3 Chicagoans offer insider travel tips

Chicago Tribune

Montreal with Steve Dolinsky

Reporter, "The Hungry Hound"

James Beard Foundation Award-winning reporter Steve Dolinsky covers the food world as ABC's "The Hungry Hound" and on "The Feed" podcast with co-host Rick Bayless. His position as an academy chairman for The World's 50 Best Restaurants and gigs consulting for prestigious restaurant groups outside of Chicago keep him traveling internationally.

Stay. "Old Montreal is loaded with charismatic boutique hotels, but not all have it all. Hotel Nelligan does, thanks to its historic architecture, charming rooms with exposed brick walls, superb amenities and fabulous poutine, in its on-premises restaurant, Verses."

Eat. "Power lunchers head to Bouillon Bilk, near Chinatown, for its eclectic cuisine infused with French influences. A must is an old-fashioned Montreal snack bar, or casse-croute, where everything from the split-top hot dog buns to the crullers with maple glaze is made from scratch. At Chez Tousignant in Little Italy, the poutine, which is drenched in rich gravy loaded with pulled chicken and peas, is unbelievable. Joe Beef in Little Burgundy, a Montreal icon, is impossible not to love. But people forget about the group's other restaurant, Le Vin Papillon, another cozy rustic spot with perhaps the most creatively prepared vegetables to go with your meat in Montreal. (Think rotisserie cauliflower with capers and chicken skin.) Next time I'm in Montreal, I plan to head to Agrikol, a Haitian restaurant that Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire opened a few months ago."

Bagel wars. "Montreal is famed for its smaller, sweeter, denser, wood-fired bagels, which have bigger holes, skip the salt and have a touch of honey. My favorites come from St-Viateur Bagel. I always head to one of their two shops in Mile End, an artsy neighborhood that is also Montreal's historic Jewish quarter."

See. "It sounds counterintuitive to go to Montreal in February, but that's when they have the fantastic Montreal en Lumiere, the Festival of Lights, with fashion, music (especially jazz), art, food and more — all designed to get Montrealers out of hibernation after a long, hard winter. The best thing about going to the festival is that it coincides with maple season, and you can go to a seasonal cabane a sucre, or sugar shack. They're outside Montreal in the woods and serve maple-inspired gourmet meals. My favorite is from Martin Picard, the chef behind Au Pied de Cochon."

"Another don't miss is Jean-Talon, Montreal's best public farmers market; you can eat your way through this place. Be sure to check out the lineup of unpasteurized cheeses, especially at the local favorite Black Prince."

Shop. "I like to shop in Mile End, where I hit the Spice Station for high quality, interesting spice blends and S.W. Welch Bookseller for vintage books."

Brittany with Paul Kahan

Chef/restaurateur, Blackbird, The Publican, Big Star, Nico Osteria

Paul Kahan, celebrated chef-restaurateur and 2013 James Beard Foundation award-winner for outstanding chef, was inspired to go to Brittany by his friend Lior Lev Sercarz — the famed New York spice king who makes bespoke blends for many of the world's most famous chefs. Sercarz studied under Oliver Roellinger, a renowned Breton chef who returned to his hometown, Cancale, to open hotels that have helped make this tiny village — basically a strip of seafood spots along the water — a year-round destination.

Stay. "Roellinger's mini-empire includes three hotels: Chateau Richeux has 11 rooms and two apartments and is surrounded by a lush garden; Les Rimains is a quaint Breton stone house with four guest rooms; and the Gites Marins are two seaside vacation houses for families or groups. All overlook the water. Visit in the off-season, says Kahan: "We went in December, when it was damp and misty but incredibly compelling and not that cold."

Eat. "Cancale's most venerated restaurant is Le Coquillage in Chateau Richeux. It's known for its seafood and ingenious use of exotic spices, but the desserts are astonishing. Hit the oyster stands at Cancale's port — La Houle — which is known as the oyster capital of Brittany for its high production: 25,000 tons a year. You can get creuse (hollowed out) or plates (flat) oysters in any of the stands or restaurants. Also, try one of the creperies for savory galettes filled with endless combinations of seafood, mushrooms and various sausages, paired with cups of cider. For breakfast, go to Roellinger's bakery, Grain de Vanille, in town. Don't miss the Breton pastry kouign-amann, a cousin to the croissant. Also Roellinger's rendition of sables — those thick, sandy butter cookies made with salted butter — are incredible."

