16 JAN 2017: Montréal knows how to throw a party better than any other Canadian city and this year on its 375th anniversary there is a whole year of festivities underway with over 175 events. Of course, food and drink feature prominently in Sin City- to call it by its Prohibition days name.

This 365-km island, home to 1.7 million people, is the Canadian city with the most restaurants per inhabitant (1 for 340 in 2015) and the second in North America after New York. There are more than 40 annual Food Festivals and events in Montréal. Underway right now are Happening Gourmand in Old Montréal (a great opportunity to explore Old Montreal's fine cuisine on a tight budget - $23 to $30 for a three-course dinner), Le Chop (multi-course table d'hôte menus at $25 per person) and coming up the first week of February is Montréal Poutine Week.

At Maggie Oakes restaurant on Place Jacques Cartier, I had a superb three course meal of Vankleek hill salad (local greens, toasted seeds, apple cider vinaigrette), skate wing on braised cabbage and the dessert of the day for $23. The restaurant is connected to Hôtel William Gray, one of Montréal’s newest and coolest hotels that’s part of the Antonopoulos portfolio of elegant restaurants and boutique hotels in historic Old Montreal. www.hotelwilliamgray.com

Microbreweries are mushrooming in Montréal. There’s an estimated 25 now, and an ever-increasing number are offering great gastropub food at bargain prices. Five-year-old bistro-brasserie Les Soeurs Grise was the first brew pub in Montreal with a real kitchen, according to owner Raphaël Richard and many have followed suit. The lunch special I had there for $16 was a generous portion of choucroute with boudin blanc, cold slaw and a choice of soup or salad. Adding a glass of fresh from the tap beer was just $3. Every dish is cooked with beer in the kitchen and people can order food and beer pairings.

Boswell Brasserie Artisanale in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal area, has 21 brews on tap and an excellent menu of tartars, chicken curries, salads, hamburgers, fish and chips and more. My bavette with home cut fries and chimichurri sauce was delicious. Other top microbreweries in in city include Dieu du Ciel, Harricana, HELM, Benelux, Broue Pub Brouhaha, McAuslan and Brasseur de Montréal. In 2016, RateBeer named Dieu du Ciel, in Mile-End, the best microbrewery in Québec and in the Top 100 in the world. www.ambq.ca/microbrasseries

Montréal got the old nickname Sin City because of its raucous night life. Things haven’t changed all that much. The bar scene is still very lively with fabulous cocktail specialties at many establishments. LAB cocktail bar on Rachel Street which was opened by mixologist Fabien Maillard in 2008 has a speakeasy atmosphere and an impressive drink menu that includes flaming drinks and unique combos. LAB also has about 20 brands of absinthe – a liquorice tasting spirit made from wormword, anise, fennel and other ingredients. www.barlelab.com

I love that absinthe is making a revival in Montréal with many cocktails with absinthe, and a Absinthe Bar at Sarah B in Intercontinental. The French banned the drink in 1915 and it wasn’t until 1988 that the spirit became legal again in most of Europe. Nicknamed “La Fee Verte” or “Green Fairy” it was the drink of choice of the avant-garde elite that gathered in Parisian cafes in the 1890’s. Wormwood contains thujone which was believed to trigger inexplicable transformations in the mind (it does actually improve the brain’s cognitive functions). However, in extreme quantities, thujone is toxic. We know now only a small amount of thujone actually survives the absinthe distillation process so no threat to absinthe drinkers.

Sarah B in Intercontinental has between five and 15 absinthe brands at any given time – they buy up whatever comes into the SAQ and also private order. The spirit is served the traditional way using an absinthe fountain with ice water. The absinthe is poured into a glass and an absinthe spoon (perforated to allow liquid through) topped with a sugar cube is set across the rim. The glass is then positioned under a spigot of the fountain and water is slowly dripped over the sugar cube until the sugar dissolves and the absinthe turns completely opaque. The ritual is great entertainment. www.sarahbbar.com

A number of cocktail events are taking place during the 375 anniversary, the biggest of which is Invasion Cocktail May 10 -16th with 36 bars and restaurants participating and over 200 original cocktail creations. Montréal’s signature 375th cocktail is called the Jeanne Mance, in tribute to Jeanne-Mance co-founder of Montréal. All ingredients are made in Quebec from local entrepreneurs. http://invasioncocktail.com/montreal-en

The recipe is 2 ounces of Cirka Gin, ½ ounce of Vermouth Lab Val Caudalies, ½ ounce of Sivo blackcurrant liqueur and 3 dashes of Sombre & Amer Febris coffee bitter, mixed together and served over a large ice cube in an old fashioned glass. The vermouth, a collaboration between LAB and the winery Val Caudalies in Dunham Quebec, is made with Vidal and Frontenac grape wine macerated with 14 botanicals and fruits. Maison Sivó produces liqueurs from berries (raspberry, blackcurrant and blueberry) grown on the Sivó farm is located in Montérégie. Sombre & Amer in Montreal create bitters and potions for cocktails.

When Cirka Distilleries, the first grain to bottle and “on grain” distiller in Quebec, first released Cirka Vodka the SAQ wouldn’t let the company call it vodka. Made from 100% Quebec corn, and distilled on the crushed grain, the liquor board felt it wasn’t neutral and flavourless enough to be vodka. They have since been educated with tastings of other ultra-fine vodkas. Cirka Sauvage Dry Gin, inspired by the boreal forests has 30 botanicals in its inspirational taste. Located in the heart of Montréal near the historic Lachine Canal, Cirka Distilleries is open to the public and offers mixology classes with Romain Cavelier who created the Jeanne Mance cocktail. www.cirka.ca

For those who plan to shake it up in Montréal this year, here’s a link to the 375 celebration year. www.375mtl.com/en Bon Appétit.


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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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