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Breaking the budget for a weekend in Montreal

Published November 13, 2002 at 5:00 a.m.

It's no secret that Montreal is a great bargain city. Cheap ethnic eats and comfortable no-frills accommodations -- along with the city's myriad other urban attractions -- regularly lure many of us north of the border. That exchange rate doesn't hurt, either. When sticking to the budget isn't a priority, however, Montreal's also a fine place to find an excuse to laissez le bon temps rouler.

Our most recent excuse to splurge Quebecois-style was my partner's birthday -- I won't say which one. Birthday, that is. Since it falls in November, when activities en plein air aren't generally desirable, our main goal was to dine well and often in the posh indoors.

One person's weekend blow-out is another person's standard getaway, of course. Since my income contains several fewer zeros than Oprah's, my live-it-up attitude is always tempered by a fear of panic attacks when the credit-card bills arrive. It takes the fun out of extravagance if you have to subsist on ramen and tap water for six months afterwards. The perfect splurge weekend should make you feel indulgent, not insane.

When it comes to accommodations, my only requirements are cleanliness and a private bathroom. But on special occasions it's nice to hole up someplace with a few more amenities. Plenty of luxury hotels can be found downtown and in Old Montreal, but we ruled them out since we prefer the homier vitality of Plateau Mont-Royal. I also scratched B&Bs off the list. They tend to encourage fraternizing, and when celebratory hangovers are a distinct possibility, the last thing I want to do is mingle with strangers over morning croissants.

Loft L'Escale, the place we settled on, is more akin to a temporary pied-a-terre than to a hotel or B&B. Nestled in the funky heart of the Plateau, it's off the beaten tourist path, yet convenient to the most happenin' stretches of St-Denis and Mont-Royal. And it's just a block from the Mont-Royal Metro stop -- a godsend when temperatures sink.

We had the ridiculously spacious third floor entirely to ourselves. Not that we really needed a living room, two sleeping areas, two bathrooms -- one with whirlpool tub! -- full kitchen and dining room. But it felt great to stretch out in our own bright, vaguely Moroccan penthouse suite, complete with exotic plants and colorful rooftop views. The kitchen was stocked with non-alcoholic beverages and supplies for basic breakfasts, all included in the not-too-exorbitant price.

Our unconventional lodging wasn't entirely glitch-free: When we checked in on a Friday evening, our living room came furnished with two TV-watching French tourists. The Loft's manager, sensing our surprise, apologetically explained that the couple had nowhere to go until their airport taxi arrived, making for a slightly awkward hour-long overlap. We also discovered that the phone worked only sporadically over the weekend, which screwed up our plans to check out a permanent pied-a-terre.

Snagging a table at some of Montreal's top restaurants on a weekend can be a challenge, so we attempted to book ahead of time. We were hoping to finally try Toque!, known for its innovative cuisine and trendy ambience. But even two weeks in advance, they were full on Saturday evening and closed on Sunday, my partner's actual birthday. Ditto La Chronique, an unpretentious foodie paradise we've enjoyed on past occasions.

Fortunately, we were able to secure Friday night reservations at Area, the only truly outstanding restaurant in Montreal's Gay Village. The term "fusion" is getting tired, but it probably best describes Area's seamless integration of French and Asian influences, both in its bold cuisine and minimalist decor. Diners are wedged a little too closely together in the intimate space, so we were happy to be tucked into a semi-secluded back corner with a glimpse into the kitchen.

Fish lovers will definitely want to dive into Area's four-course Menu Poisson. On the evening we visited, it started with bite-sized brandade de thon croquettes and truffle-oiled scallops served on their shells, followed by an intensely flavorful medium plate of striped bass in nut butter, and concluding with a humongous slab of seriously rare "Big Eye" tuna.

The cuisine may be nouvelle, but the portions aren't. Stuffed to the gills as we were, we still found room for a velvety mascarpone pie studded with pan-seared dates. My only quibble with the restaurant was its almost complete lack of vegetarian options.

By Saturday morning we'd recovered enough to crave more sweets. It's hard not to swoon over the artful displays of sweet and savory treats at Pâtisserie de Gascogne on Laurier Ouest. The clerks waited patiently while we weighed our many confectionery options. Tout Montreal seemed to be facing a similar dilemma; the place was packed. Eventually -- armed with a rummy kugelhopf, an almondy bostok, a custardy cannele and a croissant aux amandes -- we parked ourselves in a sunny window to sip cappuccino and savor our delectables. Still buzzing, we went a couple blocks west on Laurier to one of the many SAQ liquor stores about town. This one's just had an ultra-fancy makeover, so it's particularly suitable for special-occasion booze browsing. It also happens to have a sensational selection of libations -- from hard to bubbly -- in every conceivable price range. We picked up a bottle of French sparkling wine from the Vouvray region to add effervescence to the gift opening the following evening.

On Saturday evening we took a brief recess from excess to gear up for full-throttle birthday gluttony, which we hoped to get underway with a stylish Sunday brunch.

We didn't have a spot in mind but I recalled seeing an emerging eatery in the chi-chi Laurier neighborhood several months ago. At the time the place had no identifying markers whatsoever, though its oh-so-sleek open interior was already attracting a well-heeled crowd. Scoping it out again, we were pleased to note it now advertises its name, Lemeac, along with the fact that it serves weekend brunch.

Donning our Sunday best, we enjoyed homemade marmalade, poached eggs with smoked salmon and caviar, mushroom- and spinach-filled crêpes baked in a rich mascarpone sauce, and a luscious lemon meringue tartlet for dessert. Despite the surface elegance, Lemeac's regular menu is mostly earthy bistro fare at reasonable prices. And on this Sunday afternoon at least, the tony set wasn't afraid to get tipsy and let its hair down.

For the birthday dinner itself we chose reliable Laloux, a high-ceilinged oasis in an otherwise charmless block of Avenue des Pins near St-Denis. You won't find fusion anything here -- just professional service, an extensive wine list, reassuringly traditional French dishes with the occasional novel touch, and beaucoup de beurre. Everything we had, from the raw oysters to the delicately creamy soups to the seafood main courses and mille-feuille dessert, was simply but beautifully prepared. We had the restaurant mostly to ourselves; on Sunday evenings Montrealers apparently take a break from their seemingly perpetual joie de vivre.

By Monday morning, we too needed a vacation from celebration -- as did our wallets. To ease our transition back to the not-so-high life in Vermont, we stocked up on cheap gourmet goods in Little Italy on our way out of town. No reason to give up gourmand cravings just because the party's over. Plus, chez nous, there's no problem getting the best table in the house.

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Ernie Mcleod


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