Friday 12 August 2016

Montreal - With a Twist

Life is a cabaret, someone once said. No more so at Montreal's Cabaret Mado, which I visited on my first trip to Canada in 2010 (courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission). While in the city, I investigated its food, music and subterranean corridors.

As my 2011 article about those experiences has since vanished from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

“What’s funny about the cabaret now is that more straight people than gay people come to see our shows. We have boys, girls, groups doing their bachelor parties and birthdays, straight couples coming to see the drag queens, it’s so amaaazing!”

It’s easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm of Mado Lamotte, drag queen extraordinaire, as she sits in front of her dressing room mirror in a leopard-print dressing gown and prepares for an evening on stage.

Mado (aka Luc Provost) is not just a mainstay of the Canadian city’s vibrant gay village, but has crossover appeal among all Montrealers who like an outrageous night out.

Mado’s venue, Cabaret Mado, is approaching a decade in operation, though the decor suggests it was set up back in the 1970s. Spherical lampshades hang above the bar, illuminating the orange patterned wallpaper, as dressed-down patrons sip bourbon while waiting for the evening’s show to start.

Then Mado appears on stage as MC, dressed in a striking pink dress, purple wig and a headpiece made from an umbrella.

Subtle it ain’t, and for the rest of the evening the warmly enthusiastic audience is entertained by a succession of drag queens lip-syncing famous songs while dressed in the most extraordinary gear.

One is done up as a striking Spanish diva, complete with rapidly oscillating handheld fan; another performer with green locks wears a giant love heart bordered by live light bulbs; another does a Nana Mouskouri impersonation while holding a large sunflower.

It’s all good fun and a reminder of how distinctive this city is - entertaining, accepting and just a little offbeat.

“We’re very crazy people,” confirms Mado. “We have a strong Quebec culture, which influences the night life. In winter, people get sick of the cold and they go wild. The best party you can get sometimes in Montreal is in January.”

However, it’s fair to say that Montreal is a happening place the whole year round, and always memorable. Here are some other special places in Quebec’s biggest city.

Burgers with more than the lot

You wouldn’t expect a way-cool hamburger joint in this Francophone city, but maybe that’s the point of M:BRGR - to present a high-class alternative to the international burger chains.

This over-the-top burger bar has a slick 21st century interior, with sleek dark tables and curvy white chairs, and a long black bar with cool young people ranged along it.

The menu offers customised burgers up to and including white truffle shavings on top. There’s also a Kobe beef version which incorporates such exotic ingredients as grilled pear, porcini mushrooms and asparagus, and sells for a cool $100.

Life beneath the streets

As above, so below. Beneath the city streets is Montreal’s underground city, known as RÉSO, a play on the French word réseau (network).

It’s a 32 kilometre long complex of subterranean pedestrian tunnels linking hotels, train stations and shopping malls, allowing a visitor to stay entirely underground if desired.

With average winter temperatures below freezing point, this is a good place to hang out in the colder months.

If inclined to take an unconventional stroll, do an entire circuit of RÉSO with the aid of a ride or two on the Metro underground railway.

On the way, you’ll encounter wavy brick corridors, a huge postwar frieze of toiling Canadians in the main train station, upmarket malls with high atriums, a vast illuminated glass artwork about the history of music, and the fascinating Contemporary Art Museum via its below-ground access.

Duelling bagels

In the somewhat Anglophone district of Mile End, new residents’ loyalties are tested by being asked which bagels they prefer: the ones from Fairmount Bagel, or St Viateur Bagel?

Since the 1950s, these small but popular bakeries have vied for the affection of this now-cool suburb’s residents, and everyone’s been a winner as a result of the competition over quality.

Inside Fairmount, the customer joins a queue that squeezes through a narrow gap between towering stacks of trays full of freshly baked bagels waiting to be shipped out to customers.

In St Viateur, the customer is treated to the sight of a cascade of fresh bagels being scooped out of the oven, ready to be sold while warm.

But which tastes better? You’ll have to be the judge.

Full of beans

Adjacent to Mile End, the former working-class neighbourhood of Le Plateau is now cutting-edge, populated with bookshops, cafes and restaurants.

It’s well worth wandering down its side streets to have a look at the distinctive residential architecture, characterised by solid three-storey buildings with external metal stairways which allowed more internal space for big working-class families.

After this exercise, grab a table at La Binerie (The Beanery), serving old-fashioned Quebecois family food. When it opened in 1940, its cuisine represented affordable simplicity; now it’s regarded as retro chic. As you might have guessed, it serves some fine bean dishes.

Another interesting menu item is pouding chômeur, literally the “pudding of the unemployed”. This dish from the 1930s Depression is made from cheap ingredients available at the time, including brown sugar, maple syrup and flour.

Music with a backside

For nearly three decades, Foufounes Électriques has been a bar which showcases great DJs and live music.

Within its no-nonsense brick walls and industrial-punk decor, a young audience soaks up rock, electronica, house and alternative sounds.

It’s a mixed crowd from punks to goths, and the beer is reasonably priced. You can even sample Quebec fast food by ordering a poutine, a tasty mess of cheese curds and gravy.

Oh, and the venue’s name? It means “Electric Ass”.

It’s a joke that would appeal to Mado, a passionate advocate for her city’s unique mix of quirkiness and coolness.

“We have a culture that’s very rich,” she says. “We’ve got our singers, our movies, our plays; and Montrealers go and see these shows, they buy the art. We have a special culture you won’t find anywhere else in North America.”

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