There’s a strange divide in Montreal’s dining scene: on one side a surprising number of vegetarian, even vegan, cafes and casual restos (the local, bilingual slang for restaurants), while with few exceptions anywhere that’s a bit fancy has almost nothing (or literally nothing) without meat, fish or seafood. There’s obviously a substantial population here that doesn’t eat animal products, but either few of them have much money, or most big time chefs have trouble conjuring interesting dishes not centred around flesh.
For most this divide is invisible, but for vegetarians (végétariens) and vegans (végétaliens) living in or visiting Montreal, here’s my take on the good food on offer – including a couple of fancy restaurants that not only cater to us, but also understand that we’re not birds limited to seeds and greens.
My beau and I are vegetarians, but back in Melbourne that didn’t stop us from eating at the city’s top restaurants. Most of them offer numerous vegetarian options, and a few even have a vegetarian dégustation (tasting menu). Conversely, vegetarian places are not that common, though stand-outs include a few vegetarian Chinese restaurants doing amazingly delicious mock-meat dishes (I miss you Vegie Hut and White Lotus!).
Our exploration of Montreal’s very different dining landscape was, initially at least, full of both disappointment and joy. Our birthdays and anniversary all happened soon after we arrived, but no suitable high-end restaurants were apparent so we tried a somewhat upmarket Thai vegetarian resto close to home. To this day, Chu Chai is my favourite place to eat in Montreal! The mock meat dishes are really well done, but every dish I’ve tried is fresh and flavoursome – the highlight being Miam Kram, a one-bite taste and textural sensation that includes zingy lime, crunchy coconut and piquant chilli, all wrapped in a betel leaf.
For other special occasions we eventually discovered one posh place with a vegetarian dégustation menu: the heritage St James Hotel’s XO restaurant. It was a few years ago now, and while I remember it was pleasant food artfully presented, I’ve not returned – perhaps because there was almost no one there on a Friday evening! Anyway, looks like they still do the vego dégo so I should try again. More recently, Melbourne friends Mark and Penny were in Montreal and wanted to have a special meal, so after much discussion and research, Penny made a reservation at the grand Ritz-Carlton hotel’s Maison Boulud dining room. I was sceptical as there were only a few vegetarian dishes on the menu, but the staff, perhaps because they had been forewarned, were amazingly accommodating and inventive, so we enjoyed an excellent five-course dégustation.
I’ve also found some joy at a few nice tapas places (if we order nearly every veg dish on offer), such as Taverne F, Tapeo and Tapas 24, and Italian restaurants always have vegetarian pastas and pizzas, but otherwise eating out means casual dining and fast food. But, like I said, there are oodles of options in that regard. Lots of omnivorous places are very veg-friendly, such as Burger Royal, which does veg versions of its various burgers and hot dogs, and La Banquise, global HQ of poutine, which is available in both veg and vegan form (though the vegan cheese is not a patch on actual cheese curds). Two overtly veg-friendly favourites are Sushi Momo, a tiny resto that offers an extensive separate menu of stunningly good vegan Japanese bites (see update below), and L’Gros Luxe. This small chain (which is hipster-cool yet welcoming if the Plateau location is any indication) is more veg than not, but really indulgent – as the name suggests. Unfortunately the deep fried, crumbed/breaded avocado is no longer available (too many heart attacks?), but there’s plenty of other comfort food, as well as craft beer on tap and excellent cocktails. Burp!
Several all-veg places do reliably good fast food, such as the ever-popular Aux Vivres, self-explanatory Burritoville, the pay-by-weight buffet Resto Végo, Copper Branch (love the finger-licking burgers) and super-healthy La Panthère Verte. For somewhere with more sense of occasion, I like Lola Rosa (the Avenue du Parc location), which does great classics and comfort food including curries, burgers, and nachos that resurrected my faith in that much-abused dish. Invitation V proves that vegans aren’t necessarily feral hippies and killjoy health nuts, as this resto has stylish contemporary decor, yummy food and cocktails – including at brunch.
The Crudessence restos go for contemporary smarts as well, if my visit to the downtown one holds true for all. They do high quality raw vegan food, including tasty smoothies, soups and sandwiches, and though I felt remarkably healthy after eating there, it’s a bit too healthy for my idea of a fun night out. I’ve also not frequented Chinese resto Yuan Végétarien, as their menu is hit and miss (after Melbourne’s Vegie Hut and White Lotus, most Chinese mock-meat dishes in North America are disappointing), and the staff so frazzled it’s difficult to get service. Next week I’m checking out I Ching (have my fingers crossed they do decent mock meat), and also keep meaning to try the Ming Tao Xuan vegetarian teahouse, and a new veggie Greek bakery-cafe, Mouton Vert.
There are, surprisingly enough, several other veg and vegan places in Montreal that I’ve never been to, and probably some I’ve never heard of, so if you have any recommendations please let me know!
The Montreal home cook is also well catered for when it comes to meat-free ingredients, as there are many health-food stores, and supermarkets also have good selections of products such as tofu, vege paté, sausages, hot dogs and ready-to-go meals (including by Commensal, a local business that was essentially a well-established restaurant chain until recent financial troubles). I also like Paradis Végétarien Chi-Ming, where I occasionally buy mock-meat products they make themselves. Their fake bacon’s juicy and delicious, and the slabs of faux duck are great for a Christmas roast.
Bon appetit! Joyeux Noël!
UPDATE: Sushi Momo not only relocated to bigger digs in April 2016, they also went 100% vegan. I think their food has become even better: exciting flavours and textures, and beautifully presented. Easily one of my favourite Montreal restos. Having finally tried Mouton Vert, I Ching and Ming Tao Xuan, they all get a thumbs up.