6 Tips to getting the best from the Montreal Festival of Lights

There are literally dozens of gourmet experience offerings during the 10 days of the Montreal en Lumiere festival – and picking and choosing which meal to enjoy (and spend your hard-earned dollars on) is not a simple job. So many choices – so few evenings, such limited funds.

So – to help you out – here are the Montreal Madame’s quick guide to making great choices:

1) Old age isn’t good for a chef. Don’t pick a meal where the ‘guest’ chef has a huge reputation, and has been doing this a long time. Why not? Because in my experience, these chef’s have little left to prove – and a lot to lose if they take risks. So you can bet the meal will be on the safe side of dreary – with an expensive price tag to boot. Better bets are elsewhere.

2) Up and Coming means Exciting. A young chef who has just gotten a serious award is probably still trying to prove he’s worth it. And those meals can be some of the most fun. Just bring an open mind – molecular cuisine is huge – and not to everyone’s taste.

3) Never pick a meal that goes on for more than 2 days. Why not? Because in my experience, the chef shows up for the first day – trains the team – and then leaves. You end up eating a meal cooked by quickly trained newbies – and pay the celebrity chef price. That’s no fun.

4) More courses – more better. Meals with lots of courses tend to be a better deal. You’ll get smaller portions of course, but the odds that something will be spectacular increases when the chef has to do more work. Logically it seems the opposite should be true – but experience has shown that making the kitchen sweat a bit is the best way to get the best experience.

5) Don’t let price keep you away. Ok – seriously expensive meals may not be in your budget, but don’t toss away meals in the $50 to $80 bracket. They are often the best ‘bargains’ – a great restaurant, a hardworking kitchen team, and a fun approach.

6) Don’t be discouraged by the lack of description. Sometimes the chefs don’t even know what they are going to be doing until they arrive in the city. In fact – if the description mentions a specific course – unless you are seriously interested in trying that course – steer clear of that offering. It means that there’s not going to be a lot of creativity happening – and tried and true, while safe – can be boring.

If you have other ideas – comment away – these are just some of the clues I’ll use when picking where to spend my money – you may well have ideas that are even better.

Maison Boulud Delivers

Actually – probably not! Unless you happen to be living in one of the Ritz-Carlton Residences conveniently located right above the hotel. But even so – not sure if take-out from a restaurant like Maison Boulud makes sense – this is a place that’s all about the Service – and the elegant feel – and the open kitchen.

But I digress. Maison Boulud’s offering for the Festival of Lights was a 8 course meal – a combined effort of the host chef – Daniel Boulud, and his Argentine protegé Mauro Colagreco. The idea was that each chef would design part of the meal – and then their teams would get together to execute.

Entering the dining room at the Ritz is already an experience – on the left as you enter is the kitchen – on this occasion literally packed with Chefs, Sous-Chefs, and other work bees. There were so many team members on alert that they could barely move! As we passed by on our way to our table, the hostess greeted several by name – I’m guessing to emphasize the close relationship between the front of the house and the kitchen.

The menu was presented, the new design of the space admired – and the service begun. There were 3 yummy mini-bites to start, my favorite of which was a toss-up between the deep-fried mushroom creme ball and the nibble of crab filled tiny artichoke. So far – so great. The 2nd course was my husbands favorite – a sea food tartare wonderfully presented and featuring sea urchin. I liked the next course a lot better – a soft egg yolk with Black Truffles and delightful crisps of Jerusalem artichoke. They had even tossed in some surprise bits – Macadamia nuts.

There was a fish course (OK – but not at the same stellar level), a venison course (I had 2 pieces – one more gamey than the other – but both delicious), and then the Pièce de résistance – a cheese course like none I’ve ever had.

They made a Munster Mousse, spread it relatively thin on the plate, and then topped it with a Cumin Sugar Tuile. You cracked the Tuile – and then ate in one bite both the Tuile and the Munster. The result was both sweet and flavorful, with high notes of Munster and Sugar and a touch of honey. The texture was both crunchy (the Tuile) and creamy (the Munster). It was delicious, surprising, and fun. And credited to the guest chef – Mauro Colagreco. Good work sir.

Dessert (who doesn’t love dessert) was also from Mauro – and again a delight. Swirls and little pillows of Orange Sorbet, Saffron Mousse, Almond Foam, the occasional nut, and a crispy nut power underneath it all. I used both my spoon and my fork to be sure to get every little tiny bit.

