On the third floor of Montreal’s Belgo Building — originally the site of a short- lived luxury department store in the early 1900s and now home to more than 30 independent art galleries — Nathon Kong is showing artists’ works on display in a brightly lit stark white room. The fashion designer then casually leans onto a wall that swings open to reveal his intimate atelier, all sumptuous colours and textures, everything illuminated like a theatrical production.
When clients enter his showroom, Kong wants them to step outside of life’s daily pace and demands. “For me, luxury is exclusivity, but it’s also about time,” says Kong, who makes custom suits with elegant linings inspired by original artworks. “We don’t get the time to connect anymore.”
English-speaking Canada tends to favour pragmatism and understatement. But Quebec culture has always celebrated the sensuous and the sublime. It’s a perspective that sets Montreal apart and creates a vibrant playground for those seeking next-level luxury and a uniquely stylish take on indulgence.
The city’s taste for the finer things — food and architecture, as well as fashion — goes back much further than Kong’s burgeoning clothing empire. Between 1850 and 1930, Montreal’s Le Mille Carré, or the Golden Square Mile, was home to as much as 70 percent of Canada’s wealthy elite. Each grand mansion along the stretch of Sherbrooke Street between Robert- Bourassa Boulevard and Côte-des-Neiges Road was built to outshine the next. These days, at the prestigious Mount Royal Club, grey-suited gentlemen (and, since 1991, gentlewomen) lunch on canapés of cod brandade and black olive caviar while they network and/or make deals. Founded in 1899, the club has hosted the likes of the Duke of Windsor, Nikita Khrushchev, Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev. Just down the street is the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, whose guests have included virtually everyone, from Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren (who cooked pasta in her suite) to David Bowie.
Those who choose to remain out of the limelight might prefer to ally themselves with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a Golden Square Mile institution favoured by the city’s elite philanthropists. An Ambassadors’ Circle level of patronage, starting at $25,000, comes not only with perks like viewing exhibitions in private, but also opportunities to meet artists and curators. A thank-you event might be held in the usually off-limits restoration department, where a donor can be among the first to, say, witness the unpacking of a recently acquired Victorian-era dressing case or, maybe, view a pedestal table picked up at an auction where the Louvre was also bidding for it.
Yet, it’s probably Montreal’s eateries that reveal the city’s unique capacity to set aesthetic and epicurean trends. Four-hour tasting menus, perhaps with three kinds of foie gras, are a cherished social ritual. Toqué! — consistently at the top of Canada’s best restaurants listings — has made its name with the elegant preparation of locally sourced ingredients and a killer wine list. Chef Normand Laprise’s suppliers are all listed on the first page of the restaurant’s menu. In a world of standardization, convoluted supply chains and digital shortcuts, the ultimate in luxury dining could be in knowing the exact provenance of the lobster, duck or aubergine on one’s plate.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s penchant for the good life continues to evolve. The elegant, recently opened Four Seasons Montreal, for example, has its own private entrance to the new Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, a veritable theme park for couture enthusiasts. And nearby, at Maison Cloakroom, a made-to-measure tailoring shop, there’s a tiny speakeasy in the back, purveying drinks so customized there is no beverage menu. Consider it the epitome of bespoke service — personalized, understated and thoughtful.
WHERE TO STAY
A four-year renovation completed in 2012 maintained the grand early-20th-century ambiance of the Ritz-Carlton, but enhanced with 21st-century amenities such as motion- sensor-activated lights that usher in guests entering their suites.
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth
Referred to as “the Queen E” by locals and frequent guests, this doyenne of the city’s hotel scene reopened in 2017 after a one-year renovation. Its new look is all about bold colours and groovy patterns to remind guests of the Fairmont’s mid-century-modern origins, while the open and airy public spaces feature a contemporary vibe.
Hôtel Birks Montréal
Sited in a beautifully restored heritage building, hotelier Jean Salette’s sumptuous new boutique hotel has helped revitalize Phillips Square in the downtown core. The rooms are well appointed with grand details like marble fireplace surrounds, terraces and a suite that, at 69 square metres (743 square feet), is larger than most Manhattan apartments.
Four Seasons Hotel Montreal
An exceptional fresh addition to the city’s Golden Square Mile, this stunning newly opened property on rue de la Montagne offers sleek, open-concept pub- lic spaces designed to encourage fraternization among its clientele of movers and shakers.
WHERE TO DINE
Ranked among Montreal’s buzziest new bistros, the elegant Monarque just around the corner from Victoria Square is casual brasserie in the front and smart dining room in the back. Sited in a building that dates back to 1845, the stylish space with marble-tiled floors and back-lit charcoal black cabinetry is typically packed with power brokers dining on dry-aged steaks, lobster and Quebec lamb.
Restaurant Jérôme Ferrer – Europea
It’s no surprise finding out that, for his menu chef Jérôme Ferrer collaborated with artistic director René Richard Cyr, famed for staging shows with Cirque du Soleil and Céline Dion. Almost every course of Ferrer’s tasting menu comes replete with some sort of creative multisensory activation, be it flames, music and VR goggles, to name just a few.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
The most coveted spots are at the U-shaped bar fringing the open-concept, and surprisingly quiet, kitchen. The dramatic red and black interior is a sig- nature of all of the late Robuchon’s restaurants, but the menu pops with the creativity of this detail-oriented Montreal team.
Founded more than 26 years ago, Toqué! has set the standard for the use of seasonal, local produce that few fine- dining establishments have matched. The room is simple, yet refined, as is the food prep and service.
At this classically Portuguese restaurant, “family-run” does not mean anything less than meticulously elegant fare and service. Seafood is at the fore- ground, much of it traditionally prepared, but chef João Dias adds an expert twist or two.
By CPaul Gallant, Photos: courtesy of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, courtesy of Maison Cloakroom, and Denis Farley – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Fall 2019