My expedition to the Great White North would follow a fairly predictable pattern—mellow to extreme enjoyment followed or even accompanied by bitter disappointment or mediocrity. The first salvo of the trip wouldn’t fail to disappoint.
Train fare up to Montreal is a very reasonable $120 round trip but thanks to a sale I picked up a roundtrip ticket for $85. The trip however would take all day, eleven hours, plus the time it would take to get harassed and abused by the custom agents on both sides of the border since the Americans can’t let the Canadians have all the fun. However the silver lining to this ordeal is the scenery along the way; the Hudson River Valley gives way to the Adirondacks and the gentle rolling hills of upstate New York. Luxury aboard the train isn’t much but unlike flying you don’t feel chained to your seat which is nice for a stroll when the scenery fails to entertain.
Time went by quickly, thanks to sleep but I would be lying if I said the cheap whiskey from some new friends didn’t help. They were also going for the weekend—to spend their time in the snow. Living it up in a long hedonistic run before being called at 8 am on Monday to head back down to Queens. Oh they were also musicians so between breathers in their revelry they would head to Igloo Festival, a electronic music festival that seems to have drawn more than just the two of them. I even promised to head over some night.
This trip would be, in it’s own way, like theirs. I was going on a vacation of sorts; a way to celebrate the end of a year although it officially ended two weeks prior. This means plenty of beer, spirits, and food and staying up till it was bright out but it was also different from a simple bender in the fact I was going to visit a friend, Ryan, who was currently a master’s students at the McGill. He promised to show me around Montreal and to eat where the stars (of Canada) eat and to drink the beer of all the cool kids but in addition I was going to meet some of his peers at a couple parties: one a potluck and the other my first wine and cheese party. So it was a bender but with pauses of academia.
We were approaching the border and the “Welcome to Canada” sign was a half-hearted stone throws away. “And, we are early!” I cheerfully thought. It was good thing too since it would take two hours for the US to finish the random search complete with Officer K-9. After the search, we rolled one hundred feet ahead to another stop and then came the Canadians, which resulted in the detaining of a bearded gentleman sitting behind me. So I was a little restless when the train came to the station about two hours late but thankfully Ryan was late as well and didn’t have to wait long.
Spending all day on the train gave me a voracious appetite and he was of the same disposition, so we decided to get something good—something that screamed Montreal and one place always seems to come up: Au Pied de Couchon, duck fat/flesh capitol. Au Pied was open late, all the way to midnight, and at first glance the restaurant reminded me of an upscale lodge at a ski resort, maybe it was the snow falling outside and the freezing temperatures. The warm wood paneling and cozy (read: cramped) conditions gave me good vibes from ski seasons long past while the aroma of duck fat spattering away in a pan gave us premonitions on why this would be one of our best meals.
Ryan and I sat at the counter and were helped nearly immediately by a Quebecquois who had the unfortunate distinction of being the first person I practiced my French with. He was a little confused especially when he found out I couldn’t carry on the conversation and had to switch to English. Whatever disdain he might of had evaporated when I ordered the foie gras poutine after revealing it was my first taste of Montreal poutine. “Ah,” he remarked with a genuine smile, “it’s a good first poutine.” I sipped on a in-house brew and was glad to see the microbrewing craze was alive and well in Montreal. The poutine was most excellent.
For the main course, Ryan and I split the famous duck-in-a-can. It was preceded by a plate with a couple slices of bread. Next came the can itself, steaming hot. The waiter carefully opened the can but took care to leave the lid still attached to get that authentic can look. Next in one motion, he slammed the can on the bread then slowly jiggled out the solidified mass inside. A second of uncertainty flashed through my mind. The mass fell apart blossoming into discernible parts of a duck, foie gras, and some leafy matter that does not have a cognate with English (ingredients were on the can of course).
All the reviews about the place were right. The poutine reigned supreme and would be the best I would try in Montreal; I like to think the foie gras was what kicked the whole dish into the stratosphere but the poutine could stand without it. Duck-in-a-can was fun and both Ryan and I agreed a little funny to watch gussied up couples order the dish only to have the server open the can at the table, slap the contents down onto a waiting plate with bread, and then walk quickly away. Sort of like feeding a dog.
Beyond presentation, the duck-in-a-can was great and rose above the other imitators of duck I had in the past. It would be like Charleton Heston showing up for an open casting call for a high school production of West Side Story. The duck-in-a-can creates a unique experience,both in presentation and taste, that you wont forget. Also for all those people that claim to hate duck you have obviously not tried this.
Chairs went up on tables and we got the message, so we curtailed our reminiscing and we waddled through the crisp night to Ryan’s apartment where I crashed. That night I dreamed of all sorts of feathered friends and what they could achieve with the proper chief. Also of poutine.