We also managed to acquire a little insight into how the combination happened. In conversation with Cyril Duport (the delightful Front of the House Manager) – it turns out that Daniel Boulud insisted that he be paired with Marco – ignoring the suggestions of the powers-that-be at the Festival. Interesting tidbit, eh? But the combination worked so well – I don’t blame Mr. Boulud for going with a ‘guest’ chef he knew he could count on to execute flawlessly.

Bottom line – while the meal at Chez l’Epicier (see the blog titled “Molecular Cuisine can be delicious – who knew?) remains at the tip-top of my food pyramid – I was impressed with the offerings of Daniel and Marco – and would definitely go back to the Maison Boulud when finances permit.

Maison Boulud on Urbanspoon

Molecular Cuisine can be delicous – who knew?

So last night I had one of the best dinners ever. I mean ever, ever. It was at Chez l’Epicier, one of Montreal’s hot restaurants for gourmet food – and it was part of the Festival of Lights, a yearly party held in February – the darkest part of the year here in the semi-frozen North.

Chef Gonzalo Aramburu from warm and sunny Argentina was the ‘guest’ chef – and the meal he and his team prepared was beyond a doubt over the top amazing. Unfortunately – he’s only cooking here in Montreal on Feb 25 and 26 – which means if you are reading this after the 26th – you missed it! But write down the name – this is a chef you will hear about again.

The meal – well – it was amazing. Instead of the 10 courses we were expecting – there were actually 12. The first course – an ‘amuse’ – was actually fun – amusing even.

Amuse of Paint and Paint-brush

Amuse of Paint and Paint-brush

They gave us 3 differently colored food mixtures – garlic, tomato, and a pesto – and a paint brush. Our task – paint the supplied wafers and enjoy. Fun to do – and it tasted good.

The 2nd course had 4 different components – but my favorite part featured what looked like a soft-boiled egg – but in fact was an egg shell holding a piece of poached salmon with a fabulously tasty Hollandaise ‘foam’. Yummy.

The ‘salad’ course featured craftily cut vegetables arranged artfully on a dish with a passion fruit vinaigrette that was stunningly flavorful.

Tricks from the modular cuisine arsenal included liquid nitrogen poured over a cinnamon stick to create a ‘spice fog’ that flowed over and around the dishes, a baby pork belly that was at once both crisp and tender (how did he that do that?), quince sorbet that added a palette cleansing step to a Beef ragout, and my favorite course – an absolutely perfectly cooked miniature Filet Mignon.Gonzalo Aramburu Dinner 3 To end the meal – there were 2 major desserts, coffee if you wanted, and a ‘box’ of cookies, maple marshmallows, and Cotton Candy – all prepared in-house.

My husband was so thrilled with the meal that he actually contemplated ordering it again. Or – 2nd best – go back again the next night. It was that good, that special, that memorable.

It was why you pay to eat dinner – to enjoy something you can’t possibly do at home – in a wonderful place, with fun friends. What more can one ask. Well – if it’s something of Chef Gonzalo Aramburu – apparently quite a bit.

Chez L'Epicier on Urbanspoon

Bistro Boris – Dog-gone cute, and delicious food

Bistro Boris Tuna Lunch

Tuna Boris – isn’t it Beautiful?

I have a very upscale friend who seems to know all the best places to eat. So when she invited me to join her for lunch – I asked her to pick the place. She always finds a place I never even knew existed – that’s what makes joining her so much fun. Plus it’s always nice to be brought up-to-date with what’s happening in her life.

But on to the restaurant review!

Bistro Boris is located spitting distance from Square Victoria – in what looks like a tiny space off an office tower. The room is small – I mean seriously small. But they have a huge terrace – which would be a great place to sit if there wasn’t about 4 feet of snow on top of everything. Maybe a revisit in the spring is in order?

Fortunately – my friend had called ahead and made reservations – without which I’m not sure they would have had room. The menu is simple – A selection of entrées – with the lunch special being that for $3 more than the cost of the entrée you get either a soup or a salad, a coffee or latte, and dessert. Diet thrown to the wind – I opted for the entire meal, choosing for my entrée a selection called – Tuna Boris. This turned out to be a huge piece of perfect tuna – lightly seared on the sides, but raw in the center. It was served on a selection of roasted veggies (very sparse on the veggies – but beautiful), 2 wonderful sweet potato crisps, and a perfect sauce below. The result was so lovely – I took a picture. I never take pictures of food – so you get the idea. Those are beets on the side – like the rest of the veggies – perfectly roasted and not the least bit greasy.

