Privilege, Montreal-Style

Privilege, Montreal-Style

Privilege, Montreal-Style
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 12 2003 4:56 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Montreal. Today's audio: The bartender at the Ritz remembers an old friend.

Area, taking fusion cuisine to new heights
Area, taking fusion cuisine to new heights

In my first three days of following in the gastronomic (and booze-soaked) footsteps of the Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, I have gained 6 pounds. This works out to about 2 pounds a day. Part of this weight was added last night at the sleek fusion restaurant Area. My girlfriend Millys, who loves Montreal as much as I do, came to town for a day and took a cab to Area directly from the train station. We sampled an appetizer of shelled tempura-style shrimp marinated in Madras curry, then served with a mango and papaya salsa. The light batter and the curry are a savvy Indo-Japanese combo, and the mango and papaya added a sweet complexity. Speaking of complexity, Area's menu achieves even greater distinction with a main course of Atlantic halibut with nut butter oil, asparagus, and white mushrooms, served in a reduction of vegetable broth and mixed with truffle eggs. This is nothing less than fusion brinkmanship; a little misstep and the whole dish would fall apart. But Area steers the halibut safely to perfection. There can be no better winter dish.

We check out of the wonderful Hotel Gault, the friendly black-clad staff gathering to send us on our way, and install ourselves at the grande dame of the Ritz-Carlton. The apartment building where Mordecai Richler lived (the Richler name is still listed on the building's directory) is right across the street from the Ritz on wealthy Sherbrooke Street. It looks fairly atrocious, a Disney-esque monstrosity that Richler himself skewered in his novel Barney's Version, calling it a "rich old fart's castle. There's no moat or drawbridge, but, all the same, it could easily qualify as a fortress for besieged Anglophone septuagenarians who tiptoe about in terror of our separatist prime minister."

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The overwhelmingly Francophone province of Quebec has held several referendums on declaring independence from predominantly Anglophone Canada, although the "No" vote has squeaked through every time. Richler was an outspoken opponent of Quebec independence and the infamous Bill 101, which, among other things, mandated that all bilingual business signs should be printed with the French lettering twice as large as the English. As a result, many of the city's Anglophones (including a sizable portion of its Jews) have fled the city in the last few decades, primarily for Toronto. The damaged economy is only now recovering with multimedia, film, and technology leading the way toward renewed prosperity.

Our concierge at the Ritz-Carlton hotel is Anthony Kirby, an older man with clear blue eyes and a gentle brogue. He tells us of an incident that took place not too long ago. Richler, who had just published an article critical of Quebec's drive for sovereignty in The New Yorker, was having a drink at the Ritz-Carlton's bar, as was Bernard Landry, a leader of the independence-minded Parti Quebecois. Landry was glaring at Richler all evening, and when the two gentlemen had "a call of nature," they nearly came to blows, the barmen having to separate them, according to Kirby. Like every single Anglophone I have met thus far, Kirby talks about Richler with an air of both familiarity and reverence. Richler was a kind of spokesman for non-Francophone Montreal, and after his passing, there is no one of his eloquence to replace him.

But Mordecai Richler hardly reserved his satiric eye for French Canadians. He was an equal opportunity offender, going after sanctimonious WASPs and Jews as well. Richler never finished college, and his fiction continually poked fun at graduates of Montreal's elite McGill University. As the barometer plunges, we pull our hats all the more tightly around our frozen ears and walk through McGill's rarefied Neoclassical campus, the stone mansions of former fur traders hugging the slopes of Mount Royal. Ruddy-cheeked students are building a snow sculpture by the steps of the arts building, from which one can survey Montreal's downtown below.

