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Montreal's restaurants fluent in French BY RAPHAEL SUGARMAN Saturday, December 1st 2007, 4:00 AM Europea's chef, Jerome Ferrer, prepares a fine French meal. New Yorkers looking for the perfect destination to tantalize their palates needn't spend hours traveling overseas to Paris. They should instead make the relatively short jaunt to Montreal and enjoy a culinary tradition that is just as passionate and arguably more exciting than that of France. "The food [in France] is very good and very classic, but here we are more open-minded," says Normand Lapris, executive chef of Toque, a highly rated Montreal restaurant. "When I am cooking, I don't think to myself, 'I can't use this recipe or this spice because it is not French,'" adds Lapris. "If I like curry, I put curry in my food." Fostering classic French cuisine - while remaining open to North American eclecticism - makes Montreal an ideal city for food lovers. More than half the city's 20 top-rated restaurants are classified as French or French-Canadian, and the cuisine - and its Quebecois influences - undeniably inspires the greatest passion in Montreal's kitchens. A very good case can be made that the city's top French restaurants - including Chez L'Epicier, L'Express, Au Pied de Cochon and Toque - offer every bit as delectable and memorable a dining experience as any spot in Paris. Because Montreal is, by nature, a French city, dining in a bistro here offers a much more authentic experience than similar establishments in New York or other North American cities. "When you are dining at L'Express, you feel like you could be in Paris, like you are in another world," says Lesley Chesterman, restaurant critic for the Montreal Gazette. Much like France, the quality of restaurants in Montreal is driven by the superb food markets. At the Atwater Market in the Saint-Henri district, and at the Jean-Talon Market adjacent to Little Italy, locals and tourists alike marvel at the bounty of luscious, home-grown products. At Jean-Talon, make sure to visit Le Marche Des Saveurs du Québec (The Market Flavors of Quebec), a pair of shops that feature a staggering 7,000 delicacies produced in the province. "The small producers make all the difference here in Quebec," says Carl Witchel, a local food historian. "The difference between Montreal and New York is that here you can go into a really inexpensive bistro with 20 or 25 seats and have something really remarkable." IF YOU GO ... Where to stay: Le Saint-Sulpice: Cozy boutique hotel in the heart of Old Montreal, a block from Notre Dame. (877)-SULPICE. Hotel Le Germain: A gem in the city's downtown business district. (514) 849-2050. Where to eat: Nuances: Jean-Pierre Curtat's wonderful French fare, irreproachable service and ethereal sunsets. (514) 392-2708. Club Chasse Et Péche: You have to love a place that lists "Six Oysters with Charisma" on the menu. (514) 861-1112. Europea: The Lobster Cream Cappuccino with truffle oil is just one of chef Jerome Ferrer's inventive offerings. (514) 398-9229. Beaver Club: Located in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, this opulent stalwart has been serving classic French cuisine for decades. (514) 861-3511.