Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring break, woohoo! Part II:

Just got back from an impromptu spring-break trip to Montreal - 24 hours of Amtrak but well worth it. (Update: now with captions.)


-Used bookstores. French books! For cheap! I only bought three, but was kicking myself for not having made a pre-orals trip up there, because they have everything.

-Art Java. Excellent cappuccinos.

-Arugula-garlic pizza at Pizza Mia in the Atwater Market.

-The Contemporary Art museum.

-Pastry place on Rue Bernard.

-Speaking French and having the other person not switch to English. In France, I've found, there's this idea that if someone's French is fully comprehensible but reveals non-nativeness, their use of the language is seen as harmful to its purity, and English is returned, even by those whose English is rusty at best. While teaching, my students often enough respond to my French with English, for altogether different reasons. But in French Canada, French is nearly always returned with more of the same, presumably for the same political reasons as cause all the signs and menus to be in French, even in what soon reveal themselves to be anglophone establishments. If all this extra practice has made my accent in French more interesting, so be it.

-The opportunity to discuss, at great length, the differences and similarities between Belgian and Canadian language politics. Has anything been written on this? I must know!

-Having a break from the permaconstruction site outside our apartment in NY.

-Most surprisingly, the train ride. Not only, what with it being a train and a discount fare, was it the more frugal option. It was as scenic as promised, what with the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks. Plus, none of the hassle of airports, and a more comfortable spot to sleep in. And to catch up on non-French literature in.

Not as fabulous as hoped:

-The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. If there was ever a time I'd have found this book interesting, it would have been while traveling to and staying in where it's set. But... no. Back to Bobst he goes. I can't tell yet if the return-trip novel, The Group, is amazing, or if it's just by comparison.

-The hotel. As much as I approve in principle of hotels allowing dogs, when said dogs pee all over the carpet on the stairs and all floors, that's kind of a negative. And, if you're going to have literature in the room encouraging people to order champagne buckets at the like for a "romantic" time (do people really do this?), maybe make sure that the room's bathroom door actually closes.

-Joe Beef. As with virtually every restaurant listed in our guide - which is to say, just about every known restaurant in Montreal, because other Googling didn't come up with much more - the place was 'reservations essential.' Having already learned that, at least on weeknights, this was advice to ignore, we walked from the Metro down some deserted streets to the place, where we would be told it would just be a couple minutes, but that what we should do was make a reservation for half an hour later. This was slightly confusing, but we went along with it, and ended up killing time at a Montreal equivalent of Duane Reade. I like that sort of thing, so so far, so good.

The meal began with us having to stand and read the menu up on the board - something that could easily be eliminated either with printed menus or at the very least putting a second board up so that both sides of the table can read the thing sitting down, but maybe the daily menu means to food is super-fresh?

To put things into perspective, this was our second and I want to say last time ever spending that much on dinner for two. Accustomed to knowing ahead of time from menupages what a meal will cost, we realized this was a bit of a gamble. But it sounded so promising! And think of the money we saved by going to Montreal by train!

Still. Wine by the glass started at $11 (red at $12), which our waiter was very defensive about, perhaps reading our faces, or our wavering, explaining that we also had the option of bottles, which started at $50, or beer, an option which was not elaborated on price-wise. Hmm. The couple next to us, who seemed marginally less grad-studenty than we did, got the same defensive response when asking whether the entrees (some in the $50 range) came with anything on the side. It was almost as though the waitstaff realized the whole place was something of a gimmick. A gimmick designed to make patrons feel bourgeois for expecting a menu or a list of wines by the glass, as though there's some non-bourgeois way to eat in a nice restaurant that's been written up in all the conventional places.

As for the food... The menu was very Blue-Ribbon-esque, which is to say, haute comfort food, all-over-the-place, no-particular-cuisine, everything costing three times what one might imagine that dish could possibly, possibly cost. Anyhow. Prior to the meal, we received a 'from the chef' (excitement for a couple of pasta-at-home grad students!) of... deep-fried smelt. The dish is not for everyone, but the main problem was that the fries I ordered had clearly been fried in the same oil as the smelt, and were smeltier than ideal. That, combined with the (poutine-inspired?) cheese on top, ruined what would have otherwise been some stellar fries. I also got an artichoke dish that, at $16, was a much worse version of the equivalent and non-bank-breaking dish at NY restaurants like Bianca, Celeste, or Quartino. Jo got chicken that tasted like chicken.

