Montreal en Lumiere 2013

1 Mar

Festivals like Montreal en Lumière were designed to get us through the final throes of winter, when we’re wading through slush in the rain, wondering how much more we can take. The celebration of culture and cuisine runs February 21-March 3 in 2013, and this year the culinary spotlight is on Buenos Aires, Philadelphia and Saguenay-Lac St Jean.

Wild Things
My first dinner on the opening night is a celebration of Quebec sauvage. It’s prepared at Le Beaver Club—a former gentleman’s dining club in Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth hotel—by guest chef Marcel Bouchard and the in-house team.

A forefather of the province’s field-to-table movement, Bouchard has been chef-owner of Le Doyen at Auberge des 21 plaisirs, a restaurant on the shores of the Saguenay fjord, since 1992.

On the menu: a mix of wild and Aboriginal-inspired dishes. Highlights include succulent roasted deer loin in bourguignon sauce made with forest tea and served with an earthy mushroom terrine, springy marsh rice, vegetables and gourgane beans.

The ice cider served with dessert—Cryomalus Antolino Brongo, 2009—has a wonderful baked apple tart flavour and is a cocktail of Quebec-grown McIntosh, Spartan, Lobo, Empire and Cortland apples, frozen naturally in the cold, so that a single syrupy drop can be extracted from each. The Labrador tea I sip with truffles at the end of the meal has a bracing, slightly medicinal flavour that makes me feel a little more virtuous after such a decadent feast.

Happy Hours
My Friday 5 à 7 (which stretches in the end to 9 and involves a delicious surprise pre-dinner dinner by Chef Joe Frey) happens at Les Cavistes, a Plateau Mont-Royal brasserie for wine lovers.

All their wines are private imports, available by the glass, and you can stock up on your favourites in their store, nearby on rue Fleury. Both sites offer tasting sessions, around three times a week, focused on everything from old-world to bubbly to Australian wines. Tonight, in honour of Montreal en Lumière, we’re sipping from bottles from the Bodega Catena Zapata family-owned winery, whose vineyards can be found in mountainous Mendoza, Argentina.

We start with a 2010 Catena Malbec, which is plummy and floral everyday wine—easy to sip and reasonably priced at $22 a bottle.

Our second taster is El Enemigo, 2009. The name translates as the enemy, but the winemaker explains that its true meaning is to improve oneself. Confused I do some speed-Googling and find clarity on the winery website: “At the end of a journey, we remember only one battle; the one we fought against ourselves, the original enemy. The one that defines us.” This one has a punchier black cherry jam taste.

Next up: 2008 Catena Alta—which combines chocolate and vanilla notes with red fruity flavour and balanced acidity. It’s a small-batch wine made with grapes grown in a select few rows in the family vineyard from 3,000 to almost 5,000 feet in elevation.

We finish with a 2007 Catena Zapata, aged in French oak barrels for 24 months before bottling. It has earthy flavour with tobacco and spices. I’m feeling the glow.

Paris Meets Buenos Aires
A quick cab-ride north to Outremont, and I’m at Restaurant Christophe a small French BYOB spot filled with well-heeled couples, small groups and animated chatter.

My highlight of the four-course Argentine-inspired menu: tapas of rich and juicy beef cheek on pan-roasted potatoes, topped with creamy sheep cheese and served with a sweet salsa criolla and peppery fresh arugula. My dessert-fiend dining companion is most excited about her delicate goat cheese-and-sweet potato cheesecake with dulce de leche ice cream and generous smear of caramel on the plate for good measure.

The Art of Eating Well
Saturday night’s dinner at Renoir is prepped in an open-concept kitchen, visible from the vast amber-glowing dining room, by Chef Diego Gera, the Bocuse d’Or winner from Leopoldo restaurant in Buenos Aires, and Chef Olivier Perret, executive chef at Renoir.

Photo: Bonjour Quebec

The Sofitel hotel restaurant offers an exclusive festival menu paired with wines from Argentina, with the exception of the Chilean Concha y Toro Late Harvest 2010 Sauvignon Blanc—a light, sweet dessert wine with honey, pear and melon notes. Green pea hummus on the juicy lamb steak is a fun touch, but the high point of the meal for me is the coconut Vichyssoise—light, creamy yet frothy, and faintly sweet—with leek terrine and buttery lobster.

Midnight Feast
My last stop is an after-hours event at one of enRoute magazine’s Best New Restaurants for 2012Pastaga. Here the kitchen’s serving up small plates to a hip, young crowd, to a backdrop of discs spun by DJ Tour d’Ivoire.

Among the bites on the late-night menu is a house favourite: chopped liver with hardboiled eggs, capers and bagel chips—an ode to the city’s Jewish food heritage. I’m  smitten with the desserts platter too, with its tiny paper bags of salty caramel popcorn and mini bites of chocolate-coated honeycomb sponge—gourmet Crunchie bars!

Incidentally, this Little Italy restaurant has recently been infusing fresh blood into the Montreal dining scene, outside of any festival format. Chefs and co-owners Martin Juneau and Louis-Philippe Breton have been bringing in big-name chefs from across the country, such as Jeremy Charles from Raymonds in St John’s and John Horne from  Canoe in Toronto and letting them loose in their kitchen for a series called Royal Canadian Mondays.

All the more reason to come back even after Montreal en Lumiere is over for another year.


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