Montréal, Je T'Aime
Sampling a feast of love in the other City of Lights
“It’s like being inside a cubic zirconium,” I say to my husband, Ken, after the glass door of Montréal’s Winter Bar has shushed closed behind me. Before us, slabs of colored light — yellow, green, red — shudder across faceted white walls that rise 30 feet to a round, ice-white ceiling. At the room’s edges, the sun blasts through tall, arched windows, bringing the frozen winter landscape inside.
The Winter Bar, a white big-top erected for three months on a field of snow and ice on the Montréal waterfront, has a futuristic feel. Outside, it’s a modern ice palace, thumbing its nose at the rough, 18th-century fieldstone buildings that line the streets of Old Montréal.
Inside, it’s a lesson in playfully constructed hipness. Hip we’re not — but we love a playful spirit. Getting a jump on Valentine’s Day, Ken and I have come to Montréal on a date. The city in winter is beautiful, quirky, dynamic and French — freezing on the outside, smoldering underneath, and romantic through and through.
The Winter Bar falls midway through our day of wandering, drinking and eating. Populated by urban couples (and singles), the place pulses with techno music and smells faintly of aftershave and spirits.
The bar is popular in part because of its novelty. In French, the best descriptor is éphémère, meaning transitory. Here today, gone tomorrow — or rather, here from December to March, replaced in the spring with grass and flowers, warm-weather joggers, and boats cruising the St. Lawrence River.
Outside the bar are three skating rinks. The smallest is the size of two hockey rinks side by side, with well-maintained artificial ice; the other two ovals have bumpier natural surfaces. On school holidays, they’re packed with families, but at night and on weekend afternoons the skaters are predominantly adults. Special events — fireworks, DJs spinning crooners and club mixes, outdoor fireplaces, even a Valentine’s wine tasting that organizes singles into tasting teams — help make the bar a destination.
The heart of the Winter Bar is an island of white Plexiglas edged in chrome. Above it hangs a silver and white rotating globe, reflecting the colored strobes. At night, patrons surround the bar three and four deep. Half wear skates on the black rubber floor. The combination of pulsing light, throbbing beats and naked blades in a round, white room creates the ambiance of a lunar landing pod full of sports-crazed passengers.
At 3 p.m. on a Saturday, I’m nearly alone at the bar. Ken sits at one of the white metal tables that ring the room, watching Canadian hockey in HD. To my right, a couple in their twenties, wearing tight, dark jeans, bulky sweaters and skates, indulge in long kisses.
I order a Blanche de Chambly and a chocolat chaud, declining an “ice glass” — a frozen triangular vessel that chills your drink, melting as you imbibe. I also forgo a shot of rum, peach schnapps, apple liqueur or Jack Daniels in my hot drink.
Ken’s hazy, golden witbeer, from the nearby Chambly brewery, is made from Québec wheat and pale barley malt. Other local libations offered here are Pinnacle ice cider and sparkling ice cider, made from hand-picked apples that are harvested frozen, about an hour away.
The drink menu lists wine by the glass and the bottle and about a dozen spirits and cocktails, including a cider martini and Sex on the Beach. There is no food, except on Thursdays, when you can get two cans of Sapporo beer for the price of one — and free sushi from 5 to 7 p.m.
From the icy expanses of the old city, we head to the Plateau to fill up on chocolate at Les Chocolats de Chloé. Two steps into the tiny shop and we’re embraced by warm, sweet, comforting aromas. Chloé’s makes even the most sophisticated chocolate lover feel like a kid — and the only thing happier than a kid in a candy store is a pair of them.
Ken makes for the chocolate bars, arranged by flavor — orange, mint, caramel — on wooden shelves. Nearby are homemade guimauves (marshmallows) dipped in dark chocolate, and sardines pralineés, wonderfully detailed little “fish” packed with milk chocolate and hazelnut paste.
My eyes rest on the glass-front display case, where battalions of bonbons sit in scallop-edged, brown-striped paper cups. Among the store’s 50-plus choices are ganache centers flavored with caramel, passion fruit, ginger, lemon and fleur de sel, hand-dipped in dark chocolate. I’ve yet to taste the Espelette pepper, but I’m eager to renew my acquaintance with the cardamon.