What made this experience all the more frustrating was that lunch had been truly amazing pizza that came to something like $8 for two, with a bottle of water. The contrast made me rethink including a trip to an upscale restaurant as a vacation splurge. I should just accept that aside from this one not-even-that-expensive Japanese place in Tribeca, restaurants are something I could give or take.

-Whatever happened to Matt & Nat, or Denis Gagnon? Yes, I just complained about a meal costing far too much, and now I'm complaining about not having the opportunity to waste money on vegan handbags and avant-garde dresses. The former, it seems, are more readily available in NY. At any rate, if the 'likes' part of this post makes me sound like a pretentious humanities grad student, rest assured that if I didn't buy any clothes or accessories, it wasn't for lack of trying.


Matt said...

It sounds like a nice trip. I took the train from NYC to Montreal a few years ago, just a bit later in the year, for the law and society conference and enjoyed it very much. It's a fairly long ride, but the great thing about the train (in addition to be being scenic and more spacious) is that you can buy a bottle of wine, some cheese, etc. and enjoy it as you like. That's what I always do, anyway. I had one of the best dinners I've ever had at Cafe Napoleon in the old city area, but it wasn't cheap.

How's the exchange rate these days? When I went it was about 1-1, making things slightly more expensive than in the US, as opposed to somewhat cheaper, as I was used to.

Phoebe said...


The trip was lovely. I did think to bring some cheese, but wine might have made things even more interesting.

My latest credit-card statement tells me that the exchange rate remains 1-1-ish. The main thing, though, was the tax. I never quite figured out tipping, either, so we probably (at least according to some Canadians the next table over) over-tipped in at least one restaurant, by tipping according to what our guidebook suggested. Also, clothing, from what I could tell, costs about three times what equivalent items would in the States - is this because it's ethically produced, or just because? Either way, didn't buy any, so it didn't matter.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Not the restaurant I would've recommended.

Mass-market retail goods are expensive right now because the nominal prices are sticky-- they don't move with the exchange rate-- as well as because of high taxes and the limited economies of scale in a smaller market. But generally food is cheaper (especially controlling for quality) than in US cities.

Jacob T. Levy said...

You have pictures within 100 yards of my office and within 200 yards of my house!

Phoebe said...

Jacob T. Levy,

Re: first comment.

Which do you recommend? I was a fan of the train ride and could well do it again. (Obviously the thing to do would have been to write this sort of post before going to a city I don't know that well.)

As for prices... the real problem, as far as I'm concerned, is that the Quebec cheeses are so expensive. I'd think they'd be taxed less because they're from the same country and province.

Re: second comment. Craziness! If either Jo or I had phones with Internet/photo capacity (or Canada capacity, for that matter), I could have done all this blogging then and there, and you could have popped out to say hello.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Ah, but you were buying cheese at the fabulous Qui Lait Cru in Jean Talon market, which carries high-end artisanal unpasteurized cheeses. There's plenty of cheaper Quebec cheese to be found, though I do think that some of the stuff at Qui Lait Cru is worth it.

About prices, I was responding about the price of clothes.

Restaurants: High end, my favorites are Europea and Bronte; Tocque is the official "best restaurant in the city;" and for those who eat pork and game I understand that Au Pied de Cochon is fabulous. Slightly less high end, Laloux or Au Cinquieme Peche. Solidly affordable and wonderful: Justine's.

And best of all, on student budgets, the many BYO restaurants on the Plateau: La Prunelle, Bleu Raisin, Infideles, Petit Plateau, and (many would say the best, though probably not for non-meat-eaters) Bistro l'Entrepont.

Phoebe said...

OK, so I'm now kicking myself for not posting pre-trip.

PG said...

At least you've done a public service for those of us delaying Quebec trips until spring. (Canadian spring, which I understand to be in the middle of Texas summer.)

Phoebe said...


You might just have the right idea. I never think of these things, which is how I ended up with snow in Israel and rain in L.A. (For Birthright and a conference, so not quite under my control, but still.)

Matt said...

As for prices... the real problem, as far as I'm concerned, is that the Quebec cheeses are so expensive.

I had some really wonderful cheese curds, bought from some market found in guide books when I was there (Maybe the one Jacob mentions- I can't recall for sure the name.) I only bought a bit as usually cheese curds are not that great, but these were wonderful, as was a lot of the other cheese.

PG said...

Bookmarking this post's URL for my own forthcoming roadtrip in June from PEI through Quebec and Montreal (and Toronto) to my in-laws' house in Michigan. Any recommendations on cheap, clean, dog-free (husband is allergic, alas) places to stay?