Eating my way through Montreal
Eating my way through a Montreal Neighborhood
A walking food tour of Mile End is about a whole lot more than just good treats
I like to eat and I like to walk and there’s nothing better when traveling than combining the two. While I’ve done a literary walking tour in Key West and an architectural boat tour in Chicago, I’d never done a walking food tour in all my travels. Late one morning on a very warm July day, sixteen of us gathered for just that. Darren from Old Montreal Food Tours was our guide to exploring one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods and eating some pretty good homemade classics as well as more trendy food offerings. Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood is made up of 40 blocks, bordered north-south by Mont-Royal Avenue and rue Van Horne and east-west by Saint-Laurent and Parc. The neighborhood is a mile north along Saint-Laurent from Sherbrooke Street, which in the early 19th century marked the boundary between Montreal’s urban area and open countryside.
Montreal was the fourth city in our group’s 10-day tour of Ontario and Quebec provinces. There were 30 of us in all for the day but we were split into two groups so as not to overwhelm the proprietors of the stops we would visit. We’d already spent two days discovering the highlights of popular Old Montreal near the river and other key sights in the city and it felt good to veer away from the city center and delve into a more personal experience of what makes up this French-speaking city of 4.2 million people. Greeting us across from our first stop on Parc Avenue was a homemade sign dangling from the window of an apartment that said in French, “Where are you, Hannah Arendt?” One person from the group at first thought it was a statement about, perhaps, high rent prices as all he could really decipher from the sign written on a bed sheet as it billowed in the wind was some version of “rent.” But after straightening itself out we saw that it mentioned Hannah Arendt, who Google told us was a political philosopher, author and Holocaust survivor from the 20th century. After Darren translated the French for us, we laughed as the sign was very philosophical about this philosopher. What better way to capture the spirit of this Bohemian neighborhood?
We turned our attention and stomachs to our first stop with a very thick gravlax truite (cured steelhead trout) sandwich at Nita Tout Garni on Parc Avenue – very possible to miss as the signage was almost non-existent and the storefront was insignificant, but the bread, freshly made on site, was completely significant and the trout had a taste and texture of the freshest lox. This sandwich shop, opened in spring 2022, set the tone for the afternoon as it featured all homemade items using local ingredients. The website boasts that Nita Tout Garni is part grocery store, part bakery, part wine shop and part café – a little something for everyone.
We then wound our way through three blocks of leafy neighborhood streets admiring the two-story brick homes built from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Mile End, a multicultural and multi-ethnic neighborhood, had been through the gentrification phase in the 1980s and ‘90s and rising real estate prices confirmed its popularity. A smattering of vivid graffiti on walls and windows throughout our tour seemed to indicate the neighborhood was still in a period of transition.
Our second stop was sweet indeed! Chocolats Genevieve Grandbois specializes in truffles and takes things to an interesting level with a tasting guide. The flavor wheel categorizes Genevieve’s chocolate into four categories: floral, fruity, spicy and toasted and an overlay of intensity offers up smooth, balanced or rich. We tasty two perfect artisanal cubes of bite-sized bliss in the tiny shop and listened to the history and accomplishments of Genevieve who opened her first shop in 2002.
On our way to stop number three we walked through a number of alleys that had been converted to shared outdoor spaces. No longer needed for trash trucks, ice trucks, and other city vehicles servicing homes, these spaces have become green spaces for the neighborhood. Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough and the Regroupement des Eco-quartiers has paid for the refurbishment of some 300 green alleys with the permission of adjacent homeowners. These alleys are converted with hardscape becoming walking paths, play areas for children and assorted gardens, both ornamental and vegetable. Many of the spaces feature murals and other artwork on the sides of the brick buildings.
We were now half-way through our tour and took a long walk through more quiet streets of the neighborhood with many home featuring sculptures in their front gardens from a local artist. Finding our way to Fairmount Avenue we stopped at Drogheria Fine for the one and only thing it is known for – La Salsa Della Nonna, a Calabrian-style tomato sauce. Served to us on homemade gnocchi we heard about how a large number of Quebecois restaurants and even one area millionaire (maybe it was billionaire) order Nonna’s product on a regular basis. My only complaint was that our small paper cup of gnocchi needed much more sauce. I could have just slurped the sauce and forsaken the pasta entirely it was so good. I wonder if they do mail order delivery!
After sampling salty tomato sauce, we were only two storefronts away from stop number 5 – Kem CoBa ice bream. Boasting a vibrant pink and lime green façade, Kem CoBa serves Vietnamese-style glaces (ice cream) and sorbets. Darren organized our treat as half ice cream and half sorbet so we could taste each type of frozen goodness. Owned by Vincent, a French pastry chef who moved to Quebec, and Ngoc, a pastry and chocolate chef, Kem CoBa means “third auntie’s ice cream” a nickname given to the owner by her niece. It was nice to sit outside on benches under big leafy trees with an afternoon breeze and discuss which was better, the glace or the sorbet.
Our final stop took us to the eastern border of the neighborhood to a wonderful boulangerie — Guillaume Bakery — on St Laurent Boulevard. It was another fairly non-descript store front and I at first thought the store’s name was that of a therapist who worked from the office suite above it. Just like with our first stop, signage seemed to be an afterthought, but it probably didn’t matter as neighbors were all within walking distance and just knew it as that fabulous boulangerie. A 20-foot-long wall of hanging metal baskets greets you upon entry, displaying the many and varied breads, loafs, and rolls that are made daily. The bakery’s web page says “Hand-made since the beginning and forever” summing up the theme of the day’s tour. The taste treat at this stop was the “white mushroom” or “champignon blanc.” Their best-selling item, it is a sweet bread shaped like a muffin with a gigantic top spilling over the side which gives it the “mushroom” name. Made with white chocolate it was sublime and a cup of Guillaume’s fabulous coffee made it even better.
We were now at the end of the 2-hour, 6-stop walking food tour and we were full and warm in the late July heat and could hear a nap calling. My phone told me we had walked almost 5,000 steps – enough to work off the chocolates and ice cream! This was a great way to get to know a new city – explore the quiet streets, feel the breeze in the trees and eat like a local.