This past summer I lived in Toronto. Wait 8212; don’t lick the seals of your condolence letters just yet, because I actually have a lot of positive things to say about Canada’s financial capital. First off, the people are more courteous than in Quebec. They actually stop at stop signs and give pedestrians the right of way at 8212; gasp 8212; pedestrian crosswalks. Hogtown also has a bigger Holt Renfrew and a spot called The Grilled Cheese, and we all know how I get weak in the knees at the mere mention of melted cheddar. All right, maybe “a lot of positive things” is pushing it.
Correction: Toronto doesn’t suck. Well, at least not all the time. Perhaps, then, this isn’t the best time to get to my actual point: breakfast/brunch in Toronto is abysmal.
Okay, you can mail those letters now.
Montreal, on the other hand, has a brunch gem on practically every street 8212; especially Fairmount Avenue in Mile-End. There, I said it; we’re better than them. Now let’s talk pancakes.
25 Fairmount Ave. W., 514-903-6649, major cards accepted
In a city jamming with institutions like Beauty’s, Dusty’s, B&M, and L’Avenue, the Montreal breakfast market can be a tough one to crack. But judging from the wait at FabergÃ© a few weeks ago, this brunch-only newcomer is evidence that there might still be room among the titans. Do I think FabergÃ© is on an equal playing field with the best of “em? No, I do not. Do I think it puts up a fair fight? Yes, I most certainly do.
For Montrealers, taste comes first and the food here delivers. The buttermilk pancakes topped with a blueberry compote rank among the best I have savoured. Being an omelette enthusiast, I was delighted by the bevy of customization choices, including wild mushrooms and feta cheese. Major points go to the accompanying fruit cup comprised of first-rate watermelon, banana and melon 8212; not the reject fruit usually doled out at restos. As far as potatoes go, theirs were perfectly mushy, but I advise them to go easy on the paprika.
As the name denotes, the house specialty is eggs in a nest. It features two fried eggs, each nestled in a hole carved out of baked cheese bread. The dish had me at baked cheese, although superior quality bread would elevate it from an eight to a 10. What keeps me from embracing FabergÃ© whole-heartedly is a) the service and b) the atmosphere. For starters, why have a large lounge-like waiting area if you aren’t going to bother serving beverages? The space could be better used for seating diners. Second, it should never take more than five minutes to get a juice and I hate having to search for my waiter, as nice as he was. I’m also rarely in the mood to have a serving of live DJ with my brunch, particularly after a late night. And though I admired the comic book-esque renderings of Montreal’s architectural landmarks on the walls and ceiling and the splash of lilac on the velvet upholstered booths, the restaurant still felt a little sterile. Instinct tells me that FabergÃ© could benefit from a little breaking-in, because DJ and service aside, the food has the potential to make this novelty a real contender.
Brunch: $6-13 (plus tax)
The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery
74 Fairmount Ave. W., 514-272-0667, cash only
I had a eureka moment two summers ago when, while enjoying a bagel lox and cream cheese at Russ and Daughters, New York’s storied purveyor of smoked fish and other Eastern European delicacies, my friend said: “This is the best smoked salmon I’ve ever had, but if only it could be on a Montreal bagel…” Although I seriously contemplated it, I never forayed into the bagel exporting business (New Yorkers, God help them, love their tasteless bagels) but it was then that I truly understood how deep our loyalties to our city’s bagels run and how fortunate we are to have them. Opened in 1919 by Russian immigrant Isadore Shlafman, it has been at at its current location since 1949.
The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery continues to make all its bagels by hand using a wood-fired oven like those used in the good ol’ days. The deliciousness of a Montreal bagel ultimately boils down to the quality and quantity of flour, sugar, yeast, oil, honey, egg, malt and water. In my mind, Fairmount has one legitimate competitor: St-Viateur Bagel. However, after tasting them side-by-side, Fairmount emerges the clear winner. This is a point of contention between locals and the last thing I need right now is more enemies (sorry Toronto!), but the bottom line is that Fairmount’s are fluffier. In the spirit of full disclosure, my experiment only compared the classic sesame, onion and blueberry kinds and there is a plethora of others, including chocolate chip and whole wheat. In short, you have to try for yourself and I beg you to visit the pint-sized bakery in person at least once, if only because the intoxicating aroma of fresh bagels is something every person should inhale at least once in their lifetime. There is no seating space, and it isn’t a brunch place in the traditional sense, but I guarantee if you pick up a dozen piping hot bagels, some spreads and some smoked salmon, you will feast like a king on a student budget. Furthermore, the bakery is a historic Montreal landmark. It is an edible shrine to Mile End’s glory days when immigrants were helping shape the city’s culture, one bagel at a time.
Bagels: Half a dozen: $3-4.85, one dozen: $6.75-8.95
CafÃ© Comme Chez Soi
107 Fairmount Ave. W., 514-759-6241, cash only
In an attempt to give credit where credit is due and avoid being blacklisted from virtually every dining establishment in Ontario, I must compliment Toronto restaurants on their exquisite interiors. Each place I ate at boasted a dÃ©cor more elaborate and imaginative than the next. But, any fashion gal will tell you that style without substance won’t get you far. That basically encapsulated my feelings towards Toronto restaurants. In fact, lately I find myself drawn to eateries with a few imperfections and wrinkles, rather than those that scream “botox.” Case in point: CafÃ© Comme Chez Soi. It is outfitted with miscellaneous furniture pieces that are not only made to resemble remnants from grandma’s attic, but are likely the real deal, along with a splattering of trolls, painted skulls and other kitschy tchotchkes. It is small, even by local standards. Yet despite having to crouch to allow two elderly women to pass before reaching my table, and sitting a little too close for comfort to a 14-month-old, this dollhouse of a cafÃ© emanated more effortless charm than any of the restaurants to our South that try too hard to create a similar authentic warmness.
Open since late 2008, the menu at Comme Chez Soi is limited and un-inventive. Then again, who ever said brunch has to be inventive? So long as it is delicious, I will get my creative fill at dinner. To start, I ordered a cheddar cheese omelette served with a generous portion of smoked salmon, salad, potatoes and toast. The omelette was as feathery and cheesy as it gets, but alas, the salmon was overly greasy. Luckily the dessert crepe with grapefruit, banana, apple and kiwi made up for it with its old-fashioned doughy goodness. Service was a little slow and spacey, but maybe it is part of the cafÃ©’s homey ethos. Regardless, expect me back for dinner to sample their famous burgers and salty crepes. In a perfect world, the food at FabergÃ© would be served in a venue like Comme Chez Soi, but that’s just me being picky. In truth, it could be way worse ? I could be in Toronto.
Brunch: $3.75-12.50 (plus tax)