Richler, brought up on the wrong side of the tracks, also trained his gimlet eye on the denizens of Westmount, Montreal's most exclusive neighborhood. Traditionally a Protestant redoubt, Westmount has its share of Jews, including those living in the immense pile of the Bronfman family (of Seagram fame). One of the many wives of Barney Panofsky, the narrator of Barney's Version, comes from such a family. "You've heard of mock turtle soup?" Richler writes in Barney's voice, "Well, the father of the bride turned out to be the ultimate mock Wasp Jew. … [F]or dinner parties at this Westmount manse, he favored a magenta velvet smoking jacket with matching slippers, and was forever stroking his wet lips with his forefinger, as if lost in contemplation of weighty philosophical problems." We take a winding road past the vistas of Tudors and ivy-covered brownstones. Our guide, Alain Kissel, tells us that according to Westmount laws, you are only allowed to walk your dog at certain times of the day. We see a fur-covered older couple walking an oddly dignified Jack Russell terrier, his chin up and tail at attention, while healthy Anglo children stroll along with their toboggans, ready for a slide down Mount Royal. Privilege, Canadian-style.

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Westmount may not have been Richler's scene, but Moishe's Steakhouse was one of the centers of his universe. It is located on the Boulevard St. Laurent, also known as "The Main." It is, indeed, the main street of Montreal's trendy Plateau district, as it was back in the days of Mordecai Richler's youth. The Main is also the home of Schwartz's Deli, and it is the street that cleaves Montreal into the traditionally Anglophone west and Francophone east.

Moishe's is a terrific steakhouse. The rib steak, a joy to behold, is also something of a monster. I start out with a New York state-shaped slab of juicy beef, work my way down to Massachusetts, and surrender at about Rhode Island. The appetizers are no slouches, either. I'd go for a marinated herring in cream sauce, a staple of Jewish diets everywhere. Moishe's does an admirable version, heavy on cream and onions, just as it should be. A formal décor, wood paneling and cheery Mediterranean landscapes, is matched to an utterly warm, entirely unsteakhouselike atmosphere. Half the Jews in Montreal seem to be celebrating their birthday tonight. "Happy birthday, dear Moishe," the table next to us croons as waiters deliver what seems to be a babka birthday cake to an excited older Moishe.

Larry Lighter, the steakhouse's owner (Moishe Lighter was his father), joins us after dinner. Lighter tells us that Richler used to visit the place once or twice a week, ordering the chopped liver appetizer and then the rib steak. He was a quiet man who liked to sneak a cigar or two into the dining room. "It was like his home," Lighter said, adding that Richler visited the calorie-heavy establishment to his very last days. (Richler lived past 70, which, given his predilections for the finer things in life, seems like quite an achievement.) Lighter's father grew up knowing Mordecai and his family; indeed, Montreal is small enough that most ethnic communities resemble extended European shtetls and villages.

Lighter is a diminutive, bald man, nattily dressed in a fine suit. He is soft-spoken, except when some rowdy friends show up from Florida and demand his immediate attention ("Stick it up your ass!" he shouts jovially). His career in the steakhouse began the way things usually did back in the day. "My dad said, 'Go buy a suit, you're starting on Monday.' " The differences between the first generations of immigrants and several generations down the line are staggering. Larry's sons are not about to take over the family business. According to Lighter, "one is a ski bum out West," and another is a musician who plays with Ozzy Osbourne and has his own band called Slaves on Dope.

We leave the charismatic proprietor of Moishe's Steakhouse and head for cigars and single malts at the Whiskey Café in the Mile End neighborhood. This is an elegant bar with a men's room featuring a waterfall cascading down a zinc wall—a wonderful invitation to urinate on a work of art. We have been joined throughout the evening by my friend Chris Mazur, a native of nearby Plattsburgh, N.Y., who, along with many young Plattsburghians, has made Montreal his home. Chris cites Montreal's cheap rents (some of the lowest in North America) and superb nightlife as reasons for living here and braving the chilly weather. He agrees with Mordecai Richler on one thing: "What's up with those McGill girls?" he asks, shaking his head. We smoke Cuban Romeo y Julieta cigars, and I help myself to a 12-year-old Macallan single malt, peaty and sweet. It's the best way to end an evening in Montreal, Mordecai Richler-style.

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a New York Times "Notable Book" for 2002 and winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications.