Best Restaurant in Old Montreal
St. James Hotel
XO Restaurant Montreal
Old Montreal is a wonderful destination, full of quaint bistros, narrow cobblestone streets and interesting galleries. Each year, It is a 'must do' for the tourists who visit Montreal from all over the world - 9.2 million of them in 2014. Old Montreal is also home to what many native Montrealers consider to be mere tourist restaurants, the sort of eating establishments that generally make native Montrealers avoid places like the Old City and the Old Port when dining out. But for me, The XO Restaurant has become a personal 'must do' whenever I visit Montreal.
When I first took note of the restaurant's rating on TripAdvisor a few years ago, it sat at #601 out of all of the restaurants that had been reviewed by TripAdvisor members. Keep in mind, Montreal is an old city with tremendous European influence, and dining here is a true passion. Having eaten at XO though, I couldn't fathom why this destination for epicurean delights was not in the top 10% of all restaurants at least. Was it in part because of its location in the Old City, meaning that locals were staying away?
Besides its location in the old part of Montreal, could it be – St-James' guests aside – that people were unaware of it simply because it is a hotel restaurant? In days gone by, it was the fine hotels of the world that had the very best restaurants. But these days, when people are looking for a place to dine, hotel restaurants are not typically top of mind. In the case of the XO, that is their loss.
St. James Hotel
I am so happy to see that XO has deservedly moved up the ranks, and currently sits at #156 out of 4,634 establishments that have been reviewed on TripAdvisor. Is word finally getting out?
The XO is situated in Le St. James Hotel, which is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. The St. James is located in an 1870 bank building that was completely gutted and lovingly turned into a luxury hotel.
The hotel is bordered on the north side by a small lane called Ruelle des Fortifications. Montréal was once a walled city, and this lane marks the spot where one stretch of the old fortifications existed.
Before or after dinner, you may want to hang out in the lovely bar area that is situated at the entrance to XO. Light meals are available in the bar any time, and the menu offers everything from oysters and onion soup to more serious fare. The Côté Salon also offers fabulous cocktails and rare whiskeys, and is a wonderful place to simply sit and chat.
The beautiful former Banker's Hall, now home of XO Restaurant
Service and ambiance
Service is always understated and impeccable in this place. The waiters remain ever vigilant behind a room divider at the back of the restaurant, waiting to see when a glass needs to be refilled or a plate removed.
The architecture in the XO dining room is spectacular. The restaurant is in what was formerly the Banker’s Hall, and the soaring columns and fine architectural details let you know you when you arrive that you are in for something very special. Candles are everywhere, and ambient lights change color repeatedly, reflecting off the pewter colored pillars. If I had to quibble about anything, I would suggest that the restaurant get rid of the TVs showing the black and white fashion footage from days gone by. It is out of place in this beautiful dining room and a bit distracting.
Dinner is served à la carte from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Tuesday to Saturday. There is also a tasting menu available where wines are paired with the different courses. The tasting menu is also available Tuesday to Saturday but can only be ordered if everyone at the table is having it. The dining room is of course open Sundays and Mondays as well, but the menu on offer is not as extensive.
Foie gras with millet and macadamia
Our favorite table in the north-east corner of the restaurant is always waiting for us after our beverage in the Côté Salon. The table is on a bit of a raised step and affords a wonderful view of the entire room.
The à la carte menu changes depending on both the availability of ingredients and the imagination of the chef, and on one particular evening we opted for the à la carte menu. As is the norm here, we were presented with an amuse bouche to start, a small complimentary offering to whet the appetite and wake up the taste buds.
The appetizer that night was foie gras served with spiced brioche, a strawberry reduction, millet and macadamia nuts flavored with a hint of mint and a dab of molasses. Delicious!
Fabulous salmon poached in olive oil
Our main course
Our main was a salmon poached in olive oil; salmon confit, served with a duck consommé, kasha (buckwheat), baby turnips, matsutake mushroom, fennel pollen and golden raisins. Where does one even find fennel pollen? Do you go to Food Lion and simply buy a shaker full? I had never encountered this wonderful ingredient before. We were asked when ordering if we had any allergies. Understandably when there is pollen as an ingredient, it is prudent to ask. The effect of the pollen on the dish was amazing. Every so often, I caught a whiff of fennel…and then it was gone. Amazing! The salmon was so moist and so tender, it melted in the mouth. The trick apparently is to poach it at a constant low temperature in the oil.
Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate
Dessert was a creamy, sinful chocolate pudding, which was really an intense “roll” of chocolate (foreground) served with morsels of coffee cake, malted meringue chips, gel flavored with Baileys and a most unusual ice cream flavored with rooibos tea. Rooibos is an herb from South Africa that has a sweet nutty taste…delicious as an ice cream.
The wine list at the XO Restaurant is extensive, and the sommelier here is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. If you provide them with a price and other parameters, they will come up with the perfect wine to match your dinner. The sommelier knows the cellar well, and the recommendations have always delighted us and matched what we were eating perfectly. Go with their suggestions without hesitation...you will not be disappointed. On this occasion, we had a white from the Savoie as a starter. With our mains, we had an unusual Chassagne-Montrachet, unusual because it was a red; a lovely, earthy wine with good body and a long finish.