened Le Vin Papillon a few years ago as an excuse to pour lots of wine and serve something beyond the heaps of meat that made their first restaurant famous. A French cover of Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” (“Chanson Bleu”) wafts out of the corner speakers. With its simple menu (main ingredients only, in chalk) and its decor that looks a bit like a Prohibition-era saloon as imagined by Anthropologie, there is little that’s visually distinctive about the place. But you’re not here to look. By the time you leave, at least three hours after you arrived, you may barely be able to see at all.
Some logistics: The menu at Le Vin Papillon changes every day. It’s dependent on what’s available at the nearby Atwater Market, what’s ripening in Joe Beef’s backyard garden, and what area farmers have available. While it’s not strictly vegetarian, they are happy to accommodate, and two of their signature dishes are centered around simple, everyday vegetables: celery root and cauliflower.
In fact, part of what makes a meal at Le Vin Papillon such a disorienting experience (apart from the prodigious amount of wine that will inevitably find its way to your table) is how wildly their dishes deviate from the norm without relying on rare ingredients; it’s almost enough to make you hate every other restaurant for not having had these ideas first.
Take the celery root. It’s skewered on a rotisserie and roasted like a chicken until tender. Then, it’s put through a meat slicer, which renders it as thin and malleable as cold cuts. The slices are folded into iberian-like triangles whose creases collect a slurry of walnut-enrichened butter and caraway seed. A finely shredded twenty-four-month white cheddar tops it off. It’s served cold, and it’s oddly refreshing, coming as it does after a smoky red-pepper and eggplant ajvar with crispy housemade flatbread, a bowl of zucchini slices pickled until they sparkle on your tongue, and a delicately layered dish of matsutake mushrooms, funky écoisse cheese, and a perfectly soft fried egg topped with matchstick potatoes that comes paired with a wine that turns the whole thing into a funky blue mess on your palette.
It’s at this point in the meal that they bring out a fine sherry—ostensibly to clear the palette, but also because they are trying very hard not to kill you.
It’s all finished off with a scoop of ice cream—fresh, sticky peach juice run through a soft-serve machine. Like the rest of the meal, it’s simple and brilliant and despite having been full for over an hour, you will wish that you had more of it. FL