Tasted great too. My friend was less thrilled – she ordered something described as a ‘salad’ – but there was no salad (ie: greens) component.  Instead it was served on a bed of simply sliced cucumbers. Easily remedies – she opted to add the $3 ‘table d’hote’ – and got her salad fix that way.

Dessert was simple – tiny scoop of perfect pistachio ice cream and a tiny pastry. Latte (decafe of course) was also perfect.

And I love their website with it’s ‘doggy’ illustrations and lovely pictures. Didn’t look like that when I was there of course – it’s Montreal, It’s February – no terrace is happening – but you get the general idea. It would be beautiful.


Definitely a place to remember – particularly if someone else is treating.

Boris Bistro on Urbanspoon

Innocence Lost – The Steven Truscott Story

I admit it – I didn’t know anything about Steven Truscott before watching this play today at Centaur Theatre here in Montreal. But man – now I want to know more.

It’s a completely fascinating story about justice gone completely haywire in 1959 when a 14-year-old boy is accused, found guilty and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. The story is told from the point of view of one of the other children in the story – 13-year-old Sarah. The timeline from the discovery of the body to the sentencing is under 3 months – but the impact of what happened continues to still be felt today – over 50 years later.

The stage set is very minimal, but the acting is so believable that it is easy to get lost in the story – to feel the outrage, frustration, and justifiable bewilderment of the people involved. The director, talented Roy Surette, pulls out all the stops to make the tiny cast playing a multitude of parts both believable and sympathetic. Among many other cute bit of stage business is the use of ribbons, building blocks and load binding belts to draw a map of the town, complete with river, bridge, and roads. Very well done.

The bad news – the run at Centaur is over today. The good news – the play is going on the road. Next stop – Ottawa, Ontario and the National Art Center.


So all is not lost. If you live in the Ottawa area – or if you can manage a visit there before March 16, 2013 – do try to include getting tickets to this outstanding piece of theatre. And if you don’t live or visit Ottawa – no problems. You can read about the case on-line here:


I guarantee that you will not be bored…

Europea Guest Chef Disappoints

The Europea has historically been one of my favorite fancy food restaurants in Montreal – it is so seldom that I’m disappointed with either the food or the service.

This said – in recent visits, things have changed. The maitre-d – who had always greeted us by name – is no longer there, and the service, while always upscale and efficient, has become clearly more ‘important’ guest oriented. It’s hard not to notice, for example, that Jerome came up stairs – greeted the groups at 4 of the tables on either side of us – and ignored us completely. I’m not that proud that I need to be greeted – but it does hurt when clearly other people at other tables rate – and you don’t. Bad boy there Jerome.

But a fancy restaurant has to be about the food – and last night (Feb 23, 2013) the Europea offered a set meal by a very famous guest chef from Argentina, Francis Mallmann. Typical of what we’d expect at Europea – every course used unique tableware, and the presentations were interesting. Unfortunately – there were no outstanding courses – and several of the offerings were pedestrian at best. At the price point – this is unacceptable. Is it too much to expect that at least one of the courses be ‘blow-you-away’ quality?

Particularly disappointing was the way they handled my allergy to goat cheese. Generally, in a restaurant of this caliber, and a chef of Mr. Mallmann’s reputation, I’d have expected that the course in question be modified so that I could enjoy it. But all they did was leave off the goat cheese. No added salt, no bit of yogurt – nothing. Clearly the chef wasn’t in the kitchen at that moment, or his sous-chefs had been instructed to not change the courses. I wouldn’t mind if my meal cost $25 – but at ten times that price – hey – add a bit of yogurt or sour cream to off-set the sweetness of the squash puree!

I think that the folks at Europea knew that Mallmann hadn’t really delivered – because when we were leaving – the maitre d asked how we enjoyed our meal. When I commented on the fact that several of the courses were disappointing – he said – “Have you eaten here before?” When I replied in the affirmative – he said – “Well, then you know our normal quality”. Enough said.

Too late to get our money back – but there’s a lesson learned. Older celebrated chefs may be just floating along on their reputations – if you want great food – look for younger chefs with something to prove.

Europea on Urbanspoon

Mahre Ski Camp – Deer Valley Uath – Feb 2013

Mahre Camp – Or how to learn to ski much better in just 3 days.