Day trips. "You can walk from Cancale to St. Malo, which is about 11 miles, on a stunning walkway over cliffs along the sea, or drive if you aren't game for the hike. St. Malo is larger and much more touristy, but it's amazing to see Mont-Saint-Michel, the town's historic monastery, when the tide is out and it's surrounded with the mussels and oysters sticking out of the ground. Also tour the walls of the old city and eat at La Mere Poulard for amazing sky-high omelets. The two-hour road trip to Riec-sur-Belon is a must to taste the legendary flat oysters from this port; they are said to be the world's finest, thanks to the mineral-rich waters of the Belon River. They are all in stands at the end of the main road. It looks as if you're driving into a dead end, but you'll find stands overlooking the oyster beds where the road dead-ends, and (you) can experience truly fresh Belon oysters."

Shop. "Roellinger has namesake spice shops in Cancale and St. Malo (Epices Olivier Roellinger), where you can buy his famed blends. There are far more shops in St. Malo, and it's worth finding a liquor store to bring back locally made pear or apple cider and chouchen, a form of mead made from the fermentation of honey in water. You'll see authentic striped fishermen T-shirts everywhere, but the true finds are the authentic Breton fishermen's smocks called cachou, made out of dusty blue sailcloth."

Beijing with Betsy Nathan

Proprietor, Pagoda Red

A two-year stint in Beijing to study Mandarin inspired Nathan to found Pagoda Red in 1997, the year after she returned to Chicago. The business not only fuels her passion for Chinese culture and all of its trappings, it keeps her going back to Mainland China several times a year for antique furnishings and art and the contemporary works she recently added to her offerings.

Stay. "In old Beijing, rows of siheyuan, traditional Chinese courtyard homes form alleyways called hutongs. You can find small hotels in renovated courtyard homes, but their quality is hit or miss. The Orchid is one that has excellent service and modern amenities but is also very atmospheric. It's just 2 miles from The Forbidden City. For an ultra-luxurious new age refuge with old age Chinese references, try the five-star Rosewood Hotel in the Chaoyang district, which is right across from the eccentric China Central Television Building, designed by Dutch architectural firm OMA, that the locals nicknamed "Big Pants." Modernists will like The Opposite House, a sleek glass hotel designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma in the trendy Sanlitun district, which is in the heart of Beijing. Its green glass facade glows when the sun sets."

Drink. "The upscale Mesh bar at The Opposite House is a great place to see and be seen; it's totally in the thick of things. For a cool local spot in The Forbidden City, try Mao Mao Chong in a hutong near the Drum Tower."

Eat. "Duck de Chine has the best Peking duck in the city and is also known for its excellent dim sum. It's in an old industrial structure that feels raw and finished at the same time. Be sure to call ahead and order a duck, or there may be none left when you get there. "

Shop. "Brand New China, or BNC, is a destination in a modern mall in the Sanlitun district and is the best place to see innovative and authentic contemporary Chinese design. The name is a riff on the fact that China is known for its copies, but everything here is original, authentic and gives new meaning to the term "Made in China." These new luxury brands for clothing, furniture, jewelry and accessories represent modern China. For art, the Bauhaus-inspired compound of old factories that was built by East German architects in the 1950s has been turned into the 798 Arts District, which is interesting but very touristy. Ai Weiwei founded Caochangdi, another village for contemporary art, about a decade ago. It's an austere, mazelike industrial complex on the northeastern corner of the Fifth Ring Road adjacent to the Airport Expressway. It's full of edgy, and also well-established, galleries, including Ai Weiwei's Fake studio and Chambers Fine Art."

See. "Ritan Park in the Chaoyang district is home to the Temple of the Sun, but the real reason to head here is to see the Chinese morning rituals. Urban Chinese homes tend to be small, so people head to the parks in the early mornings to do their martial arts, artwork (calligraphy), modern exercise and ballroom dancing — all around 6 a.m. This park is manageable enough to see it all — intimate rather than a massive behemoth like our Lincoln Park, where everyone is scattered."

Tips. "Addresses mean nothing in Beijing, and it's easy to get lost, especially if you decide to go to the art districts. Hire a driver or taxi, and make a list of the galleries you want to see in Mandarin — complete with phone numbers, so you can call them and hand the phone to the driver, so he or she can find them."

Lisa Skolnik is a freelance writer.

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