northern exposure: a trip to burlington and montreal
Joseph and I have been trying to get to Burlington, VT all summer. We wanted to go to celebrate our second anniversary back in June, but our plans changed when I had to go to DC for work. We rescheduled for the weekend of July 4th, but then my knee surgery was scheduled for July 1st and we had to cancel yet again. But with both of our birthdays at the end of August, we were determined to finally make it north and celebrate. We decided since this short vacation was so long in the coming, we would add Montreal to our itinerary so we could explore this culinary city and Joseph could practice his French (he’s been teaching himself!).
Burlington is not only a great town full of nice people, interesting shops, good food, and beautiful scenery, but it’s a really nostalgic place for me. My grandparents lived there and I grew up looking forward to our vacations in Vermont. One of my favorite places in Burlington (in the world, actually) is the Restaurant at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms is a nonprofit environmental education center with a 1,400-acre working farm nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain. The ingredients that the restaurant uses come either from their own farm (they even make their own cheese!) or from other Vermont farmers, making for some incredibly fresh and flavorful new American cuisine.
We decided to eat outside, overlooking Lake Champlain and an extraordinary sunset. Joseph got a quail appetizer and a lamb entree, while I got acorn squash soup to start and a lobster and scallop dish (how could I pass that up?). Choosing dessert was nearly impossible because I wanted one of everything, but we finally settled on a peach and berry tart, which was bright and juicy. I am desperate to go back and try the raspberry chocolate upside-down cake. It just sounded too heavy after all the food that we’d had, but I can’t stop thinking about it two weeks later.
That night we settled into our super quaint, charming 18th century B&B in Williston and awoke to a steady rain (courtesy of Irene) and an enormous breakfast of Belgian waffles and fresh peaches. We had hoped to spend a little more time on Burlington’s Church St., an outdoor pedestrian shopping area full of boutique shops, cafes, and street musicians, but with the rain we decided to head to our next destination: Montreal, Quebec. We had naive hopes of trying to get there before before the worst of the rain, but the rain traveled right along with us, leaving us with a very soggy afternoon in Montreal.
We agreed that the perfect remedy for the cold, wet weather would be traditional Québécois comfort food: poutine. For the uninitiated, poutine is a dish of fries and cheese curds drenched in gravy. As a person who is not so fond of the word “curd” and is wary of soggy food, I have to admit I was somewhat put off by the idea the first time I heard about it. But I have since heard many good things about poutine and was eager to try it from La Banquise, a popular restaurant that many consider to have the best poutine in Montreal (this is where Anthony Bourdain went for poutine while in Montreal). La Banquise offers not only the traditional poutine, but 28 variations ranging from poutine with hot dogs to poutine with guacamole, tomatoes, and sour cream. We went with a large Matty (bacon, green pepper, and mushrooms) which we split (it’s more than enough for two people) and I will start by saying that I believe poutine is a food that must be eaten with a beer in hand. I simply can’t imagine consuming this artery clogging grease-fest without a cold brew to wash it down. And while we both enjoyed it and were glad that we’d gone out and stood in line for it, we didn’t have any need to have poutine again. I will say that it seems well suited to a place with such cold and snowy winters.
Luckily the next day was a gorgeous, sunny day which we took advantage of by immediately heading out to the old town. We didn’t really make it that far because my knee was acting up (two months after knee surgery – why is recovery so slow?!), but the important thing is that we made it to Fourquet Fourchette for lunch. I have recently become a huge fan of Belgian and Belgian style beers and in the process have become enamored with La Fin du Monde, a Belgian triple from Québécois Unibroue. When we found out that Unibroue has a restaurant in downtown Montreal, I insisted that we go. The setting may have been a little strange (it’s inside Montreal’s convention center), and my Québécois style charcuterie plate may not have really been my thing (which was frankly my own fault because I ordered it knowing it wasn’t my kind of thing, but I was curious all the same), but the beer tasting was so much fun. Only a few of the Unibroue brews are available in the States and I was really excited to try some of the others. We didn’t get to try all of their beers (as it was, we had to spend half the afternoon napping because each pour was pretty generous and we’re just not used to that much drinking in the middle of the day) but the six that we got to try were all very tasty. The only problem was that they were out of La Fin du Monde so I couldn’t compare it side by side with my other favorite, Trois Pistoles. All the more reason to go back, right?
For dinner, Joseph took me to Les Deux Gamins, a cute French bistro with outdoor seating on a cobblestone street. We ended up splitting our appetizers, French onion soup and escargots. Both were absolutely fabulous, but my favorite was the escargots while Joseph preferred the French onion soup. We rarely ever order the same entree at a restaurant because we get a better sampling that way, but neither of us was willing to not order the duck served with pommes salardaise (potatoes cooked in duck fat). The crispy skin, the succulent duck, and the heavenly, decadent potatoes were phenomenal. I’m sure the other entrees are just great, but we may never know because I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to go back and not both order the duck again. I had read on Yelp that their creme brûlée was outstanding, so I ordered that while Joseph ordered the mi-cuit au chocolat (molten chocolate cake). I have to admit, I was actually pretty disappointed with the creme brûlée. I mean it was good and appeared to have real vanilla bean, but the flavor felt flat to me. I think it could have benefitted from a little more vanilla and from a touch of citrus, but I think the main problem was that Joseph’s dessert was just so amazing that all I could think about was chocolate while being stuck with vanilla. Despite the disappointing end, it was an incredible meal that was incredibly priced and I very much look forward to returning to Montreal so we can go back.
The next morning we made a quick last run through Montreal to pick up a bag of chocolatines (chocolate croissants), bagels from the famous Fairmont Bagelry, and of course some Québécois jam for our catsitter. After some minor problems with the GPS, which seemed unwilling to let us leave Canada (turns out we had never turned it off of the pedestrian setting and it was kind enough to not want us to walk on the highway), we headed back to the states, but not before one last stop. You see, Unibroue has another little restaurant half an hour outside of Montreal (near the actual brewery) and we wanted to check out the store. It turns out that the decor makes much more sense at this location. The rustic furniture felt natural here where it had felt cheesy and contrived in downtown Montreal. More importantly, they sell bottles of all the beers here, including the ones not available in the States, so we were able to pick up a couple bottles to take home.
As we headed south, I was unable to pass Burlington without stopping in one last time. We drove by my grandparents’ old house and I confused some neighborhood kids by taking a picture of the house from the car and then we headed to the Lake Champlain Chocolate factory, conveniently located just a couple blocks away. We loaded up on some free samples and bought some factory seconds (discounted quality chocolate? Yes please!!) before going back into town for an early dinner at the Farmhouse. A friend had recommended this gourmet burger place that sources many of its ingredients from local farms, which is ironically located where a McDonald’s used to stand. Having eaten so many rich foods for the past few days, I went for an arugula salad and cheddar ale soup (ok, still rich but so good!) while Joseph got a burger. We rarely eat beef burgers, but that burger… oh it was good. I can’t wait to go back so I can try the pork burger.
Burlington was already a favorite destination, but Montreal, where I hadn’t been since I was probably 12 or so, now has a rightful place on the list. Joseph and I are very much looking forward to returning to explore the French bakeries, try new restaurants, and check out more of the sites and neighborhoods of the city.
Have you ever been to Burlington or Montreal (or do you want to) and have any favorite places that we shouldn’t miss?
Hungry for some recipes now? Well, I know it’s been a long time coming, but I promise you some fantastic birthday celebration desserts in the next week!