Natural light from a cheery bay window brightens the space, which offers little in the way of decoration. Chloé Gervais-Fredette, the blonde, petite, ever-smiling shop owner, thinks good chocolate should speak for itself. Packaging, too, is minimal: clear cellophane bags, small brown paper sacks and square white boxes, each stamped with the shop’s logo.
Chocolate from venerable French manufacturer Valrhona forms the basis of these handmade confections, and we watch the process in the high-ceilinged, spotless kitchen at the back of the store. A young woman wearing a chocolate-stained apron stands before a pot with handles, dips the flavored ganache squares into a bath of hot chocolate, then sets them gently on a tray. Her tongs are covered with molten chocolate, but the squares are somehow neat and tidy. And ungarnished. Soon their smooth tops will be flecked with powdered sugar, studded with pumpkin seeds, dotted with pepper flakes and saffron.
One small change in this process will mark the arrival of Valentine’s Day: the fleur de sel squares will be adorned with tiny red hearts. And the line at the register will most likely run out the door.
“This really is the best chocolate in Montréal,” says Gervais-Fredette. We couldn’t agree more as we set our purchases on the counter.
It turns out Chloé knows the owners of the final stop on our romantic itinerary, and she heartily approves of our choice. Not that we need a recommendation. Les Trois Petits Bouchons — the city’s newest wine bistro — has quickly become our favorite place to eat dinner in Montréal. Before we descend the half-dozen stairs from Boulevard St.-Denis, I’m already imagining myself inside, wondering what I’ll find on the menu, chalked in French on the wall beside the kitchen.
While we’re not exactly regulars here, we come as often as we can. We’ve always sat at the bar, where we eavesdrop on our neighbors, catch glimpses of the inordinately calm kitchen, and peer into two climate-controlled wine caves with glass doors.
Tonight, we opt for a more private place: one of the square wooden tables in the second of two narrow rooms. But, once seated, we decide we’re too far from the action. For us, romance isn’t about holding hands by candlelight, but about inserting ourselves into another way of life. We move to two center seats at the bar.
The couple to our left is animated. They talk and gesture; she even stands up to make a point. Seeing the half-empty wine bottle between their glasses, I get the feeling they’ve been here a while.
We watch at close range as the three male servers come and go from behind the bar, sometimes two at a time. They open the cave, reach in, deftly uncork the procured bottle, and pour a bit of wine into a stemmed glass. They hold the glass to the light, swirl, sniff, and taste, moving the wine around in their mouths as if chewing it. Satisfied, they fill a fresh glass and whisk it away.
We start with a sparkling rosé called On Zoue, from the Jura region of France. The wines here come from small producers who farm sustainably, if not organically — normal practice in France, so it’s no surprise that French brands dominate the menu. But it offers Spanish, Argentinean and California wines, as well.
The wine is perfect with our charcuterie appetizer. We work our way from one end to the other of the beautifully composed rectangular board. Sliced prosciutto gives way to tender strips of Kobe beef, followed by leaves of smoked duck breast, rounds of chorizo, and a pot of rillette made with duck and quail, topped with tomato jam. Pickled milkweed pods and slivered beet salad add color and texture, and delight us with new tastes.
Ken’s main course, confit de canard, comes in a deep white bowl atop glistening greens. The dark meat is wonderfully accented with pomegranate, caramelized hazelnuts and apricot confit. I choose the salmon. Seared crispy on the outside, moist at the center, it sits on a large round plate with a tartiflette of sautéed leeks and organic goat cheese, circled by a velvety green pea sauce.
I wish I could name the wines that accompanied our food, if only to savor the details the words evoke. I can only say that Ken drank a medium-bodied red; I drank white. Chosen by the staff to complement our dishes, they tasted like little sips of heaven. We finished the meal with a single crème brûlée — the top crisp, the custard sublime — and a clear, sweet white wine.
When we finally left the restaurant, we had the sensation of floating down the street to our hotel. Between the wine, the food and the great glimpses of French life, even half a day in Montréal can feel like a week in Paris.