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Montreal Highlights Festival en Lumiere: Choose Your Own Adventure

Posted by Amie / January 24, 2011

Montreal highlights festival en lumieres"It's the most wonderful time of the year." Yes, I just broke into song. No, I'm not talking about Christmas. Above is your guide to where to eat at this year's Montreal Highlights Festival. So choose your budget at the top ($0, $20, $50, or more depending on your morals) and follow the arrows down to deliciousness.

The Montreal Highlights Festival (Festival en lumiere) is back and with it are special dinners, happy hours, bargain lunches, cheap wine tasting, free cheese, cooking workshops, and emu samples. Yes, it's a month away, but a lot of dinners (mostly the expensive ones) are already sold out. The less expensive lunches and happy hours will go fast. As for the free events, though you won't need a reservation, there's no harm in marking your calendar a little in advance.

Here's a bit more info on some of the options:

The two big free events are the Festival of Quebec Cheeses at the Complexe Desjardins and the Charlevoix at Jean-Talon Market cooking and Quebec product demos in the upstairs area of the city's largest market. The Festival of Quebec Cheeses lets you sample a seemingly endless supply of goat, cow, and sheep's milk raw, thermised, and pasteurized cheeses before or after (or both) trying some (only barely not free) wines that would cost you a fortune to purchase at any of the festival's Finest Tables special dinners. It's basically a big DIY-wine and cheese (for full instructions on how to do that follow the link to last year's article). God bless Quebec where $10 will get you some of the most amazing wine you'll ever taste and $0 will gorge you on dairy. If only Guillaume was around the triumvirate would be complete...

The workshops at Jean-Talon market take place all day on the weekend of Feb. 19-20. Beef, lamb, fois gras, goat, veal, beer, and even locally smoked (farmed) salmon. Sorry vegetarians, but I hope you drink because that will be your only option. Some of the dishes being prepared include emu liver salad topped with two-year aged cheddar and cider vinegar (Sunday at 2pm), and veal with goat's milk blue cheese (Saturday at 2pm).

The $12.95 (plus tax and tip) cheaper restaurant lunch specials can get you an enormous multi-course midday feast at Mauritanian restaurant La Khaima (listed in the chart above), but you could also go to Byblos, Rumi, Tasca, Mogador, Kashmir, Prato or Stromboli. The menu is the same as it is outside festival time, but the price is lower than normal. They're also the only real "ethnic" restaurants at the festival. Though some of the invited chefs will cook Mexican, Spanish, Italian, or Brazilian-themed dinners, they're usually more contemporary or have a strong French cooking influence. These lunches will be more traditional, home-cooking types of meals.
festival-en-lumiere
Some of the fine-dining restaurants that host big dinners at the festival also have special lunches at reasonable prices. One big stand-out is lunch at Le Restaurant de L'Institut where the Mediterranean-inspired menu will be planned by guest chef Reine Sammut (one of the only French female chefs with a Michelin Star). The self-taught chef won't be cooking the lunches, but the ITHQ students are fast learners. If you like seeing how good the student servers and cooks are at adapting quickly to a new instructor, lunch will be fun if not delicious.

Happy Hour at Les Cavistes honestly looks like it could be hit or miss. There's no big draw to the wines themselves since they're just "vintages selected by female wine specialists". So cross your fingers and enjoy Chef Stephanie Gagnon's Charlevoix charcuteries. Honestly, though, the reason to go to this is that three wines and hors d'oeuvres for $12 to $19 is a pretty sweet deal.

Then there's lunch at La Chronique for $25. Only Feb. 18th and 24th have any space left, so book now for "a three-course Mediterranean meal". It's not a guest chef either, but $25 for three courses at La Chronique is an opportunity. In theory they could decide to put less effort into the menus for the lunches since they have some more expensive dinners to worry about, but La Chronique has a good reputation for a reason.

For good drinking there's happy hour at BU (wine and antipasti. Italian wine-maker Chiara Ciavolich will be in attendance to tell you about her Abruzzo offerings) and dessert (a tasting menu of cognac with chocolate) at Pullman.

Of the big dinners that aren't sold out yet, two potentially great options are La Porte and Cocagne where the guest chefs will be in attendance. Natalie Beauvais is known for her "feminine cuisine," which apparently means her cooking is "more emotional than technical."

...right. Do you feel like we've hit a ceiling? Maybe one made of glass?

Either way, expect the meal to include lots of butter, and the best fish and seafood you can find.

Monica Patino at Cocage does Asian fusion with American, Cuban, and French mixed in for good measure. She's also a TV cooking show host and has some cookbooks out, so she's a true Mexican celebrity.

For foodies who believe dinners should be as fun as they are delicious, you'll want to check out the $40 ($80 with wine pairing, and you basically have to get the wine pairing to enjoy the meal) dinner at DNA. Besides being the least expensive dinner at DNA you'll probably ever have, it'll be really fun to watch Chef Derek Dammann run around being a sommelier for an evening, and wondering how much of the kitchen staff is getting a laugh out of yelling, "Yes, Chef!" to Sommelier Alex Cruz in the kitchen.
Montreal Highlights festival en lumiereIf neither of these appeals to you but you still want to splurge, two more options are to watch Emmanuelle Leftick step into the open kitchen at La Fabrique or to head to BU for dinner of the above-mentioned Abruzzo wines from Chiara Ciavolich for a 100% organic Italian meal Chef Cinzia Mancini.

Leftick used to be at Chez L'Epicier with La Fabrique's Jean-Baptiste Marchand, but she's coming back for a Festival en Lumiere spotlight after some cooking experience at some of the most famous restaurants in the world such as The French Laundry and El Bulli. Her mentor, Corey Lee, runs the kitchen at Benu in San Francisco, but Leftick deserves her homecoming chance to shine.

Mancini runs the Bottega Culinaria Biologica, a lab/boutique/restaurant where she strives for "sublimation without denaturation, cooking without consuming, and consonance without dissonance".

...hmm...3 thoughts on that:

1. Sublimation: the transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without passing through an intermediate liquid phase. Sounds delicious, I know...
2. I sure hope diners get to consume, despite all the cooking going on.
3. Dissonance is what makes consonance beautiful. If there's no tension, there's no release...

Still, it's all organic and supposedly loaded with herbs and vegetables, so for once, maybe not a meat-heavy menu (maybe that's what's "feminine" about it...ugh). The example of her cooking given is pasta with chocolate, garlic, oil, and chili, which, despite all the questions that arise from her descriptions, sounds pretty unisex to me.

And here's an interview I did with the Air France Wine and Dine Experience (Horribly translated from "Les Plaisirs de la Table") spokesperson Jean-Francois Demers on in case you want some more festival recommendations:



Montreal Highlights Festival en Lumiere
When: Feb. 17-27, 2011
Where: Restaurants, Markets, and Shopping Malls all over the city
How Much: $0 to $Way too much

Photos courtesy of the MONTREAL HIGH LIGHTS Festival
The chart is home-made.

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