by Alex R. Travers
Over the years, Quest has resolutely set out to find exciting getaways. Our latest travel destination: Montréal. Just 360 miles from New York City, Francophiles from all over gravitate to La Métropole du Québec to take in its rich culture. Here, with the Ritz-Carlton Montréal as a temporary home and a healthy appetite, our writer explores the magnificent Canadian city.
The first thing you notice about the Ritz-Carlton Montréal is its affinity to the surrounding neighborhood. Located at 1228 Sherbrooke Street—in the heart of Golden Square Mile—the hotel’s history dates back to the early 20th century. While its neighbors have come to include luxury shops (think: Tiffany & Co., Hermès, Gucci), neo-Gothic apartments, and the Museum of Fine Arts, stately mansions commissioned by the ultra-rich once dotted the Square Mile. After the Great Depression, many of these were demolished. But the Ritz-Carlton Montréal remained, making it the only luxury hotel from 1880 to 1940 still in operation in the city.
In 2008, the Ritz-Carlton Montréal temporarily closed its doors to undergo a major four-year renovation, which was exceptionally accomplished. The hand-painted ceiling in the Palm Court was restored to its original glory. The Oval Room was refurbished. Each guestroom was entirely transformed. Yet, the Classical-style building and original interior details were kept, giving the hotel a unique feel and a proper nod to its rich history.
“We found letters in the mail chute dating from the 1930s,” Anina Belle Giannini, the director of sales and marketing, informs. One might hope to hear about great finds—first-hand tales of the past, romantic love letters, valuable antique stamps—but if you ask: “Did you open them?” She’ll reassuringly reply: “No, we mailed them. We’re a hotel, the privacy of our guests comes first.”
Before I get to the accommodations, allow me to praise the service—attentive, warm, and most helpful. When César Ritz agreed to give the rights of his name to the hotel, he insisted on around-the-clock dining, a concierge at the desk, and a grand staircase so that ladies could make a proper entrance in their gowns. Mr. Ritz’s demands are still in effect today: After a few friends and I indulged in Montréal’s nightlife, we ordered chocolates and figs—artfully assembled—in the hotel’s Palm Court and watched the sun come up. The concierge, Simon, who clicked with me as soon as I told him how much I love poutine, didn’t sweat at the idea of procuring a 9 p.m. reservation at Au Pied de Cochon on a Saturday (I put in the request at noon and he got me a table for two at 9:30 p.m. within the next few hours). His other recommendations, whether they were art galleries, museums, shopping boutiques, lunch spots, or general sights, were all stellar. And even though I had no formal event to attend while I was there, I imagined what it would be like to wait at the bottom of that grand marble staircase and watch my date gracefully descend.
The 98 guests rooms and 31 suites at the hotel were all newly restored and offer the utmost in comfort. But to the hotel’s list of characteristics I add the following: smart, not over the top, and richly detailed. My room was a one-bedroom junior suite with views over Sherbrooke Street. It was spacious and clean. Most of the furniture was contemporary, but there was an antique desk and chair that added charm to the room. Some of the suites have marble fireplaces that are original to the 1912 hotel.
The bathrooms, which all contain two sinks, towel warmers, heated floors and counters, window de-foggers, and those automatic Toto toilets you often seen at upscale sushi restaurants, are entirely modern. So is the in-room technology. At worst, guests with a passion for tradition might consider the automatic light and curtain controls bothersome—even the Do Not Disturb sign has entered the digital age.
Located on the hotel’s penthouse is a saltwater pool, strategically placed next to a large floor-to-ceiling window with views of the city. By day it’s pleasant; at night it’s stunning. I highly recommend taking a dip after the sun goes down. On my second visit to the penthouse, I spent 10 minutes in the sauna after a swim. In addition to these amenities, there is an outdoor area where guests can sunbathe and locker rooms for both men and women.
In the low-ceilinged basement of the hotel is a small fitness area. The gym is quite good, but would be a nuisance if more than three guests were sharing it at one time. Luckily, I always had it to myself.
Understandably, the renovated Ritz-Carlton Montréal has a new vibe, clever in concept and promising in luxury. The imaginative designers have exquisitely blended the old with the new, keeping the original allure of the hotel alive. The impeccable service, which has been instilled in the Ritz-Carlton name since its inception, has also clearly remained. Whether you’re visiting the city of Montréal for the first or 50th time, I can’t think of better place to stay.
One of the best ways to participate in a city’s culture is to experience its local cuisine. After a long winter of mediocrity in New York—especially in terms of restaurant openings—it’s gratifying to discover something genuinely new.
Ricardo Bertolino is the executive chef at Maison Boulud, a restaurant that takes advantage of the malleable characteristics of French cuisine. Bertolino, a cheery and pleasantly humble Italian, is no stranger to a Daniel Boulud kitchen. His résumé is impressive; after formal training and stints at kitchens in London and Italy, Bertolino landed the position of chef de partie at Daniel in New York City. From there he bounced around: sous-chef at DBGB Kitchen and Bar, executive sous-chef at Café Boulud, executive sous-chef at DB Bistro Moderne in Singapore. Pending Singapore, I’ve eaten at all these restaurants several times and have always been more than pleased.
Upon my arrival at Maison Boulud, I was seated in the restaurant’s greenhouse—a charming area with views of the Ritz-Carlton Montréal’s garden. The sand-colored seats, cushy with halfbacks, were both elegant and comfortable. The diners that evening were a mix of well-dressed tourists, families, and locals.
We started with fried artichokes, perfectly crispy and served with an aïoli and nipitella sauce for dipping. The dish, which I often see on the menus of Spanish-style tapas restaurants, came as a recommendation from a member of our party. They were delicious. When there was only one left on the plate, the conversation came to a halt until someone finally asked, “Who wants the last one?”
The tasting menu, which is different depending on whether you are a man or a woman, changes seasonally. “Actually, more like weekly,” a staff member told me. If you happen to be dining with someone of the opposite sex, glance across the table and look what the other person is having. Get a little jealous. Ask to try theirs. Fight over whose course is better. The experience is actually rather enjoyable.
My favorite dish at Maison Boulud was the grilled almond-crusted artic char: perfectly bronzed, flavorful, and even a little adventurous—the mousseron mushrooms were an excellent touch. I could go on praising the dishes. The only one I didn’t love was the spaghetti in squid ink with mussels, sea urchin, and a spotted prawn. While the spaghetti was nicely al dente, and the presentation was nothing short of phenomenal, the squid ink overpowered the flavors of the seafood. But no one at the table seemed to agree with me.
I loved the red-wine braised short ribs, cooked perfectly, meaty, and wildly tender. Ditto for the desserts, which were impeccably assembled versions of sweets, sorbets, and fruits. The lady at the table was served grapefruit and apple honey cream on a soft biscuit with lemon confit and yogurt ice cream. My dessert was a thick gianduja mousse with limoncello sorbet, hazelnuts, and a praline crisp that reminded me of my childhood trips to Baskin Robbins where I would scarf down cups of Pralines’ n’ Cream. Pure bliss.
After dinner, my friend—an amateur cook and professional currency trader—posted a picture of the Maison Boulud tasting menu on his Facebook page. In the picture, a candle inside a red vase cast a glowing light on the menu’s text. Someone immediately commented on the photo saying, “You are 100 percent not missing out on any aspect of Montréal that I am aware of.” I had to agree.
Images courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Montréal