A Boy and His City: A Montréal Road Trip with Chef David DiBari
Frankly, I’d become sick of it. For years now, when the subject of Montréal came up around David DiBari, he’d get a supernatural light in his eyes that looks a lot like insanity. He might quiver and spray spittle as the ungrammatical superlatives tumble out. Enthusiasm doesn’t cover it. This is a seizure.
Sure, there are Quebec’s heartbreakingly lovely raw milk cheeses (that are illegal south of the border), and bushels of stunning crabs, oysters and razor clams from nearby Prince Edward Island and the Gaspé Peninsula. There is charcuterie—everywhere, at all times of day—eaten without stint or remorse. There is wine, rye whiskey, kouign-amann and the falling-apart smoked meat sandwiches that are this city’s pastrami on rye. Montréal is a place of almost staggering culinary riches—but that’s not what makes it unique.
The real thing about Montréal is the lack of pretension with which it offers its riches. To quote David McMillan, chef and resident raconteur of two of Montréal’s landmark restaurants, Liverpool House and Joe Beef, “There’s none of that horseshit here that goes on in the rest of the world: multicourse dinners, 15 courses with 15 different wines paired to each course. This is for new money. It’s for nouveau riche; it’s for, like, beginner diners ... Our culture—it’s very much not that. It’s an appetizer, a dozen oysters, a main course split, you know—duck for two, fish for two. Eat our cheese or dessert and get the fuck out and go on your way. People here dine, the rooms are noisy, people talk loudly when they eat. People fucking drink like beasts here; they love amorously after dinner.”
It’s a good match for Chef DiBari, whose motto has always been “Eat Serious, Have Fun.” For years now, this chef (of The Cookery and The Parlor in Dobbs Ferry) has herded his staff on blasts up I-87 for educational trips. Montréal classics—poutine, foie gras and maple syrup—have bled their deliciousness all over his menus. And he’s an embed. Visiting Montréal chefs crash on his sofa, while DiBari has curled up among the dirty aprons at Au Pied de Cochon’s Cabane à Sucre. When the James Beard House asked DiBari to cook one of their dinners, he made his event an ode to Montréal. He proposed to his longtime girlfriend at Cabane. Montréal is this chef’s city.
I just wish he’d given me more warning.
Au Pied de Cochon’s Cabane à Sucre
PDC’s Cabane à Sucre is easily Montréal’s hardest table; its four-course prix fixe is $65 (Canadian!), but the restaurant is only open for two short stints: when the maple sap runs for a few weeks in spring and again during apple season in the fall. Tables for both sessions disappear as soon as they’re offered. Book your table here before you even determine whether you can get off work.
When we make the 50-minute trek out of the city to reach Cabane, I haven’t eaten anything since 10am, so I am reasonably confident of my survival. Bowls of ramen appear—Chef Martin Picard had recently traveled to Asia—and each is spanned with a fat, skewered slice of foie gras. DiBari’s girlfriend doesn’t eat foie, so I also eat hers while DiBari twinkles across at me, enjoying some private joke. Three more dishes also appear, each inspired by Chef Picard’s travels, including a gorgeously aspic-domed take on poke. I am confused and looking around me.
“Where’s all the Canadian shit?” I think. “This meal is going so fast—I guess they need the table?” Nevertheless, the champagne is flowing, I am road tired, and I don’t much care.
Then dessert doesn’t arrive. Nor does the bill. So I ask our waiter about it while DiBari smirks. Turns out, those four family-sized dishes only comprise Cabane’s first course. I am in trouble now, and DiBari is openly laughing at me, the little fucker.
Four massive Creusets then appear, their sides all dripping with love and the baked-on juices of a thousand meals. Just one of these, an entire chicken, boned out and stuffed with forcemeat, is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. So is the next dish, and the third and fourth. There is an intermezzo, four tiny truffles—what harm can they do? Each deep-fried ball spurts warm, delicious foie. Then comes the onslaught: whole, stuffed pig limbs; luxuriously fat logs of homemade “baloney” (still twisted in the parchment in which they were smoked); and a pan of Flintstonian braised beef rib that bears flavors as deep and unknowable as a black hole.
All around, people are necking PDC’s gin straight from the tubing used to convey maple sap from trees. It’s orgiastic. Even our dinner plates are glazed with the image of two pigs locked in illicit congress. There is wine, champagne and—yeah, OK—I do drink some tubes of gin. By the time dessert comes, I am utterly helpless. We’re talking a cream puff as large as your head (but it’s perfect!), and an entire soufflé dish of pudding chomeur, the dessert of Quebec’s unemployed garment workers. Finally, there are two weighty, life-like logs of chocolate that, when cracked, yield buttery pastry cream and nougat.
God knows what happens after that because I don’t remember. But consider yourself warned.
