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Poet's Retreat 

Twenty-four hours at Montréal's Hotel Nelligan make a micro-vacation

Sitting in Verses Restaurant at the Hotel Nelligan, a block from the Montréal waterfront, I can’t help but be aware of the building’s history. At the front of the room, plate-glass windows look onto rue St-Paul, framing 18th-century buildings with smooth stone facades and old-fashioned street lamps. The occasional calèche, or horse-drawn carriage, clip-clops by; the midday winter sun bathes the interior brick walls, highlighting their salmon, cranberry and chocolate hues.

My husband, Ken, agrees: The place’s long history is comforting, making it a reminder of an era when time moved more slowly; when sturdy-rumped horses set the pace, not the Internet. But history isn’t the reason we’re here. We’ve come to the Nelligan to indulge in contemporary comforts — including the best brunch in town and the perfectly poached eggs the white-shirted waiter has just set in front of me.

Oeuf Bénédictine, Façon Verses (Eggs Benedict, Verses Style) is my favorite starter on the two-course prix fixe menu ($25 CAD plus tax, tip and alcohol). The last time I ordered it, the toast was spread with figs, the hollandaise infused with shallot juice. Today the hollandaise is smooth, creamy, light, with a slight tang — but the eggs, perched atop slender rectangles of toast, are the stars.

Surface tension holds the two white orbs and their slightly off-center saffron yellows in place. The eggs shimmer with a luster that reminds me of marble or silk. A single tine of my polished silver fork slices the white, and the tender yolk, jarred, rolls plateward. I cut through a pink strip of prosciutto, which resists my efforts ever so slightly, as does the thin, dimpled toast. I sigh. Two perfect eggs, and this is just the beginning.

Our aim at the Nelligan — a boutique hotel known for great service, luxurious rooms and French cuisine — is to eat well, escape the cold and hold the world at bay. With two restaurants, a bar and, for added romance, a poet as a namesake, the Nelligan is the perfect place to cocoon.

Of the hotel’s 105 rooms, more than half are lofts and penthouses. A winter promotion ($189 CAD per night through March 31) puts luxury within reach. Our third-floor nest is a loft suite, with high ceilings and light gray stone walls. A foyer separates the stone-and-tile bathroom from the carpeted sitting and sleeping areas. Modern pendant lamps and LED spots illuminate floor-to-ceiling windows with soundproof drapes. We have a gas fireplace, a Jacuzzi tub and a king-size bed piled with mountains of down.

Ken turns on the fireplace, and I check out the minibar, stocked with imported beer and chocolates, full bottles of wine, and smaller, foil-wrapped bottles of French champagne. The hotel holds a complimentary wine and cheese reception, but we opt for a private celebration.

Later, we wander down for dinner at Méchant Boeuf, a lively bar-restaurant in the westernmost of the Nelligan’s three elegant buildings. Tall windows define the front of the restaurant, while the tiled back wall streams with water. The bar, suffused in red light, connects them, and the Canadiens skate to victory across a flat-screen TV. The place is packed with square tables, leather-backed chairs and the nervous energy of young, well-dressed urbanites. The air throbs as the DJ, wearing a tuque, goggles and tattoos, cues up The Rolling Stones, followed by The Tragically Hip. I smell oysters.

The food is French brasserie fare — raw bar, hanger steak, grilled salmon — with a nod to pub food, including burgers and a poutine made with braised pork and Canadian Migneron cheese. My salad of arugula and goat cheese is decidedly French: half-inch slabs of creamy chèvre stacked between rounds of yellow and red beet make a delightful and delicious sculpture. Eating requires deconstruction; in the process, I slather cheese on slices of fresh, crusty baguette. The loose pile of peppery greens with grape tomatoes and grated carrot, paired with a glass of Chilean Cab, leave me satiated.

The burgers at Méchant Boeuf are said to be the best in town, and Ken can’t resist. The half pound of charbroiled beef arrives nicely pink in the center (even though our server told us they’re not technically allowed to serve beef rare). The juicy meat is covered with blue cheese, Gruyère, caramelized onion and two substantial slices of bacon. A warm onion roll contains the dense, smoky concoction. An English pint of Tetley’s cream ale, with notes of caramel and a hoppy finish, is exemplary at its side.

But where, I wonder, in this mix of burgers and dance music, jet tubs and penthouses, is the hotel’s namesake, émile Nelligan? We locate a black-and-white portrait of the famed 19th-century poet, along with a plaque, hanging above a love seat in a quiet sitting area off the lobby. The best account of his life comes from the introduction to a slim volume called émile Nelligan: Selected Poems, for sale at the front desk.

With titles such as “Le jardin d’antan” (“The Garden of the Past”) and “Ruines” (“Ruins”), the poems are full of suffering hearts, longing and regret. The artist spent much of his life in an asylum, but he nonetheless produced 168 poems and introduced the works of contemporary French poets — Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud — to Canada. Reading his melancholy work aloud, I delight in the language and marvel at Nelligan’s use of images. The poems are both romantic and triste.

If melancholy is one thing the French do well, they’ve contributed plenty of other sensory delights to the Nelligan’s repertoire — including our final meal of the weekend, brunch at Verses. Québec-trained chef Stéphane Massé and executive chef Laurent Prosper, from Paris, have teamed up to create a menu that’s both refined and accessible.

The eggs Benedict, French toast with cardamom, and smoked salmon with gremolata, cream cheese and bagel — all starters — would be perfectly acceptable on their own. But here they’re followed by rich main courses of beef, fish, lamb and pork. Ken is delighted with his pork tenderloin, topped with salsa made with grenadine and kumquats; sides of potatoes whipped with mustard, cream and chives; and a wedge of rosti vegetables, which resemble confetti.

I’m in heaven with L’Agneau Parmentier — lamb braised for 12 hours, shredded and topped with a compote of shallots and wilted greens. Bringing color to the plate — as well as sweet, earthy flavors — are slim, crisp haricots verts and diagonal slices of yellow carrot and pale beets. A glass of Lapostolle Chardonnay (“French in essence, Chilean by birth” is the winery’s tagline) is fresh, rich and complex. The wine works perfectly with the lamb, just as our perfectly bilingual server said it would.

Ken and I agree we don’t need a third course. But Prosper was a pastry chef at the renowned Paris gourmet grocery Fauchon, and I’m dying to know what he’s serving. Only two desserts are offered, and we decide to split the cheesecake. We are then, and for hours afterward, glad we’ve indulged. It’s pure Fauchon — rich, light, beautiful, a celebration unto itself. The glistening tower of cheesecake is topped with strawberry mousse, flecked with gold leaf, and garnished with yellow and red raspberries and a slender wedge of fresh fig. Strawberry coulis adds depth and sweetness to every bite.

Outside the restaurant, a pair of women wearing furs and heels crosses the street to read the menu. A hardcore cyclist with a dark balaclava under his helmet pedals by. Another calèche passes, and the sun shifts across the brick wall. I’m glad to stay indoors.

Want a taste?

Hotel Nelligan, 106 rue St-Paul Ouest.

Verses Restaurant, 100 rue St-Paul Ouest.

Méchant Boeuf, 124 rue St-Paul Ouest.

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