According to the Deer Valley website – the Mahre Ski Camp is for skiers at all levels – I mention this because I’m a pretty good downhill skier. I take lots of group lessons – and unless the competition is very stiff – I place in the top group. As I will freely admit – I can ski pretty much any run that’s in bounds – badly!

So this report is from my personal experience – I didn’t interview other ‘campers’ – and I didn’t take a survey to determine group attitudes. This is how I liked it – a Personal bias – but there it is.

I’ve taken ski clinics before. Well just two actually – a Centered Skier week about 30 years ago and a much more recent clinic at Deer Valley. This more recent experience – before the Mahre camp – was a women’s 3 day clinic. Unfortunately, I was so disappointed with it that I gave up ‘clinics’ for several years. I found it way too social, the featured “Ski with an Olympic Skier” consisted of a quick glimpse one afternoon, and there was simply not enough about getting better on moguls, powder, and trees. One skier in our group was afraid of powder (and you call yourself an expert – I think NOT!) – and the group ended u avoiding things she was afraid of doing. Not good. While skiers with less ability might have had a good time – I was mostly annoyed.

But that said – I’ve been eying the Mahre Clinic folks for several years now. I liked the idea that Steve and Phil Mahre were very involved – although I wouldn’t have know how much until I took the clinic, and I liked the idea that they used a system of exercises that had been tried out and evaluated on skiers of all kinds of abilities. I also liked the promise in their literature – we form groups on ability – not on friendship or relationships. In any case – Feb 2013 the stars aligned. I was going to be in Park City, Utah on the right dates, my friends were willing to ski without me for 3 days, and I had a bit of money to spend on lessons.

The Mahre Clinic takes place at one of my top favorite (after Jackson Hole) places to ski – Deer Valley. It’s not just the grooming and the food that’s great there – they have lots of hidden powder stashes, and there are some short – but very nice mogul runs to play on. In addition, if the snow is good, there are plenty of tree runs to explore – at lots of different ability levels.

So – long story short – I decided to sign up for a 3 day clinic. They offer 3 and 5 day versions – and after chatting with lots of people who had some knowledge of the clinics, I knew that while the 5 day was ‘better’ – taking the 3 day would be OK too.

Like all clinics, you start with a breakfast gathering – a chance to chat up some of the other people participating, and meet some of the instructors. To my surprise – the Mahre brother were there as well. In fact – they were involved and on the ski hill or in the video room or eating lunch with us every minute of all 3 days. Wow – that’s what I call a personal involvement. Of course it’s a bit hard to tell which is which – as they are identical twins. One brother – I think it’s Steve – wears glasses – but otherwise – can’t tell them apart. I didn’t realize they were twins actually until we were on the slopes – and saw both in quick succession.

After breakfast, they did the traditional ski off – on a fairly flat section of trail. They weren’t looking for our ability to do moguls, they wanted to see how balanced on our skis we were. But before the ski-off they divided us into 2 groups – those who had done a Mahre Clinic previously, and those who had not. A surprise to me – about 1/3 of the 40 participants were repeats. That’s a lot! Says something good about the clinic when people take it over and over again, eh?

One negative comment – they also asked people who wanted to be in the same group to ski down one after the other – I assumed that they would be put in the lower skier’s group – it’s bad to have a better skier in your group, but it’s a disaster to have a worse skier. Why? Because the class will naturally gravitate to that level – making it too easy for the other members of the group. That is what happened in my last clinic – I assumed that it wouldn’t happen in the Mahre Clinic. Turns out that in at least one group – I’d have been wrong. So moral here – if it happens to you – Speak up NOW! Don’t let them get away with doing that to you – it’s all fine for the people who want to ski together – but it will ruin your experience.

Enough of the aside – I placed in the 3rd from the top group. But since there were only 2 other skiers – both male – I wasn’t complaining. At least the social aspect would be kept to a minimum. And I thought they were both good skiers . Our instructor was Don Hill – like all Mahre instructors, a PSIA level 3 – (that’s the top) – with additional training in the Mahre method.

Another disclaimer here – I ski hard. All day if I can. So I’ve had issues with ‘skiing’ better skiers under the table. It’s not that I’m that good – I just don’t stop. So at 3:30, when the other members of my class are begging for a break, I’m looking forward to another mogul run. This can be a problem if the group isn’t equally determined to ski, ski, ski. But this group looked strong. I was optimistic.