After a morning filled with Tim Horton’s coffee and quiet groaning, we head to a recovery lunch of Canadian oysters at Notkins. DiBari discovered Notkins with his friend Eric Wilson, a former NFL defensive lineman who also played on the Montréal Alouettes. Somehow, by this city’s strange logic, Wilson came to live with PDC’s Chef Martin Picard at Cabane. He’d have to wake in the middle of the night to feed the pigs because that’s just the deal when you hang out with Picard. A few hours later, unrested, Wilson would have to report to his Alouettes practice. Wilson took DiBari to Montréal on a road trip, which explains many of his relationships in town.
Notkins is an oyster lover’s oyster bar, where the bivalves are listed not just by region but by farmer. There are also PEI crabs and raw razor clams—thoughtfully chopped, so you can chute them down your throat on the long shell. Get the plateau with caviar and blini. I also recommend walking; it’s the only way you’ll live.
You will be eating a lot of foie. A lot of maple. A lot of charcuterie.
All of it will be perfect, the best you ever had, but it will hurt you. This is where Satay Brothers comes in. It’s a rough little Singaporean/Malaysian street food bar that slings eye-crossingly strong tiki drinks along with fiery hot bowls of noodles. Here, you can slash and burn your palate just long enough to restore fidelity. Soon, you’ll be staggering off, ready for more charcuterie.
Au Pied de Cochon
In Montréal proper lies Au Pied de Cochon, Cabane à Sucre’s mothership, a wild restaurant overseen by the mystical GM Flo (Florent) who appears to share a stylist with Blackbeard the pirate. It’s jammed, but they manage to wheel a whole cured pork leg through the drinking masses on an airplane cart. You’ve started with champagne, this the best prosciutto you ever had, and it’s served with doughnuts. Also, because this is Montréal, they’ve painted the ham’s trotter with red toenails.
There is foie gras on poutine, in the burger and also on the pizza. It’s in the nigiri. As we slowly spin in eddies of animal fat, Flo (who owed DiBari champagne from a previous trip, a bet that the chef can’t remember) explains his life in working in Montréal restaurants. He works 70–80 hours per week between PDC and Cabane and he makes a good living, but he isn’t rich. He tells tales of throwing axes in the dining room at Cabane, and the three hours of cleanup after the doors finally close. Flo works hard, but he’s also philosophic: He loves his life and he lives well. We meet him across the street at MTL Bar Resto where PDC’s staff drinks. After more champagne, I debate my choices and opt for survival. I still have to wake up at 4am to let a bleary DiBari back into the flat.
Joe Beef and Le Vin Papillon
I’ll confess to a bit of geekiness: I read cookbooks for the prose. One of my all-time, desert island reads is The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, largely written by Chef David McMillan. It speaks of culture and of history with a rambling sort of precision; it reads like the utterances of the smartest guy in the room who’s loquaciously drunk on Burgundy.
Like all of the restaurants we visited, Joe Beef is casual to the point of homey. The menu is written on the chalkboard wall, it’s in French and it spans the length of the room. In the bathroom, there’s an entire taxidermied head of a bison (which, my friend, is large). We eat stupid amounts of escargots, steak and oysters, and we run into Fred Morin, David McMillan’s co-chef and business partner at Joe Beef. Turns out they’re shooting the new book next door and I can hardly contain my excitement.
Next door is McMillan’s and Morin’s wine bar, Vin Papillon, so we duck in for a dessert of wine and illegal (in the U.S.) cheese. There’s Morin holding court in the corner, and we literally go back to the flat, log onto the Cabane à Sucre website, and book tables for another trip.
Montréal Quick Hits
Montréal is a walking city, and great food is thick on the ground. Here are some of the best places for whiling away those long hours before dinner.
New Yorkers love the Mile End neighborhood that is Montréal’s traditional Jewish hub; they’ll find food here that is strikingly familiar, but different enough to feel novel. Go to Schwartz’s for smoked meat (the Canadian answer to pastrami), and then hit St-Viateur for bagels. Prepare yourself for the endless debate on how Montréal’s versions stack up against New York’s.
This butcher shop and charcutier does a mean trade in wine, beer, fondue and raclette. Pull up a dinged chair in the café, and work your way through a surfboard of cheese, sausage, ham and vegetables dipped in an ocean of warm cheese.
Perfect for late at night, this is an English-style pub with a serious whiskey list. Look for the Irish and Scottish oddities, and just work right through them, shot by shot.
The storefront window reveals three ladies, rolling balls of dumpling dough with tiny pins. They’re laughing and talking while cranking out miraculously perfect dumplings by the gross. Drop in for a box to go.
Year ’round, seven days a week, and sited in a historic Art Deco building, the Atwater Market is where you’ll find two floors of farmers and local food tradesmen vending a vast variety goods. Charcuterie. Vegetables and fruits in season. Cheeses that you should hide when you approach the border. You get the picture.
Open ’til 2am (and thronged for every minute), this places forms shocking lines when Montréalers pour out of the surrounding bars. These undead crave one thing only, and that’s squeaky-curded poutine.