Travel

Where to Eat in Montreal, According to One of the City's Best Chefs

Chef Emma Cardarelli wants you to know that Canada's food capital has a lot on its plate.

Mon Lapin
Mon Lapin
Mon Lapin

Montreal’s food scene is more than just poutine, bagels, and smoked meat. It’s French, only grittier. It’s New York, only cheaper. And as a longtime magnet for immigrants from around the globe-you’ll find influences from Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and beyond-it’s essentially Disney World for foodies.

Few know this better than chef Emma Cardarelli, a Montreal native who got her start in the business in the early 2000s. Known for being an early advocate for change in the restaurant industry’s ongoing reckoning with toxic workplaces, she’s spent the better part of the last decade running two of the city’s most talked-about restaurants: Nora Gray, a cozy Southern Italian date spot in the Griffintown neighborhood, and Elena, a funky, fun neighbourhood pizza and pasta joint.

Photo courtesy of Emma Cardarelli
Photo courtesy of Emma Cardarelli
Photo courtesy of Emma Cardarelli

At both spots, Cardarelli has prioritised not only great meals, but a great working environment for her employees-an attitude that’s paying off not just at her restaurants, but at restaurants around the city. (Sarah Maude Huard, chef at new Villeray Italian sandwich and gelato joint Rose, says Cardarelli is the one who inspired her to run a “feminist” kitchen).

With a long-renowned, delicious reputation and chefs like Cardarelli working tirelessly to raise standards even further, Montreal’s restaurant scene only gets better each year. Here, Cardarelli gives us an insider’s look into the city’s best restaurants-including her final say on the top bagel in town. May the best roll win.

Damas
Damas
Damas

For one flavor-packed bite after the next: Damas

While it doesn’t get cred from poutine-focused tourists, Syrian/Persian restaurant Damas has been listed as one of the best restaurants in Montreal since it opened in 2010. Get a tasting platter and tell me everything isn’t delicious. TELL ME. Plus, Damas has a great atmosphere. “The dining room just emanates fancy,” Cardarelli says.

For vittles and vino: Beau Temps

By all counts, Mile End taco bar Maïs was a hit-but unfortunately, the co-owners decided to shut it down. Then, during the pandemic, they opened this new gourmet sandwich shop and wine bar in the same spot and subsequently knocked it out of the park yet again. “This restaurant recently went through a total makeover [and] the food is also so delicious and inventive,” Cardarelli says.

For an eclectic atmosphere: Mon Lapin

If you’re looking for a place with uniquely immaculate vibes, Cardarelli admits that it’s a toss-up between her own restaurant, Elena, and Little Italy wine bar Mon Lapin. “The buzz in the room is undeniable. The service is exquisite and the food sublime,” she says of the latter.

“Owner Marco (Marc-Olivier Frappier) is constantly setting the bar for the best, most interesting food in the city,” Cardarelli adds. “There’s always a little whimsy to the menu ideas here. I kick myself often that he has thought of something that I haven’t. This team has such a solid grasp on classic Italian and French cooking that when they are easily able to play and bend the rules in such an intelligent way.”

Olive et Gourmando
Olive et Gourmando
Olive et Gourmando

For a little grab ‘n go: Olive et Gourmando

Much like Cardarelli, chef Dyan Solomon has been outspoken about the need for more women-run kitchens. That, plus the damn good food, makes her cafe/restaurant Olive et Gourmando a must-try. “Olive et Gourmando: forever the tastiest sandwiches and the heartiest soups,” Cardarelli says.

For breakfast sammies and small plates: Larrys

Waiting in line for brunch in Montreal is practically a sport, and Cardarelli says Larrys does it best. Try the breakfast sandwich-homemade English muffin, salty and tangy sausage, extra old cheddar, sunny side up egg, and mayo. And be sure to come back for dinner. “​​Larry’s-all day, all night, all fun!”

St-Viateur
St-Viateur
St-Viateur

For hoops of joy (aka bagels): St-Viateur

There are two ways to start a fiery debate in Montreal: Ask a local about their favourite neighbourhood, or ask about their favourite bagels. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. For Cardarelli, St-Viateur trumps Fairmount. “Hands down the best. For me, there’s no competition.”

For Caribbean food: Boom J’s

Don’t look now, but it looks like Montreal is coming for Toronto’s crown as the Canadian king of Caribbean cuisine. Cardarelli loves the Jamaican patties and roti at Boom J’s, but Kwizinn, Tropikàl, and Kamúy are also doing delicious and wonderfully spicy meals.

For smoked meat: Smoked Meat Pete

Feel free to skip the line at Schwartz’s and head to Smoked Meat Pete in the West End, says Cardarelli. “Though I don’t eat there personally, it’s the only one I ever hear people bragging about visiting.”

Elena
Elena
Elena

For some ‘za: Elena

Yes, Cardarelli listed Elena again-and again, we struggle to disagree. “At Elena, the vibe is cool kids in cool clothes with fun music and colourful decor,” she says. “The quality of ingredients and love that goes into production are bar-none.” Other worthy options include Pizza Toni, Adamo, and Gema.

For being seen: Pichai

Newcomer Thai spot Pichai is helping to revive St-Hubert Plaza for a new generation. (Check how cool the street looked in the 1960s). “Cool food, cool kids, cool merch-cool, cool, cool,” Cardarelli says.

Nora Gray
Nora Gray
Nora Gray

For a hot date: Nora Gray

“Intimate, low lighting, good wine, great food,” Cardarelli says of her prized Griffintown restaurant.

For a classic bistro: L’Express

“Cornichons, baguette, and butter sandwiches FTW,” Cardarelli says. “Seriously, my mother took me [to L’Express] for the first time when I was 16. I go back all the time for the same dish, the ravioli, which at the time I had no idea was made with veal brains.”

For an Old Montreal soignée: Tiers Paysage

For a classy night out, the neighbourhood to be in is Old Montreal, and Tiers Paysage is at the center of the ritz. “The dining room is very modern and warm. The service is impeccable. The food is thoughtful and inventive,” Cardarelli says.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.