Montreal’s Old Port is a magnet for visitors to the city, with its scenic river views, cobblestones, horse-drawn carriages and what have you. But this part of town is also a hub for locals, who work hard and play harder and, until recently, there was a lack of simple, down-to-earth but still utterly interesting and delicious places to eat. Now, there’s Le Gros Jambon…
The Old Port is full of super-special dining, ranging from the divine to the sublime and back again: Check out Club Chasse et Peche, Chuck Hughes‘ Garde Manger, XO, DNA, or l’Orignal to name a few. But sometimes, you just want a burger—or a Turducken sandwich, as the case may be. It was just this lack of affordable but still slightly-over-the-top awesomeness that inspired Travis Champion, owner of the aforementioned l’Orignal, to open a diner right around the corner from his other restaurant. L’Orignal (The Moose) is a kind of glamourous-yet-homey hunting lodge, with plenty of oysters and game dishes (deer stew, elk steak) on the menu.
So what do you do if you already have a well-reviewed, popular and packed restaurant under your belt? Go for the grill, of course. And the deep fryer—the runaway success of Champion’s Hot Turducken sandwich, his favourite thing on the menu, makes me suspect that part of his reason for opening the place was to have his very own deep fryer to play around with.
Nestled into a little hole in the wall (a former jewellery shop) around the corner from l’Orignal on rue Notre-Dame, and decked out with a train-car ceiling and new-old elements like genuine ‘50s lino, the place is an instant classic. As if in homage to classic Montreal hot-dog joints up the street on the Main, such as the Montreal Pool Room, the walls are lined with Montreal-centric ephemera and some faux-classic photos and so on (the little freckled boy eating poutine in what looks like Life Magazine snaps from the ‘50s is actually the owner’s nephew.)
“For one thing, we were running out of space at l’Orignal, and the basement here was huge—and I wanted that,” says Champion. “I wasn’t desperate to do a diner, but then we realized we’d be filling a void in Old Montreal that was meatloaf, lasagna, pot pie hot dogs and hamburgers. There are people who work down here who can’t afford to do high-end lunches, and I wanted to offer them something great.”
Affordability has always been a factor for Champion, who prides himself on the ethos of giving people the best time possible whatever their budget. “If you have $200 to spend, I’ll make sure you have the best time for that, and if you have $40 in your wallet, I’ll do the same,” he says.
The menu contains some reliable classics, but also some hot new innovations, such as the soon-to-be-famous Hot Dog Poutine (cheese curds and gravy on hot dog, with matchstick fries). “I’m not breaking any new ground with that one,” says Champion. “A hot dog poutine is an idea that just makes sense.”
People drop in to Le Gros Jambon for a bite to eat in daylight, at lunchtime and after hours, to hang out with old friends and make new ones. As far as we’re concerned, the lobster mac ‘n cheese is worth making friends with. We stuck around through a brunch, lunch and late-night to see who dropped by, and what was on the menu (dinner will be served as well as soon as the elusive liquor license falls into place).
Early morning: On weekdays, the place is open bright and early for fresh baked pastries, cookies and coffee. People drop by before punching the clock at any of the many offices in the area. Don’t miss: The banana-walnut muffins fresh from the oven.
Lunchtime: The kitchen opens at 11:30am, ready to serve up some extra-special specials including the aforementioned lobster mac ‘n cheese (the lobster is cooked sous vide with garlic butter, so it stays tender and creates a bisque-like sauce, and then is mixed with a super-tasty cheese sauce).
Late night: After a hard night of clubbing in the Old Port, you need sustenance—and GJ is there for you, serving a pared-down menu til the very wee hours, after last call has turned into an undeniable craving for a cheeseburger or a serving of their signature hotdog on a home-baked bun with a side of fries.
Brunch: After your late-night stop, you’ll be tempted to loop on back to their counter for brunch, possibly their most fabulous meal. Two words: Fried chicken and waffles, the former made from a special recipe (horseradish and maple syrup, dig it) with a side of fruit, griddle potatoes and uncommonly good baked beans, cooked al dente and sauced to perfection. We’re not kidding.
Le Gros Jambon, 286 Notre Dame West, (514) 508-3872