We started off with simple balancing exercises – a bit touchy-feely – but the idea was to make us aware of exactly how we balanced on our skis. According to the brothers, there
are 3 keys to great skiing – Balance, Balance, and Balance. By this they mean fore and aft balance (I’m good at that – I don’t ski sitting backwards – thank goodness), lateral balance (need to work on that. I just don’t angulate like I should. Oh well), and vertical balance. (I’m good at getting down – not so hot on getting back up!)

Day one, except for 2 mogul runs after lunch, was basically spent exploring and correcting obvious balance issues. First they had to make you aware of your issues – and trust me – denial is the name of the game there. I couldn’t believe that I don’t angulate (do the banana) enough – but sure enough….

One key message of the day – skiing shouldn’t make you tired. If your legs hurt – you are doing it wrong! And you shouldn’t need to rest 1 day in 3. Your skis might – but you should be able to ski day after day if your balance issues are under control.

Day two we got to ski with Phil Mahre in the morning – and then after being video-taped, he personally critiqued our skill level. Imagine – an Olympic Gold Medalist and World cup Skier looking at your video and slowly and patiently explaining what he could see were problems to be corrected.

The rest of Day Two was spent with Don, our instructor with his two new knees and one new hip, going over and over what Phil had pointed out were our personal issues. In the evening, Steve gave us a summary lecture of their key techniques – and then spent time talking racing tactics. Worth the price of admission. He actually got tears in his eyes when he was describing one particular race. I was very impressed.

Day Three was the most interesting for me. We re-did the video taping, and again our flaws were pointed out (and thank goodness – some improvements), and then spent the afternoon working on mogul skiing techniques. Effectively, we took the balance lessons and applied them to more intense terrain. Not too surprisingly – I ended up alone with the instructor at the end of the day. Managed to ski both my fellow skiers under the table. At least they had the smarts to quit before they got hurt. Even Don eventually had to quit – but here’s the best part. When we got back to base – Phil was taking some people up for one last run – I gleefully joined in – and got 2 more runs in before the mountain shut down the lifts on me. Well – that worked out well.

That evening, each instructor gave each of their students something to remember their lessons by – a pair of glasses with ski tips attached (so you stop looking down), a toy motor bike to remember to keep your hands in front, and in my case – a mantra – Do the banana (Angulate) and what goes down MUST come up!

But it’s not during the lessons that the quality of a clinic becomes clear. It’s in the days afterwards when you find yourself able to ski with grace on terrain that you’d avoided in the past, and in my case – while still not at the speed of my husband – at least coming a lot closer to keeping up!

Bottom line – I would definitely take the Clinic again – just for the personal nature of the very directed instruction, and I would highly recommend the clinic to any skier – regardless of ability. During the ‘awards’ party – it was made very clear that there were plenty of participants with precious little previous skiing ability – all the way up to speed demons and mogul buffs. So the lessons, as explained, apply to everyone!

Thanks a bunch Steve and Phil. I had a really good time. Learned a lot too!

La Pista Tango vs the Montreal Gospel Choir – No Contest

Sometimes you get what you pay for – and sometimes you don’t. This was one of those times when the high-priced option lost out – big time.

Last night (Feb 22, 2013) – the Montreal Gospel Choir performed for $12 a ticket at Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal. The concert was simply wonderful fun. Not every solo singer was perfection, and the acoustics left something to be desired, but all 40 plus members of the choir put their heart and souls into providing outstanding entertainment. It was simply a rollicking good time. My favorite part – aside from the conductor (Carol  Bernard)’s willingness to have the audience participate – big time  – was the giant image of Mary that overlooks the audience. Somehow I’d like to think that she was having a good time too. For an hour and half (way to short a time if you ask me), the audience sang, clapped, stomped their feet, and generally enjoyed watching this talented group of singers strut their stuff.

Not nearly as much fun was La Pista Tango (Feb 21, 2013) – a high-priced waste of time and money held in Theatre Maisonneuve. For some unknown reason, the powers that be decided that watching Tango wouldn’t be good enough – so instead of just concentrating on dancers, about 90% of the performance was juggling and balancing acts. The problem – we in Montreal are spoiled. We have the Cirque and Tohu if we want to watch acrobats and jugglers – and the performers at the Cirque and Tohu are uniformly top-notch. On the other hand – the performers at La Pista Tango looked like amateurs in comparison. They just didn’t ‘do’ it for me – and judging from the lack of applause – they lost most of the rest of the audience as well. Too bad. Wonder if I can get my money back.