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.

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